The stage is set. The sound check is done. Leaders huddle for one last prayer. Cue the music. Dim the lights. Open the doors. A swarm of excited students pour into the venue. Many eagerly race to the front for the best seats. The emcee takes the stage and welcomes the crowd to what is promised to be an exciting, inspiring, and life-changing event.
Welcome to a youth conference. Thousands upon thousands of students every year for decades have experienced these events. What takes place next is largely dependent on the ministry philosophy of the organizers. The options include zany games up front involving teens, a band entertaining and energizing the crowd, comedians and/or drama teams captivating the audience, a worship group leading a lively session of praise music, a dynamic communicator who delivers the message, and a response for students to go to the front either to make a commitment or receive prayer. At a typical youth conference, some combination of all of the above will take place.
Large youth conferences and events have been around for a long while. Back in the middle of the last century, Youth for Christ (YFC) led rallies all over the country with bands and great preaching. A young Billy Graham honed his skills at these rallies. In the 1980s YFC began a national youth conference that by the 1990s had grown to 30,000 students. Some organizations have reached thousands of teens through conferences over the years. Others have reached millions. Conferences vary between weekend events and weeklong events, and many of the larger conferences around the country are interdenominational and hosted by independent organizations. Some of them are excellent and really helpful to our ministries, but others are not. How do we tell the difference? Why might we want to bring students to a youth conference? What will they gain? How will it impact the youth ministry at our church?
A Taste of Heaven or a Waste of Leaven?
A taste of heaven is how I described one massive event to my group as we processed what we were experiencing. They were simply blown away by the powerful experience of worship with thousands of others from all over the country.
The practical training on evangelism that week led to several students sharing their faith with peers. We had some new Christians in the youth group before long. Our group gained a larger picture of the kingdom by being surrounded by masses of other Christian teens. It was but a taste of things to come. The real challenge was connecting the mountaintop experience to everyday life.
Yet some conferences can be more accurately described as a waste of leaven. Motivational speakers and plenty of hype from the front can generate enormous energy with little lasting impact. These conferences excel at entertaining and exciting the crowd without delivering substance. One such event I brought students to featured a main stage speaker who was so wrapped up in himself that he never got around to presenting the gospel. On a night where he called for a response, the sum of his message was "Teens are hurting’¦. Jesus wants to heal that hurt’¦ come to Jesus." I was nothing less than shocked by the shallowness of the message and lack of real gospel content. I wish my experience was unique, but some of the most popular youth conference speakers are not always committed to presenting the gospel according to Jesus. A youth conference that excels at entertainment and hype does nothing more than engender moralistic therapeutic deism.
"This Year's Event Promises to Grip the Hearts of Your Teens’¦"
How do we discern which youth conferences are worth attending and which are best to pass on? One easy way to decide might be to rule out all events with titles that have to do with flames, incineration, or fire. Seriously, these are important questions to ask before you embark on a road trip to the next youth conference. Information about the event can be found on the Internet, and it always helps to speak with people who have attended them in the past to see if the descriptions equal reality. Some conferences will match up better to your ministry's needs or your church's theology than others. Because independent groups organize so many larger events, the theology and practice vary significantly.
The first question to ask is what your reason is for wanting to take students to a conference. Is there a conference that matches your need and will provide the experience or teaching you seek? We should always have a goal in mind. Some take students to events simply for the energy it creates. Getting teens fired up for Jesus is not an easy task, but it's not really a good reason for investing time and money in a youth conference. Exposing your group to the wider church is a better reason, though still not a primary motivation. Give careful consideration to what students will gain from the experience.
Next, it is vital to consider the theology and piety at a conference. Some are strongly charismatic, many are broadly evangelical, a few are conservative, and others fairly liberal. Look at who the main speakers are and who is sponsoring the conference. Does the event reflect the theology of your church? Taking students to learn from leaders who teach a different theology from yours can lead to division in your church. Does the conference share the values of your church? Is the gospel clearly proclaimed? If your church strongly believes in the clear exposition of Scripture, and the conference you choose does little more than reference the Bible, it's probably not a wise match. There are plenty of youth conferences that feature "youth talks" that are more motivational in nature and do not teach from the authority of Scripture. While they are entertaining and inspiring to some extent, the effect is like going out to dinner and eating only from the dessert menu. Think about how the conference might build up the ministry of your church. Does the conference set out to have a long-term impact?
You should also consider whether or not the conference will translate to their experience back home. One major challenge with large youth conferences is the disconnection between them and the weekly experience of students in their home churches. There is a valuable axiom for ministry to consider here. What we win people with we win them to. Another way to state that is: How people start is how they continue. If a student's experience at a conference is radically different from church back home and their faith is awakened in that conference environment, going home may bring disappointment. Although we might be thrilled they had a powerful experience while away, we do better to help students encounter God on a regular basis. Many conferences ramp up the entertainment factor, and in doing so make the experience vastly different from anything they could experience at church. In some settings this can radically distort one's understanding of the church.
MTV and Nickelodeon or the Church Gathered?
Thirty years ago when youth conferences first faced the MTV generation, the need to engage youth accelerated an approach driven by entertainment. When kids raised on Nickelodeon reached middle school, conferences oriented toward them featured messy games, bright colors, and zany fun. Viewing teenagers as consumers, the common approach was to cater to their desires and tastes. Consumerism turned the focus on the youth themselves. Creating the ultimate conference experience would lead to larger events affording bigger name bands and speakers. The youth conference became a marketplace to sell music, books, and t-shirts.
That ultimate experience is also an emotional one, so the youth conference becomes a place where students expect to experience a range of emotions. What was created over time no longer resembles the church gathered. It looks, smells, and feels like a rock concert. We should not be surprised that there are churches all over the country that now look like this. What we win youth with, we win them to.
Is it worth bringing students to youth conferences? That depends on the conference being attended and its place in the scope of a youth ministry. The benefits of bringing students to conferences are numerous. These include experiencing God's presence, gaining specific training, and exposing them to the kingdom. Scripture teaches us to pursue God's presence and shows us examples of how he manifests himself in the gathering of his people. Because praise is a major component of most youth conferences, the corporate worship experience can help students experience God's presence in ways they might not at home. Some conferences offer specific training that, in the intensive conference environment, can have a long-term impact. The number of teaching sessions over a weekend or week lends itself to deepening one's understanding of a subject. In other words, what might take weeks or months to teach in a youth group can be accomplished in one conference.
A kingdom perspective is another benefit of conferences. When surrounded by hundreds or thousands of peers all excited about their faith, students begin to see that the kingdom is so much larger than their youth group or church. This is particularly encouraging in places where Christian teens feel like minorities at their school or in the world in general. There are not many places where students can be exposed to the larger kingdom more effectively.
There are drawbacks in taking students to youth conferences. Some might argue that we are fueling narcissism, perpetuating an emotional rollercoaster, and distorting worship. Twenty-first-century students have grown up in a world focused on adolescents. Family, school, fashion, music, and more have communicated that the world revolves around their tastes, desires, and whims. They grew up watching television shows in which teens were the wisest characters on the screen. They are the ultimate "me" generation. Do we really want to take them to a conference that affirms this? When an event is so built around youth, it can border on glorifying the students rather than God. This is especially true in conferences where the speakers are more motivators than Bible teachers. Adolescence is an emotional period in life. Changes in hormones during the teen years are the major cause of this. Yet a high level of stress and anxiety, which some teens experience growing up in today's world, amplifies emotions. When youth conferences seek to create emotional highs, they serve only to perpetuate the rollercoaster. Students often return seeking that high. Worship music is a centerpiece of youth conferences and serves to set the emotional tone and energize the crowd. Worship in the context of an entertainment-driven event replicates the values of the world rather than Scripture and risks being manipulative. When worship is dependent on a trendy enthusiastic music leader and builds on emotions, it becomes about us rather than God. Many conferences use praise music but neglect other biblical aspects of worship. Combining this with a rock concert approach, the end result can be far from a sound theology of worship.
The diversity of youth conferences allows for churches to find those best suited for their theology and practice that will serve the needs of their youth ministry. The benefits of taking students to these events outweigh the drawbacks, if we do our homework and find the right conference to attend. Yet there are conferences that, due to marketing by the large organizations who sponsor them, perpetuate consumerist, entertainment-driven events that do little more than generate hype and ultimately foster moralistic therapeutic deism. As youth ministry leaders seek events with greater substance and less entertainment, the tide will turn, and perhaps one day we will no longer have conferences with names to do with flames or burning.