Twelve years ago I went to Nazarene Youth Congress in Toronto, Canada as a student entering my senior year of high school. In addition to being a lot of fun and an overall spectacular event, this was a time when God spoke to me. It was one of the first of many nudges toward a call to ministry.
Last week, three of our teens, our NYI president, and myself attended Nazarene Youth Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Although I had shared with others several times how impactful NYC had been in my own life and how I believed it would do the same for our teens who were going, I had no such expectations for myself this time around. After all, I figured, this was a teen focused event and I am now nearly 30. I have experienced 7 years of theological education, 4 years of pastoral ministry, and ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene since I was a student at NYC, not to mention the normal growth and maturity one expects to gain from 12 years of life, 8 years of marriage, having 2 children, and living in 4 different states. Not that all of this makes me "old and wise" by any stretch of the imagination. It is simply to say that there are many ways in which I am not the same person I was 12 years ago. This was a teen event and I am no longer a teen nor am I especially in tune with youth culture. My sole purpose in going was to be present with our teens and to see what God would do in their lives.
But I guess when God decides he is going to show up and work in the lives of those who are present, it doesn't really matter if you are part of the "target audience". My expectations no longer mattered. The event organizers' expectation didn't matter. It only mattered that God was present. And God was present. For some brief, sweet, almost dream-like moments the glory of heaven was manifested in a basketball arena in Louisville, KY. I went for our teens. I left having experienced God's presence in a way that I have not for a very long time.
Much like 12 years ago, this NYC was more a nudge down a path where God has already been leading than it was any kind of final word. I was not given a blue print for the rest of my life or some radical new direction for my congregation. I simply got to experience the intimate presence of God and that was enough. For months now, I have been begging God in prayer to pour out his Holy Spirit in fresh and undeniable ways on our congregation; to make his presence among us evident. I'm honestly not even sure what I expect that to look like. I just know I am hungry for God to show up and do something, to transform lives in the way I believe it is possible for only God to do, to demonstrate that God's Word and God's Spirit really can create and shape a holy people. I have been longing for something to happen that can not be attributed to me or the work of our church but only to a movement of God, something that can only be called revival. I believe that is what I witnessed in Louisville last week. This certainly hasn't satisfied the longing I've had for God to do something in our church and our town. Instead, it is yet another nudge down the path to trust that God can and will work among his people if we will continue to seek.
I suppose that in my moments of greatest honesty I would admit that at the center of my low expectations coming into last week was a fear; a fear that runs much deeper than the realization that I'm not quite as a young as I used to be. It was a fear that perhaps I was more naive 12 years ago than I would like to admit; that maybe 12 years ago it was more the hugeness of the event that was talking than the voice of God, that maybe there was more "smoke and mirrors" than I remembered and that now 12 years later I would see through the smoke and mirrors and be disappointed. At this point in my life, my faith can not be a blind one. I have seen too much in the Church that is fake and disingenuous. I've had too many moments that caused me to roll my in eyes disgust and frustration at our attempts to be puppeteers rather than prophets. As a result, I've sometimes become slow of heart to real and genuine movements of God.
But last week was different. Yes, the music was exciting. Yes, the worship services were technologically impressive. Yes, there were emotionally charged moments. Yes, the speakers were gifted communicators. Yes, we were often tired and overworked. And yes, I'm sure there were teens more concerned with members of the opposite sex than with what God was doing. These are all things of which I am normally a little wary in worship, especially worship involving teens, since I think it can leave them vulnerable to emotional manipulation rather than the leading of the Spirit, a "worshiping" of the worship experience rather than worshiping God. But last week was different. While all of those elements were present, I believe God's Spirit was genuinely present as well. There was no sense of pretension, no goal to whip the crowd into an emotional frenzy, no sense that if a certain number of people didn't come forward to pray then the night wasn't a success. From the outset there was a freedom and depth of worship calling us to a life of service and sacrifice that said this was a movement not merely of light and sound and charged emotions but of the living God. Quite in contrast to looking through smoke and mirrors and finding disappointment, last week I looked through the lights and loud music and found the face of God, the same God whose voice I heard 12 years ago. Thanks be to God for showing up in Louisville, Kentucky last week and for letting this pastor be there to witness it.