The first of two Higher Things Lutheran Youth Conferences is taking place this week in Minneapolis. The second will be held next week in Ashville, North Carolina. A number of my Emmaus folks are attending one or the other of these conferences, and I'm glad of that. Young people from Emmaus, including my own Zach and DoRena, have enjoyed and benefitted from Higher Things since the Making Waves conference in Duluth, Minnesota (2002). I was able to join them for Dare to Be Lutheran in St. Louis (2005), and it was my privilege to serve as the chaplain for last year's conference, The Feast, in Colorado Springs. Regrettably, I could not attend either of the conferences this summer, but perhaps I will have the opportunity again in 2008. We'll see.
There are various people who have viewed the Higher Things conferences as a competing alternative to the LCMS National Youth Gatherings. I suppose it is true that one is not likely to attend both, especially when they coincide in the same year. Admittedly, it is also the case that Higher Things and the National Youth Gatherings operate on rather different principles. However, the purpose of the Higher Things conferences is not to compete with anything else, but simply to assist in the catechesis of the Church's youth. Where is it decreed that only one sort of youth conference is permissible? What is the point or purpose to questions that have sometimes been raised, whether Higher Things is an "official" organization of the LCMS? It has been a labor of love from the beginning on the part of LCMS people. Why not simply rejoice that there are such pastors and congregations, parents and other laity who are willing and able to devote their time and energy and resources to the benefit of young people within the Synod.
Well, others can make the comparisons if they so desire, but for my part I recognize that Higher Things has been a meet, right and salutary contribution. In fact, along with the Concordia Catechetical Academy, I firmly believe that Higher Things has been one of the best and most encouraging developments in the life of the Church within my lifetime. It is such a blessing because it has had the Word of God, and in particular the Gospel, as its foundation and focus. The goal, again, has always been catechesis in the Word of the Lord, centered in Christ Jesus, that the Youth might be served by His life-giving Holy Spirit. Such catechesis takes place in two principal ways: (1.) through plenary and sectional presentations on a wide variety of topics, and (2.) in the liturgy of daily prayer and the Divine Service. There is playtime, too, but that isn't the point or purpose of the conferences. Actually, I love the basic rule of thumb: "When we play, we play. When we work, we work. When we worship and pray, we worship and pray." In this way, everything is given its due place, and nothing is confused or contrived.
The daily rhythm of worship and prayer is the most oustanding feature of the Higher Things Lutheran Youth Conferences. Each day is punctuated by the offices of Matins and Vespers and Evening Prayer, and then the week culminates in the closing Divine Service. That's a lot of church, by almost any estimation, and I've heard people wonder and worry about how that goes over with the Youth. Not only is it tolerated, but thoroughly embraced. Indeed, the liturgical life of the conferences has consistently proven to be the best-loved and most deeply appreciated aspect of the experience. Praying the offices, receiving the Divine Service of the Gospel-Word and Sacrament, and singing the sturdy hymns of the Church are the crucible of true catechesis. In many ways, the plenary addresses and sectional presentations are themselves a preparatory catechesis toward that Christian life of prayer, praise, confession, and receiving the gifts of God in faith and with thanksgiving.
One of the things that I appreciated most about last summer's conference was the opportunity to introduce the Youth to Dr. Luther's mighty Easter hymn, "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands." There were those who had expressed concern that such a hymn would never fly, but it was both readily grasped and sung with fervent conviction throughout the week. That hymn is typical of Higher Things in general, which has been determined all along to feed and nurture the young people of the Church with the real meat and potatoes of the Gospel, rather than glutting them with the spirtually empty calories of pop culture and sacrilegious forms of entertainment.
There were three good friends and colleagues of mine who, seven years ago, took the intiative to host a Lutheran youth conference for the benefit of their own young people and any others who might be interested. The rich opportunity they provided that summer, in Laramie, Wyoming, served the Church well, meeting a real need and exceeding all expectations. I give thanks to God for the tremendous blessing He has bestowed upon us in this way, beginning with the faithful efforts of those several men, and continued enthusiastically by any number of others who have received and handed over the Higher Things tradition.