Pilgrimage is an annual event in Fayetteville, N.C where youth groups from the eight United Methodist conference districts gather to worship, learn and celebrate. Thousands of people — middle and high schoolers as well as adult leaders and volunteers — devote a weekend in their busy lives to experience closeness to God.
Pilgrimage means so much to so many people, and I interviewed three of those people about their experiences. Sarah Lancaster is the overall dean for Pilgrimage and does a lot before and during the event. Danny Peck is my youth pastor and has a big part in the Methodist youth community. Lastly, Spencer Bowen is a youth at my church who will be playing in the house band this year. The house band gets to go on stage and lead the music.
This year’s theme is “Let Your Perceptions Shatter.” It is part of a four-year series “You Are Not Alone.” Being with thousands of people all worshipping together really brings that to light. “We all think our mistakes get in the way and we can’t live up to this ideal we have of ourselves and what God wants,” said Lancaster. “So let those perceptions of brokenness and failure shatter and trust that God’s love and grace are with you in every circumstance.” People need to let go of the idea that God only loves the people who are put together. He loves all and will not let failure and hurt get in the way.
Planning for Pilgrimage starts many years in advance. “A quadrennial theme, annual themes, and session scriptures are chosen by the Pilgrimage planning team,” said Peck. “With the exception of the main speaker and a few organizers, everyone on stage during the weekend is a 6th-12th grade student who has been elected to leadership by their peers or selected to share a talent by the design team.”
These student leaders are elected at other youth events during the year, such as Breakaway or ACS. “The design team is made of 7 people — tech, communications, mission, music, and event planner. Then we have smaller groups to help — stage manager, videography, photography, worship planners. They all have their jobs to do to make it happen,” said Lancaster. There are so many people that all work together and give up their time to make this a special weekend — made evident by the amazing stage activities displayed throughout the four sessions.
“Pilgrimage is one of the highlights of my year. I love going to the sessions and listening to the music and hearing the stories and worshipping,” said Bowen.
Personally, I love how the speakers deliver these moving messages that really make me think about my faith. I have lived in many places in my life, and this is my chance to reconnect with past youth groups and old friends. “Our own group gets to be out of their usual context and relax together,” said Peck. For youth especially it is so much fun to get away from daily life and just enjoy worshipping with each other.
“At Pilgrimage we allow ourselves to participate in the way that God breaks down barriers,” said Peck.
“Some people who don’t often come to church and youth go to Pilgrimage and they are brought closer to God,” said Bowen. Those who may not often experience the love of God get to push down those walls that might be surrounding them and grow in their faith. Whether someone is in a good place in their spiritual journey, or are feeling broken, there is a place for them. A very impactful part of Pilgrimage is the testimony that youth of all walks of life share. Stories of finding God in their times of need are truly inspiring and give comfort for many struggling with their own hardships. ”I have young adults who volunteer with Pilgrimage now because of how it impacted his/her faith journey and they continue to want to bring that to teenagers,” said Lancaster.
The impact of this one weekend stays with people far after the event — bringing a deeper relationship with God and fellow Christians.