GODencounters Still Strong After a Decade

Studies show that most Americans go to religious services of some kind during childhood and then drop out of church during their young adult years—after they leave high school and up through the time they become parents. This is just as true among Seventh-day Adventists as it is for the rest of the population. Over the past decade, a small number of Adventist ministers have been quietly developing a ministry that has helped thousands of young people establish a strong connection with God, even when they may be disconnected from organized
religion.

This initiative is significant because it has sustained its efforts for more than 10 years without becoming an official denominational program. Adventist Today interviewed Pastor A. Allan Martin, one of the co-founders. He helped plant the Adventist congregation in Celebration, Florida, the planned city developed by the Disney Corporation. He then taught at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, and more recently he returned to local church ministry as a pastor at the Arlington Adventist Church in the Dallas metropolitan area.

How did GODencounters get started?
In 2000, Pastor Jeff Gang was asked to plan activities for the young adult division of camp meeting in the local conference where we were both serving at the time. The venue could seat about 700 people, but only about 20 or 30 young adults came during the week, mostly because they didn’t want to go to the main camp meeting. Jeff asked if I would join him in rethinking what had become routine and irrelevant. We knew we didn’t want to perpetuate a faltering program. We wanted to deepen the devotion of new generations to Jesus through worship, so in preparation we spent almost a year gathering with a group of young adults and pastors, praying and dreaming what it might look like.

During that process, we discovered that many of our young adults had a very myopic view of what worship was. “Worship” was something that happened Saturday mornings for an hour or so; it was something you went to because your parents always did. Reflecting on these perceptions, we found ourselves asking the questions:

  • What if we didn’t simply go to worship, but rather made worship a way of life?
  • What if we sought an encounter with God, beyond one day a week?

That’s how GODencounters was born; now it is an international movement with thousands of young adults involved in spiritual gatherings, private faith practices, and affirming communities in real time and online.

The name itself really presents the core of what we’ve been trying to do over this past decade: helping young adults encounter God. The heart of our efforts is to see Jeremiah 24:7 come to life for new generations. My loose paraphrase of that text is that God has placed it in our hearts to return to him. It’s God’s intention to call us his people, and by his initiative we’re invited to call him our God.

So GODencounters is not simply a program, or events you attend, or a religious fad you buy into; it’s about heart-hunger—
new generations seeking out God to discover who he really is.

What are the goals of this ministry?
GODencounters is a movement among new generations wholeheartedly pursuing an intimate, 24/7 experience of the living God, recklessly living for his renown. It seeks to deepen devotion to Jesus by developing disciples who walk assuredly in his footsteps. Our desire is to:

  • Live lives of worship.
  • Be agents of present gospel.
  • Gracefully express compassion.
  • Pray without ceasing.
  • Embrace Sabbath as soul CPR.
  • Morph into God’s likeness.
  • Celebrate in Jubilee.

When we started, we emphasized one of these themes each year. Others, who have started GODencounters where they are, don’t necessarily do it this way, but we felt that given the mobility of new generations, it was important to try for depth with a theme in the span of a year. Our hope was that by the end of the year, exploring the theme from various angles, individual “GODfollowers” would have gone deeper in their faith practice and understanding of that biblical concept and incorporating it into their lifestyle and values.

We try to express the theme through more than just preaching and teaching at our GODencounters gatherings. We use the visual
arts, architecture, design, media, hands-on activities, environmental ambiance, music, and discussion groups. We want participants to
comprehend the theme in “languages” they resonate with. We are trying our very best to purposefully introduce young adults to God
in “languages” that they speak every day and to inspire them to live intentionally for the sake of God.

Your website says that GODencounters is “not an act or a program, but an every day, every moment way of living.” What does this mean?
Although we relish the spiritual high points afforded in a special gathering, a powerful worship service, or a meaningful event, we’ve challenged ourselves to ask, “So now what?” after the event. We want those who participate to go away thinking, “What does God have to do, if anything, with my mundane Monday?” Through the GODencounter themes, we are hoping to reveal to each other how God is “in the midst” of every moment and how God is attentive to our every need, desire, and hope. We’re encouraging new generations to become aware of God’s presence in their everyday ordinary lives, to see where God is working in our world, and to join him in what he’s doing.

Beyond “doing,” GODencounters is also interested in “becoming.” Being intentional in deepening our devotion to God emerges from a journey, a process. GODencounters intends to cheer one on as he or she continues the trek to the center of God’s heart.

How many young adults have been affected by this ministry over the past decade?
It’s hard to say precisely, but easily several thousand have been touched by GODencounters since we started. GODencounters gatherings have been held across North America, and we have seen it spring up in other countries. At the last General Conference Session in Atlanta in 2010, more than 3,000 young people attended a GODencounters event on the final weekend.

A book entitled GODencounters: Pursuing a 24/7 Experience of Jesus has been published by Pacific Press. With the advent of
social media platforms like Facebook and online broadcasting, there are literally thousands more who are joining the movement
electronically.

GODencounters are basically retreats for young adults. Can you sketch what actually happens in a weekend?
When GODencounters started, it took the form of a nine-day camp meeting gathering. It’s also been held as a weekend event in
a retreat setting and as a conference on a public university campus and in local churches. It really takes the shape that the young adult planners deem best to reach their peers in a given situation. In the Northwest, one church plant has actually incorporated GODencounters into their mission statement and made the themes part of the sermon cycle of their church calendar.

There are many things that happen at GODencounters events, all intended to create opportunities for attendees to personally and corporately experience Christ Jesus. Beyond worship sessions, concerts, service projects, and seminars, there are some unique activities at GODencounters, including a prayer room and the Encounters Café.

When we first started GODencounters, a couple of young adults who owned an interior design business wanted to contribute their skills to the events. So they asked permission to transform a couple of classrooms into prayer rooms, where young adults could express their prayers in creative and multisensory ways. It’s been amazing to witness the enthusiasm of young adults with design skills to be involved, and over the years many attendees have expressed that some of their most memorable encounters with God have come in these sacred spaces.

Encounters Café was invented because our first GODencounters planning group recognized that the “real”meeting for young adults often occurs after the program, in the parking lot or at some local restaurant; so we decided to create a place—a café-styled space—for fellowship and conversations to occur informally. Encounters Café creates a casual, comfortable place where young adults are invited to chat, enjoy refreshments, and relax. Inevitably many of the conversations have turned from small talk to discussions about life and God. It’s been amazing to see how God has worked in Encounters Café activities. While young adults are making new friends and sharing life stories, it’s fascinating to see how God shows up in the midst of the relationships they are building.

Will secular young adults actually come to an event where God and religion are going to be talked about?
Young adults in general have a great fascination with God and spirituality. Some also have skepticism about organized religion. Many are disenchanted with those who claim to be Christians while acting contrary to the ideals Christ espoused. I have observed that young adults are less interested in going to an “event” that talks about God or religion; they crave a personal experience with the living God. Young adults are not the only ones who crave this type of encounter. We always have some outside the “young adult” age group who attend our gatherings.

What kind of young adult is most likely to have a good experience at a GODencounters weekend?
That’s an intriguing question. As I’ve watched God work through the GODencounters movement, I’ve come to believe even more fervently that God is the One who lays it on our hearts to seek him.

“I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jer. 24:7, NIV).

It’s my hope that any young adult who attends a GODencounters gathering or pursues Christ through the other GODencounters activities will experience how very good God is. I’ve been blessed to be a witness to God’s faithfulness in sharing his “goodness” through the years. I’m grateful to be a small part of what he’s doing through GODencounters.

What have you learned over the decade? Is there anything you do differently now than when you started?
It feels like we are constantly learning, and in some ways that is exactly as one would expect it to be if you are pursuing encounters with God. God continues to be fascinating, full of surprises, and yet so faithful to his Word. I hope that with each generation we continue to learn and grow, able to contextualize the expressions of the movement to the pulse of where God is working in young hearts and moving in young lives.

How has this ministry survived for a full decade? Will you keep going?
I sincerely believe God must be credited for sustaining this and making it a movement. It’s been amazing and inspiring to see God transform young adult lives through the years. I believe God is the one keeping it going, and I’m just honored to be along for the ride.

That GODencounters continues to grow is a blessing, and with growth there are all of the various idiosyncrasies that make you cringe, cry, and celebrate. Like anything in life, GODencounters can be messy. Our “successes” are mixed with our “setbacks,” and truth be told, some of our best moments may have been deemed as accidents at that moment. Some of our most intimate times with God have been less than glorious, when we have been most desperate for him.

God always finds ways to encourage and humble us, so as we have the honor of participating in GODencounters, it really is beyond our control or direct manipulation. Faith and trust in God plays a major role in it. What has been amazing and affirming is to watch as God brings up “on the radar” these seemingly unconnected blips, all resonating with his intention to return us to his heart. Can we take credit for that? No! But we can certainly ride the amazing wave. And it has been quite a ride.

Where can we find out more about GODencounters?
Thanks to young adults, there are a variety of online resources to help you discover more:

      News Staff. (2012, September-October). GODencounters: An initiative to engage young adults is still going strong after a decade . Adventist Today, 20(4), 22-25.

About A Allan Martin, PhD, CFLE

Jeremiah 24/7
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