by Sandra Ostapowich
Since I began attending and coordinating Higher Things conferences, I’ve witnessed no fewer than 22 miracles. It’s always in different cities, but from pretty much the same place. I always watch it happen in the very back of the chapel—lectern side—I don’t know why I stand there and rarely sit. That’s just where and how I end up.
The miracle is that what goes on is not supposed to happen. Kids don’t like this sort of thing. It goes against all the rules of “successful” youth ministry. Young people aren’t even supposed to like it. They aren’t able to worship meaningfully this way.
Youth ministry gurus have taught that if you want to keep young people coming to church, you’re supposed to make it a comfortable, familiar experience. Get a fancy espresso machine and some couches. Convert the sanctuary into a less imposing worship center, cobble together a praise band, and start playing the popular songs from the Christian radio station. That’s what youth want, so that’s how you get them there.
But we don’t do that. It’s completely absurd! Youth attend fourteen (yes, that’s 14) “stuffy,” traditional services with pre-written liturgy and hymns out of the hymnal. Pastors wear vestments. An altar and a pulpit. And an organ. Fourteen services in just four days. We fill their ears with Christ and Him crucified for their sins. It sounds intense. It is intense.
Teenagers should be running in the other direction! Or at least they should be tuned out, asleep, or texting. But they’re not. I can see them from my vantage point in the back.
They’re engaged! They receive Jesus. They don’t complain or ask for more “relevant” music. No, they want more hymns. We have videos of them singing hymns on the way home. They want more liturgy. They can’t wait until Advent and Lent and, especially, Holy Week—because that’s when there are more services at church!
And young people today aren’t supposed to understand hard, multisyllabic, jargon-y words like “concupiscence,” or “Christological.” And they certainly don’t want to feel judged or guilty by hearing about things like actual sin.
Have we forgotten what these same young people are studying day in and day out in school: chemistry, literature, biology, calculus, and memorizing plays for sports, as well as pages upon pages of music?
If teenagers can do all that, they certainly can handle learning real theology, too. At Higher Things conferences there are lots of different breakout sessions for them to attend. Teenagers really can be challenged. They’re not stupid. The quickest way to run them off is to treat them like they are.
Conference after conference, I see young faces light up because they’re looking forward to singing the “Te Deum” that morning. (Which they do in parts.) They’ve even corrected chant tones after the pastor or organist has botched them. I have listened to them confess in unison that they have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what they have done and what they have left undone.
That’s just not supposed to happen! They’re supposed to sit there, all angst-ridden and bored! “Lord, I believe, help now my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) It really is nothing short of a miracle.
It’s a strange, and yet a kind of mind-numbingly obvious concept at work here. When youth are taught what being Lutheran is all about—what we believe, teach, and confess—and why we do the things we do (because there are usually pretty good reasons for them)...they are more likely to stay Lutheran. When young people are conversant in their own faith, beyond spiritual-sounding words and warm-fuzzy feelings, they’re better equipped to withstand the challenges they’ll face from the world.
Attending a Higher Things conference is kind of like going to language immersion camp, only for four days youth are immersed in the waters of Baptism. They return home, dripping with the Gospel. They spend the bulk of each day learning various facets of what it means to be Lutheran, and repeatedly join their voices with those from of all believers before them, as the Church confesses as one in worship.
If you don’t have a very organized youth group, getting your congregation’s young people together to attend a Higher Things conference is a great way to kickstart them or get them moving in a new direction. It’s also a really good way to keep the momentum up, and for your youth to see they’re not the only ones who believe and worship like they do.
In the off season, to get things going at home, there’s no better advice I can give than to get together regularly with your youth (even if it’s only a couple of them) and open the Bible together. Pray together. Create an environment so that youth are comfortable talking about their faith and their lives outside church. HT magazines and Bible studies are great resources to get those conversations rolling.
Gather up the younger kids and bring them to a retreat. Or hold one for your area! A Higher Things retreat provides a brief taste of what goes on at a Higher Things conference. It’s a great way to get junior youth excited about learning more about their faith even while they’re still preparing for confirmation!
It’s tempting to doubt and worry that it’s all suddenly going to flop. Thankfully, Jesus forgives my unbelief. Yours, too. But it’s not about us doing a great job putting on a few conferences, or getting the youth trip planned. And it’s certainly not about us trying to be cool and exciting. It’s about His Word. His Sacraments.
When I doubt, there’s always next year’s conferences to remind me. I’ll be in my usual place, in the back, on the lectern side—watching yet another miracle.
Sandra Ostapowich is the conference and retreat coordinator for Higher Things and served for 9 years on the Higher Things Board of Directors. She lives with her son in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she is also studying for her PhD in Missiology at Concordia Theological Seminary.