The journey at the Adventist Youth Congress has come to an end. Because it was the first AYC experience I’ve attended, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my reflections about it, and also the general situation of Adventist youth gatherings (I’ve also attended a GYC event previously).
The Organization and Environment of the Congress
The first thing I must share is that AYC appeared well organized and funded. Everyone received a printed copy of the program guide (which was also available online) with all the congress information and programs listed which was very comprehensive and lengthy.
As to the environment of the event, we were accommodated in double tents inside the huge facility of Feria Valencia with separate halls for men and women. The tents were not too spacious, but some managed to have a tent for themselves if the other individual scheduled for their tent failed to make it. However, the sleeping bag and mattress were not provided. Everyone was responsible for bringing their own, which is worth mentioning because many attendees were flying internationally and this added some luggage requirements that make it more difficult to fly economically. This made it more difficult for those that would rather not have had to haul luggage around for a 4-day trip. This meant that sleeping posed a challenge for some of our spinal cords. Thankfully, however, the sleeping halls had air conditioning, which helped make the hot Spanish nights bearable.
The nourishment during the event was acceptable. Many wished for a more consistent breakfast, but it saw improvement as the congress progressed. There was sufficient variation for all three main meals, which were healthy and freshly cooked. The average waiting time in the queue was 25 minutes at lunch and dinner. Many skipped the early breakfast.
The greatest challenge for many concerned the availability of electricity. Practically speaking, this meant charging electronics (phones, laptops) was difficult because only the Internet Café was equipped with sockets and internet access. However, it was not sufficient for 4,000 young tech savvy Adventists to use all at once, and this made it difficult for those who required the electronics for business purposes while attending (myself included). The internet was restricted only to certain hours making the Internet Café one of the densest places at Feria during the available hours. All bathroom plugs were constantly charging phones. Although an argument can be made for having a tech-free week and a break away from cyberspace, it should remain an individual choice.
The organizers relied heavily on volunteers to manage the event and I believe they must have had a interesting time keeping everyone safe and maintaining the order during the program. The volunteers utilized scooters to travel around the large facility with efficiency. The schedule was a mix between plenary sessions, workshops and free time. The days finished rather late with “chill-out” slots that went until midnight. Most people however, went to sleep much later than that, as the activities and breakfast resumed in the early morning hours. However, for many, the temperature was still high in the late evenings, and, given the limited free time, this meant the evenings were best for socialising.
I travelled alone and thankfully due to my more outgoing and extroverted personality, I managed to reach out and befriend some wonderful people. But for those not used to such large conferences, or the more introverted, I imagine it would have been a challenge if they were not already part of a group. There weren’t well designed activities to facilitate meeting others with similar interests (always a challenge for large conferences, but something that is important). For the future the organisers should continue to think of ways to include all those who travel alone from all unions to ensure they also enjoy the event fully (instead of having to eat alone). Similarly, someone told me that they would have appreciated a function where one could meet people around the same age. It is an important aspect of a youth event because different ages experience and possess distinct challenges and maturity levels (they were targeting, it appears, the usual 18-40 range).
The Theme and the Message
The theme was entitled “The Journey” and it was mainly explored in the evening worship program by Pastor Sam Leonor, the co-founder of The One Project. He focused on how our journey begins and ends with Jesus. The cradle of this journey rests in His invitation to all of us to join in. If we accept we become people who perform the unexpected acts of love and loyalty towards all people, known or unknown. Therefore, caring for the Earth, fellow travellers and our relationship with God, will naturally become a part of our life journey if we focus on Jesus first. He noted that following Jesus will not necessarily make us wealthy, powerful and successful. It will only lead to changing others’ lives while taking personal risks.
The emphasis placed on God’s saving grace and His loving sacrifice was refreshing. I believe, as Ellen White tells us, that the story of salvation should be dwelt on regularly to remind us of God’s incomprehensible love. Moreover, learning how to become relevant Christians in the modern world was very useful. This lesson was beautifully crystallised during the Story of a Nail, an activity designed to break a Guinness world record, and that attracted many curious locals in the centre of Valencia. The entire atmosphere of the event was one of acceptance, love and friendliness. Everyone’s attitude was relaxed, perhaps a little too relaxed at times.
As I am particularly inclined towards worship through music, I must note with appreciation the dedication and hard work displayed by the praise and worship team to compose a relevant theme song inviting us to “take this road together,” whilst combining hymns (rearranged musically) with contemporary worship songs, that were played by a variety of instruments. The emphasis certainly was toward more contemporary and upbeat styles, but nothing too loud. For future AYC events it would be desirable to add more solemn songs in the worship program to prepare our minds properly before the message is preached.
A Point of Concern…
As a point of constructive criticism, I was somewhat disappointed to see the intentional absence of some of our defining fundamental beliefs from the main morning and evening presentations. I was anticipating a refreshing Jesus-centred perspective on most of our doctrines to be presented as part of the “Journey” series. The early focus on environmentalism qualifies perfectly—this is not a traditional focus of our church, and remains a controversial one at that. I can say that I did leave the event with a strong sense of Christian identity, which is important. Regrettably, however, I cannot claim that I gained a stronger Adventist identity, which I consider to be essential, at this AYC event. Some will argue that it may have been an uninspired use of tithe money as it was mainly sponsored by our two major European Divisions.
Young people without a more specific spiritual identity are people without a purpose. Lack of purpose often leads to lack of interest and direction, which sadly, generates a decrease in church attendance and eventually many of my generation drop out. We must find ways to make the Christian life enjoyable (fun with Church activities) and to find peace in our lives while in Jesus, all while exploring the joy of salvation. However, balancing that by meditating on challenging themes that contemplate our sanctification (victory over sin) or glorification (Jesus’ second coming) is essential, because they are equally important and are also part of the biblical “journey.” Love and righteousness govern these themes as well, and they should be presented in this spirit. Failing to present the biblical journey holistically will create mere church entertainment consumers that will have no sense of responsibility to God’s commandments or our fellow travellers.
On another note, the gospel should bring us to a place of unity in diversity. However, European countries maintain a centuries-long history of competition. You could see how the above would be a significant challenge. Nonetheless, as light bearers in this world we have been granted the power to overcome such challenges. AYC was, unfortunately at times, a place where our competitive spirits were shown. The display of our distinct cultures was shown at times in ways that demonstrated we cared more about creating the atmosphere of a football match competition rather than voluntarily unifying in praising Jesus. For some of the nations represented, especially those coming from more generally quiet cultures, this atmosphere did not bring enjoyment. Even though I recognize not everyone can be pleased all the time, everyone should respect their fellow travellers at all times, as was part of the theme.
A Quick Comparison
I have now attended both AYC and GYC events this past year. They are different. I enjoyed and appreciated both events. Therefore I can share with experience that I recognise that both of them have different strengths and weaknesses (GYC certainly provided better sleeping conditions and electrical outlets!). However, in specific instances, both the events I attended could also be said to fall short of maintaining a proper balance between presenting the entire, accurate biblical truth and/or cultivating an atmosphere of warmth and loving acceptance that attracts those who are still exploring what being an Adventist means today. Reaching this conclusion places one within the hard to navigate middle path that is trod by very few of us. Some in the church today are navigating different arenas of our faith community while simultaneously seeking to belong to the whole church. However, it doesn’t take long to see somewhat differing visions of what it means to be a Christian and Adventist in our global community.
You can learn more about the European Adventist Youth Congress here.