Youth Encounter recruiting, inspiring youth to pursue the ministry

By MATT PEIKEN

St. Paul Pioneer Press; March 18, 2007©

Faith has propelled 460 screaming 13- and 14-year olds into a hotel ballroom, where they’re greeted by muted lighting and bright Christian rock music.

The word “rescue” blazes in yellow from an orange banner hanging high above a stage. Beneath it, a hand-written sign leaning against a set of drums urges “Don’t be captive – be captive free.” Nearby, a jumbo video screen flashes images like pre-movie advertisements for global missionary opportunities, an upcoming camp and a choral retreat called “Sounds Like Love.”

Minutes later, a band takes the stage. The kids don’t know the players but they know the songs, and they sing along without looking at the lyrics rolling across the video screen. The guitarist sings “Every breath I take, I breathe you in,” and the kids punctuate each chorus with a collective “woo-hoo!”

After a few more songs, a man in his 30s steps to the microphone, announces he’s a comedian and tells these middle schoolers “sin is what’s in our hearts.”

“God has some crazy stuff for you. He has some amazing stuff for you,” he tells them. “But first, let’s get this party started.”

So begins another “Youth Quake,” the first in a long hallway of entry points to Youth Encounter, a Roseville nonprofit with an international mission – to inspire young Christians to pursue the ministry.

Youth Encounter throws Quakes nearly every weekend, in cities all over the country. Middle schoolers who want to keep the party going move on to weekend retreats for high schoolers called “Zones.” These teens are encouraged to continue with Youth Encounter after graduation, to serve year-long missions that can take them to the other side of the world.

Larry Johnson first volunteered for Youth Encounter in 1966 and soon rose to its presidency. He shows up to work every day, in a small office complex just north of Larpenteur Avenue, with two firm beliefs: Christian churches face a crisis and no organization is better positioned than his to change that.

“Young adults have left the church. It doesn’t matter what denomination – they’re gone,” he says. “The church has not done a good job of motivating and keeping young people involved. We’d like to give them intense leadership experiences, to prepare them to become the next leaders of our churches.”

Johnson’s fears are underscored by a handful of foundations – the Lilly Endowment, the Alban Institute and the Fund for Theological Education – that study the state of the Christian church in America. Their work shows fewer young seminarians looking to serve churches, that many begin ministry later in life as second careers – leaving them fewer years to serve – and that only one-third of active seminary students want to someday serve a community church.

None of that information was available in 1966, when Lutheran Youth Encounter opened its first office, with five staffers, in the North Minneapolis home of its founding secretary. That year, Johnson, then a student at Luther Seminary, began volunteering for Youth Encounter as a team leader and trainer, and he saw 700 teens attend the first Lutheran Youth Encounter Youth Congress. Six years later, Johnson was the organization’s president.

Today, there are 40 on staff and the annual budget is about $7 million. The largest chunk of Youth Encounter’s income, just over 40 percent, comes from the fees families pay to send their teens to a programs such as Quake or Zone.

Now 63, Johnson says it wasn’t his direct plan, though it’s also no surprise to him, that he would remain at helm of Youth Encounter for 34 years and counting. He was the eldest of eight children raised in Osakis, Minn., near Alexandria, by devout Christians – “common, ordinary farm folk,” he says who believed service to God was mandatory.

“Every advantage in life, I had,” Johnson says. “My dad had an eighth-grade education. When I went to seminary, he said ‘I’m afraid that when you come back, I won’t be able to understand you.’ I said I would never let that happen, and I’ve kept that promise. I’ve always talked with him in plain language.”

Plain language, mixed with scripture, is the formula for Youth Encounter’s programs, which draw about 20,000 teens and college students each year. Youth Encounter work crews joined hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans and hurricane rebuilding projects in India and went to Tanzania to help build a hospital. Work crews are headed this summer to Slovakia, Africa, Australia and Guatemala.

“All those reality shows? That’s nothing. There’s nothing contrived about the work we do,” Johnson says. “It’s real people in the real world trying to make differences in real lives. It works you over in all sorts of challenging ways. It’s the stuff that makes or breaks you as a person, the stuff that puts together a leader.”

One must take it on faith that future church leaders will emerge from among the hundreds of giddy kids now dashing about the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Hilton. There are 16 churches represented here – some sent as few as a couple kids; Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth sent 86.

Before the opening address, about 15 girls from a few different churches have piled into a third-floor room for a quick version of what they call the name game. It’s not much of a game – the girls take turns announcing their names, favorite colors, relationship status and the names of their mentors.

“Hey, you forgot to say something interesting about yourself,” one girl chimes in.

“Oh, we’re skipping that.”

Teens at Quake attend their choice of “youth treks,” 50-minute workshops with titles such as “My Parents are Driving Me Crazy,” “Guarding Your Heart in Dating Relationships” and “Straight Trippin” (Description: “You may think that ‘straight trippin’ is a recent development in the hip-hop scene, but as it turns out, the Jewish people have been encouraging it for thousands of years”).

Another workshop this weekend comes from a Minneapolis rapper who goes by the name Agapé. He says the A in his name stands for Asian-Americans, African-Americans and other minorities and the E stands for the “white European majority,” with “a big GAP in the middle.”

Largely unknown in the secular music world, Agapé is a rising star in Christian circles, with four CDs and national touring credentials, Agapé, who was born 30 years ago as Dave Scherer, is thin and tall, with short black hair, firm sideburns, dark eyebrows and kind eyes. His promotional material asks “What if Eminem had a Christian twin?”

His rapping and beat-boxing highlighted the opening evening of Quake – “We gotta stop that hate and spread that love; We’re all equal, nobody’s above” – and has inspired about 55 kids to pour into a ballroom the next day for his workshop titled “Crossing Over: The Hip-Hop Experience.”

“I know you all thought this was going to be hip-hop, but that was just to get you here,” Agapé tells the kids. “We’re going to do an exercise I hope expands your ideas of what diversity is.”

He warns there are no observers in this exercise, only participants, and that this exercise depends on truth.

“This is the Las Vegas of youth ministry rule,” he tells them. “What happens in this room stays in this room.”

Agapé has everyone stand at one end of the room and says he’s going to make a statement. He instructs the kids that if his statement applies to them, they are to walk to the middle of the room.

The statements start easily enough, and after each, Agapé tells the kids to look around at the people standing with them, then to look at the people on the other side of the room. He pauses, allowing the kids to react internally, to soak up the how they feel through about 20 seconds of silence, before sending everyone back to the same side of the room for the next statement.

The statements quickly grow more personal and intense: “I or someone close to me is homosexual” (two kids walk across the room), “I or someone close to me has a disability, visible or not,” (five kids), “My family has been on welfare or public assistance” (one), “there is at least one gun in your household” (about 30).

There are statements about eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and suffering sexual abuse. With the statement “I have been called fat,” about half the kids, including girls who appear rail-thin, walk across the room. Most of the kids walk across with the statement “I sometimes feel not attractive enough.”

Agapé then asks for anyone who identifies as African-American. He follows by asking for Asian-Americans, then American Indians and Hispanics or Latinos. To each, not a single kid walks across the room.

The teen-agers’ appear stunned. One boy has retreated to the side and tipped the bill of his baseball cap over his eyes to hide his tears. Agapé breaks the kids and adult chaperones into small discussion groups. In one, a 14-year-old named Cassandra seems mortified.

“It feels weird, because we say we’re welcoming, but we’re only one race,” Cassandra says. “Look at your church. I know mine is all white people, and everybody I hang out with is white.”

“A lot of people have a lot of things going on I’ve never thought of before,” another girl says. “I see a lot of this on TV, but this makes you see it’s real.”

When an adult asks the group if this exercise will change how everyone behaves, Cassandra thinks for a moment before shaking her head.

“Well, it might be in the back of my mind, but I just don’t know,” she says. “When I get back to school and church, I’m still around the same people. I don’t know how that’s going to change.”

At the end, Agapé asks everyone who has once been a child to walk to the other side of the room. When every person follows through, he walks up to each and, one by one, whispers “You are a beloved child of God.”

A series of long tables outside the ballrooms and exhibition rooms features displays from companies offering camping and canoeing. Some girls have gathered around a table lined with rings, necklaces and keychains with crosses embedded in them. Few appear interested in the bejeweled candleholders, Christmas ornaments, camels and nativity scenes carved from wood.

Manning one of the tables is Loren Teig, who 35 years ago sang in a Youth Encounter group that toured Ethiopia, Tanzania, Israel and Geneva in a Volkswagen van. Today, at 61, Teig is the executive director of Lake Wapogasset bible camp.

“They gave me an opportunity to dream and try something out,” Teig says of Youth Encounter.

While Quakes and Zones appear targeted at the kids whose parents pay to send them, the underlying focus is on the youth leaders – in this case, the high schoolers brought in as junior guides – taking their first steps in leadership roles. Of the 17 junior guides here, all but two are Quake alumni.

“These middle school kids really look up to you,” they’re told in a final briefing. “Spread out and mingle – don’t hang out with other junior guides.”

The teens take turns expressing why they’re here. One says to “have fun and help kids engage.” Another says “we have a real opportunity to mold these kids.” Kory Kautz, a tall 15-year-old from Eden Prairie says he’s here to “recharge my faith a bit.”

“Sometimes in your day-to-day life, you’re just surrounded by people who don’t have the same faith as you,” he says later. “And there’s a lot of pressure to do well in school and get in college, and this reminds me it’s not all in my power, that you have to be able to ask God for help.”

Only one raises her hand when asked who, among the junior guides, plans to pursue the ministry.

“I’m really confused about what I want to do with my life,” says Allison Pieri, 16, from Chanhassen. “I’ve thought being a youth pastor would be really cool, but there’s a lot of possibilities out there.”

This is Kautz’s fourth year at Quake and his first as a junior guide.

“This whole weekend is packed and we’re all here together worshipping God,” he says. “And I think, ‘Wow, I’m so glad I’m Christian.’”