“If I had to say something to youth who are considering going or who aren’t sure, I would say, ‘Go!’ ” — Mary Winsor, 16

Thousands of Lutheran teens from across the U.S. (and a small contingency from outside the country) will come together June 27-July 1 in Houston for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering. The five-day event, held triennially, is an opportunity for teens to connect with each other, give back to the community and be inspired in their faith. 

The 2015 event drew more than 30,000 to Detroit. “The size and magnitude of the Youth Gathering separates it from anything else,” said Molly Beck Dean, event director. “It’s cool to say the Lord’s Prayer or take communion with that many people, especially when you consider most teens come from congregations of 100 or so on a Sunday.” 

The event theme, “This Changes Everything,” was developed during a spring 2016 retreat that involved youth, young adults and adults. They studied evaluations from the 2015 event, which revealed a common concern among youth: “I need to know that I’m enough.” 

Beck Dean said the group realized that if teens could truly believe that God’s grace is freely given, that Jesus died for their sins—if they could really wrap their heads around that and believe in it—that would change everything.  

Houston was chosen as this year’s host city because it “has a lot to teach us: It’s the most multicultural city in the nation,” Beck Dean said. “There’s no racial or ethnic majority in the city—it’s truly a melting pot. That’s really cool, and they live in their diversity pretty well.” 

Houstonite Cody Miller added, “We have incredible museums, parks and food. We have a blend of cultures, and these different cultures can be seen just driving around town or with the food that you eat. It really is an incredible city and has something for everyone.” 

Miller is coordinating a host of service-learning opportunities for Gathering attendees, including working with refugee resettlement and human trafficking prevention agencies, food banks and community gardens. In addition, art installation projects and neighborhood cleanups will be completed, and attendees are asked to bring a book for the Blast off for Books drive to increase community literacy.  

Other faith formation activities held throughout the Gathering include Bible study, worship, interactive learning, live entertainment and speakers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, an author and ELCA pastor. 

Two pre-events are offered as well: tAble for young people with disabilities and the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event (MYLE) for young people of color or whose primary language isn’t English. “There’s a lot of diversity in our church,” Beck Dean said. “MYLE is a good opportunity for kids to come together and meet other young people of color and have their own separate space for leadership and development before the Gathering begins.”  

This will be the 16th year Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, has attended the Gathering. He said youth at this year’s event can expect to be challenged in their faith, to grow in their faith and may even discover their calling. They’ll also have the opportunity to just hang out with other people of faith, he said. 

Mary Winsor, 16, from Florida describes the Gathering as “an experience like no other: you get to visually see thousands of other youth who believe in the same things as you. [You] worship with them, sing with them, do service with them, interact with them and you realize just how powerful we are when we all come together under God’s name.” 

Winsor, who attended in 2015 and is going to Houston, said, “If I had to say something to youth who are considering going or who aren’t sure, I would say, ‘Go!’ ” 

Kyra Short, 16, from Pennsylvania agrees. She said the 2015 event “was like a giant leap in my faith journey, and I encourage anyone who has the chance to experience it for themselves.” 

Ally McDonough, 17, is a high school representative from South Carolina for the Gathering planning team. She advises youth who are attending or considering going to the event to “be open to new opportunities, whether it be walking up to a stranger and striking up a conversation, or opening up your heart and soul to the call of the Spirit. It’s amazing what happens when you sit and listen for a while.”   

Are you ready for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering? For an updated schedule , visit ELCA.org/gathering.

Susan B. Barnes
Barnes is a Tampa, Fla.-based freelance writer.

Read more about: