Written by Daniel Hazard
Affirmation of UCC youth
At age fifteen, I was a churchgoer and youth group member, silently struggling with how to be both faithful and popular as a rising sophomore in high school. Drugs and alcohol were served at parties. Opportunities for dating brought pressure for sex. The question of colleges implied the question of what I was going to "be" as an adult, and I had no answer.
While I experienced God's presence and love in church, the teen years raised new faith questions I couldn't answer and was afraid to ask out loud.
It was in the midst of this silent faith quandary that I stumbled upon the National Youth Event (NYE) the way a weary traveler might stumble upon a restaurant on a long stretch of deserted highway - unexpectedly and with delight, relief and gratitude.
A friend from church had called me after school one day and told me about NYE. She knew only three details: There was going to be a UCC youth event next summer. Thousands of teenagers would be there. Participants would get to stay in dorms on a college campus. Those three details enticed me, and a few months later we were in a college arena surrounded by heart-pounding music and a screaming crowd of over two thousand teenagers.
Opening night at NYE began with the adrenaline rush of a rock concert and eventually moved into a spirit of worship. Something about the experience of communing with God among thousands of other teenagers that night changed me. It changed my idea of what church looked like. It expanded my feeling of identity and belonging. That gathering of strangers, people of unfamiliar faces and different places, in that moment, became a congregation.
In workshops and worship throughout the event, the realities of teenage life were acknowledged with sensitivity and honesty. We were informed about situations of suffering and injustice in the world and empowered with the news that Christ calls and equips us to respond to the world's brokenness. When our church bus returned home, I burst into tears and told my mother, "My life will never be the same." Today I believe that my "yes" to ministry as an adult was the response to a call I first heard at NYE.
In a society (and sometimes, a church) that assumes teenagers are too young to make any real difference in the world, my experience at NYE affirmed that teenagers are some of God's most gifted, powerful agents of change. Not despite their youth, but because of it.
The journey through adolescence is filled with self-discovery, budding talents and big dreams. NYE offers youth an opportunity to discern how God might use those talents and dreams in their lives and in the world. It also offers them much-needed reassurance of God's abiding presence and unwavering love as they leap and stumble on life's path.
The NYE Planning Team, along with national staff and the University of Tennessee conference staff have worked long and hard to provide great speakers, musicians and workshops. We've created plenty of opportunities for education, recreation and fun. But I also believe that we will have created a space in which the sacredness of common life will be tangible, and all who gather will perceive God's presence in moments of comfort and challenge, affirmation and call.
The Rev. Kelly Burd, coordinator of the 2008 National Youth Event, has worked in parish and youth ministry for nine years.
The UCC National Youth Event will be held July 24-28 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. As of the April early-registration deadline, 2,349 registrations were processed. The final deadline is June 27. Learn more at www.ucc.org/youth.