I’m on my way home from the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, a once every three years youth conference that brings together Presbyterian youth from around the country (and world). This year, 5000 youth and adults gathered on the campus of Purdue University for five days of worship, small groups, and fun. Someone noted on Twitter that this is the largest gathering of Presbyterians there is—not even General Assembly or other big conferences gather anywhere close to this many people.
This was my first time at Triennium. Since I didn’t grow up in the Presbyterian Church, this was never even on my radar. The church I served in Clarendon Hills has never attended PYT and my first full summer at Fourth Church three years ago was not a great time to do something like this. So I approached PYT2010 as a complete newbie, though I had heard quite a bit about it before arriving on Tuesday.
For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.
Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.
But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.
As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)
All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.
In the end, my problems with the music certainly didn’t ruin the entire experience for me. I tried to keep my Twitter snark to a minimum, since I could tell that a lot of people were really connecting with what they were hearing. And I’m sure I will come back in three years.
But as I leave my first Triennium, I can’t help wondering if there is some way we could harness the collective energy and spirit of all these youth and move things in a slightly different direction. I’d like for events like this to represent the cutting edge of Presbyterianism. I realize, of course, that not all of us may agree about what is cutting edge and what our growing edges should be. And I also realize that this experience may be more about me learning where the majority of Presbyterian youth ministries are and where I stand in relation to them. Yet I can’t help thinking that there was a hunger at Triennium for something different. I can’t help thinking that there is so much potential for transformation. I can’t help wondering what it would take to get us there.