Imagine What’s NEXT prepares college students to dream, go, do

go doBy Nicole Burdakin

More than 680 United Methodist college students and young adults gathered last weekend in Denver, Colorado, 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’s 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.”

Social media was integrated at new depths for NEXT with the online event platform Livecube, which allowed students to engage directly in conversations with event speakers, sponsors, and small groups. Participants could earn points by using the Livecube app, and aggregated Instagram photos and other user-created social media were displayed in the event space. Altogether, there were 2,060 Livecube posts, 5,050 updates, and 415 users on the platform at the event, with an estimated social “reach” of 678,250.

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.

Williams challenged students to consider, “If you could erase an ineffective aspect of the church and start from scratch, what would you erase?”

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 on 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.

“Healing and transformation comes through the power of courage and transparency. The courage of the speakers—that’s where I really felt connected at the conference,” said Tashonda Spaulding, who came to NEXT from Tuskegee University.

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, and 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.”

Emmanuel Martinez, a student at Paine College and studio group facilitator, said that his group used the time to take a further step in the discussion on the main stage and incorporate their own points of view. “I didn’t know anyone in my group at first,” Martinez said. “I think that helped us to be more vulnerable with each other.”

“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.

Jeff Lindstrom and Magen Dennis from the Wesley Foundation of Kalamazoo in Michigan came to NEXT to explore their vocational discernment. “I’ve had a complete reimagining of what I thought I wanted,” Dennis said.

“We came here searching for our future together,” Lindstrom, who plans to propose to Dennis after graduation, said. “We feel more at peace in our hearts with my working as a teacher and Magen continuing her work with youth ministry. We can be missionaries right in our community.”

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.

After NEXT, participants can download a six-week Bible study and/or apply for a UMSM student leadership position or a “mini-NEXT” event grant, each worth $500 to $5,000 to help launch a 1 to 3-day mini-NEXT for college students in a particular annual conference, region or jurisdiction in 2015.

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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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Wes Andrews
Wes Andrews

The sad thing is if “United” Methodist leaders lead people away from Jesus and toward a “cultural” “gospel” then they are leading these young people into their own image, and not into the image of Christ…

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