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“This is like, a Bob Ross painting,” says SK through deep breaths. A group of us are on Lookout Rock in Montreat for sunrise, and it’s becoming more worth the 5:30 a.m. departure by the minute as oranges and blues mix with the clouds to cap the green, happy trees. It’s the first day of a week filled with laughter and vulnerability and ice cream and hammocks and deep questions about our faith. This is the magic of Montreat.

Our environment has a lot to do with how we think and how we feel. Here, just a few hours from Charlotte, we’re surrounded by forests and streams and mountains and, more importantly, several hundred young people of faith from all over the country. The pastoral leadership this week encourages us to let love lead in all that we do and in all that we are, defining ourselves through the relational love embodied by Jesus Christ. 

The schedule says we worship each evening, but that’s not really true. We’re worshipping God all kinds of ways this week, from morning keynote sessions with Michelle Thomas-Bush and Nick Carson to small break-out groups that tackle scripture through games, drama, and a discussion practice known as “mutual invitation” where everyone is given space to speak from their heart and receive the gift of active listening from the rest of the group.

The conference allows us to be immersed in worship. For us this week, worship isn’t a presentation we merely attend, it’s an action word. Seven elders and deacons, mostly youth, served communion to a thousand of their peers. Rosa, one of our youth ministry interns, lent her beautiful voice to the Spanish-language songs of praise. All of us danced and sang and prayed and were moved by captivating participation in the worship of God.

Our culture trains us to live life all the way to the margins, filling every moment with school, sports, SAT prep, resume builders, and professional development. Michelle and Nick, along with Jerry Cannon, our preacher for the week, have pushed us to challenge that idea and make space to notice God in the quiet, small moments of the present. To that end, we took a sabbath morning to re-orient ourselves, making more space to notice God’s presence, whether it be a morning hike, yoga, prayer, or an extra hour of sleep.

All this work and practice has been showing up in our group, too. Each night we gather as a youth group to decompress from the day, have some snacks, and talk about what we’ve experienced.

“From day one on the bus I didn’t know many people or how awesome this would be. Montreat isn’t the place without the people, and you’re my people.”

Cahill Burke

“The emotional support that we have for each other is huge. I know I have this group that’s always here to back me up. I’ve hugged more this week than maybe ever before.”

William Chesney

“This doesn’t end here, we can take this feeling and these friendships home to church and lunch at Sundries and school.”

Kate Harbrecht

“I’ll remember that some people are emotionally built differently than you. They’ll learn and give back in a different way that we may not recognize immediately. God’s love is expressed in so many forms we can’t even imagine.”

Ella Price

“Life isn’t just about giving love to others. You have to love yourself and let others love you.”

Parker Hanley

“No matter how big the challenge or situation, remembering God’s love can help you overcome it. God’s with you through it.”

Zach Turner

Something flipped this week and I became me again. I started being more engaged in my small group and this back home group. I have to try to remember this, that being myself will make me feel better and closer to God. I think I was pushing that aside earlier.

Worth Hinshaw

You couldn’t put a price on this. It’s a week so full of intangible glimpses of God that we’d like everyone to know. We’ve been equipped to go out from this place knowing that no matter where we are, we’re a part of each other’s stories. No matter where we are, we can open ourselves up to be moved to do great things. No matter where we are, we can partner with God in the unbinding of systems that have hurt us. No matter where we are, we can be people who lead with love.