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Covenant Youth Assembled to UNITE

In place of a national event, hundreds of teens attend five regional gatherings for fun, worship, and transformation.

It wasn’t an easy path to travel, but nevertheless, it happened.

Despite months of pandemic-related postponement and cancellations, high school students from Covenant churches across the United States and Canada were able to congregate during the month of July at five gatherings in partnership with regional conferences. Each event had its own flavor, but in all of them, Covenanters worked together to entertain, exhort, and inspire our youth to live lives of service, worship, and dedication to Christ.

Serve Together

The activities started at Serve Together, a collaboration between the Central Conference and North Park University in Chicago, where students and leaders gathered for a day full of encouragement, food, and service projects. The day began with morning worship music and an inspiring word before students were dispatched in teams to serve at locations throughout the Chicagoland area.

Drew Edstrom, director of student ministries at Northwest Covenant Church in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, was the main speaker and organizer. “Serve Together was a wonderful opportunity to come together and do some good for our city,” said Edstrom. “It is important to for students to realize that service and being an example of Christ is what embodying the gospel is all about.”

Edstrom also said Serve Together helped walk students through the realness of urban life. “The future of youth ministry is service and programs that embrace authenticity,” he said. “It is so important to not only embrace real-world issues but fight for kingdom issues that are so prevalent in our world today.”

UNITE NORTH

The action shifted northward when students and leaders from the Covenant Church of Canada and the Northwest Conference traveled to Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minnesota, for four full days of worship, discipleship, and fellowship at UNITE North.

UNITE North featured worship music on the main stage of Benson Great Hall, not only from the house worship band, but also a Friday night concert from American Idol alum Colton Dixon, whose hit single Devil Is a Liar has been streamed well over a million times. There were also stirring musical selections from gospel artists Courtland Pickens and the KNOWN Choir.

Students were exhorted by a variety of speakers, including Laurel Bunker, Brannon Shortt, Terrence Lee Talley, Bob Lenz, and the first evening speaker, Candice Wynn. “God doesn’t want us to disqualify ourselves,” said Wynn, “when God has already prequalified us for the next leg of the journey.” Students also had opportunities for experiential learning, both in breakout seminars on campus as well as “learning labs” off campus, where they could visit sites of cultural interest or take advantage of service opportunities.

Of course, UNITE North also had plenty of options for excitement, engagement, and entertainment. There were sports tournaments, tasty restaurants, hiking at a local state park, and afternoon excursions to water parks, alpine slides, and even indoor skydiving.

Brian Zahasky, lead pastor at Hope Covenant Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and chair of the planning team for UNITE North, says that all the activities had one strategic goal. “Our singular prayer was that UNITE North would be a catalyst for Christlike transformation in the lives of students,” he said. “Over four days, students heard from amazing communicators and participated in numerous faith-forming activities. All this culminated with more than 200 students standing up on Saturday evening as an act of response to Jesus and a commitment to live for Jesus. To God be the glory.”

Read the official Northwest Conference recap here, and for even more photos and recap videos, check out the official UNITE North Facebook page.

Engage 2022

Next up was Engage 2022, a multi-day conference at Arvada Covenant Church in Arvada, Colorado, sponsored by the Midwest Conference. Like Serve Together, Engage emphasized service and, well, engagement. Students traveled to offsite locations around the Denver area, guided by leaders from Merge Ministries, which helps mobilize Covenanters who want to be more involved in global ministry.

Jim Eaton, youth pastor of First Covenant Church in Salina, Kansas, and member of the planning team for Engage, says sessions were designed to “expose students to people doing God’s work in a community other than their own, and thus inspire students to return home with eyes to see and ears to hear those needs, and then actually engage in God’s mission.”

According to Eaton, the partnership with Merge had a huge impact. Heather Caraway of mission priority Serve Globally was on the Merge team that helped to plan the learning experiences. She and others from Merge were also instrumental in helping facilitate the large group debrief times in the evening.

“The Merge staff is so amazingly gifted and passionate,” said Eaton. We are so grateful for their investment in our students and leaders. Our students got the huge privilege of learning from people with an international perspective. Heather and the Merge team really provided the ‘meat and potatoes’ of spiritual formation for our students.”

For more photos and commentary, visit the Engage 2022 Facebook page.

Unite East

In late July, 120 students from 10 churches in the East Coast Conference assembled under the banner of UNITE East to attend the MOVE Conference at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. MOVE is produced by Christ in Youth (CIY), an organization that specializes in staging high-impact Christian conferences for high-school students.

Alli Corriveau, the youth pastor for Bethany Covenant Church in Berlin, Connecticut, participated with several youths from her church. She says the event made a big difference in the lives of her students.

“After so many months of isolation and struggling to connect, a resounding theme from students and leaders was gratitude for quality time together,” said Corriveau. “Countless impactful conversations were had as students experienced powerful worship and processed messages from the speakers about God’s love for them, forgiveness, and God’s invitation to participate in kingdom work.”

Don’t just take Alli’s word for it. Here’s what some of her students said:

“It was lots of fun and it went by too fast!”
“It helped reveal my spiritual gifts and how I can do kingdom work.”
“I’m excited to go home and share with my friends at school that faith is about a relationship with God.”
“There was a lot of healing from God in this time.”

Unite West

I got to experience UNITE West personally. My wife, Holly, two other Portland-area youth leaders, eight students, and I trekked in a church van along a two-day journey to Biola University in La Mirada, California. UNITE West was a collaboration between the Alaska Conference, the Pacific Northwest Conference, and the Pacific Southwest Conference. Like UNITE East, the programming was coordinated by Christ in Youth and customized for the over 900 Covenant high schoolers and adults in attendance.

True to its name, UNITE West had Covenant representation from churches in multiple states, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and even some from Idaho and Montana. Like UNITE North, there was engaging music from a multiethnic worship team and a gripping performance from a national artist—hip-hop artist Jochy “Iron Heart” Hernandez, who serves as Covenant global personnel in his hometown of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.

UNITE West included great activities like Zumba dance parties, basketball and soccer tournaments, and a water park next door to Biola’s campus—to say nothing of the many trips to LA’s legendary ocean beaches and the variety of amusements in southern California. The mood was loud, fun, and festive.
But it was the spiritual impact that made all the effort worth it. On Thursday night, students responded to Jesus’s parable of the loving father to either enter into a relationship with Christ for the first time or come back to a place of loving acceptance in the family of God. On Friday evening, students were able to pick up “kingdom ministry cards,” commissioning them into specific acts of practical and/or relational ministry.

Erik Cave (PacNWC) and Matt Aalseth (PSWC) are directors of youth and next generational ministry who served on the planning team for UNITE West and collaborated with CIY leaders to help shape the event. “I’m very happy,” said Aalseth when asked for his assessment. “The goal is to get students together, over and over, as often as possible, and from as many places as possible, so we can see the kingdom of God in its fullest expression. To see students crossing social, geographic, and socioeconomic boundaries, it takes a lot of work. And it’s worth it.”

“For me, the key win for UNITE West was partnering with other conferences to accomplish our goals,” said Cave. “We partnered closely with Alaska and the Pacific Southwest Conference but just as helpful was the continual dialogue with leaders of the other events throughout the past year. In this way we truly lived out the name UNITE. UNITE West offered a unique and powerful opportunity for students to experience God’s work in their lives.”

Read another snapshot narrative of my UNITE West experience as part of the PacNWC’s newsletter “The Catch.” When I asked students about the impact of the event, this is what they had to say.

“Definitely the biggest highlight for me was being able to meet new people,” said Anthony Dao, a last-minute addition whose parents serve as global personnel with the Covenant Church in Thailand. “I also really enjoyed being able to worship freely and enthusiastically with a lot of other people. The Spirit really spoke through the speakers and helped me understand how to take action in ways I hadn’t thought about before. There are definitely ways that I will think and act differently because I came to this.”

Monet Moses of Portland Covenant Church felt similarly. “My favorite highlights were getting to know my youth group better and going to all those sessions and listening to all those speakers. The music was really good, and I really enjoyed going to a rave every night. I do feel like I’m a changed person, because I could relate to the sessions and they made me rethink my relationship with Christ, and how I wanna strengthen it and move forward.”

During the van ride home, Jonny Sommer of Access Covenant Church was even more specific. “A highlight was getting to meet Anthony. I enjoyed hearing his story and getting to know him. Coming back home, I’ve thought a lot more about [this trip] than I usually would coming back from retreats. I felt like it impacted me more, the sessions felt more meaningful, just everything felt a little more serious and impactful.”

LOOKING FORWARD

So as we give thanks for God’s work in these student’s lives and the leaders who spent massive amounts of time and energy to facilitate God’s work and make events like these possible, we also look forward to what God will do next. Various Covenant leaders will pray, evaluate, strategize, and convene to help chart the way forward. While they do their work, let us continue to live in gratitude and prayerful expectation, so that this generation, and the one to come, will continue to assemble with the gospel of Jesus as their banner—mobilized, inspired, and most of all, united.

About the Author

  • Jelani Greenidge

    Jelani Greenidge is the missional storyteller for the Evangelical Covenant Church and ministers in and around Portland, Oregon, as a worship musician, cultural consultant, and stand-up comic.

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