It’s not exactly Christmas in July, but the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium opening night theme is based on a passage in the gospel of Luke that is traditionally read at Christmas Eve worship services, around the country.

An anticipated 5,000 Presbyterian youth attending the 2016 Triennium July 19-23 are invited to consider again the Christmas story of shepherds terrified in their fields, when an angel of the Lord comes to visit them.

Rodger Nishioka, a Christian Education professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, is particularly interested in faith formation for youth and young adults. Presbyterian News Service caught up with him to discuss the significance of opening the “GO” Triennium theme with the shepherds’ Christmas story.

What is the significance of beginning the 2016 Triennium with the story of those who “are terrified” when “the glory of the Lord is shone” to them?

It seems to me the Triennium design team made an inspired choice to open with the passage about the call to shepherds to go and see the newborn Messiah. According to Luke, the savior is born in a humble setting, and the first people told are shepherds—not exactly the upper echelon of society. And what do they do? They go to worship him. I imagine Mary and Joseph added this to their lengthening list of surprises. So how great is it that as this community of youth and adults gather for the 2016 Triennium, we first hear about the birth of the Messiah, and like the shepherds, go worship him?

How excited are you to present this story on opening night?

Really I’m more honored than excited at this point. The excitement and nervousness will come. But the kind of nervous that is good because it reminds me to rely more on the Holy Spirit as I pray and prepare. I am more excited about how the young people and adults who participate will be called by the Holy Spirit throughout the whole week to renew the whole Church for the glory of God. I am so honored to be a part of that.

Based on your work, and history of working in the mainline church, do you sense that today’s youth long for the chance to participate in “a worthy adventure”—as theologian Stanley Hauerwas has termed it?

My sense is young people are eager to be participants in both seeing the kingdom of God and helping to bring that kingdom, even in part, to the world that so desperately needs the good news of Jesus. I worry that for too long we have said to young people that their faith in Jesus is at best an exercise in convenience—that you participate only when it is most easy and accommodating to you and your own needs or worse, to the needs of the Church as an institution. That is so not what Jesus taught, how he lived and led his disciples. 

Throughout Triennium week, this “GO” theme will challenge and invite young people to embark on that worthy adventure of following Jesus right now, in their homes, their schools, their churches, and their communities. The truth is, when young people get fired up about something that is righteous and just, it's best to either go along with them or get out of the way.  

Given the theme, we think it’s interesting to be considering the opening night of Triennium in July of 2016, now during the Christmas season. What is your reaction?

There is something cool about this season and anticipating the opening of the Youth Triennium in seven months. I was recently talking with a group of young people about Advent, reminding them that we Americans are notorious about being lousy at waiting and that young people especially are often called "impatient." To be sure, there are some things we should be impatient about—like justice and righteousness, but this season of waiting is tough for many of us. But Advent is a time of preparation. We are preparing our whole selves for the coming of Jesus, of course at Christmas, but also for his second coming. 

Recently a friend of mine in the Central Florida Presbytery was telling me about making plans for transporting their delegation to Purdue—and how excited the youth were. I love knowing that there are young people and adults who even now are readying themselves for how God is going to work in them at the 2016 Triennium. That kind of waiting and preparing inspires me.

Triennium director Gina Yeager-Buckley set up a nativity scene a few days ago. As she laid out the pieces, Yeager-Buckley says she moved to the shepherd figurines and was immediately at Triennium. In her mind she could see the “flocks” of youth making their way to the first night’s worship, to their small groups and then back out the doors on the last day.

“It was uncanny, but I began to hope for the young people coming, and then going,” says Yeager-Buckley, “that they will see and hear this Christmas story in July, in a way that will permeate their senses— and connect them with these shepherds in Luke for the rest of their lives.”


For information about sponsoring or bringing a group of young people to the 2016 Triennium, July 19-23 click here or contact the Triennium registration team. Applications for qualified adults interested in serving in volunteer positions at Triennium are available here.