I can clearly remember the scene in front of me as I stepped off the hotel escalator. It was June 2007 and the bustling crowd was an eclectic mixture of sorts. Young and old, pastor and lay-leader, urban church planter and suburban mega church aficionado. As I sidestepped my way through the massive crowd at The Orange Conference, it would be an understatement to say I was overwhelmed. After all, I was 22 years old, had been a Christian for only four years and on a church staff for less than two weeks. I might as well have had the words, “new,” “young,” “uncomfortable,” “insecure,” and “terrified” tattooed across my face.
Our team shuffled past exhibitor after exhibitor. Giant screens showcased the latest church media software. Some hipster lookin’ dude was selling equally hipster lookin’ shoes called TOMS. At one point, my good friend and co-worker, Jenn, and I walked up to a booth where a young man was enthusiastically selling the latest software in kid’s ministry check-in technology. As I browsed the endless marketing pieces and giveaways, he reached out to hand me a free DVD. “Here you go, sir! Are you a pastor?” My eyes suddenly met his and I returned a wide, blank stare. I could not formulate a single word. You would have thought he asked me to recite the scientific formula for making glue. There was an uncomfortably long pause before my eyes darted toward Jenn. “Yeah, he is” she replied with a smile. As we turned to walk away, it had finally dawned on me. Wow, I’m a pastor.
Since I became a believer, God has always had to convince me in pretty big ways that I was in the right person in the right place. I believed in Him, but I didn’t yet believe in myself. I was “just an artist” who kids found interesting. Yet, my first Orange Conference reminded me of just how creative our God is. And how He uses artists and musicians, actors and dancers, writers and singers and designers made in His image, people who I so strongly identified with, to inspire a generation of young people to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. I had never seen anything like it and it grew my faith in how I was made. It was even that year that I was introduced to the folks at the Belmont Foundation (who are now called The Mentoring Project), which started my life-long journey to be a part of rewriting the fatherless story through mentoring. These were the first of many growth moments The Orange Conference experience would afford me.
There was the year after I had my first child and I was wrestling with the decision to publicly share the full extent of my testimony for the first time. That was the year Reggie said that God had been at work writing a story of restoration and redemption in my life just so people could have a front row seat to His grace and goodness. It’s His story of restoration, and He’s using me to tell it. I had never heard anything like it and it grew my faith in my own story.
There was the year my Orange Specialist connected me with other kids ministry leaders who were just a couple years into ministry and gave me an opportunity to listen to their stories and speak into their lives. I had never done anything like that and it grew my faith in my ability to inspire and mobilize others.
Two years ago, I’d decided to mix things up and attend the conference as a volunteer. I suppose I considered it an act of appreciation for all it had done for me and wanted to experience it from a fresh perspective. I was stunned with the way those teams immediately embraced me and encouraged me throughout the entirety of the experience. The other volunteers gave me a place at the table, Orange staffers took the time to speak into my life, and the live stream team welcomed me with open arms and treated me like family. I had never felt valued quite like that before and it only reaffirmed my faith in this community I’ve known to be real all these years.
Year after year, as I’ve soaked in every message and every new thing Jesus would use to allow me to see, hear, do and feel, I’ve started to realize more and more that this is a safe place for someone like me to grow. Orange Conference has given me a place to belong.
Nearly 10 years later, not only do I get to work alongside other Orange leaders, dreaming and strategizing new ways to give kids a better future but I also get to serve on the live stream team to help bring the conference experience into people’s homes and churches! Please note that I am the guy who once called his Orange Specialist in full-on hyperventilation mode when he had to speak to 400 adults in “big church” for the first time. How could I possibly form actual words that made sense in front of thousands watching online across the world? But my tribe at Orange has always had a way of helping me see beyond myself. And that’s what true family does. They see you, they encourage you, they challenge you and they mobilize you to do things you would have never thought possible.
In more ways than one, Orange has watched me grow up and I couldn’t have asked for a better “home” to learn, play, and nurture my gifts. This year, I can’t wait to see how they challenge and celebrate ministry leaders and be reminded of the way their story has collided with mine.
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