Visualize 30,000 young people singing worship songs, dancing in the aisles, and praising Jesus. Might sound like something from an Evangelical or Pentecostal church. Yet these youth filling Detroit's Ford Field were not from a charismatic tradition, but from a denomination more known for pipe organs, vestments, and hot dish casseroles filled with tater tots: the Lutherans.
Wearing bright neon shirts representing every color of the rainbow, these youth came together this past week for the triennial ELCA National Youth Gathering. With them they brought a wave of hopefulness too strong to avoid. As a volunteer at the event, I couldn't seem to go anywhere without encountering this zeal. Every walk through downtown or along Detroit's riverfront greeted me with a multitude of teenagers raising their hands for a high-five or cheering in elation.
Even beyond the event's participants, local residents expressed a similar jubilee:
"Thank you for coming to Detroit!" passersby would smile and shout on the streets outside the General Motors Renaissance Center.
"We are so happy you're here sharing Jesus!" waiters would smile as we entered Greektown's popular restaurants.
And from downtown's convention center to suburban hotels, employees, cops and panhandlers would raise their hand in the air, catching the infectious high-five trend, and say, "You are bringing so much joy to this city!"
For a faith rooted in sharing the Gospel (meaning "good news"), I can think of no better manifestation than the week of constant optimism that radiated through this city. Whether it was mobs of teenagers singing "Make A Difference" through the streets, or one high-schooler cleaning up a blighted neighborhood, I saw it infect every person that encountered a Gathering participant.
As I witnessed this enthusiasm, I was overcome with a pride for the universal church that I, unfortunately, haven't recently felt. In fact, the last time my eyes welled up with this bliss was while working at a church camp. As I examined the differences between normal life and what I experienced at both the camp and this Gathering, I found one key difference:
Outside these exceptions, American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by negativity. A quick search of recent news proves this, as a faith meant to be characterized by its "good news" has become known not by what it's for, but by what it's against. Christians in America are now best recognized by their feigned religious persecution, anti-Muslim sentiments, or their unwillingness to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
Such actions bring to mind the words of one of my mentors, a resident of America's Bible Belt, who often says, "I'm for any religion that doesn't hurt people."
Why has American Christianity become known for the pain it causes?
To paraphrase a delegate at a recent church convention that hotly debated the allowance of openly LGBT pastors, "Why isn't our church this passionate about poverty?"
Why aren't we known as the faith that seeks to feed the hungry, shelter the needy, and comfort the sick?
Why aren't we investing our resources in activities that cause people to say, "You are bringing so much joy!"?
Let American Christianity stop being known as a religion that hurts, as a faith focused on what we're against, and instead let them know we are Christians by our love. By the same love that radiated from 30,000 youth in Detroit.
"I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way," Whitney Houston sings in "The Greatest Love of All."
Instead of us teaching the children animus, maybe we need to let them lead the way. Let them guide America away from a church hijacked by negativity to a place where we are known by our Gospel.
By our good news.
Mikah Meyer is author of the memoir Life's More Fun When You Talk to Strangers.