Why the ELCA Youth Gathering is Worth the Cost
Ok, I’m just going to put it out there and say it: I think every ELCA congregation should participate in the ELCA Youth Gathering.
Every three years, the conversation kicks back up: “How can we justify spending (pick a number here…$1000…$1300…even $1600) to send kids to stay in a hotel for a week? What if we could spend that money on mission instead?”
I get that. I understand that we all need to make decisions about what we will and won’t participate in. I get calls every week from some group that wants us to bring people to their event…or wants to send us their material to ‘trial’ so that we can use it in our congregation.
I also get, and respect, that every context is different than every other, and blanket statements like the one I made at the top of this post might not be helpful. But here are my random thoughts, in no particular order:
- First, let’s get our data right. $1300? $1600? Sure, it’s possible to spend that much per person to get a group to the Gathering. But it’s also possible to spend much less. But it’s all about choices. If you choose to fly there, you might spend more. If you want to stay at hotels on the way driving there and back, yes that’s going to cost money. But it is possible to do this for way less than $1300. Maybe take a bus rather than fly. Not as quick or convenient, but probably less money. Partner with another congregation to share transportation expenses. If driving, sleep in churches rather than hotels. Bring your own food.
I’d also strongly encourage you to watch the Network 3rdTuesday Conversation webinar on fundraising by Mike Ward. It’s really good.
I’ve never spent more than $800-$900 per person to send a group to the Gathering. Still a lot of money. But it’s easier to come up with than $1300 or $1600.
- I’ve heard people compare the value of the Gathering to the value of a mission trip. I think we need to let that go. They are two totally different kinds of experiences and it’s apples and oranges; impossible to compare. While mission trips have a service and accompaniment focus (with a lot of other stuff too), the Gathering has a faith formation and accompaniment focus (with a lot of other stuff too). They both are extremely important, and should not be set in opposition with each other.
- The scope of the Gathering means that things can be experienced there that cannot be experienced elsewhere…like in our congregations. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to bring Maya Angelou, or Bishop Desmond Tutu, or Rob Bell, or Audio Adrenaline, or Switchfoot, or Peter Mayer, or Nadia Bolz-Weber to my congregation. But that’s going to be a big budget “no” for my church. I’m guessing the same for yours.
Likewise, to experience the gift of Word and Sacrament with 30,000 other people? I can’t explain why…but it’s one of the most amazing experiences out there. And it’s something we can only experience at the Gathering.
I’ve taken hundreds of kids on mission trips. I’ve taken hundreds of young people to the ELCA Youth Gathering. Years later, the same number of people tell me that the Gathering had a huge impact on their life and faith as those who tell me the same thing about our mission trips.
- The impact of the Gathering on the city we visit is immense. Financially it has been estimated at around $30 million dollars. Sure, some of that goes to hotel corporations, etc…but how many jobs are provided to people who need them? How many restaurants are buoyed? How many shops are filled? It’s ok to recognize that we can make a difference in ways other than swinging hammers. Oh….and by the way…even more importantly, the public witness of the church being present in the city we visit has an even larger impact. Look up the newspaper and blog articles in the city of Detroit while we were there in 2015.
- It’s an opportunity to partner. There are under-resourced congregations that struggle to get to the event. There are also congregations that have resources that they could share to assist those in need. What if they did? What if the Network helped to set that up? What if we could match churches in need with churches who would be willing to share?
Maybe it’s financial assistance? Or what if one church offered the empty seats on their bus to a church that can’t afford transportation? What if we made sure that we could all get there? If we put our minds to it, we can!
Here’s the thing: If we approach the Gathering like we’re the consumers and it’s the product, of course it’s going to seem outrageously expensive.
But we’re not consumers. We are the church. And the Gathering is not a product. It is a ministry. And we have the opportunity to participate…and I think we should.
The ministry of the gathering is a ministry of young people…not a ministry to them. In Houston this summer they will be the body of Christ, living out God’s mission in a unique way. And it is a ministry that will draw your young people together for at least a full year before the actual event, to prepare. And by preparing, I don’t mean fundraising. I’m talking about Bible study, community building, etc…
So I stand by my original statement: I think all of our congregations should participate in the Gathering, because we are stronger together. I know you won’t all agree with this…and that’s fine. But there is one thing I firmly believe:
We are stronger together.
So let’s be together.
I’ll be in Houston. I hope you will too!