Most of the kids at Presbyterian Youth Triennium were not what you would call hooligans. These are church kids. Many of them had been to more than one church camp already this summer. Many had grown up attending Sunday School, and doing Vacation Bible School on school breaks. When I asked my small group of twenty-five teenagers if we had any pastor’s kids in the mix, four of them raised their hands. When you get 5,000 teenagers in one place there is bound to be a lot of energy and a bit of misbehavior, but not as much as you might think. These are the kids who have bought into the program and internalized our expectations. They are the “good” ones.
The Presbyterian Youth Triennium is a remarkable event. Held every three years on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, it is a huge conference. This was my second time attending as an adult advisor. It was my job, along with the other adults, to guide the group of youth from our presbytery to and from the event; to ensure their safety; and help them have a good time. Though it was exhausting it was not difficult to get these kids to be on their best behavior. As I said, these kids, for the most part, are the ones who know what good church behavior is. Many of them had been sent on this trip by parents who hoped that Triennium would continue to reinforce how to be a good, polite, jesus-loving, church-goer.
Imagine how surprised some of those parents, and most of these teenagers were when the dominant theme of the conference seemed to be breaking the expectations our parents and churches and society put on us to fit the mold. Preacher after preacher hammered the point that following Jesus means living sacrificially. It means giving up what we want for ourselves, and what others want for us, and following God’s plans which often sound and look crazy. The youth were encouraged to be risk-takers, and by this they did not mean “entrepreneurs”. The preachers told the kids to stand with the homeless by sleeping on the street with them. To make peace by going into warzones and bringing relief to the victims. To speak out against homophobia, and to let their hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus Christ. These kids who spend a lot of their energy making their parents proud were invited to turn away from success, power, prestige, and even approval. They were persuasively encouraged to give everything they have away in order to be with the least of these.
It was, in my opinion, as raw and truthful a presentation of the gospel as you could ask for.
I have no doubt, though, that many of these kids arrived home to have their enthusiasm suddenly dampened by disapproval. Well-meaning parents and teachers and church-members will give these kids a hefty dose of “reality”. They will be told that all that risky stuff is overly idealistic. That they need to know "how the world works" and make responsible decisions. They will be set back on the course toward expensive colleges and respectable careers. The parents will breath a sigh of relief and make a mental note not to send their kids back to an event like Triennium, which is going to say things they disagree with. They will save their kids from that crazy radical Jesus.
I wonder how many of us have been saved by friends and family when we were dangerously close to following Christ. How many times have you nearly done something completely foolish like take a homeless person into your house when at the last minute sanity intervened and you gave them some spare change instead? We’ve learned very well how to be realistic, and safe. Especially safe from Jesus.