WILDWOOD – The scene was captivating, the feeling – fired up, as hundreds of students rose to their feet leaving slews of empty seats, processioning toward the IGNITE stage. Youth leaders, volunteers, and young adults with linked arms stretched the length of the stage’s base, ready to embrace those coming forth to make a decision for Jesus.
Reggie Dabbs, the IGNITE conference speaker, watched from center stage as students came forward. With a furrowed brow, beads of sweat trickling down his face and watery eyes, he knew his work was done, and the Holy Spirit would take it from there.
“We all have chaos,” Dabbs cried from the mic. “It brings us to our knees. In the midst of the chaos, God is there.” He continued, “No matter where you’re from, no matter what you’ve done, the fire of God is for you.”
The fourth annual highly-anticipated IGNITE youth conference unleashed a rush of energy and exhilaration, bursting through the doors of the Wildwoods Convention Center on Sept. 29 – Oct. 1. Students were greeted by a group of supercharged district superintendents high-fiving groups as they entered. Of the over 1,300 youth in attendance, several hundred clamored against the stage on Saturday night, hugging their leaders and bowing their heads in prayer as hearts were stirred for God.
“This weekend was life-changing, and I’m so grateful to have been able to share it with such amazing people,” said Carolyn Weiss, a student from Trinity UMC. “I had so much fun and made memories that will last forever.”
As one of the most sought-after public school and event speakers in the U.S., Dabbs brought his passion and raw, honest testimony to the IGNITE stage. His boldness and character touched the hearts of the students as they chanted in unison, “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie!” before his speaking sessions.
Nationally-acclaimed Christian singer and songwriter Meredith Andrews led worship services as longtime IGNITE emcee and founder of The Youth Alliance, Preston Centuolo motivated the crowd and delivered inspiring messages alongside alumni from the Compassion International child sponsorship program. Several students raised their hands to receive a packet to sponsor a child, some choking back tears.
During a breakout workshop on Saturday, students packaged more than 80,000 meals for the hungry through the nonprofit Rise Against Hunger; nearly three times the amount packaged at this year’s Annual Conference.
“I’ve heard others tell me that the younger generation is lazy and disconnected,” said Rev. Charlie Kinch, pastor of Malaga UMC. “Yet the youth and young people at IGNITE, with the help of ‘older’ individuals, packaged 80,000 meals! They’re not only ‘fired up,’ but they’re ‘woke!’ (aware).” Kinch continued, “I’m so glad I was able to be a part of this weekend. The youth are our future.”
Amy Lynn Charleston was one of the students moving to the beat of the music as she and her friends systematically assembled the meals.
“We were singing and dancing while packing,” she exclaimed. “Multi-tasking!”
Leaders were impressed to see their students give up personal time to reach the goal of 80,000 meals.
Leanor Ortega Till, better known as “Jeff the Girl,” addressed the youth during a main stage plenary and workshop session. As saxophonist for the popular Christian ska band Five Iron Frenzy, Till shared her stories of touring the country in a band that performed as a witness for Christ. Till testified to God’s faithfulness in the midst of the ‘dens of life.’ Kids clamoring around the edge of the stage gazed up at her in admiration as she emitted a cool, punk rock vibe with a deep love for Jesus.
This year’s open mic style coffee house was dubbed the first-ever ‘IGNITE’s Got Talent’ and was moved into a ballroom to accommodate the overwhelming audience and participants. For two hours, students showcased their gifts from singing, dance, rap, comedy, poetry, and musical performances.
“I loved the hugs from people I didn’t know and making new friends,” said one mother. “I also really enjoyed spending the weekend with my daughter. Watching her shine, seeing the confident young woman she is growing into.”
With shouts of “Amen,” songs of praise, prayers for unity and a sense of expectation, dozens of young adults from throughout GNJ took part in the 2017 IGNITE Squad Young Adults Experience, gathering in the mornings for a devotional and time of prayer. As volunteer stagehands, ushers, promoters, ministers, and assistants, the IGNITE Squad has grown over the years into what has become the next step for high school seniors at IGNITE as well as a fresh opportunity for young adults in GNJ to connect, fellowship, learn and serve together.
With stellar performances by DJ Vow and national Christian rap artist Tedashii, the auditorium thumped with vigor, excitement, and the glow of LED light up foam wands.
“My favorite part was being with my best friends for the weekend,” said Julia Yudichak. “It was so amazing! And Reggie’s sermon made our whole church cry!”
Sue Jolly Hudler of Toms River commented, “I wish I were a teen again! Would have loved to be able to attend a convention of this magnitude when I was a kid.”
For the first time ever, GNJ churches were invited to spend Sunday morning worship at IGNITE, showcasing support and solidarity for the next generation. Congregations who sent students to the conference joined the over 1,300 person crowd inside the Convention Center as well as families of IGNITE youth, churches thinking about sending a group of students in 2018, and those near and far who decided to join in and support GNJ youth in prayer and worship.
“The success of IGNITE is only as successful as our youth ministries,” Bishop John Schol stated. “I believe the church’s future is going to be through our students.” He continued, “Worshipping with these young people and witnessing their faith in action is to fully realize that we can overcome this world; that there is victory in Christ.”
Christine Dombrowski of Hillsborough said, “I wish our whole church could have shared this experience.”
For Kayla Eberly of Vincetown UMC, this year was her third IGNITE conference.
“I left feeling a whole different way than I’ve ever left an IGNITE before,” she said. “I loved all of the hugs and how Meredith sang and really spoke out. She moved me the most. But most of all, I had a lot of tears this weekend about I don’t even know; I was so confused why I was crying. I think it’s because I’ve finally found God. I will never forget this IGNITE.”