More than 680 United Methodist college students and young adults gathered in Denver, Colorado, in November, for Imagine What’s NEXT, a vocational discernment event that challenged participants to live out the event theme, “Dream. Go. Do.”
“I see God’s Holy Spirit pouring itself out everywhere,” said Bishop Minerva Carcaño, Los Angeles Area Resident Bishop in the California-Pacific Conference, who spoke at opening worship of the conference.
Imagine What’s NEXT, Nov. 7-9, was an event for young adults designed to facilitate a fertile ground for imaginative work, focused specifically on the spaces where church/world and present/future meet. The event was organized by a launch team of college students, collegiate ministers and other creative disciples from across the United Methodist connection, and was sponsored by the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
The Bishop praised the guidance of the Holy Spirit that has touched many young people in her conference. “I've seen the Holy Spirit blessing college students who didn't grow up in the church, didn’t grow up knowing Jesus,” she said. “But even when no one takes us to Jesus, he still finds us and blesses us.”
Sarah Bollinger and the B-Sides of St. Louis, Mo.; an A Cappella Ensemble from Wiley College in Marshall, Tex.; a drumming group from First Tongan UMC in San Bruno, Calif.; and JLYRIK, a Christian hip hop artist, all contributed to worship at NEXT. Diversity in musical worship styles was specifically cultivated to show the future and breadth of the church.
Bishop Carcaño hoped for participants, “That you will dream for our church, for the body of Jesus Christ, for the whole world. That you will be agents of God’s transformative mercy and grace. That you will do all you can.”
Ali Sokolowski, student at Florida State University, spoke to the crowd on pain and healing in the Christian faith. She and Thomas Wolfe, president at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, led an oil anointment for participants.
“Each person among us experiences pain at one time in their life,” Sokolowski said. “We as Christians are being called to heal those among us.”
Sokolowski shared her personal experience of healing and told the audience how it only took one campus minister to listen and to appreciate her to bring her back to the church. “It takes one person believing in one person to change this world,” she said. “You are needed. You are called to be a wounded healer.”
Leia Williams, director of Communications and Discipleship in the Northwest Texas Conference, told the story of how she found meaningful work in the church after dropping out of architecture school and taking a risk. Her work reimagined what effective communications could look like in churches.
Tyler Ward, North Central College student; Ismail Pathan, Muslim interfaith organizer and Syracuse University graduate; JLYRIK; and Sarah Beth O’Brian, who spoke about activism to raise awareness of campus sexual assault, all shared stories of discovering their passion or ministry.
Students also attended topic-specific Pecha Kucha sessions led by United Methodist students, activists, and entrepreneurs in particular fields of interest, such as Mission/Justice, Music/Arts/Word, and Experimental Church. Pecha Kucha is a presentation style originating in Japan in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total). Designed to spark conversation in small participant studio groups, each short presentation challenged students to rethink some aspect of church or community.
Studio groups of 8-12 students met to reflect on how worship services and main stage speakers challenged them to find and act on their passions.
Bridget Taylor from the Oklahoma University Wesley, said, “I’m fairly new to the church, and sometimes individual pastors or leaders in a particular church can discourage people from building a relationship with God. Here, I’ve witnessed that true believers and true followers of Christ treat each other with respect.”
Taylor also found her small studio group to be supportive. “We talked a lot about individual, personal struggles. Being surrounded by people who aren’t judging you to discuss what’s going on in your life, even if they’re new people, was an amazing feeling.”
“I really loved the fact that my group was really open to share their testimonies and stories,” said Jakaela Davis, student at Tuskegee University. “I had prayed to God for confirmation for a lot of things, and they were all answered in this conference.”
Saturday night, students participated in a service plunge and worship concert, led by the OU Wesley praise band and headliner Jimmy Needham, in downtown Denver.
For many other students, the highlight of the conference was the opportunity to find and connect with colleagues, other young adults that want to live out their faith.
“The world is desperate for leaders who are conscious, who are compassionate, and who are courageous. Young people are on the front line of this movement,” said Chantilly Mers, representative at NEXT from United Methodist Women.
The Rev. Vance Ross from the Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., told students at closing worship that even when they put their dreams into action, they must stay attentive to God’s new agenda, not just their individual vision of what new ministry in the church could look like.
“God is looking to commission some folk to be authentic to who they are but open to God’s call, God’s blueprint and future in a new direction,” Ross said. “God’s looking for a church that is looking for justice, not just for us, but for everyone. The world is begging for that church; the world is pleading for these disciples.”
“The world has had enough Christians,” Ross said. “We need some disciples of Jesus.”
Burdakin is editorial and production assistant, Office of Communications, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
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