Editor's note: A photo gallery for this event was added June 26, 2015. Click here to see more photos.
ORLANDO – If you’re wondering where the young Methodists are these days, take a peek this week inside Orlando World Center Marriott.
Bus after bus pulled up curbside Wednesday, spilling hundreds of teens and preteens into the cavernous convention hotel for the start of Discipleship Ministries’ four-day event, "Youth 2015 Go On."
Chris Wilterdink, development director for the agency’s Young People’s Ministries division, stood in a sea of youth, hassled but happy. The myriad questions and concerns that come with hosting about 4,800 people were nothing compared with evidence that church is still relevant to those on the brink of adulthood, and Youth 2015 found a way to show them how.
“It continues to sneak up,” Wilterdink said of the number of youths and youth leaders checking in for the event, which had 4,500 preregistered. He said the staff received phone calls from chaperones en route that added at least 300 to the guest list and led to last-minute bookings at a nearby hotel.
“We said, ‘We’ll find room for you.’”
This year’s magic formula seemed to be a blend of workshops, small group gatherings and mission opportunities. The national United Methodist youth gathering, a quadrennial event that began in 1988, seeks to appeal to young tastes through Christian rap, hip hop and contemporary music. But the theme, as always, is Wesleyan, Wilterdink said.
“The whole event is built around John Wesley’s means of grace,” he said, adding that all aspects of the event will follow a theme of “Go On” that encourages participants to initiate “works of piety and mercy … to transform lives in their church and community.”
Interest in missions was running high among those interviewed Wednesday. Susann Bendrick, youth leader at Valley View UMC in Overland Park, Kansas, said her group of 26 students had agreed to forgo a trip to nearby Disney World in favor of spending a few post-event days in Daytona Beach doing mission work.
Others, like Rachel Ferdinand, 18, of Wesley UMC in Worcester, Massachusetts, said she was drawn by the music and worship formats tailored to young tastes. She attended the event four years ago at Purdue University in Indiana, one of two host sites in 2011.
“It makes me feel very empowered,” she said. “Even though we are young, we can still make a difference.”
But the biggest draw may have been the young people themselves.
“I think it’s these kinds of events that help young people get a better grasp of what the church means,” said Dorlimar Lebron Malave, a young adult volunteer from the New York Conference, who was busy keeping up with massive piles of bags and pillows stored in a hotel meeting room while people waited to check into their rooms.
On Wednesday morning alone, United Methodist churches from Alabama, California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania had deposited their belongings in her care and headed off to explore their surroundings. Wilterdink said the event targeted youth leaders and students in grades six through 12 from across the nation, and there were a few students from outside the U.S. as well.
Malave, a veteran of the “Imagine What’s Next” experience for the college-age set, said events like Youth 2015 bring home the power of a united church family.
“We’re able to see that this is something that is bigger than ourselves … that we all have the same heart and the same calling,” she said. “Events like this keep people connected.”
Among the mission opportunities are meal-packaging for Stop Hunger Now, a potato-cleaning for Society of St. Andrew and a 6k Water Awareness Walk for World Vision. Participants also dropped off teddy bear donations for children who have been abused or abandoned and need a comfort buddy to see them through.
UM Youth Missions put teen passers-by to work on-site, teaching them how to build a bin out of wood and twine to store the donated stuffed animals.
Attendees also got a glimpse of mission making a difference on the other side of the world. Volunteers and staff from First UMC, Winter Park, set up a mock village to reflect the everyday lives of orphans in Naivasha, Kenya, where the Panua Partners in Hope project has helped more than 160 young Kenyans receive training that leads to livelihoods for themselves and their families.
Like much of Africa, the region has been ravaged by AIDS, leading to an estimated 25,000 children left to fend for themselves following the death or disability of adult breadwinners. Children roam littered streets unsupervised and exposed to malnutrition and unsanitary conditions.
Volunteers from the Winter Park church, some of whom have personally trekked to Naivasha, set up an audio tour that participants could sync to their mobile devices. The tour traced the experience of Samuel, a young person helped to a better life through the Panua effort, and included two businesses set up by other orphans in the program.
The display included a small-group worship setting, and one of the goals was to connect American United Methodist youth groups with their counterparts in Naivasha.
“We are connecting youth group to youth group,” said Loran VanWormer, a Panua educator based in Winter Park. Panua participants in Kenya made Youth500 bracelets to give to Youth 2015 attendees who agreed to post messages of hope and prayer for specific Panua participants to social media.
Most who completed the tour were happy to do that. VanWormer said Panua display planners wanted to provide youngsters who might not have financial means or the ability to travel to Kenya a way to participate in the mission.
“We wanted to find a way they could feel they were involved,” she said.
Jensie Gobel, global mission coordinator for First UMC, said the church is actively seeking other congregations to partner in the effort so that Panua can assist more families in Naivasha.
“We really do have an awesome story to tell,” she said.
Youth 2015 will go on through Saturday and includes participation from United Methodist Women, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Imagine No Malaria, Global Ministries, United Methodist Committee on Relief and other Methodist affiliates, as well as colleges and universities.
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.