What happens when more than 200 youth and their leaders converge upon a local church? It leads to an evening of new friends, honest conversation, exciting worship, and powerful prayers. 

The Olentangy River District winter youth gathering was at Powell United Methodist Church this past weekend. For some students, it was the first time they had been in a group that size with other United Methodist students. 

Brayden Leffler, 17, attends Harlem Road United Methodist Church. “It was great to see so many other youth from other churches, sharing their stories and just being together,” he said.

The evening began with dinner and games. The students then filled the sanctuary and joined in worship led by Milton AirYon from New Albany UMC. 

Twenty-five students from Ebenezer United Methodist Church came to the event. “The world can be overwhelming, and we want to help the youth grow in their walk with Christ. Help them on their journey and get more involved in the church,” said Sandra Abanquah, an adult working with youth at Ebenezer UMC in Columbus.

Students were introduced to Bishop Gregory V. Palmer who participated in a time of Q&A led by Rev. Rachel Billups, also of New Albany UMC. “Remember, you can’t make God love you more than God already does,” Bishop reminded the youth. 

Youth leading youth was a highlight of the evening. A panel discussion with students Vanessa Adams, Max Cobb, Topher Billups, Kate Braskett, and Caleb Manoharan covered topics including technology, anxiety, loneliness, prayer, and connection.

The students were not afraid to talk about their own faith. Max mentioned the importance of prayer. “Prayer helps me in my everyday life. I thank God every day for waking me up. Everything is a blessing,” he said. He attends North Broadway UMC and is a seventh-grade student. 

“We live at such a busy time,” Vanessa said. “I see people looking at their phones searching for a moment of peace. If the church wants to reach youth, we need to be digital leaders.” Those attending affirmed the statement from the high school senior from Powell UMC.

A junior from New Albany, Caleb mentioned how participating in youth group helped give him courage to speak up, especially after the pandemic. “We need to make the church a place where we feel like we belong because we want to be there. We want to connect with God,” Caleb said.

Kate, a senior who attends Indian Run UMC, challenged the other youth to remember that being part of the church also carries some responsibility. She mentioned how the church helps her learn about social issues. “We need to talk more about how to balance faith and social issues. We need to be more open about what the church believes and our opinion on things,” Kate said. 

Students discussed how the church could reach other students. “We need to shake things up a bit,” Topher Billups said. “Church is a way of life. Life changes and the church needs to be willing to change, too.” 

Days after the event, 15-year-old Grace VanDeusen of Harlem Road UMC reflected on the importance of the church in the lives of youth. “The church has the potential to help us decide how to live our life in a way that aligns with God’s plan, uplifting us when we fail and helping us know that no matter what, we are still loved,” she said.

Revs. Rachel Billups, Justin Williams, Heather Nordgren, Hannah VanMeter, and Kim LaRue were instrumental in the planning of this event. Other adults supported the event with publicity and providing transportation. They are hopeful that other youth events will be planned throughout the conference.