Now entering its 29th year, Summer Madness is a large Christian youth event that takes place in the beautiful surroundings of the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland. More than 2,000 young people gather for a week of Bible teaching, sung worship, seminars, sports, music and more. I was speaking at the event, but here are some of the things I learnt:
1. The evangelical Church in Northern Ireland is fresh and innovative
There is still a perception in some circles that the church in Northern Ireland is pretty traditional, staid and rigid. Watching as a thousand teenagers set off on a colour run with plumes of multicoloured dye circulating in a mini tornado in the grounds of an ancient castle certainly did not feel staid. A young girl who had been at the event told me, with a big smile on her face, that she expected to sneeze a rainbow. With cutting-edge worship music, social media friendly venues and hand-crafted fair trade coffee all on offer, this event certainly feels like it is trying to engage youth culture with the gospel.
2. Young people can take the lead
Arriving at the main gate of the event it was encouraging to see 12-year-olds with high visibility yellow jackets doing the security checks (albeit under the watchful eye of adult security guards). When I entered the speakers' hospitality tent a teenager asked me if I'd like a drink, and another 12-year-old asked me if I'd like some soup. On my way between seminars two young lads stopped me to thank me for my seminar but also asked if it would be ok if they prayed for me. I was delighted to accept and was really inspired by the fervency of these young men praying for me and my work. Summer Madness has a long history of encouraging young people to not just come as consumers of the event but be active participants running venues and taking responsibility.
3. Quad bikes and golf buggies can really help steward recruitment
There seem to be plenty of young adults willing to take a holiday from work or study in order to volunteer at the event. I wonder whether the fact that stewards get golf cart privileges to drive from one side of the venue to the other is an incentive. It was great to see that the security detail – often a thankless and arduous role – got access to some 40 mph quad bikes. Joking aside, the stewards did an excellent job of caring for the guests that were on site. It was inspiring to spend time with the child protection team who were were working 18-hour days to make sure they could respond quickly and professionally to on-site emergencies. Two of the team were pleased to inform me that their passion for child protection had lead them to recently become foster carers.
4. Young people are not afraid to ask big questions
I was visiting the conference to run seminars on some meaty subjects. I had been asked to speak about 'The Joy of Work', 'The Paradox of Suffering' and 'The Reality of Hell'. The seminars were well attended and there were plenty of questions from teenagers and youth leaders asking about the fate of the unevangelised; whether you received a body for eternal life in hell just like you received a renewed body for the new heavens and the new earth; how to know if your job is just selfish ambition or divine calling; and if it's true that 'everything happens for a reason'. As I have travelled around talking to teenagers about my book Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple I have been really encouraged by the depth of theological questioning from young adults. We must continue to keep encouraging curiosity in young people instead of trying to fob them off with simplistic answers.
5. Young people can forge a new future for Ireland
Marching season is under way in Northern Ireland. The Union Jacks were on display in many of the small towns we passed through on our way to the event. The flags betray the fact that this is a unionist area, yet Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin was a special guest at the event. DUP politician Ian Paisley visited the conference a few years before and so in a bid to aid the peace and reconciliation process McGuinness was invited for a question and answer time.
I heard a few people muttering about the decision to invite him, but in reality, the tone of the event was very different. McGuinness was interviewed by BBC journalist Mark Simpson, and speaking about his role, he said: "Our job as politicians is to move us forward to a better future."
When he was asked about his faith, he said: "I believe in one God and as I sit in various Protestant churches – Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist – I feel as at home as I do when I sit in my own church" – a comment which drew much applause.
And he told the audience: "young people inspire me to build a better future for them – you inspire me every day of the week and I intend not to let you down."
As I fly home to England, I leave Northern Ireland hugely encouraged about the future of the Church and the future of the country. Let's continue to pray for the work of Summer Madness and the rising generation of young leaders to be equipped to offer Northern Ireland a different future filled with the grace and love of God.