A one-year-old toddled around the edge of the audience at the closing youth worship service in her night gown, charming all with her smiles, blond curls, and bee-line charge away from Mom and Dad.
No way did I envy all the young parents at Wichita ’95 their fatigue, but the fact that assemblies are a place people want to bring their children is something to celebrate and not lose.
These were good parents: they let her wonder far enough to work off energy, but not far enough for danger or to make an annoyance of herself. Some parents, sorry to say for the sake of their children, don’t seem to know when to reign them in. Now I’m sounding old.
I felt a little old, too, observing the gorgeous girls in attendance at youth convention. No male observer would be allowed to say this, so I’ll say it. The MC’s and GC’s have thousands of beautiful young girls. There are good looking guys too, but sometimes their faces were hard to see under the visors of faddish hats or hair.
Any event that occurs with regularity, like a family reunion, Christmas, or vacation, makes you reflect on earlier memories of similar gathered times.
I kept flashing back to the assemblies where my own children took turns attending with me: I brought one toddler to Ames, Iowa, 1985; another toddler to Normal, Illinois, 1989, when conventions were held on university campuses; and my 6th grader shared Philadelphia ’93 with me. I thought back, too, to the last assembly I attended without children, in 1977 at Estes Park, Colorado. That was in less-sophisticated Mennonite convention days. Anyone remember the lodge with just a few simple displays? The Wichita Expo Hall sported some of the most sophisticated exhibits yet—some felt too much so in light of Christian stewardship. I argue that for the most part, pushing brochures and freebies doesn’t cut it in 1995. Who among us would have spent 20 minutes at the MMA (now Everence) booth if it weren’t for the whiz-bang stuff.
On the other hand, a simple thing like making crochet-thread prayer bracelets at Mennonite Board of Mission’s (now Mennonite Mission Network) booth proved to be a popular teen pastime at convention. If they soaked up even a little of what MBM and mission is by hanging around the booth, then assembly was indeed worth it.
But the larger question, and the “so what” of all this reminiscing is, have assemblies gotten too big?
One youth group sponsor thought so, almost overwhelmed with the responsibility of keeping a dozen youth among 4000 true to their signed covenant to not smoke, drink, or engage in other destructive activities.
The cost in dollars and energy on the part of all involved, from planners and volunteers, to agency and board workers, to attendees—how many millions did it really cost? The cost is truly incalculable.
But I think the value is also incalculable.
Part of being church is running a business. To do business in the 90s, networking is extremely valuable. To meet, talk to, brainstorm ideas with, plan future work, and just hang out over ice cream may not at first glance seem like Kingdom work. But if Jesus were on earth in 1995, I think he’d probably do conventions, like he did hillside teaching and healing in Galilee.
One day as I sat at the MBM booth handing out brochures and stuff, I looked up to find a man in a sleeveless shirt open to his navel standing in front of me. A tattoo decorated his left shoulder, and his gut protruded slightly like it had bellied too much beer. “Do you really think them murders should be forgiven?” he shot at me.
He was referring to the Media Ministries (now MennoMedia) video, “Beyond the News: Murder Close-up” which looks at how families of murder victims have found healing through finding the grace somewhere to forgive the worst. What an opening question.
After I stammered for a response that wouldn’t turn him away, he then quizzed me on Armageddon specifics and admitted he didn’t have a religion, and that he had just come in off the street.
I invited him to take a brochure about basic Christian and Mennonite beliefs, which he folded three times and stuffed into his front shirt pocket already bulging with several other fliers.
He was relieved to learn that Mennonites did not believe in having more than one wife. I assured him that was a small sect of Mormons. I was relieved that he didn’t seem to be just a man on the make. He had honest questions, and seemed like he was searching.
A future Mennonite or Christian? I pray so. Would he be welcome at our churches? I pray so. Are conventions worth it? This tiny incident does not prove anything, but multiply my few encounters by all the official and unofficial encounters other people had (amounting to thousands) and I pray that God will take all that went on at Wichita and make it into a pearl without price.