This weekend, thousands of teenagers come to Hamilton - for one of the most polarizing events within the "youth ministry" community.
Acquire the Fire.
The thing most in its favour? It gets a large amount of teenagers together, from really varied church backgrounds. It's one of the only events in Ontario to do that, and the largest in Hamilton.
The thing least in its favour? It's a big American event, and its methods, metaphors and worldviews show it.
I've been as a teenager, and I've taken teens to it before as a youth leader.
Ever since living here, I haven't.
One, because I'm finding the cons are outweighing the pros about it..
Two, because if you're a teenager that goes to Sir John A. MacDonald high school across the street from Copps Coliseum, the thrill of an event there is considerably diminished!
Three, because TrueCity puts together a great local event that also gets together a ton of teenagers from widely varying church backgrounds twice a year - where teens from different churches spend a day volunteering at places around the city - at places that actually can use the help. And there's a lot of context and carefulness and humility that goes into it. I think it's a better fit.
And because I've just been around on those weekends - shopping at the market, going to the library, passing by on my way to somewhere, I've got a different perspective. I've met groups who stayed in the church building I worked at - let them know the location of the nearest Starbucks and Pizza Pizza, and that the BBQ restaurant on the corner was also really good! I try to give a little bit of context about the city and the opportunity to see something good in it - even if it's as minor as a familiar chain restaurant or pointing out something good about the city they can experience.
I understand how events like this work -- by taking someone out of their daily context, having an event in a different city, people are more receptive to hearing new things - challenging things. And good things, like researching and understanding your faith, being unashamed of it, communicating it to others. Even boldness - which is a good thing, if not abused. And when a conference is an event in a bigger city, it feels bigger. More powerful. Like it means more.
But because Hamilton's an unfamiliar place - and a poorer and less attractive one than people are used to, I'm also confronted with scenes like last year... the first story... when I'm in front of Jackson Square with several McMaster students and a group of young teenagers come stamping by singing worship songs at the top of their lungs... or teens screaming "Jesus loves you" at people.
Would they do it at their high school? I don't think so.
Because they know - in some part of their heads - that loving God isn't supposed to turn into a verbal offensive onslaught. These things are not meant to be shouted or screamed at people. They're part of a faith that leads to transformed lives... and when they're turned into this sort of frontal assault.. that assumes everyone around it isn't part of their faith... it makes me very squeamish.
And I know by the time they get back home and back to their school, and usually their youth leaders have talked to them about having a life that shows your faith - and that gentleness, humility, and respect are parts of that, and they realize that they have to see the people in their high school every day, they're more careful about what they do. And by the time most of them reach Grade 11 or 12, they're at a stage of more thoughtfulness and maturity, and more considerate of others.
And their witness becomes something more like what I heard last week at the McMaster cafeteria. the second story... - three guys talking together about what exactly Jesus' death meant, and assurance of salvation. Two guys who knew each other, a third guy who barely knew them.. but they were talking quietly and humbly. They were showing each other a lot of respect. They weren't disrupting those around them or getting into a heated argument. (I only heard them since I was sitting at the next table and had just removed my headphones).
It was gentle, it was intellectually honest, and it was life-giving. I've seen a lot of that on the Mac campus, and I've had the privilege to start being involved with another group, Lift Church, who gently and quietly enable students to do campus ministry there, from small groups to food giveaways, no strings attached.
And I know that most of the time, things will bear out that way in these kids' lives. They have leaders, they have churches, they have friends who will help them work through this stuff.
But... the weekend of ATF, when they walk by and yell stuff, I'm still standing with a bunch of people who've just heard bombastic catchphrases, and my heart's breaking.
And this may be funny coming from me, because I'm a loudmouth, I know that.
I'm not good with the gentle.
I'm not good with the quiet.
I'm an opinionated person who usually runs her mouth off, (or shuts down completely to avoid saying something stupid.)
But I try really hard not to confuse confrontational tactics for what I believe. Because I think the gospel's the only thing that makes real sense of life, and that the gospel - that God created the world good, that the world and humanity fell through human rebellion, sin; and Jesus Christ came to die, be buried, and rise again to defeat death and bear the punishment for sin - and that God will one day make everything right again--- is beautiful truth and not absurdity or foolishness.
I believe it not only makes sense, but is a truly comprehensive worldview that adds to instead of confounds knowledge and life. It's compatible with when I majored in philosophy. It's compatible with my theology degree and master's studies. And when I'm studying the human heart and understanding physics techniques used in sound imaging, that's a part of it too
And I understand to believe, support, and articulate that is tough - and always has been.
But I don't want my backup to be people who learn to scream the truth at others.
I want to hear more people gently, quietly, encouragingly speak the truth in love - like those guys in the cafeteria, or the students at Lift Church on the McMaster campus giving away food, no strings attached. more like the second story.
And I hope the kids this weekend have been learning that - just as I hope I'm learning it, and learning to be a little gentler, a little quieter, and a little bolder myself.