WILDWOOD NJ: More than 1,300 young people and their youth leaders gathered in the Wildwoods Convention Center last month to “move mountains” and pack diapers as part of Next Generation Ministries’ 2019 IGNITE Conference, an annual event designed to help teens connect with God in a fun and inspiring way.
But amid all the hoopla of music, chatter, dancing, jenga blocks falling, air hockey pucks crashing and colorful woven hearts of inclusion being handed out were stories—stories that had been woven together before that weekend in Wildwood, stories that didn’t stop unraveling because of IGNITE and stories that strengthened the connection to others and to God.
At IGNITE, all the workshops, concerts and small groups are rewarding and fulfilling for youth in attendance, but the stories the teens experience and share give all that happens those three days life and makes it all matter.
Some kids were reticent; others were boisterous, and most were somewhere in between. Some were crying. Others were laughing, and some clung to their adult leaders while others ventured out to explore all that IGNITE had to offer them. Most were United Methodist, but for the first time, others were not.
Annabella, Amber and John, friends from Freehold UMC, first said their most favorite part of IGNITE was the music then quickly changed their answer to “all of it.” Annabella said she played the piano when she wasn’t going to school and attending IGNITE.
Rev. Shelley Smith, a pastor at Ferry Avenue UMC in Camden, beamed with pride as she looked out at the mass of people gathered in the auditorium to bundle diapers for families in Trenton. IGNITE’s mission project sponsored by The Maker’s Place in Trenton wound up collecting nearly 24,000 diapers that day.
“They wait for this event every year. It’s a time of reflection, new meaning,” she said, referring to the group of students from her church she regularly escorts to Wildwood.
Three girls from New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Mays Landing whose work ethic at the diaper bundling party defied all others. They seemed undistracted by the melee happening around them and instead remained focused on the task at hand.
Peyton, a pretty teenager with a bright smile, shared that she has long suffered from depression and anxiety—so much so that she suffered bouts of being suicidal and spent time in an in-patient addiction facility where she also was recovering from an abusive relationship with a boyfriend. Peyton, who is home-schooled, now attends an outpatient facility.
“Places like this help me tremendously. It’s a great chance to meet good people,” said Peyton as she embraced an adult leader and explained, “Her daughter was having an anxiety attack in the bathroom, and I helped her,” she said. The girl wrote Peyton a note on two folded paper hearts that said, “If you were looking for a sign, this is it. There is always hope” and “You are loved by God.”
Peyton smiled and offered up her thanks with a hug when she parted to reconnect with her group from southern New Jersey.
Jasmine, who sported knitted hearts dangling from her glasses, emigrated from Kenya a year ago. She attends the Abundant Life Church and went to Next Gen Camp at Pinelands Center in Mt. Misery this summer. She was with Sandy McGarvey who first met Jasmine when her daughter befriended her at camp. McGarvey’s father had been a pastor at Moorestown UMC, and she too recalled summering with her sister at Pinelands.
“This event never ceases to amaze me,” said Eric Drew, executive director of Next Generation Ministries. “From our talented musicians and hysterical improv guys to our enlightening workshops and diaper bundling party, I’m leaving today with a full heart and a hoarse voice.”
The weekend wasn’t all loud music and laughs. IGNITE also tapped into the more contemplative sides of the teens who attended. There was a small group time on Saturday morning where adult leaders and their teens were encouraged to have healthy discussions and learn more about each other.
Workshops, which provided teens with good opportunities to step outside their comfort zones, ranged from names like “Here I am, Lord” by the UM Army, “Know Your God-Given Purpose” by ARISE and “Relationships” by Revs. Nicole and Jevon Caldwell-Gross to “What Does Hip-Hop Have to Do with Jesus” by Rev. Kermit Moss, “Songwriting & Rapping the Word” by New City Kids and “Art, Dance, Believe” by Christian Drama School of NJ.
“It’s all about empowering our youth to be leaders and to not be afraid to pursue their dreams,” said Anne Joseph, the music director at New City Kids who encouraged teens to rap scripture while drumming on a five-gallon bucket.
Rounding out the weekend was a bonfire concert on the beach Saturday night by ARISE, a network ministry for worship leaders, musicians and like-minded people, followed by a group communion service to commemorate World Communion Sunday that morning.
“IGNITE Weekend continues to grow,” said Drew, “So much so that we are bringing the experience into each region of Greater New Jersey so even more students can experience it. I can’t wait for IGNITE Communities on November 17!”
For more details on IGNITE, IGNITE Communities and all things Next Generation, visit www.ignitenj.org.