The ELCA is defying odds and succeeding in its efforts to engage Gen Z according to one of XYZ U’s own Team Gen Z members.
Over the years, research has shown the steady decline of youth participation in religion. However, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Youth Gathering seems to defy all odds with its 31,000 youth attendees in 2018. So, what makes the ELCA so unique in its overabundance of attendees when for so many other organizations it is very difficult? I traveled to Houston, Texas, to find out.
It was a truly stunning experience that I am so grateful for.
One of the ways the program captivated youth was through an Interactive Learning Day – a day where a portion of the 31,000 attendees gathered in a convention center about the size of 12 football fields. The center was filled to the brim with live music, activities and various themed and informative stations – there was even a Star Wars themed station in the mix! The different stations served to educate and offer attendees the opportunity to discuss important issues of the day. Topics included the refugee crisis, human trafficking, sexuality, racism, world hunger and diversity – each bringing awareness to the wrongs of the world.
Another way the experience was captivating was its Service Learning Day. Each church represented at the gathering was sent out to volunteer and make a difference in the Houston community. My church’s job was to clean up an outdoor community center that had been neglected after many residents moved out of the neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. We picked up trash, weeded and listened to the owner tell her story and the stories of the struggling neighborhood.
The most influential experience for me while at the event was the mass gathering. At the end of each day all 31,000 of us gathered in the NRG Stadium for worship, concert-like performances and amazing stories shared by multiple guest speakers. Each night, different speakers told powerful stories about rising above their fears and struggles – stories about sexuality, eating disorders, conversion, depression, justice, sexism, drug addiction, and chronic illness to name just a few. Each one left the listener with a feeling of hope in a world full of so many wrongs.
Overall, the reason I think the ELCA Youth Gathering is so successful is that it targets youth by shaping it to what they enjoy and value. By incorporating pop culture into their messages they created a sense of interest, and by showing how youth can change the world they created a sense of purpose; a purpose that will transform the world as we know it.