I wish I’d caught the name of the worst youth conference I’ve ever attended. Perhaps overlooking the event’s name serves as a clue of just how forgettable it was.
In my second year as a youth ministry volunteer at a rural church, a group of friends and I accompanied our youth pastor and a pack of twenty-five high school teens for a huge youth conference in downtown Indianapolis. The flat, straight, and narrow roads of the country gave way to the flat, straight, and wide roads of the city as our church van rumbled down the highway.
Our teens were chomping at the bit, and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with escaping the confines of their tiny rural communities for the endless possibilities offered in the big city.
After settling in our hotel, we mobbed the city streets, stopping by toy stores and candy shops in the downtown mall. Once outside the confines of the church van where they pumped ska music non-stop, the kidswere hanging off of street signs, hopping over parking meters, and buying prank gifts for each other. They were restless to the point of being squirrelly, loud, and always on the brink of breaking a law.
We no doubt had a social hierarchy in the youth group, but in the cause of finding junk food and raising mayhem in the big city, they worked together like a single organism. As we settled into our seats at the conference, I heaved a sigh of relief. At least for the next hour or two, they couldn’t climb anything and had to remain in their seats.
Mind you, they kicked each other, tried to flip their chairs backwards by “accident,” and were surely the rowdiest segment of the audience. Aren’t speakers meant to drown all of that out? I imagined that we’d at least get a little bit of peace once the worship band kicked things off.
As it turned out, we were just hopping onto the broad path to mayhem.
I don’t know how anyone chooses a worship band for a conference, but I suspect a top prerequisite would be effectively relating to teenagers. These guys were hardly qualified to do the music at a pre-school birthday party.
Maybe Christian camp songs in Indiana are the kinds of things that you had to be there to get. I don’t know. They launched their campfire-worthy worship set (if we dare pay it the compliment of calling it a “set)” with a song that had an off-key chorus with the following line, “So the BUFFALO said to his BROTHER…” It even had a series of truly embarrassing hand motions that were either buffalo horns or an attempt to signing for help.
Our kids were joining right in—ironically, of course. They were buffalos, they were sincere worship ballad singers, and they were very, very rowdy teens “on fire for the Lord.” They giggled and wiggled and waved their arms around during the whole set, doing spot on impressions of the hapless worship leaders who were clearly out of their depth. Sitting a row behind our kids with friends who were also chaperoning the trip, we made our own wisecracks as the songs spiraled into oblivion.
After the worship team shuffled off the stage, the tall, lanky speaker ambled up to the microphone, snapped it from the holder, and paced back and forth—doing the sort of thing I imagine he assumed youth speakers are supposed to do.
“Oh, no…” I thought.
The jokes and snickers started immediately from our group. I reasoned that it was OK because they made them at a very tasteful volume, hardly audible outside of our little corner.
And this speaker was really asking for it.
“Do you know what Goliath was like?” he started. “He was huuuuuuuge! He ate like 70 Big Macs for dinner and carried a sword that was heavier than a car!” Throughout this he mimicked each action: eating multiple Big Macs, carrying a massive sword, etc.
The Biblical exposition actually spiraled downward from there.
The youth pastor at our church had signed us up for the most dysfunctional youth event in America. We could even hear someone in the hallway ranting to an alleged organizer that he would never bring his teens back to this event.
None of this mattered all that much to our teens. Sure, they were bored out of their minds, even with their own running commentary as they popped Mentos to each other and made plans to drink the hotel room coffee that evening so they could watch TV all night.
Soon enough, they were parading back out to the street to hunt down candy shops and buy dinner at another chain restaurant that served salty American fare while they jammed straws up their noses and wore french fries like fangs.
They were in the city with their friends and relatively relaxed college students serving as their chaperones. What could be better? An off-beat conference was a small price to pay for that.
The world was a huge, straight, hilarious road stretching onward forever with ska music, construction cones serving as megaphones, and “kick me” signs to place on our youth pastor’s back. The worst worship band and conference speakers in the state of Indiana were just a convenient backdrop.