Everyone was counting down the days. For Clara Beal, a youth group member at Lafayette Park UMC in St. Louis, UNITE would be her first big, multi-night church camp experience. She couldn’t wait to get packing.
For the NextGen Ministries staff, the pre-event scramble was in motion – putting the finishing touches on the first Conference-sponsored youth conference since the final WOW event in Springfield in 2018. In a matter of days, the team would welcome 340 students and leaders to the Central Methodist University campus for a week of worship, study and fellowship.
The vision for UNITE was in its name: To inspire students to unite through worship and mission, create opportunities for students to use their voices, encourage students to be kin(g)dom workers in their local communities and equip a generation of young people to share the love of Jesus for the transformation of the world. Above all, NextGen Ministries wanted students to see the power of the United Methodist connection at work.
“There was something about all of us being there together,” Rev. Angel Garcia, NextGen Ministries youth and college-age ministry coordinator, says. “You knew the Spirit was there. You knew something special was going to come out of this.”
Teaching and worship for the week centered on the theme “a beautiful rebellion: the kin(g)dom of grace.” With John 13:35 – “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” – as its foundational verse, the theme contrasted what the world says about us with what God says about us. It invited students and leaders to consider how God has uniquely equipped each of us and calls us to use our whole selves for God’s world-transforming work. Participants were invited to join God’s beautiful rebellion — a rebellion that begins with encountering Jesus, is powered by dangerously good news, and can change the world.
The week’s agenda provided several opportunities for students to explore how God has uniquely created them. Through electives – such as eSports, crocheting and knitting prayer shawls, science and scripture, and songwriting – students leaned into their interests. Beal says she participated in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, art classes and swimming. The Lafayette Park UMC youth group partook in the UMCOR kit packing service opportunity, one of the many mission-related activities offered.
“My people have such a greater experience and connection to being a Methodist after this exposure of being able to work and put the boxes together,” says Rev. Kathleen Wilder, lead pastor of Lafayette Park UMC. “They were committed, and they felt good. And they know that when those boxes are needed, they’re there and making a difference.”
The UMC connection was at work in other ways at UNITE.
Rev. Stacie Williams, lead pastor at Arch UMC in Hannibal, says her group multiplied in the days leading up to UNITE. She originally only had three students attending, but when she left Arch, she had six. Upon check-in, she gained a seventh – a student from Rev. Bill O’Neal’s youth group at Linn Memorial UMC. The student wanted to attend, but he was the only youth group member from Linn Memorial to sign up.
“I want kids to be on this campus and see that this is a great place to be for their future and to see the connection come alive,” Williams says. “That’s an important part for me, too, is to see the connection come alive for the next generation.”
O’Neal, also the major gift officer at Central Methodist, was delighted to have students from across Missouri on campus for the week.
“I love the connectionalism between all the Methodist churches,” O’Neal says. “I love the fact that people are here at Central Methodist University. I love this place. It is the Missouri Conference’s university. I love people connecting with Jesus here on campus and experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Hosting UNITE on Central Methodist’s campus had more of an impact than furthering students’ exposure to the UMC connection. A week on campus helped students catch the vision of what going away to college could look like. By the end of the week, O’Neal was offering tours and answering questions about majors offered at CMU.
“It’s been really fun because I’ve always been imagining what a college campus would look like, and then this just filled up all my expectations, and it’s just really cool,” Beal says.
At the end of the week, leaders asked participants how they planned to bring the beautiful rebellion back home and offered practical suggestions – such as committing to consistent silent time with God as a rebellion against busyness or donating extra spending money to a good cause to rebel against excess and consumerism.
For Rev. Chris Sams, lead pastor at Adrian UMC, this call to take the week’s teachings back home in practical ways, beyond the classic church camp spiritual high, is a key reason he brings students to experiences like UNITE.
“We know how much life changes it brings, and we know how much it continues to catapult the ministry to the local church,” Sams says. “From the 11 adult leaders that came home and the 49 kids that came back to Adrian, there’s just an energy, excitement and enthusiasm to say we can be rebellious leaders for the mission of Jesus Christ.”
This momentum translated directly into the following Sunday’s worship service at Adrian, where senior high students completely ran worship, and three students who attended UNITE preached.
“The future of our church at Adrian UMC rests within the hands of our youth group,” Sams says. “We are committed to preparing this generation as present-day leaders within the church. Our rural church DNA has undergone a profound shift due to the influence exerted by these vibrant young individuals on both our congregation and community. Even those among us who have faithfully been a part of the Adrian community for over three decades now witness the emergence of the next wave of kingdom builders. These young members bring energy and excitement into all facets of our ministry.”
Next year, Sams and the group from Adrian are upping the ante: They hope to bring 75 students to UNITE 2024.
Based on how local church leaders and students responded to UNITE 2023, Garcia is eagerly looking toward 2024 and the possibility of maxing out the capacity at CMU.
“There’s so much power, talent and gifting within our community,” Garcia says. “There’s hope for the future; we see it when we come together at events like UNITE.”