“I think what I learned can be summed up like this: I can either live missionally, or live for nothing,” read an Instagram caption posted by Max Park, one of 7,000 young adults who attended the Cross Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, at the start of the year.
That week, another 40,000 showed up for Passion in Atlanta, Dallas, and Washington, DC, and more than 10,000 for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana in St. Louis.
For decades, Christian college students have gathered en masse to praise, pray, and hear the Word preached at national conferences like these, then returned to their campuses reenergized about the gospel and ready to share what they’ve learned.
But in the age of social media, their testimonies don’t wait until they’ve left the stadiums; attendees like Park take their followers along. They process the event through snapshots and social media posts, proclaiming the Good News to their friends in real time.
“These past four days have been incredibly eye-opening and overwhelmingly convicting. … It breaks my heart to see how I have failed to truly live for Christ the way he has called me to,” Rachel Carroll wrote in January, beneath a picture of her smiling with a pack of friends outside Passion’s Dallas event, her third year attending.
This year marks a shift in student ministry from the last of the millennial generation to Generation Z, which the Pew Research Center defines as those born after 1996, a cutoff based largely on technology. Millennials came of age as internet connectivity spread; Gen Z never knew life without it.
At Passion, Louie Giglio declared the advent of the iPhone as one of the most formative things in their lives.
“The phone has put the world at your fingertips,” the Atlanta preacher told the crowd, aglow with stadium lights and phone screens. “That’s a good thing because tonight it’s possible that millions of people around the world could see an impression of Jesus because of Passion 2019, because of what the phone in your hands can do.”
These young Christians come to missions conferences feeling both the pull of digital technology and the allure of offline experiences. At the precipice of adulthood, they mostly face the same tensions and callings as generations before, only now they’re armed with an outlet to constantly share and comment on them.
“There’s this new thing with Gen Zs I don’t know what to do with: The most important thing is not the experience; it’s that other people know you had that experience,” said InterVarsity Arizona area director Steve Grahmann.
Attendees at the three recent conferences used their hashtags more than 16,000 times on Instagram, uploading photos of packed worship sessions, keynote speakers, and selfies with friends.
“Students are students. They’re going to share stories on Instagram that announce to their world what they’re doing,” said Brad Jones, global ambassador for Passion. “We don’t discourage that by any means because that tells a bunch of people around the world the story of what God’s doing.”
Ministries also encourage attendees to post and share to build community around the event.
“Kids were making Urbana memes and posting them on the [app] feed, making fun out of the experience but also creating a little subculture,” said Melissa Weissenberger, an exhibitor representing South America Mission. “Every three seconds it was reloading with 100 new thoughts and pictures.”
Major conferences usually make sessions available via livestream, but even without conference footage, messages from top speakers are already just a few taps away on their phones.
“We’re in a new era because of all the content that young people can get online,” said Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute. “They can see [speaker] Soong-Chan Rah online. They don’t have to go to something like Urbana to see him. Every speaker they have will have something online, maybe even the exact same talk.”
What makes Gen Z attendees buy a ticket versus logging on is whatever unique experience organizers can offer.
For Urbana, that may be offering an international lineup beyond popular American evangelical voices, according to Greg Jao, previous emcee for the triennial InterVarsity conference.
“One of the reasons I think students come to Urbana is because you won’t hear the big name speaker you’ll hear anywhere else,” he said. While Urbana celebrated its most diverse conference ever, attendance dropped by nearly a third compared to its 2015 numbers.
Meanwhile, Cross—featuring John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, and David Platt—brought in more than triple its attendance in 2016. The biggest annual student missions conference in the US, Passion, increased attendance from last year by adding another venue, totaling four sold-out locations simulcasting speakers such as Giglio, Matt Chandler, and Christine Caine.
“When you get to fill up an arena for Jesus with your generation, it marks you and it shapes you,” Passion’s Jones said. “That’s a lot of our heartbeat and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Organizers also work to create meaningful experiences beyond the general sessions.
“This trip had people rediscovering their faith, praising [Jesus’] name in the street, miracles of healing through prayer, and worshiping him in the hallway,” Shannon Maulfair wrote after Urbana. “It was like having a family of 12,000 people for a week.”
Such impromptu conversations, networking, and corporate prayers cannot be recreated online.
“We do think there is value to being in the room,” said Matt Schmucker, Cross director. “Going to a conference can help to remove distractions and have a more focused experience.”
Though the distractions themselves may have changed, that’s what student missions events have long offered—a place to gather and hear from the Spirit together.
It’s always the in-person interaction that people remember, said Powell, recalling her own experience worshiping at a youth conference at 17.
“What is it about a conference specifically that offers unique value to young people? They can get teaching online, and clubs and concerts have better entertainment,” Powell said. “The answer is face-to-face community that shows you’re part of something bigger.”
That’s true for the organizers as well. At the most recent Urbana, Jao connected with an Indian student over similar experiences being raised in Asian homes.
“We continue to believe that gathering the body of Christ is an embodied community experience,” Jao said. “If your invitation is just to hear a well-known speaker or an amazing musical experience, there’s no reason to go.
“If what you’re telling students is, ‘Here’s the kind of personal interaction and experience of a community that cannot be replicated in your local context,’ that’s what makes [missions conferences] remarkable.”
Morgan Lee is digital media producer at Christianity Today.
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