Junior High Conference Helps Youth Address Change, While Keeping a Focus on God

Photo by Glenn Riegel
Junior high youth gather at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania for the 2015 National Junior High Conference.

By Josh Harbeck

An acorn. Small, ordinary, even insignificant. Yet that small seed transforms into a massive, rooted, solid oak tree.

That transformation was the metaphor for change used by the organizers of the 2015 National Junior High Conference held June 19-21 at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. The message came through clearly.

In total, 395 youth, advisors, and staff attended the conference and participated in workshops, recreation times, and even a carnival while also sharing meals and worship together.

Theme guides youth through change

The worship sessions each built upon the metaphor of transformation. The theme from the weekend was based on Romans 12:1-2, which, in the Message version, states, “Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.” In addition, the youth were charged to not allow themselves to “become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”

Organizers of the event, including director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Becky Ullom Naugle, wanted to acknowledge the changes junior high youth go through and remind them to keep their focus on God.

“We were thinking about different images for change, and the acorn starts so small and so insignificant, but it turns in to this mighty oak tree,” she said. “And we thought that could help the kids see long term. It’s not about how you look or what you have. God’s looking at other things.”

Kristen Hoffman, coordinator of National Junior High Conference and a Brethren Volunteer Service worker, said she wanted the students to feel energized. “We wanted to focus on their gifts and talents and have them fueled by that and ready to go back to their junior highs,” she said.

Photo by Glenn Riegel

Preachers share personal stories, challenges

That energizing process began with the opening worship service. Lauren Seganos, a seminarian at the Memorial Church of Harvard University and member of Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, Pa., had the first opportunity to address the attendees, and she shared a personal story about her time in junior and senior high.

She talked about how much she enjoyed singing and performing and how she would audition for parts in musicals and solos in choir. However, another classmate usually earned those leads and solos. Seganos said she became so discouraged, she turned down an opportunity to sing at a coffee house hosted by her high school during her senior year.

She told the crowd that today, she can look back and see her focus was in trying to be the best rather than accepting the talents and strengths she did have. “We are all made in God’s image,” she said during her message, “but sometimes it’s hard to remember that.”

Putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves is a quick way to lose focus. “We’re in a culture where everyone needs to be the best at everything, and it’s worse today than when I was a child,” she said. “I think it’s important to not focus on being the best necessarily, but focus on what brings you joy because when we’re doing something that comes from our heart, that pleases God.”

Seganos said she was excited when contacted by the conference organizers. “They explained to me the vision for the weekend, with the image of the acorn and how it ties in,” she said. “I love the scripture passage; I actually have a poster of that up on my wall, that verse in the Message translation, and I thought it was so neat that that was the verse they asked me to preach on.”

On Saturday morning the transformation metaphor was expanded when Bethany Theological Seminary academic dean Steve Schweitzer talked about filters. He began by showing what different pictures looked like with different filters, such as different color filters, simple back and white, or even a negative filter. He then talked about the filters through which we see ourselves, or how others see us, or how God sees us. His theme was identity, an important topic for junior high youth.

Photo by Glenn Riegel

“This is an age in which the answer to the question about knowing who you are can change every day,” he said. “We have to recognize that God sees us as no one else can and to know that God knows who we are and who we will become, so even when we screw up and get it wrong, God is there to call us into being that which God sees in us.”

Amy Gall Ritchie, a former Church of the Brethren pastor who now works with students at Bethany Seminary, also used pictures and images as part of her message during Saturday night’s worship service. She showed pictures of trees that grew in prevailing winds, trees that have grown more horizontally than vertically. She explained how while we should grow vertically, stretching to God, the prevailing winds of peer pressure can cause any of us to change direction.

She related a powerful story about peer pressure, describing how a group of friends organized a trip to the mall and while there, devised a plan to ditch one person in the group. Knowing what she was doing was wrong, she went ahead with her friends. The plan worked.

Acknowledging her guilt in making a bad choice, she had advice for those in worship that night: “We are going to make bad choices,” she said, “but there is always the next choice. We do not have to carry around our bad choices like a chain of punishment.”

Realizing those next-choice opportunities is the key to avoiding bad choices in the future, not to mention the guilt that comes with them. “If we get discouraged and give up, then we’re in that unproductive place of shame and guilt again,” she said. “And honestly, if I’m going to put my energy into something, I want to put it into goodness.”

Pacific Southwest District moderator Eric Bishop gave the message closing the conference on Sunday morning, building on what previous speakers had said. He challenged the youth to keep in mind what they had heard over the weekend, and challenged the adults as well.

“Yours has to be the just generation,” he told the youth. “We are failing and falling. Each generation, we hope the next will be the change we want and need. If we are going to change, we must help show you how.”

He talked about the mistake some people make in their underestimating of junior high youth. “We tell the youth, ‘You’re the future, but [you have to] wait.’ But I think they are not the future; they are a part of the church now. We need to bring them in and listen to them,” he said.

Workshops include Charleston discussion

Between worship sessions, youth and advisors alike had opportunities to unwind or get wound up. Saturday afternoon featured opportunities for sports and recreation, utilizing Elizabethtown’s facilities for kickball, volleyball, and Ultimate Frisbee.

Saturday’s schedule also featured two sessions of workshops, where youth could learn about a wide variety of topics including what Brethren volunteers are doing in Nigeria, how pop culture relates to faith, how not to be a jerk, among many others.

Organizers also saw an opportunity for discussion with the tragic shooting in South Carolina. Bishop offered to facilitate a talk specifically about what happened in Charleston, and also more generally about violence and race. He said it was a good chance to discuss some important topics. “It was primarily advisors, but those are the people who help influence the youth,” he said. “It’s interesting because there was a point where I said, ‘OK, we’ve been here an hour, so you’re welcome to come and go as you need,’ but no one moved.”

Glenn Riegel, a photographer and member of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., has posted albums from the National Junior High Conference at
www.facebook.com/glenn.riegel/media_set?set=a.10206911494290541.1073741846.1373319087&type=3 .

All of the discussions and activities took place in large part because of the efforts of the steering committee, which included Dave Miller, Michelle Gibbel, Eric Landram, and Jennifer Jensen. “Anytime at conference when something needed to happen they were always the first ones who said they’d do it,” Hoffman said. That included the Saturday night carnival, featuring activity booths from Brethren Volunteer Service, Global Mission and Service, Bethany Seminary, and McPherson College.

Seth Hendricks led the musical portion of worship, including praise songs and an original work based on the conference’s theme.

All of the activities and fellowship made for a positive experience.

“It’s been a good and healthy place for kids to be over the weekend,” Ullom Naugle said.

— Josh Harbeck is a high school English teacher and member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., where he serves as a junior high teacher.