Unconventional thinking for youth

Nov 5, 2018 by and

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National youth conventions are the canary in several Anabaptist coalmines. Declining participation requires new approaches to our relationship with the leaders of tomorrow’s churches.

Faced with steadily diminishing attendance at conventions held in urban settings over the last decade, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches is going back to its roots by returning its every-four-year YouthCon national convention to the model used through 2003.

Attendance dropped from more than 1,420 in 2003 in Estes Park, Colo., to only 815 youth and sponsors in 2015 at a downtown hotel in Denver, even though the USMB grew from 26,219 members in 2003 to more than 35,000 by 2012. Proportional to the denomination’s size, participation dropped by half despite significant overall growth. Organizers feel God is calling them to return to large camp facilities (see page 17).

Mennonite Church Canada delegates voted in 2016 to restructure the denomination to de-emphasize national-level workings. A national youth assembly for 200 participants would have happened simultaneously with the delegate meeting if it hadn’t been replaced at the last minute with a canoe trip due to lack of interest after only 41 youth and sponsors registered. (At least 50 congregations chose to attend instead the Mennonite World Conference assembly a year earlier in Harrisburg, Pa.) Can a national youth gathering resurrect itself without a national denominational focus or staff?

Mennonite Church USA is somewhere in between — experiencing steeper decreases than USMB, but not yet trading metropolitan hotel rooms for an armful of oars. Youth and sponsors made up about 6,000 of the 8,600 participants at the 2005 convention in Charlotte, N.C., but last year’s Orlando, Fla., convention drew only about 3,200 total attendees — 1,700 of them youth.

MC USA conventions used to ride on the throngs of youth, with adult delegates a relative sideshow. Planners said only a select few cities could be considered as hosts because only a handful of facilities could contain the crowd. Orlando’s cavernous convention center seemed a bit much for 3,200 people last year.

In 1995, much smaller Wichita, Kan., and more than a thousand volunteers from the surrounding area, were capable of handling 8,400 people — 4,300 of them youth — at a joint assembly of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church.

Other than trimming the convention by one day a year ago, little has been done to adjust to today’s realities. Next year’s big change for Kansas City, Mo., consists of merging youth and adult worship services together. It saves money on facilities, but how many youth groups’ ears are going to perk up at the prospect?

The MB YouthCon costs $395 per person and includes a zip­line, lodging, a 3,000-seat chapel and some impressive water slides. MC USA’s biennial youth event has a lower sticker price of $335, not including hotel rooms for at least $115 per night.

The answer for MC USA is not a canoe trip, but one wonders how many thousands of youth might express interest in a change of pace and culture. Some congregations that balk at the fund­raising a two-year cycle requires send their youth to convention once every four years. When even congregations with high denominational loyalty take part only half the time, it’s time to consider one bigger four-year event that brings everyone together.

National youth conventions are one of the best opportunities to build denominational identity and a closer relationship with God. But those chances are slipping through fingers doing the same old routine.

Convention organizers could try cutting the youth free and seeing how they row. If Orlando’s numbers in 2017 are any indication, humbler, cheaper, separate venues can surely be secured for 1,700 youth and 1,500 adults.

MC USA convention attendance is dropping along with Mennonite enrollment at its colleges and universities, so why not get the schools involved?

Adults might cringe at the thought of dorms, but not high schoolers. Eastern Mennonite University could work with James Madison University to accommodate a crowd. Bethel and Hesston colleges in Kansas are less than eight miles apart. Goshen, Ind., is about the same distance from Elkhart.

Eating in the cafeteria would remove the headache of trying to coax frugal Mennonites to buy overpriced convention food. Larger, public universities are sleepy in the summer and can be an option if the logistics of using MC USA’s campuses is too overwhelming.

If big-city destinations have to be maintained, make the most of it by inviting MC Canada youth as well. People don’t go to a Mennonite convention to see a big city. They go to be around each other and meet God together. Cutting the frequency to every four years and simplifying the venue could make an event no one wants to miss.

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