2018 ELCA Youth Gathering Logo

Youth Gathering Exposed

I was minding my own business, which was Redeemer in Atlanta, three years ago when final preparations were being made for the triennial ELCA Youth Gathering (Gathering) in Detroit. That is to say, I wasn’t really paying close attention. We had others on staff planning to go.

Fast forward three years, and it’s Gathering time again, this time in Houston, and this time I am the bishop. This means that as 800+ NC Synod youth finalize their spiritual and logistical plans and fundraising, the Gathering, right on schedule, is under attack. The website ELCA Exposed apparently leverages the Gathering as a primary weapon in their mission to discredit and destroy the ELCA. As have my colleague bishops, I have begun to receive inquiries and to read tirades on social media, all of them thus far citing ELCA Exposed, lambasting the ELCA for the Gathering’s choice of controversial speakers and keynoters who will, without a doubt, lead our youth like lambs to the slaughter down the liberal and sinful path of no return. Make no mistake. It’s a conspiracy, they say. We do this on purpose, because we have an agenda in the ELCA, they claim. Like those mythical “left-wing few” who have carefully and conspiratorially orchestrated the students who march for their lives against gun violence, the ELCA, the Exposed blogger warns, wants to brainwash and radicalize your children with liberalism. Oh, the shame of it all!

Will you do me a favor? Even BEFORE you go to the ELCA Exposed website to see how they want bend and spin facts to try to scare you out of the ELCA, will you please take a deep breath? Will you listen for just a moment to some things I hope you will consider, maybe even appreciate about our church and our Gathering? Or have we truly sold ourselves out completely to the voices who exist to polarize, to fear-monger, and to tear down?

So what’s the issue? This year’s ELCA Gathering keynoter has some views and methodologies that more than raise some traditional eyebrows, including mine. That is not in dispute. She co-authored a recent Advent devotional titled “F**k this S**t.” That title alone, used obviously (yet for me, disturbingly) for effect, is more than enough for calls to stop funding our youth to hear her speak and for many calls into question the value of the whole Gathering and the agenda of the ELCA. Dr. Phil-style, people ask me, “Whuut were yyyewww thinking?”

But wait a minute. If foul language alone were to disqualify people of faith, our heritage would be discounted immediately. Luther used some of the most vile language imaginable and was, while brilliant and faithful, terribly vulgar. St. Paul himself dropped the “s-bomb” in Philippians 3:8 (skubalon in Greek). Just because your Bible translation says “rubbish” or “garbage” or (for those really out-on-a-limb translations) “dung,” the fact is, Paul’s “s-word” means poop. Doo-doo. Crap. Or even worse. “I consider (all these other things) doo-doo, that I may gain Christ.” Hey, don’t kill the messenger! I’m only quoting scripture, as faithfully and accurately and as nicely as I can, given the actual Greek Paul wrote. Paul carefully chooses such language and imagery for effect, no matter how much we clean it up for Sunday school. But woe be unto a keynoter for the Gathering for doing such a thing! If you don’t want your children to see her at the Gathering, then I hope you won’t let them read Paul or Luther. Oh, and by the way, all Gathering speakers have already agreed not to use profanity on stage this summer.

“But wait a minute more,” you say. “Forget the language. We’re more concerned about the keynoter’s signing on to the Naked and Unashamed statement by some ELCA seminarians and pastors. This group thinks marriage might be oppressive when it’s lifted up (as the church historically and currently teaches) as the only valid and affirmed context for sexual expression.” (ELCA Exposed veritably drools as they share this.) Full disclosure: I agree with ELCA Exposed that this is disturbing. But think about this. All sorts of positions, including positions of faith, are already “out there.” These high-schoolers we send to the Gathering have already encountered via social media and at school, etc., serious challenges to traditional morality and theology. They will soon be launched into the college or work world where they may or may not be connected regularly to a community of faith. (Sadly, yet statistically, chances are they won’t.)

My thinking is—and I believe it has seriously occurred to Gathering organizers—is that it’s unwise to bury our heads in the sand. It’s better intentionally to unveil even deep and controversial positions while youth are with their pastors, youth ministers, adult lay leaders, etc., so that they have a safe and faithful group in which to process such challenges to traditional morality and faith. Wouldn’t you rather have your youth face those issues head-on in the context of your congregation’s Gathering group in Houston than on their own in a secular Sociology class or with little or no faith relationship back-up in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Boone, or Greenville? I would.

While I struggle with some of our keynoter’s positions, she challenges us and, if we’ll listen, inspires us. She, too, is a person of deep faith, passion, and conviction—likely coming from quite a different place at this point than most of our NC Synod high-schoolers. And your pastors, youth ministers, and adult leaders who accompany your youth will be key components in helping youth process the challenging or even disturbing things she might share at the Gathering and/or on social media. If they think a speaker is dead wrong, they can process it with your youth. Bless our Gathering staff for taking that risk and for taking the cheap shots of the fear mongers in giving our youth a context of love, nurturing, and faith family in which to address challenges to the way they think or are have been taught. Such challenges will happen for them. I want it to happen—when it happens—with their youth leaders and faith community surrounding and guiding them.

In 1961, 57 years ago, the National Luther League Convention invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak. King’s closest associates say that speech was probably a top-3-ever speech by Dr. King. You may listen to the audio here. Several congregations in the county in which I grew up and currently reside refused to let their youth go and threatened to leave the ULCA (United Lutheran Church in America, predecessor to the ELCA) and made threats to the NC Synod President because of this ultra-liberal, rabble-rousing left-winger to whom the ULCA had the temerity and foolishness to give voice. Thirty years ago Tony Campolo, a Baptist preacher and ELCA Gathering keynoter, dropped the “s-word” in his keynote. The ELCA and its predecessor bodies have long chosen to look challenges squarely in the face rather than hiding under a veil of false piety and self-righteousness, and often we have been transformed with the living faith of such challenges. Wendy and I are going to the Gathering in Houston. We’ll be there with our NC Synod youth, in the same hotel, worshiping and serving with them. And processing, for sure, because that’s how we Lutherans do faith and life.

Walking with you,

Tim signature

Bishop Tim Smith