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Youth 2023: BOLD youth connect with God, one another (UM News)

August 3, 2023

Attending Discipleship Ministries’ Youth 2023 event forever changed how Addi Byrd looks at the star-filled sky.

“One of the speakers said that each star in the sky shines differently,” Byrd said. “I really took that to heart. It’s been cool to see the ways everyone here shines in their own way.”

Byrd, 15, from First United Methodist Church in Benton, Arkansas, was among the more than 2,500 attendees representing 44 U.S. states and five other countries at the four-day event at the Ocean Center at Daytona Beach, Florida, July 25-28. Participants attended workshops, worship, concerts and communion on the beach, among other activities, all tied together with the theme of “BOLD — Being Ourselves, Living Different.”

Chris Wilterdink, executive director of Congregational Vitality and Intentional Discipleship and director of Young People’s Ministries at Discipleship Ministries, said the event had a number of goals:

  • Helping youth and their leaders experience how discipleship can positively impact relationships; 
  • providing a platform to demonstrate how people can come together during a time when division is frequent;
  • helping participants experience diverse connections;
  • exploring a variety of topics, including anti-racist discipleship practices; and
  • providing transformational opportunities for ongoing faith formation.

“Personally, I hoped that we would create a safe and welcoming space where youth have opportunities for transformation by connecting with God, connecting with each other and connecting with spiritual practices,” Wilterdink said. “As they have opportunities for transformation, they will in turn have opportunities to transform the world as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Amid schedules that started as early as sunrise with communion on the beach, included workshops and learning opportunities throughout the day and extended until after 9 p.m., many participants ranked worship time among the highlights.

Grace Kruelen, 17, said she typically is the only person raising her hands in praise in her congregation at First United Methodist in Benton, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock. At Youth 2023, however, she found herself surrounded by hundreds of others worshipping in the same expressive style.

“Being here and seeing everyone raising their hands has been inspiring,” she said. “We are seeing more of the world and my big takeaway is to not be one-minded in my faith.”

Kruelen said she was introduced to a lot of different things at the event, and heard from others with different experiences from her own.

“I can take that with me and I can better understand what others may have gone through,” she said. “As I hear their stories and their calling and how Christ changed them, I feel much more in touch.”

Youth 2023 was the first event of its type that Shanquel Askew has attended. A United Methodist Board of Global Ministries Global Mission Fellow who begins serving a Grand Rapids, Michigan, community in mid-August, Askew said she felt welcomed and particularly appreciated the worship times.

“Worship was a space where you could worship God however you wanted,” she said. “It was a family vibe, a sense of community.” 

Worship was one of the aspects that Autumn Krueger was most excited for her youth group to experience. Krueger, pastor of student and family ministry at St. John and First United Methodist churches in Anchorage, Alaska, attended a United Methodist youth event as a high schooler in 2007. This year, she accompanied 16 young people to Florida.

“I knew they would have no way to know what it was like to worship with 2,500 kids because we don’t have those experiences (in our local church),” she said, adding that the trip to Florida was the first time visiting the Lower 48 for many of the kids.

Finding themselves interacting with other United Methodists from as far away as Mississippi was an important opportunity for her group.

“They now have a new understanding of connectionalism,” Krueger said. “They see it in practice, they experienced it, rather than just talk about it.”

Some churches brought dozens of youth. However, Bethany Ledford, 14, was the only young person to attend the event from her church, Hesston United Methodist Church in Kansas. She made friends with attendees from various churches but it’s her relationship with God that was most impacted.

The Rev. Theon Johnson III, the event’s emcee and pastor at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, California, had a stage view of the experiences throughout the week.

“Being able to watch our young people show up with great excitement is a source of great hope,” he said. “To be able to be a witness to youth groups becoming something greater, more than what they were, to see individual youth groups being able to see themselves connected to a church family far greater than some had even imagined was a great gift. I think we saw firsthand the church at its best.”

Watching the attendees embrace the BOLD theme was inspiring, Johnson said, naming the Youth 2023 Choir closing worship presentation as the single event to most exemplify the event theme.

The 60-member group was assembled at the start of the event and practiced only three times before singing in front of thousands of their peers.

“I saw music sheets that were shaking, hands were shaking from nervousness. I saw soloists step forward, perhaps with a little fear and trembling. And I heard voices lifted and I heard the congregation respond with joy and affirmation,” Johnson said. “What I sensed was a ‘Yay us! Yay you! Yay God!’

While speakers and leaders were grounded in Methodist and Wesleyan theology, Wilterdink said, the event strove to introduce attendees to diversity on a variety of levels — including worship styles, ethnicity, accents and geography — while also making the space welcoming.

“Youth 2023 was the first Christian youth event that was certified as accessible for all physical and developmental needs,” he said, citing a partnership with Kulture City, which provided sensory bags that included noise-reducing headphones and the Sensory Worship Area, a space designed with reduced light and volume levels with a live feed of the arena worship.

Communion also was designed with accessibility in mind, with stations set up both on the beach and on the paved boardwalk to accommodate persons with mobility challenges.

Alongside the various activities, youth had an opportunity to learn about the denomination’s structure and how it functions, with 12 of the 13 general agencies participating.

Ashley Boggan, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, was a workshop leader and presenter.

“Listening to the young people in the workshop sessions gave me such hope for the future of The UMC,” she said. “They know what it means to be Wesleyan. They are eager to lead and have incredible visions for the future of this denomination. We just need to step aside and give them a microphone and a seat at the visioning table.

“Most of all, I left with a sense that we’re gonna be OK.”