I’ve been three times.
Every time, I cried. Words failed me and left me breathless with wonder.
My faith was deepened. My worldview was challenged.
Few events we attend have the power to transform lives like the National Youth Gathering, a week-long experience for Lutheran teens held every three years in different cities across the country.
Though thousands upon thousands of youth, leaders, pastors and parents have attended the Gathering in its 35-year history, few know the intricacies of putting such a massive event together.
As a second-term Gathering Planner myself, I’ve had the unique pleasure of attending the NYG as a student, an adult leading a group of students and a Gathering Planner. Each experience left a tangible mark on my faith life, as I know it has for thousands of fellow Lutherans around the world.
I recently sat down face-to-face with Nick Moss, Director of Christian Education at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lakeland, FL, who’s a fellow NYG Planner and the Experiential Team Manager for the 2016 Gathering in New Orleans, to interview him on the “inside scoop” of planning this massive experience.
Charged with overseeing the majority of the events and experiences inside the Convention Center floor, Moss also has a long history with the NYG and was excited to give us the insider’s view about his personal journey and next year’s event.
Moss attended his first NYG as a high schooler, saying, “It was impactful as a student to realize the massiveness of our church and the people that share the same beliefs that I do. To be able to gather in Bible study and see and take communion together was powerful.”
He continued, “Looking back, I realize that the church is bigger than just my church and my hometown. It’s a huge network of Christians who believe the same thing I do. It was a paradigm shift. As a teenager, you live in your own world, and this was an opportunity to see what else was out there.”
Now a DCE, Moss credits the NYG as an influence on his desire to serve in a church. “While it wasn’t the single reason I went into full-time church work, it did play a part in my decision to go into church work. I was encouraged by people in my congregation who saw my gifts and abilities and encouraged me to go to a Concordia University.”
Moss had such a profoundly positive experience at the NYG that he decided to volunteer his time as a Young Adult Volunteer once he was older.
“I had a great experience as a participant, so I wanted to go back. I had a number of friends who were going, and I knew I would be going into church work so I wanted to do something for the church.”
He ended up working in the Superdome, helping out with the Mass Events team that plans everything that happens at the large Main Stage events. “My first impression was walking into the Superdome when it was empty and they were setting up for the first Mass Event. I realized how big of a project it really was, to put on a national youth gathering: all of the behind-the-scenes volunteers and how many people it took to make it happen.”
Laughingly, Moss admits that the single highlight of that Gathering was meeting his wife, Candace. “Yes, I did meet my wife! But even if I had not met her, it was an amazing experience because of the team I served in. It was amazing how fast we bonded, and how we hung out together and served together that whole week.”
What’s still stuck with Moss after all these years is the community he bonded with at the NYG—that experience of connecting as the body of Christ. “We came together, we served together, we knew our purpose, and we went back home to our own vocations. God used us for that moment, in that time, with those people.”
Moss again signed up for his third NYG as a Young Adult Volunteer. “I signed up to go again to serve as a YAV because I had such a great experience, and I wanted it to be such a great experience for the young people coming up.”
This time around, Moss worked at off-site servant events. “I was inspired by the willingness of the young people to go out in the Florida heat in the middle of the summer to serve the community.”
He led his own youth groups to NYGs in 2007 and 2010, and was blessed tremendously through both trips. As he told me, “It was an exciting time. I got to lead them through so many experiences that I had cherished. I saw God work through the NYG in their lives, in their faith lives, in their relationships with God.”
Interestingly, he found himself drawn to watching how the Gathering was affecting his students individually.
“I would catch myself watching them watching the Mass Events, and watching them do the Bible studies and experiencing service projects. A number of them kept coming back to the fact that it was a very big faith milestone in their life, and they talked about it in a way that showed me it challenged their faith and encouraged their faith as a teenager.”
Moss’s church also had a unique experience in sponsoring a teenager from Panama to come along with them to the NYG.
“It was a lot of work to get visas but we made a promise to her. To expose a student from a tiny Lutheran church in Panama to how big our God is, and how big our church is, and to show her that there are people who care about young people [all over the world] and churches that are willing to send their young people to the NYG—it was powerful.”
A few years ago, Moss was invited in to help fill an instrumental role in planning the NYG. “I was ecstatic,” he explained. “I was pumped to be able to serve the young people of the Lutheran Church. It was a huge honor for me. To walk into a room and work alongside and be welcomed with open arms with people who are at the top of their field—people who have been doing their jobs for 30 plus years—it’s awe-inspiring.”
Moss has been blown away by the dedication of the volunteer-based organization, working tirelessly outside of their day jobs to pull together such a massive event.
“How the Gathering comes together is awe-inspiring because you have full-time pastors, DCEs, church workers, full-time jobs outside of the church that give up their family time and vacation time to serve the Gathering—and they do so with a very enthusiastic and very passionate purpose.”
As Moss adds, “It’s the single largest gathering of LCMS Lutherans—whether young people or adults—and in my opinion, it’s the best thing that the LCMS does as an international church body.”
Working closely with Moss over the last few years, I also share his sentiments. The viewpoint of Gathering Planners is unique, and one of the most powerful takeaways is the vast number of kids and adults we personally witness being impacted by the NYG.
“What’s amazing to me is the number of stories that come back through youth leaders, pastors, and DCEs that have taken young people to the NYG,” says Moss. “There have been baptisms on the way home, suicide plans stopped, students that realized the call to become church workers—truly incredible stories.”
Moss looks forward to next summer’s Gathering with happy anticipation.
“New Orleans is a great Gathering city. It’s very hospitable to our event. As someone who’s leading the Experiential Team, working on how to take the theme of ‘In Christ Alone’ and make it real and tangible to the participants is a great challenge. Our team takes 240,000 square feet of convention center space and puts together an experience that will connect young people to Christ by exploring the theme and sub-themes of identity, humility, and community.”
One of the best-kept secrets of the National Youth Gathering is how energetic, creative and servant-hearted Planners tend to be.
As Moss explains, “The amazing thing to me is seeing who God has put together—people all across the country in many different roles within our church body, many gifts and talents—they’re passionate about their faith and sharing it with young people in our church. They want to make the NYG a place where young people and adult leaders can come from all over to grow in their faith and be connected to the church.”
As I’ve often reflected on, as well, there’s no shortage of willing volunteers who happily give up their time to pitch in and help with the NYG.
“There doesn’t have to be a sales pitch to have people work for free,” explains Moss. “[Gathering Planners] truly serve the young people and adult leaders of their church body.”
One final thought from Moss sums up what I’ve heard echoed from countless youth leaders, parents, pastors and Gathering Planners from all across the country: “I want to continue to help the NYG to succeed at its purpose and mission, and to give the same impact it had on me and my life to future generations.”
Already, my prayer—along with the prayer of Moss–is that the thousands of students and adults attending 2016’s National Youth Gathering in New Orleans will be profoundly impacted by the Truth.
After all, it’s in Christ alone we stand together.