4,500 on Their Knees
IRVING — 4,500 teenagers dropped to their knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Some prayed silently while others raised their arms, singing along with the worship music that enveloped the Irving Convention Center.
Some of those 4,500 had been here before. They had experienced the beauty and joy that occurs at a Life Teen Steubenville Conference and continued to seek it every summer. But for others it was their first time encountering Christ in this way.
Regardless of the number of times they had been, many were left with the same feelings when they departed from the conference that ran from June 22 to June 24.
They were overcome with the love and acceptance they found with their peers through group prayer and open conversation. They wept at the beauty and closeness of the Lord as they kneeled before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration. They realized they were not alone and were forever changed by the powerful talks given by speakers who guided them through the weekend.
This kind of experience can change the course of a teenager’s life, and did many years ago for one of the keynote speakers at the conference.
Joel Stepanek was a freshman in high school when he attended his first Steubenville Conference at the request of his mother. He admitted that he wasn’t keen on going, but looking back he was glad that he did.
“I went and it was incredible. I had a major conversion. Saturday night, seeing the procession of the Blessed Sacrament and just realizing that, you know, the Lord lives and is present and is still working. That was just very powerful.” Stepanek recalled.
During Adoration at the conference, he had a powerful conversion that kick-started his journey to speaking at the very conference that changed his life so many years prior.
After the conference, Stepanek became very active in his faith throughout his high school years and into college. He graduated with a degree in religious studies and went on to be a youth minister for five years. He gained speaking experience and connected with the youth through this relational ministry until he was called to work for Life Teen as a curriculum writer. After a few chance speaking engagements, Stepanek found himself speaking to thousands of teens across the globe as a member of Life Teen’s speaking team.
Now the director of resource development, an established author, and world-traveling speaker, Stepanek never thought he would have ended up here.
“It was just something that developed pretty organically. It wasn’t something that I sought out, but was open to,” Stepanek said.
His openness to God’s plan led him to change the lives of thousands of teens per weekend, and it is not a role Stepanek takes lightly. The former youth minister recognizes the power that his position holds.
“When I was a youth minister, I used to talk about what’s called the speaker effect. It is when I would say something to my teens, eight different times, 20 different ways, ‘Jesus loves you’, but when they would hear it from the stage at a conference, they’d say ‘Oh my gosh, Jesus loves me, I never knew.’ Now I am that voice that gets through to them. My goal is to provide a conduit for the Holy Spirit to speak to them.”
He also uses his platform to give a rest to the youth ministers attending the conferences.
“The conference speakers take the pressure off of the youth ministers who are here at Steubenville who usually have to give the talks and plan the logistics. Here they are able to just process, be in a relationship with the teens, and walk with them. They don’t have to do the lifting of giving a talk, they do the real heavy lifting in relational ministry,” Stepanek continued.
The four speakers, Joel Stepanek, Father Mike Schmitz, Emily Wilson, and Mike Gormley, were able to lift the pressure off of the youth ministers during the three-day conference, where they spoke on everything from personal relationships with God to what to look for in a potential spouse.
Those 4,500 teenagers’ personal relationships with God represent an anomaly in today’s society. Catholic News Service reported that young adults are the least religious age group today, but it is hard to believe when looking at the crowd of thousands of teenagers who set aside their weekend to seek a closer relationship with the Lord. Stepanek recognized this anomaly and thinks seeing a change in the statistics will take many years.
“They are, on a whole, less religious and less spiritual. But the context they are coming from is less religious. In part, the generation before them and the generations who are raising them are slightly less religious. The change will happen by focusing on youth, helping to revitalize youth and family ministry, and helping empower them to live as disciples,” Stepanek said.
“It is a long process and I think everyone wants a two-year plan, but you’re looking at empowering a family to baptize their kids as Catholic and raise them in the faith, and you’re not going to see the fruit of that for 18 years necessarily. But it happens at a parish level and those things are supported by conferences like this.”
Steubenville Lone Star gave the teens that opportunity to start that faith journey. Stepanek credits the conferences with opening the teenagers’ eyes to the different aspects of the Catholic faith.
“These are moments where teenagers realize that they are not alone. That there are other teens who are living this out. They get to see things that they don’t normally see on a parish level, as far as the volume of the people here but also different religious orders and multiple priests,” he said. “They hear different speakers who are completely sold out for the Lord, and they get to hear the Gospel proclaimed. All of that is critical.”
Life Teen created an atmosphere of encouragement for the teens throughout the weekend, as there were 200 priests, dozens of religious sisters, a handful of monks, and hundreds of adults in attendance, all eager to help these teens on their journey with Christ.
Conferences like this one happen across the globe on all scales. But this summer Life Teen will host 25 Steubenville conferences across the country, and an estimated 50,000 teenagers will get the opportunity to be changed by Christ.
Life Teen doesn’t stop reaching for the teens’ hearts at the yearly conferences; they also have a very active presence on social media.
“We have great blog content, YouTube content, and try to have active social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram. We really try to just provide little bursts of the Lord during their day,” Stepanek explained.