Friday is the last day of the week-long Youth Conference, and as such is always a bit of a bittersweet time. There's a lot of fun to be had, pictures to be taken, addresses to be exchanged, and so on. But all this is happening for the very reason that we all know that the week is near its end, and everyone will have to be going home soon.
The morning energizers paid homage to the energizers of the rest of the week by combining bits of lots of them into a medley. As each new clip started, another Planning Team or Leadership person came onto the Anderson Auditorium stage to join in. By the end of it all, we were simultaneously worn out yet more awake than we had been previously. It sounds contradictory, but I've been through it enough to say that it really does seem to work that way.
Another tradition on Friday of the Youth Conference is to bring out any members of the upcoming year's Planning Team to announce next year's theme. After a brief video clip depicting many of the ways in which the world is broken and needing as much help as God can give it, the team announced that the 2009 Montreat Youth Conference theme will be "World on Fire."
Between the five years' worth of Youth Conferences I attended in high school (1988-1992, inclusive) and the youth conferences I've attended in other capacities as an adult, I figure I've been to about a dozen of these weeks by now (sometimes more than one in the same year, as will be the case this year, as well). Each week, although different, is an experience I don't want to see end. I sympathize with those who aren't quite ready to go home yet. Yet it's our job in the last Small Group session to get the youth ready for that journey. The entire point of going to the conference is to prepare young men and women for the realities they'll face outside of the conference. In that vein, we attempted to tie the week's theme together and prepare the youth for their return home by talking about "Doors to Opportunity." The "Threshold" groups-within-the-group were asked to create a commercial or slogan on the concept, and came up with some very creative ideas. This group was demonstrating a "Let's Make a Deal" style of commercial: "Will you take the trip to Las Vegas or the Mission Trip?"
At the beginning of the second Small Group Meeting of the afternoon, we took about a half-an-hour to make sure that everyone who had their cameras was able to get pictures taken with the group. Since my wife Michelle was with me, she was able to handle the cameras while everybody from the group got to be in the picture. I'm still not sure how I'll handle this next week, since she's had to return to California already. I guess I'll need to make some friends outside of the Small Group circles! Since this was to be our last meeting, we also had a time to write affirmations and encouragements in each other's journals that we had been using for the week.
Another of the ways that we prepared the youth for the return home is by participating in a closure ceremony. Each Small Group member (youth and adult) puts their name on a rock with a Sharpie. After the rocks have been mixed up (and the ink has been given a chance to dry!), each member takes a rock. Whoever's rock they choose (they can't keep their own) will be a person that member is to pray for as they return home, and they are to keep the rock as a memento of their time at the conference.
After the Small Group meeting officially ended, members took some time to hang around and take more pictures and exchange e-mail addresses, but the conference wasn't quite over yet. After one last recreation event, the final worship service was held. As is the tradition with Montreat Youth Conferences, the final worship service is a candlelight service. After the sermon and a few songs, everyone in attendance is given a candle, and we gather around Lake Susan, where more songs are sung and a final liturgy is read. It hasn't always been the case that this was the very last event of the conference, but it was certainly done that way this year, and I have to say that I think it's very appropriate to close things out this way.
The Small Group Leaders and Planning Team, as well as a few other important staff members, then gathered one last time for a party in which everyone is recognized for their contributions, and we celebrate the successful completion of that week's activities. We also say a lot of good-byes, since a lot of folks head home the following morning. I'm one of those who's sticking around for another week, and Saturday was a welcome day of rest after some long days with little sleep. I'll need to gather that energy in order to do it all over again!
P.S. Jerry L. Van Marter of the Presbyterian News Service did a series of articles on aspects of this past week of the Youth Conference, as well. He's paid a lot more attention to the details of the keynote messages than I have done, and he's had access to some better pictures (I'm just grabbing the opportunities with the camera as I can get them!), so you may want to take a look.