Tornado-spawning thunderstorms wreaked havoc in the vicinity of Haltom City northeast of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and threatened other areas of the Fort Worth-Dallas region on the evening of Friday, April 13. As the storms passed over campus, however, they inspired participants of the 2007 Youth Ministry Lab to go underground and worship Jesus Christ, who calms the storms.
Soon after the lab’s opening worship service began, tornado sirens near the seminary campus sounded. YML staff members quickly and calmly ushered the Truett Auditorium’s capacity crowd into the basement below Scarborough and Fleming Halls. In a scene that brought to mind the first century church meeting underground in catacombs, popular worship leader Joel Engle then walked among the youth ministers, volunteers and youth hunkered along the walls of the basement, leading them in worship. Other attendees huddled in groups for prayer.
“There is nothing like a good ol’ tornado to wake up the people of God,” guest speaker Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, said after the tornado threat had passed. “Then we come in and start speaking about the greatness of God, and all of a sudden, you are thinking, ‘I really believe that now!’”
Matte said he had read Luke 8 just that morning, the account in which Jesus calms the storm and the waves on the Sea of Galilee. The passage came back into his mind as he sat among worshippers during the tornado warning.
“Christ rebuked the wind and the waves, but He didn’t rebuke the disciples,” Matte said. Instead, Christ called his disciples to examine their faith and realize who He was. Matte urged lab participants to remember this lesson as they proceeded with the conference.
For many participants at YML, experiencing the tornado threat gave them an opportunity to worship and learn from God in what they called the “underground church,” reported Wes Black, YML organizer and professor of student ministry at Southwestern Seminary.
The following day, teenaged lab participants woke up to the reality of the “underground church” through the Reality Missions Experience. In buses and vans, they were driven to Mainstay Farm in Burleson, a 75-acre spread surrounded by low-lying hills and covered with 6,000 Christmas trees. Over the brow of one hill, the teens were greeted by a playground area designed like a small farmhouse and barn. “Welcome to the Rural World” was painted onto one wall in the play area. The phrase was an appropriate description for the event.
All across the farm, the seminary’s World Mission Center, YML volunteers and local churches comprised of predominantly international membership, coordinated to set up mock-villages and multi-cultural experiences where the lab teens could learn to share the gospel across cultures. The stations represented nations such as China, Thailand, Botswana, and Nigeria. The teens also experienced life in a Muslim village and learned about followers of Hinduism.
“The purpose of the Reality Missions Experience was to expose the students to other major cultures existing in our world in a real-time sense, involving people from the culture in their own cultural setting,” said Johnny Derouen, event organizer and associate professor of student ministry at the seminary. “Our prayer was that God would step in and use this experience to give them a heart for the nations and for some to respond to God’s call for short or long term missions.”
At one station, teenagers learned about the persecution leveled against Christians in North Korea. They were given the opportunity to worship in a simulated underground church — similar to underground churches that exist in closed countries all over the world today — where Korean Christians secretly worshipped and prayed.
Travis Carver, a teen YML participant from Timber Crest Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, was impressed to think about the faithfulness of North Korean believers.
“They are strong about their faith even though they know that they can die any day,” he said. “They can be caught. Somebody could turn them in. They know that there is danger… They love Jesus so much that it does not even matter to them. That is just pretty intense how they love God so much.”
According to Otlaadisa “Jack” Rantho, these cross-cultural experiences may help to stabilize the faith of American teenagers. Rantho, a volunteer for the Botswana village at YML, is pursing a master’s degree at Southwestern Seminary; he is a native of Botswana, where he has planted several churches.
“Most families’ kids, when they go to college, they leave the church,” he said. “But if you can teach them and show them the bigger picture, they realize, ‘You know, Christianity is not just about my home church, because I can see other cultures where people are being killed because they are looking for Jesus.’”
Jim Wilson, the owner of the Mainstay Farm, called the Reality Missions Experience an “awesome, tremendously organized” event.
“Our farm is never happier than when we have believers on the farm in this number,” he said. “It’s just a phenomenal joy to me, my wife Marianna, and our girls to have our friends here. We do on a routine basis. Whenever there is something that we can help with, we want to help.”According to a final report from the YML’s organizers, the 1,312 participants at the 2007 YML represented 321 churches from 24 states, including churches in Florida, Wyoming, Maryland, Michigan and Hawaii. During the conference, three teenagers received Christ, and 22 participants recommitted their lives to Christ. Sixty-six participants committed to either short-term or long-term missions, and 69 responded to a call to vocational ministry.