When asked to sing at a young adult conference and night of worship for the Southeastern California Conference (SECC), I immediately said yes. I imagined it would be like any other worship night I've attended over the past six years of being a young adult leader in this community. I could not imagine just how impactful that night of worship would be.
On February 11, 2023, hundreds of young adults filed into the Loma Linda University Church courtyard. The yard bustled with volunteers checking in the guest, serving mocktails, and directing the lines for the food trucks. Although the night was brisk, there were more attendees than expected. "Something about this night felt different," said Aren Rennacker, the youth and young adult director for the SECC, when asked about the night's events. This event represented years of dreaming and planning. It was also the byproduct of collaboration between multiple churches in the SECC. Despite there being more than 15 churches in a 10-mile radius in some parts of the SECC, this was the first time churches collaborated in this capacity to produce a program.
The vision for this night started before the pandemic, explained Rennacker. He shared that he regularly meets with the young adult leaders to support their goals for their congregations. The idea for the conference originated in one of those meetings. However, when the pandemic hit, planning for the conference was put on pause. The leaders knew they did not want this event to be virtual, so they opted to wait until it was safe to meet in person. When that time came and planning resumed, the leaders had a newfound determination. The goal was no longer just to create an evening for mingling and connection; the world had dramatically changed since the inception of this idea, and so had the church. Many leaders experienced a shift in attendance and felt their young adults were struggling. They hoped that a joint worship of this caliber could jump-start some of the ministries that tapered out during the pandemic.
The leadership team split into four groups: the planning team, the creative team, the music team, and the hospitality them. In total, there were about eight young adult pastors and other helpers as well. Rennacker explained that one of the team's primary objectives was leaning into creativity.
At the event, after young adults mingled outside in the courtyard, they moved into the Loma Linda University Church contemporary services auditorium for the worship part of the evening. Instead of singing from the stage, the praise team stood in the middle of the room with all the attendees around them. This idea came from Jo and Laia Amaya, the music team directors. They sought to convey that the praise team was not singing to an audience but that everyone was worshiping together. After the music, Laia led the room into a session of testimonies. Young adults had the opportunity to stand up and share some of their personal experiences in front of their peers.
Some shared testimonies were about being delivered from schizophrenia or feeling seen by God in their season of darkness. Others shared about being delivered from crippling shyness and anxiety or seeing God open the doors for them to meet a loved one before they passed away. As each young adult stood and shared their story, the room sat attentively, paying attention as if, though a stranger was speaking, they could resonate with their experience. Rennacker then shared a message about clarity, the theme the leaders chose based on conversations with their young adults. In his message, Rennacker addressed what finding clarity in your faith looks like when the world around you is filled with great uncertainty. He aimed to answer questions like "Are we supposed to find true clarity?" and "Is doubt a part of life and the Christian walk?" The team agreed that they wanted to dispel the belief that everyone has their spiritual life together. The night ended with art installations for the young adults to observe.
"This young adult gathering was a huge success and met my expectations and so much more," said Filip Milosavljević, young adult pastor for the Loma Linda University Church. "I hoped for three things. First, local SECC churches would be active in planning and presence. Second, young adults would connect to new people they have never met. Third, they would find a powerful night where Jesus would fill their lives with immense hope in this time of disconnection and distraction. The worship experience opened up a safe space for young adults to be themselves and see God stirring a revival."
The success of the night highlights certain realities. First, very often, programs planned for young adults are not genuinely designed with the needs, experiences, and perspectives of the young adults in mind. The leaders of this event sought the deviate from that pattern. Their metric of success was not just the number of attendees, and they were willing to lean into the tension of planning a program that may be untraditional for the sake of reaching their young adults.
Another element that led to a night of meaningful worship is the power of collaboration. The night would not have been as meaningful if several young adult pastors weren't offering input and sharing their young adults' stories. Multiple voices broadened the perspective and opened doors that may have otherwise gone unnoticed if only one church had planned the event. As many congregations scramble to find solutions to post-pandemic problems, collaboration may be a simple but meaningful way to move forward.
"The pandemic was like a mirror," Rennacker said, "showing young adult leaders and churches many of the failures that existed in their system, failures that were once able to be ignored and swept under the rug. Perhaps the good that can come from that season is learning how to truly meet and cater to the authentic needs of church members."
Despite the changes in church attendance after the pandemic and despite the high rate of young adults leaving the church, the event showed that young adults are still looking for authentic spaces to connect. They are looking for places to be seen, understood, and heard. They want to know that their voice and perspective do matter.
This was the first event of its kind, but the SECC hopes it will not be the last. Moreover, Rennacker and his team of young adult leaders have begun reflecting on the lessons they've learned from this event and will strive to implement them in the coming seasons. Hopefully, this night of worship marks the start of a long-term change in the lives of young adult leaders and young adults.
Ezrica Bennett is a writer, public speaker, and coach passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith. She is also committed to helping churches, and church leaders, find innovative ways to integrate young adults into church leadership and empower them to honor God's calling on their lives.
Photos by the author.
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