Photo by Asher Tunic.

Frigid trek to youth rally yields heart-warming inspiration

By John W. Coleman

For many Eastern PA Conference youth and adults who braved ice and windswept snow en route to the 31st Peninsula-Delaware Conference Youth Rally, Jan. 5-7, the event’s guiding scripture verse, Hebrews 12:1, must have seemed most fitting—especially the part that reads, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”

While a number of church youth ministry leaders cautiously decided against making the risky annual winter expedition to Ocean City, Md., about 2,800 did attend, a decline of only about 15 percent from last year’s total, reports Bishop Peggy Johnson. She led the traditional closing celebration of Holy Communion. (Read her inspirational account of this event and her praise for youth rallies in general, titled “Surrounders,” on her Bishop’s Blog.)

About 380 youth and adults from 25 Eastern PA Conference churches registered for the rally, a sharp decline from the last two years, said David Piltz, conference coordinator of Young People’s Ministries. Yet, about 10 churches may have decided not to make the trip, reducing our presence there further, probably to about 260.

But many of those who went were very glad they did, especially youth who found their hearts warmed and souls uplifted—perhaps even transformed—by the challenging messages and celebrative music they enjoyed, and by their engaging fellowship with one another.

Photo by Diana Esposito.

“I’ve never been closer to God and have never been so happy before in my life,” texted one teenager afterward to his youth ministry coordinator, Michael Gold, at Covenant UMC in Moore Township, Bath, Pa. “I want to say thank you for being my youth leader. You have shown me what it means to care about our youth, and you have a great love for all the youth.”

That’s a welcome deviation from the alienation and anxiety we’re used to hearing about in media reports on today’s troubled youth. Indeed, getting closer to God and drawing lasting strength and serenity from one’s faith and the support of others were key messages offered by diverse speakers and singers, all focused on the rally’s one-word theme: “Marathon.”

“Covenant had a great time at the rally,” Gold reported. “All but one of our kids went up for the altar call, which was pretty awesome. We had a few who were attending for the first time, and I do think they will never forget it. This year we wanted to bless others; so we gave out Philippians 4:13 wrist bands to other youth groups. To me this was the best part.”

“We all had a blast,” said Jonathan and Erin Noland, youth ministry co-directors at Scottsville UMC in Langhorne. They took five youth and four adults to the rally. “The kids really enjoyed the Social Club Misfits (a Christian hip-hop duo from Miami, Fla.). We all enjoyed Sunday morning worship time and our fellowship with other youth groups. The weekend was a great success and we look forward to the coming years.”

Photo by Asher Tunic.

Other scheduled performers included:

  • Tenth Avenue North, a young, contemporary Christian band;
  • Josh Griffin, a youth pastor for 20 years and co-creator of DownloadYouthMinistry.com;
  • Jimi Cravity, a unique, multi-media, multi-genre Christian musician
  • Jasmine Murray, a vocalist and finalist on TV’s American Idol program; and
  • Preston Centuolo, a popular motivational speaker and “master-storyteller” who connects strongly with youth by “helping them see beyond pressing obstacles…to find balance in an increasingly chaotic, high pressure, information-overload age.”

Some presenters and performers also engaged their young listeners beyond the stage, interacting with them in breakout sessions and among exhibit and vending displays.

“Despite the weather and multiple relocations of our lodging due to broken water pipes (which drenched some youth and their belongings), the 10 youth and two chaperones from Cedarville UMC in Pottstown had a fantastic time at the 2018 Rally,” reported youth ministry coordinator John McCormick. “The music was excellent, speakers were engaging, and the energy of thousands of people praising God together is something that has a positive impact on our kids.”

Krystl Johnson makes sure she takes youth from St. Daniel’s UMC of Chester every year. “Our young people come back changed. The event is impactful. It gets through to our kids. So, it’s definitely worth trekking through the snow.”

“The kids laughed together, looked out for each other and bonded all night long,” she later reported in an e-message to her pastor, the Rev. Herbert Coe. “On Saturday night, one of our youth committed her life to Christ and another responded to the recommitment appeal. One of the speakers (Preston Centuolo) touched them, spoke about bullying, and broke down forgiveness in a way that had a couple of them reaching out to parents and friends.”

D.D. Deischer-Eddy, 17, of Grove UMC in West Chester, also liked Centuolo, especially the way he addressed some of the daunting insecurities youth face. She was “most affected” by the breakout sessions. But she also loved joining friends and the throng of youth at the stage-front to enjoy Tenth Avenue North’s concert. “A really great experience,” she said. “I don’t listen to Christian contemporary music much, but I want to hear more of them.”

This was the high-school junior’s third Pen-Del Youth Rally, where many youth enjoy the escape from school and home life for a weekend. “The first year, I went away changed,” she recalled. “But they’re always amazing and satisfying, helping us to connect more deeply with God and with others, and to reexamine our faith.

“Especially at the altar call,” she added, “I often cry when the speaker says something inspiring to help me open myself up more. At this point, I’m trying to understand who I am and what’s important for my life.”

“As always, the Pen-Del rally delivered in the quality of its bands and speakers and in the important messages they shared,” summarized Piltz. “Youth and their adult leaders were reminded of how difficult the journey of following God is—like running a marathon—but also the amazing benefits to our lives when we do. We were reminded that every person is loved by God, no matter what happens; that Jesus has our back and to be Christ-like is to have each other’s back.”

The theme for the 2019 Youth Rally in Ocean City, Jan. 4-6, will be “Protector,” based on Isaiah 43:2 (NRSV)

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
     and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
     and the flame shall not consume you.


 NOTE: A picture is still worth a thousand words. Now that you’ve read the story, enjoy visual images of the exciting 2018 Pen-Del Youth Rally, including our youth members there onsite, on our Flickr page.  Also, please be sure to read Surrounders,” Bishop Peggy Johnson’s inspiring account of the rally on her Bishop’s Blog.