I received word yesterday that Youth Encounter (formerly Lutheran Youth Encounter) was closing its’ doors.

This was not surprising news. Youth Encounter had been lacking in monetary support and struggling to find its’ place in modern times for a while now. It wasn’t for lack of trying – they had tried all different kinds of changes in leadership, changes in ministries offered, changes in formats, but finally it was time to stop trying.

I was on two different Youth Encounter teams in the early nineties. I had seen a team put on a program at the Bible Camp I loved, Luther Crest, and when I saw them, I was in awe. They were musical and funny and performed interesting skits. I got on their mailing list back then and then nearly a decade later, a recruiter from Youth Encounter called me to see if I would be interested in being on a team.

Of course I was!  I confessed I wasn’t musical at all but they didn’t seem to mind. They asked me to apply anyway and I did. The recruiter then met me in Alexandria for an interview and before I knew it, I was set to be on a team after college graduation.

I didn’t know if I would be traveling in the United States or Africa. I wanted to go overseas but I was told that they were still figuring out the teams. I spent the summer before training started working at a Bible Camp in North Dakota and I found out two weeks before I went to training that I would be on the North Central team – traveling in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and a little bit of Canada. No Africa for me, yet.

What followed were two intense, wonderful years. I saw so many tiny towns in the upper Midwest and then I was accepted to go on the West Africa team the second year. I loved living out of a van, the simplicity of our days, being surrounded by musicians, and sharing the Gospel. I met people who are still some of my best friends in the world.

Youth Encounter was a bit of magic. It was all about friendship and living simply and music and God. We relied on strangers for our food and our shelter. We laughed a lot. Sometimes we fought and cried – these things happen when you live together – but we learned how to forgive, too.

I remember someone saying to me when I was on team that they were surprised Youth Encounter was still in existence. They didn’t think the model of putting on programs at churches would last much longer. I was surprised to hear him say that. Why would people ever not want to come out and see a LYE program, I thought? But attention spans shorten, and options for entertainment have expanded beyond measure. Church attendance is shrinking. Youth groups are dying. The world we live in now likes flashy lights and fabulous screens a lot more than watching a group of young adults put on a puppet show.

But for those of us who lived Youth Encounter and know what it was like to live out of a backpack and share food in a van, show up at a different church every day, put on a program every day, and meet friends in piles of zip codes, we know it was all so good. Youth Encounter lives on in us no matter how old we get.

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