Will 2022 be the year of the resurgence of Christian festivals? With some people questioning the safety - and value - of large events, Dave Hall, a youth leader from Aberdeen, and Susie Aldridge, a festival organiser, explain how God changed their lives, and impacted their young people, in a tent in a field
A twelve-hour bus journey wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to, but it turned into one I will probably never forget. Returning to Aberdeen from the Dreaming The Impossible (DTI) youth festival in Nottingham last summer, we had reached Dundee when, suddenly, a group of young people started worshipping to some music on their phones. Now, before any ‘Kumbaya’ images come into your head, this wasn’t a cheesy Christian sing-a-long. What proceeded was a beautiful expression of worship that demonstrated how powerfully our young people had encountered the Holy Spirit at DTI.
As I looked back, I saw young people praying for each other, prophesying across the seats. It was the stuff youth leader dreams are made of. One girl had been struggling at the festival, sensing that God was moving in everyone’s life apart from hers. Someone prayed for her and, suddenly, she began to experience God like never before. Wow, what a moment!
Here I was, sobbing, after one of my youth group spoke words of life over me
I have no idea how long this spontaneous move of God lasted, but it was at least the distance between Dundee and Aberdeen, which is over an hour. I was gob-smacked, humbled and excited to see the overflow of DTI taking place on a bus. It’s certainly a journey I won’t forget in a hurry.
A reluctant leader
I’ve always counted it a privilege to lead a youth group, even though it wasn’t exactly top of my bucket list when I finished university. Can I admit I used to think youth pastor jobs were for people who didn’t know what else to do? Yikes! So you can imagine the shock when my pastor pulled me aside after a church weekend and asked me to be the youth pastor for our church. I thought it was a terrible idea. I had no experience with young people, but it seemed clear that God was opening this door. While being a youth pastor has been life-giving, and I believe it’s exactly the role God has for me, the last couple of years have been some of the toughest I’ve experienced.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying how difficult the pandemic has been for youth ministry. Young people struggled with the lack of connection and, although the live-streams were fun and impactful, nothing compares to being together. That’s just one reason why we made the effort to get to DTI last summer. Restrictions could have changed right up to the last minute, so you can imagine the joy when we actually set off with cases packed and young people expectant.
An intimate encounter
Normally, it takes a few sessions of a youth conference for the young people to really get into it, but this time, they were raring to go! Our young people had every reason to kick off after a twelve-hour journey and months of misery due to lockdown, but they opened their hearts and worshipped Jesus. Seeing how God connected with them so intimately was just incredible… every time we met together, the Holy Spirit did amazing things. People were being filled with the Spirit as they prayed for each other and prophesied over one another. One young lad heard from God and shared encouragements with those around him and people would instantly cry tears of joy when he spoke over them. The same thing happened to me when my turn came. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was, sobbing, after one of my youth group spoke words of life from God over me.
Although live-streams were fun, nothing compares to being together
I’ve been a youth worker for nine years now, and I always see the festival season as a real momentum-builder. I know a lot of ministries wonder whether the big events are still worth it and if we should ramp up the hopes of our young people amid continuing uncertainties. I can only speak from my experience, but I’m glad we went. When you see young people encountering God like I did at DTI 2021, you’ll know all the effort, sleepless nights and long journeys are worth it!
Susie Aldridge, lead pastor of Dreaming the Impossible, shares why she thinks youth festivals are an invaluble part of investing in the next generation:
The pandemic has been exceptionally challenging for young people (I have never seen mental health challenges on the scale I am seeing right now!) and I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent yet. It has been brilliant to see youth workers loving and discipling young people over the last couple of years and I’ve been so encouraged to see many youth groups meeting back in person. Anyone that gets alongside young people knows that relationship is key – they need consistent connection and I believe youth groups need to meet together now more than ever - in their local settings but also in bigger ones too.
In 2021, Dreaming the Impossible was one of the few youth festivals to go ahead, and God met with hundreds of young people in incredible ways. It was a massive faith journey to get there, with lots of uncertainty, but we persevered because the young people needed it; they needed to meet each other and meet with God.
Youth Festivals are a huge annual highlight for young people. When else do you get to spend a prolonged period of time with your friends and God at that age? I grew up in a small church with a youth group of about 15 people. On my first trip to Soul Survivor, nothing could have prepared me for being surrounded by thousands of other teenagers passionately worshipping God. I built such deep relationships with my peers and youth leaders at those gatherings, and they were catalytic for my faith. It was at Soul Survivor, aged 14 or 15, that I first felt God calling me to church leadership and giving me a heart for the next generation.
Many people are questioning the return of events post-Covid, asking whether there is value in the big or if God is doing something new. I’ve asked myself these questions too. But I am convinced that festivals have long term impact. It’s invaluable for young people to gather with thousands of other Christians, because it helps them to realise that they are part of something bigger. They give young people the opportunity to be completely immersed in community and the presence of God. Festivals are undoubtedly a mountain-top experience, and the role of the local church year-round is vital, but I’ve often heard it said that you can do a year’s worth of youth ministry in a week at a youth festival. So I’d challenge you to do whatever it takes to get your young people to a festival next year. Your youth ministry will be stronger as a result.