By NANCY SCHWERIN
WHITE OAK — In its fifth year, the annual diocesan Junior High Youth Rally thrived in a new age of youth ministry — a multimedia world of sights, sounds and actions. The rally was held Nov. 3 at White Oak Conference Center outside of Columbia, and busloads of participants traveled up to three hours for the event.
The rally for students in sixth through eighth grades was organized by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and Director Jerry White. He brought in Cultivation Ministries of Chicago to act as hosts for the daylong rally. The ministries group provides keynote speakers and programming, which includes a multimedia set up that produced laughter and got the students thoughts flowing on living what they believe. “Live what you believe” — the conference theme — was repeatedly displayed on two big screens that hung above the stage. A “fan cam” projected participants’ faces along with funny remarks like “can bench 300 lbs” on the screens. Between skits, games and worshiping with the band, music videos boomed from the sound system and took over the stage screens. Incense, perhaps for a calming stimulus, drifted around the auditorium occasionally reaching a nose or two.
The 300 students were guided throughout the day by the diocese’s Youth Evangelization Team — a group of 26 senior high schoolers with enough energy and Spirit to light a small city.
“The evangelization team is an awesome group of young people. We often hear about what’s wrong with our young people; well they’re what’s right about our young people,” said White. “They’re proof that young people can have a personal relationship with Jesus and live out their faith and impact the world they live in.”
The team performed skits, provided video testimonies, worked behind the scenes, helped participants during games, and kept the level of excitement high. They got everyone clapping their hands and stomping their feet to the beat of Daniel’s Window.
A five-member rock band from the Chicago area, they are fueled by the Lord. Led by vocalist Heather Hershey, the band is quickly climbing the Christian music charts.
Hershey said of the band’s start-up, “We wanted to do something centered on God.”
They maintain that aura through their lyrics and Hershey telling the impressionable young teens that God loves to hear the sound of them singing and worshiping. They sang along, at first, tentatively, but by lunch that were rolling — clapping and praising the Lord.
Frank Mercadante, executive director of Cultivation Ministries, gave the keynote address. He said of his teen years, “I was running away from God who had my best interest in mind. In church I would count the heads of bald men and keep weekly statistics. In case you’d like to know, bald men prefer early Masses.”
He said that when he was a senior in high school, he met people who really believed in their faith. He described them as being “so vibrant with faith that they can infect others.”
Mercadante told the kids that their faith is worth living because, first, God is powerful. “There’s nothing you can go through that’s beyond God’s power,” he said.
The second reason, he said, is “God’s crazy in love with you.”
“He cares so deeply about you and about your pain,” Mercadante said. “The journey may be tough, but God has a plan to give us life. … Live what you believe.”
The evangelization team acted out the importance of living what you believe. In the skit they cautioned the students from becoming too wrapped up in their own world that they don’t notice the pain of others. It subtly addressed the issues of incest, eating disorders and teen sexuality and pregnancy. The message: By living what you believe, you will be able to reach out to people who are hurting.
The annual rally has grown steadily; the first year drew about 125 students.
“It comes down to quality,” said White, who has been in youth ministry for 15 years, and he’s excited about the changing scene in youth ministry. “In the past we haven’t given them the best that we can.
“If we don’t give them quality, something to be excited about, they’ll look for something else. We must present the truth, but package it in a way that speaks to them” — through technology and eye-catching multimedia effects.
But, said White, “We still need people up front to present the message and challenge the young people.
“We reach them through their culture. I believe there is a youth culture, and it is different from anything else we’ve seen before.”
Groups like Cultivation Ministries, Daniel’s Window, and hard-working diocesan teams are discovering their world and marking new territory to be occupied by teens filled with the faith.