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Robin Brannon leads the praise team in singing “Bless Me” at CHRISTeens.
Photo by April Ruple

CHRISTeens puts focus on forgiveness

Youth conference in Arkansas draws 1,100 students from six states.

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RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — The CHRISTeens youth conference, hosted by the West Side Church of Christ, opened with a spotlight shining vertically on a young man who clasped his hands at his chest and recited the Lord’s Prayer.

But he stopped short of saying the entire prayer, his voice going silent after “and forgive us of our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

He bowed his head for a moment, and then stage lights came up just enough to illuminate a cast of young people, who alternately voiced two dozen questions with one word in common — the theme of the recent weekend conference.

How do I forgive? How do I know that God has forgiven me? Does forgiveness mean forgetting? What if they keep hurting me after I forgive them? How do I know my forgiveness is genuine? Does forgiveness mean that there are no consequences? How do I forgive when I’m still hurting? Am I forgiving them for their benefit or for mine? What if they hurt my friend, my brother, my sister, my mom, my family, my life, my world, my home, my reputation? How do I forgive?

For the benefit of any one of the 1,100 teenagers at CHRISTeens who might have missed the clue, “FORGIVEN” was spelled out in silver, chest-high capital letters at the back of the stage.

“Forgiveness” was the word they heard Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning.

CHRISTeens celebrated its 39th anniversary this year, although the COVID-19 pandemic meant canceling a few of the gatherings. The annual youth-led event started in 1985 with nearly 700 young people. By 2012, as attendance kept increasing, the fire marshal suggested CHRISTeens had outgrown West Side. So beginning in 2013, the church moved it to the 1,800-seat Center for the Arts at Russellville High School.

The aim of the planners of the high-energy and intensely Christ-focused weekend is to teach in a way that the lessons stick when the students return to their daily lives.

Teens participate in a breakout class on worship led by Terry Davis.

Teens participate in a breakout class on worship led by Terry Davis.

“That is kind of the trick,” said Tim Tripp, West Side’s senior minister, who noted that youth ministers and students plan the event. “One of the big challenges is what can we do to help them hold on to the excitement and passion they have while they are here. We want to empower youth and ministers to take the message with them.

“Talks during the main sessions have a biblical text and address the theme,” Tripp said. “There’s an aspect of CHRISTeens that kind of challenges tradition but also is specific to teenagers’ worship styles and message styles.”

Brian Blankenship first attended CHRISTeens in high school, about the same time he started attending Sandstone Drive Church of Christ in Little Rock. While Blankenship was a student at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, the Church of Christ Student Center was part of his life, and he attended West Side, a primary sponsor of the student center.

Teens wear T-shirts showing the "FORGIVEN" theme of the CHRISTeens event.

Teens wear T-shirts showing the “FORGIVEN” theme of the CHRISTeens event.

Now living in Houston, he is a member of the CHRISTeens’ production team and attends every year. His 9-year-old son, Elliot, came this year and sat in the production booth with him.

“CHRISTeens gives kids in church a way to expose friends to church. It’s wonderful to be part of something that is impactful for other people,” Blankenship said. “It’s not just a weekend. There is some everlasting meaning to all of it.”

CHRISTeens didn’t flinch from addressing the multitude of hard issues Christians face when considering forgiveness as the right path, both in seeking forgiveness from God and in forgiving others.

“It’s not just a weekend. There is some everlasting meaning to all of it.”

The speakers included Dennis and Terri Rine of Searcy, Ark., who talked about working to forgive their son-in-law, who murdered their daughter.

Everyone can choose to confess sins to God, keynote speaker Jeff Walling told attendees. He directs the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

“I have a choice to confess my mess,” Walling said. “Our mess becomes our message.”

Mindy Lancaster, who attends the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., was the same age as her audience “when the enemy came to kill, to steal and to destroy.”

“Ten years before the attacks on our nation, 9/11 of 1991 was the night my mother was murdered,” Lancaster said. “Within a week, my father was arrested, and within a year, my father was sentenced to life in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Mindy Lancaster shares her story with Grayson Taylor and Solomon Boan.

Mindy Lancaster shares her story with Grayson Taylor and Solomon Boan.

“My life as a teenager, sitting right there where you sit, was shattered. How do you reset a life that the enemy came in to destroy? There’s only one who can do that, and his name is Jesus Christ.”

During her father’s trial, she and her younger sister learned that their father had engaged in an affair “with a younger girl, somebody a little older than me, somebody I knew.”

“My sister and I decided that no matter the guilt or innocence, we were going to love our father, and we were going to move into the forgiveness that Christ had given me.”

That decision allowed God to restore her so that she could “actually go and sit at a table and have dinner with my dad,” she said.

“Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Fear causes us to magnify the trauma and minimize what God can do. Y’all, there is no freedom there. There is no fruit there. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Unforgiveness entangles you in bitterness.”

Steve Hovater, lead minister for the Central Church of Christ in Little Rock, encouraged the students to listen to God, not to the voices around them: “On that last day when Jesus was crucified, he spoke out about the very people who were physically putting him to death, and in that moment, he cried out to God, ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Zac George sings with the praise team at CHRISTeens in Russellville, Ark.

Zac George sings with the praise team at CHRISTeens in Russellville, Ark.

JAY GRELEN is a veteran journalist who has worked as a reporter, columnist and editor in a host of cities, mostly in the South.

Filed under: Arkansas CHRISTeens National News People Russellville teens Top Stories West Side Church of Christ Young Christians Youth youth events

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