Youth connect with each other and God in new ways at convention

Jul 15, 2019 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While delegates spent days talking about unity at the Mennonite Church USA convention, youth were divided.

Some admitted they got out of bed 15 minutes ago, while others were clearly more than a little caffeinated for each day’s opening pep rallies. In the blue squad’s room July 3, representatives from Eastern Mennonite University ran a few hundred high school students through ice-breaker group activities.

Ben Lichti of Bethel College, center, cuts his way to victory in activities with one of five color-coded squads that kicked off every day’s events for youth. — Vada Snider for MWR

Ben Lichti of Bethel College, center, cuts his way to victory in activities with one of five color-coded squads that kicked off every day’s events for youth. — Vada Snider for MWR

When asked to share an interesting fact learned about someone else, a young woman yelled out about meeting someone who keeps old Krispy Kreme doughnuts in his car.

“It gets hot in there, and the icing soaks into the doughnut. It’s really good,” explained Phillip Witmer-Rich of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who is part of the youth group at Friendship Mennonite Church in Bedford Heights.

Four other squads, each identified by a color, were led by other MC USA colleges and universities. They developed squad chants, organized contests and provided networking opportunities beyond individual church youth groups.

Groups were alerted about their assigned color ahead of convention, and many came prepared to coordinate with a host of clothing accessories. Others made do at convention itself.

“We went to a thrift store yesterday for our service project and cut up a T-shirt into strips to wear,” said Alyssa Breidigan of Douglasville, Pa., with the Vincent Mennonite Church youth group in Spring City, Pa.

She said the squads were a good way to meet people.

“This is my fifth convention, going back to Pittsburgh [in 2011], and this is different,” she said. “It’s good because you’re not just going to walk up to people you don’t know in the hallway.”

Choosing relevance

With multiple seminar options offered at regular intervals, youth could select sessions with the most relevance to them.

More than 40 youth attended Sobonokuhle Ncube’s July 5 seminar on climate change. Ncube works in climate finance governance with Brethren in Christ’s Compassionate and Development Services in Zimbabwe.

Outlining the ways climate change weighs heaviest on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, she called youth to radical discipleship, because the biggest concern on Jesus’ heart is to love your neighbor as yourself.

“Some thirst and walk five miles to the nearest water point because it doesn’t rain like it should,” she said. “. . . The women get raped, the girls get molested on the journeys to forage food and water. . . . The climate is the highest producer of poverty as we sit in this house today.”

The big questions

In a series of youth seminars on “big questions” that took place every day, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary faculty member and Institute of Mennonite Studies managing editor David Cramer addressed complex topics.

He never talked down to people much younger than the average theology student.

In an overview of views of God throughout history, he delved into the differences between Calvinist and Wesleyan/Arminian traditions.

“Where do Anabaptists fit into this? Anybody want to take a guess?” he asked. No one moved. “You’re wise for not answering, because Anabaptists are all over the place. It’s a tradition that doesn’t really emphasize systemic theology.

“We’ve tended to more practical theology because in the beginning, the Anabaptists were running for their lives.”

In his final seminar, Cramer traced the history of Christianity through 2,000 years of schisms and fractures, leading into how Anabaptism has been distinguished in places such as the Schleitheim Confession and Harold Bender’s 1944 Anabaptist Vision. He stressed how Mennonites have been profoundly formed by the vision of church as described by radical repentance and baptism in Acts 2.

“If you haven’t been baptized, it might be something to talk to your pastor or youth leader about,” he said. “Do I want to turn away from the way of the world? Public baptism is the way to make that statement.”

Learning, worshiping

Other youth seminars focused on relationships, sports, money, military recruit­ers, suicide and depression, spiritual disciplines, science, leadership, prayer and making sense of Scripture.

Thea Day, a high school student from Ottawa (Ont.) Mennonite Church, enjoyed convention because of the seminars.

“I’ve struggled with faith, so sessions on reading the Bible and working to understand Scripture are really helpful,” she said. “And worship’s always fun. I really enjoy singing, and music’s always a big part of worship, which has been great.”

A band assembled of singers and musicians from across the U.S. and Canada led services that were intergenerational for all of convention. Songs moved from English to Spanish and other languages. An open space in front of the stage facilitated more exuberant expressions of worship. “Turning Over Tables” by The Brilliance was connected to the John 20:19-23 theme scripture and appeared regularly throughout worship services.


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