YC 2011 has come and gone this year, and I figured a bit of reflection would be in order, as next Sunday will be the day where many Churches will invite some of the youth to come up and speak about their experiences at this event. For those who don’t know, YC is a yearly interdenominational Christian lolapalooza where some sixteen thousand teens and young adults descend upon Rexall place in Edmonton for three days of concerts and conference messages. I have been to nine YC’s in my life, being a part of three different youth groups, and going as a attendee, chaperon, and conference volunteer.
By way of reflection, YC was always the one event where it was cool to evangelize and invite your unsaved friends. We would tell them how awesome it was, how there were hard rock concerts, great live shows with killer lighting, and tons of free time in between to play basketball or laser tag or sumo wrestling in fat suits in the amphitheatre. We used to hype up how fun it was, and at the time it really was a blast. I certainly had a good time. People would show up in all kinds of outfits. In a way it was a time to show off and dress up and try to stick out and see how much attention you could get. There were Christian kids with death spikes, Goth clothing, and eyeliner. In our youth group, the kids would buy bottles of hair dye in bulk and always dye their hair and spike it up to stand out. Some would put in fake dreads. Others would wear fake lip rings. The goal was always the same though; stand out, get attention, have people look at you. This year, a kid who is going showed me his “YC outfit” which he had purchased specifically for this event. White pants, white belt, pink shirt and skinny tie- all for the low sum of 300$.
Friday evening was always super exciting. Tons of people would be holding up their cellphones or glow sticks, and they would spend their time before the main show shouting “I love Jesus, yes I do, I love Jesus how about you!?” and then pointing to a part of the arena, who would then echo that phrase and point it to another part of the arena. When interest in that began to wane, one large group would start to do the wave. Then the house lights would dim to black and the stage lights would begin going crazy, flashing and strobing blue, yellow and red hues. Throw in some smoke and pyrotechnics and the atmosphere was electrifying. It served to jack you up on the biggest emotional high you could get, and it would literally be weeks before you crashed. To that end, there was the opening conference message, by Mike Love, an altar call, a concert, and then a good night.
We barely slept that first night. The kids in my youth group downed coffees, red bulls, caffeine pills, and more energy drinks. Oftentimes we would not sleep at all, but spend the whole night in our hotel rooms talking. In the morning, we would arrive early where they would have Veggie Tales playing on the Jumbotron. One of the speakers would take the stage at a certain time and asked if we were doing good. We would scream back our affirmation. He would ask if we liked the concert, we would repeat. He would ask how many of us even went to bed, and that scream was by far the loudest and fullest. We would then do morning worship, and then the breakaway sessions would start, where people could pick to attend messages or concerts or games on different side stages. Concerts and games usually won out.
There’s always a big marketplace in Hall A where they sell a variety of Christian music, clothes, and wire crosses and fish necklaces made of horseshoe nails. Teen Message Bibles were everywhere, and I remember buying a few because they looked super cool and they were bound to spark a discussion between my classmates once I got back to school. Bands sold their merchandise and usually stuck around for autograph signing. Kids in my youth group would snatch those up as fast as they could, along with stickers and CD’s. I remember saving all my money for months before the event, because I knew there was so much stuff to buy, such as shirts with logos that said “A Bread Crumb and Fish” [Abercrombie and Fitch], shirts with the Sprite logo on them that said “Spirit: quench your thirst”, and shirts that said “I am the Christian the Devil warned you about!” and other such things.
The concerts were something else. Many of them were punk rock/hard rock/heavy metal in small venues, and you could always count on a mosh pit to start up near the front. Both boys and girls would jump around, headbanging and throwing elbows. There was invariably always a 11 year old girl who would join the fray and then get crushed by everyone who were slamming into each other. There were also the poor souls who weren’t part of the mosh pit, but were in that intermediate stage right behind. They would spend the whole time pushing back at the people who were bumping up against them, which seemed to dampen their experience.
There were two other staples at these concerts. One was that there was an unbelievably bad smell; a lingering odour of stale body sweat that wafted over the entire venue. Such is the result when you have so many prepubescent boys perspiring in tight quarters. The other thing of note was that there were always an abundance of girls, dressed in spaghetti strap tank tops and short shorts, that would begin to body surf over the crowds. Not just during the concerts, but I saw it once even during the worship. I’ve never body surfed before, so I can’t speak for what it would be like having hundreds of hands of the opposite sex touching you all over your body. I do remember later in the hotel room on Saturday night that the guys from my youth group, many who had raised their hands in worship and wept just a few hours earlier, would talk about how hot the girls body surfing were, and how they wished they could have “passed her along”.
That was another part of it; going to YC for the hookups. An unbelievable amount of time was spent trying to pick up girls, get their phone numbers, and whatever flirting you could get away with. There were some teens in the youth groups I was a part of, and also chaperoned who had sex in the hotel rooms at some point in the weekend, in between the concerts and the open sessions. I remember feeling confused at the time because I had seen them worshiping just hours before they hooked up and slept together, and I couldn’t reconcile that. To that end, the amount of energy which was expended on getting the attention of the opposite sex during this weekend was, in retrospect, astounding.
The messages themselves usually followed a predictable formula. It is a interdenominational service, and so much of the talks were in vague abstracts, mostly revolving around being sold out for Jesus, dreaming big dreams, being a history maker, and taking your school for Christ. There were no theological distinctive or hard lines, as it was an event crafted by the nondenominational denomination to appeal to Baptists, Roman Catholics, other non-denominationals, and various mainline protestant evangelical stripes. I do know that apart from the messages, there were many exhortations to ask Jesus into your heart, and a continual emphasis on those who had back-slidden. They would say “Some of you haven’t been living the Christian life this past year…well now is the time to rededicate your life to Jesus.”
Which is not to say it was all like that. I know there are some very fine speakers there who were rock solid in their faith and gave great messages, I just don’t really remember any of them. Maybe as of late the speakers have been phenomenal, but back then it was light, fuzzy, and easy. The only message which really stuck out to me and which will be seared into my memory was from a guest speaker who had been brought in short notice. It was Saturday evening, about ten years ago, and after seeming to become frustrated with audience who were talking and laughing throughout his whole message, said “Lets call this weekend what it is, a place for kids to make promises to God that they never intend to keep.” Having had rededicated my life to Christ at 4 of those 9 YC’s, and knowing exactly what he was talking about, it was a punch in the gut.
Saturday night was the last major concert, the headliner, though right before there was an intense worship time. Individual songs with catchy riffs and shallow words would be sung for five, ten, twenty minutes until the crowd was in a tizzy, and every hand was raised and people were on their knees in tears. People would be laying hands on strangers and you could hear little pockets of tongues here and there. After that, the concert blew the ceiling off the roof. If you weren’t drained of energy by the end of it, you just weren’t trying.
There was a message in the morning, a final exhortation, and then we were dismissed around 2:00pm. It was a long, sleepy way home. On the way back, we would brag about who had slept the least over the course of the three days, and some kids would recount their sexual conquests and regale with stories who they had hooked up with. We argued which concert was best, but we all agreed on one thing- that it was a really fun weekend, and that we couldn’t wait until next year.
Are my experiences typical? I think they are. Not everyone will have the same experience, but I think many will recognize familiar aspects of it. I have seen the YC experience change some people’s lives for the better and utterly transform them. [Or was it Christ who transformed them despite the YC experience?] But I’ve also seen the darker, more cynical side of it, the part of it which reduces the whole weekend to pretty much a less worldly version of Burning Man. To that end though, my comments shouldn’t be taken as an indictment against those who attend now in 2011. I don’t know if it is the same event. I don’t know what the preaching was like this year. I don’t know what the worship was like this year. I certainly don’t know the hearts of the people going there, other than to say from few people I’ve talked to who are going, it doesn’t seem like much has changed, or that the mindset that a 16 year old has as he approaches this weekend has changed in any fundamental way than from when I went. This is simply a reflection on my own experiences with past YC’s.
I certainly remember YC as a time of pure euphoria for me. It was spiritually exhilarating. It would make even the most uncaring heathen a Christian for a day- it just had that effect on you. The whole weekend was a blur of exploding surface level spirituality; an assault on the senses which moved both people who knew better, and those who didn’t. I think that some people who went to it with the right mindset took away from it some very good things. I think it grew and strengthened those who had that firm biblical foundation to begin with, who were able to approach it with the right attitude and discernment.
In so many ways it is a celebration of the Christian subculture, and I’m not sure how helpful that is. In fact, I think the whole weekend is probably a loss less Christ-exalting and God edifying than many people think it is, especially once they begin to reflect on it, and the attitude and mindset it breeds. If you think its cool and acceptable for Christianity to try to be relevant by aping the culture and Christianinzing everything they do, then I imagine this weekend was a great time. I have a hard time seeing it, in retrospect, as anything other a celebration of Christian subculture, instead of a celebration of Christ. It was all about being pumped up so that I could do great things for Christ, instead of taking time to drill deep the great things Christ has done for me.
I know that for the vast majority of people who would give their testimonies on the following Sunday about how YC changed them and how they encountered God, that most of them left youth group, left the church, and became practical atheists and agnostics. Many of the people who will be offering their testimonies next week will be living as if it never happened the week after that. That creates a really weird situation, I think, in the life of a youth group and the Church.
What do you all think? For those who have gone to YC or other similar large Christian shindigs, how much of that can you relate to?