Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 17, 1999
In the largest United Methodist student gathering ever, about 9,000 teenagers attended a Youth99 conference sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship in Knoxville, Tennessee, July 28 - August 1.
Noticeably absent from the main plenary sessions were the theologically liberal speakers common to United Methodist and ecumenical meetings of this sort. Indeed, almost all the main speakers preached a vigorous Gospel message that focused on Jesus Christ as Savior of the world.
The only major disappointments of the conference were workshop sessions that provided a confused message on sexuality and that de-emphasized the authority of Scriptures. One workshop extolled Native American spirituality devoid of an apparent Christian context.
Main speakers for the plenary sessions included sociology professor Tony Campolo, youth ministry specialist Duffy Robbins, Helen Musick of Asbury Seminary, Kenyan Methodist Grace Imathiu, and Maryland pastor Vance Ross.
Imathiu is the associate pastor at a "reconciling" (pro-homosexuality) United Methodist church outside Nashville. But she made no references to sexuality in her sermon, instead dwelling on non-controversial notions of learning, loving and caring, while also touting self-esteem.
"Some of us have to get out of the village that tells us we're not good enough," she said. "All you have to do is be [yourself]. The Village can be a very powerful place. The village warps your mind till you begin to hate yourself." Imathiu urged her teen-age audience to find friends of difference races, national backgrounds and theological perspectives.
Musick, who teaches youth ministry in Wilmore, Kentucky, offered more spiritual substance in her sermon. She cited the Gospel story of the woman with a menstrual flow of 12 years until her healing encounter with Christ.
"Dare to go against the crowd," she urged. "Only the voice of God will set you free. When you dare to touch Jesus things will happen." Musick declared that Christ could transform pain into peace and bondage into healing. "You are free because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross 2,000 years ago," she announced to strong applause from the audience.
"It's not a perfect world but we serve a perfect God," Musick said. "No issue is too great to separate you from the love of Jesus." She announced that true freedom begins with honesty, first with God, and then with persons around us.
Perhaps most dynamic and popular among the speakers was Robbins, who formerly directed youth ministry at the United Methodist Church in Wilmore, Kentucky and who now serves at Eastern College outside Philadelphia. (He also has written regularly for Good News magazine.) He started each morning session with a Bible study interspersed with humor and clever anecdotes. He encouraged the students to be FAT: faithful, available, and tenacious.
"You can't live a Christian life by playing it safe," Robbins warned his audience. He told them of Abraham, who gave God a "genuine yes," that was accompanied by a "genuine no" to worldliness and sins of the past.
"Every genuine yes has some genuine no's," Robbins insisted. "Getting married to one woman meant saying no to every other woman in the world," he recalled. "That's not legalism. I've had 20 years of yes with my wife."
Like the patriarch of the Old Testament, Robbins said "we must also make a decision where we hang it on the power and grace of God." He recalled the words of Jesus by saying, "To be faithful you deny yourself, you take up your cross and you follow me." Robbins stressed that God is seeking followers not for their talents but for their availability. "God can use us for eternity," he said.
He encouraged the students to avoid what comes naturally and instead to journey boldly by faith. "Putting one foot on the world's boat and one foot on God's dock and that won't work," Robbins assured them based on his own experience. "You can't live the Christian life by playing it safe."
Robbins invited students to volunteer for the Upper Room Living Prayer Line, which had temporarily transferred its phone lines from its Nashville offices to the Knoxville conference. Over 350 students offered their help. As there were only two phones, many young people simply prayed in the background while others took turns on the phones.
Campolo, like Robbins, teaches at Eastern College. He bemoaned the too frequent absence of genuine discipleship and evangelism. "I think the United Methodist Church has been going backward for the past 20 years, but it's going to turn around tonight," Campolo announced to applause. He derided hatred aimed at homosexuals and urged Christian ministry for them that recognized that homosexual conduct is "incompatible with Scripture." Campolo concluded by inviting the youth to be in a personal relationship with Christ. Hundreds stood up to accept the invitation.
"You are called right now to answer and pledge to the gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ," Ross said in his sermon, as he repeated the invitation to be in relationship with Christ. A former director on the Board of Discipleship who now pastors in a Washington, DC suburb, he electrified the audience with his powerful preaching style. "May our churches no longer be museums or mausoleums but temples of the fire of the Holy Spirit," he boomed.
"God gave God's Son to be degraded that we might find salvation and exaltation," he enthused. Unfortunately, Ross stubbornly refused to use the personal male pronoun in reference to God, which compelled him to repeat the word "God" often several times in one sentence. This nod to trendiness detracted slightly from an otherwise potent Gospel sermon.
Political correctness was more common among 150 workshops that Youth99 offered. Several that I attended involved human sexuality. They stressed dialogue and declined any firm guidance for right living. The implication was that standards of sexual morality should be determined by personal preference and not by any objective standard of truth.
"The Discipline [of the United Methodist Church] is not static. It changes," stressed Tim Fickenscher in a workshop he co-led called "When Elephants Fall out of the Closet." He is the youth director at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, where Jimmy Creech ignited a controversy two years ago by celebrating a same-sex union..
"Disagreement is good." Fisckenscher said. "It makes us United Methodists strong." He said the Scriptures should be a foundation for decision making but not the only tool. In a simplistic effort to discredit biblical authority, he said: "If a child is disobedient you can stone them to death [according to the Bible]. That's probably not a good idea."
Fickenscher asked the students to divide themselves by viewpoints over homosexuality, based on a survey he distributed. The six statements comprised a "Homophobia Scale" developed in part by Mary Jo Osterman, the editor of Open Hands magazine of the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Congregations. The statements varied from one extreme to the other. One declared that "gay-killing" should be acceptable, while another affirmed that "gay and lesbian" persons should be celebrated as "indispensable" to the church.
The historic Christian teaching that homosexual practice is sinful but within reach of God's forgiveness was not represented on the scale. Several students understandably responded that they could not find any statement on the survey that fit their views. Fickenscher professed to be impartial but subtly poked fun at the United Methodist stance. "Someday that's going to be a big issue at General Conference, cotton versus polyester," as he laughingly likened the prohibition against homosexual practice to Old Testament ritual purity laws regarding the blend of fabrics.
Another workshop was called "S.M.A.R.T. Sex," standing for Sensitive, Mutual, Appropriate, and Responsible and Think it over again. The workshop leader, diaconal minister Murphy Ehlers from the Detroit Conference, did not mention marriage, instead focusing on "loving and committed" relationships. She stressed that she was not there to instill values but to reinforce whatever value the students have.
A workshop on Native American spirituality was led by a United Methodist lay woman from West Virginia who is part Cherokee. Although she professed to have chosen Christianity for her faith, she failed to explain how she integrates tribal religious beliefs with the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
She "smudged" the room with incense to clear it of negative thoughts. Later she asked students to pray with rocks and a prayer stick adorned with a crystal. She then prayed around an altar of rocks to the four directions of the compass and to the "Great Spirit," with no reference to the Father, Son or Holy Ghost. And she seemed to deny the uniqueness of the Christian revelation.
"If I say the only history is the Bible then I limit God," she said. "Those people [who wrote the Scriptures] just had paper. My people just couldn't record our history. Who's to say that God couldn't have picked another indigenous people?"
Another workshop examined the United Methodist Church's Social Principles. Led by staffers of the Board of Church and Society, students were asked to divide themselves according to their views on hot button issues. The students were evenly divided on abortion, but most expressed support for the current United Methodist stance on homosexuality. Although some were undecided, only three students out of 75 present were opposed to the church's stance. The students were evenly split over affirmative action and the death penalty.
The workshops described above were sad exceptions to a conference most of whose content would please traditional United Methodists. Even more impressive than the plenary speakers were the testimonies of students, who were almost without exception Christ-centered. "Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of God," one student told the audience of 9,000 spectators. "Peace is Jesus Himself. Our Waymaker is the Prince of Peace."
The student participants in Youth99 provide cause for hope. They also provide reason for redoubling our efforts to ensure that these young people will have United Methodist colleges, seminaries and adult programs that merit their faith and expectations.