When the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod inaugurated a national youth gathering in 1980, the sound system included microphones and an amplifier from a teen's bedroom.

Now the event is held in stadiums and employs the latest technology, including laser shows and “anything possible our youth gatherings have found a way to employ,” says Terry Dittmer, who has worked in the LCMS office since 1979. Last year, Dittmer became the director of youth ministry for the St. Louis-based church.

Dittmer has been involved off and on with innovative meeting planning since graduating from seminary in 1974. Employing technology is a way to show the gathering that the “church is not afraid of technology and it can be used to the glory of God,” he says.

Dittmer compares the national youth gatherings to this summer's hit television series “American Idol.” “The energy, the excitement, the special effects part of that show are very much part of our events.”

And, like “American Idol,” the audience plays a role in the outcome. While there's no phone-in voting, “teens themselves have input into the planning,” Dittmer said. The LCMS youth staff works hard to see that attendee demographics are represented in planning the events. For the national event, six teens from across the country serve three years on the planning committee, helping with everything from site visits to post-event evaluations.

It's not just teens who are represented on the planning committees and in the speakers and “up-front” people at the conventions. Work goes into representing all ages, genders, and ethnic groups at the events, Dittmer says. Spreading from its German roots, the Missouri Synod is “serious about the diversity that is part of our society and our culture. We definitely see diversity in our youth population,” Dittmer says.

His staff of four leads 24 steering committee members, and another 30 project-team managers and their teams, for a total of 150 planners. But “audience” involvement doesn't stop there. At the 2001 convention in New Orleans, 1,000 people were involved in an aspect of programming, and another 2,000 volunteered in other capacities.

He needs those volunteers to help run the event — he expects 35,000 people at the 2003 youth gathering in Orlando. Involving the volunteers is “one of the great joys” of the convention, Dittmer says. “The youth gathering is unique in the way we use so many people, and we're able to use people who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to do that in day-to-day work in congregations.”

Those who volunteer or help in any way — even suppliers — are mentioned in the program, which last year required six pages of small type. It's important to him that everyone is recognized. “Everyone is a gift to the gathering and we want them to see that everyone is loved.”

As director, Dittmer says he is more involved in the administrative and contract aspects of planning. But his various talents are employed as well: He's a writer and composer who has several songs and hymns to his credit, and he tries to write a song for each gathering.

Since becoming an RCMA member in the early 1990s and seeing its value, he now expects all his staff to join.

“RCMA tries to stay abreast of how things are developing in the industry,” he says. The RCMA expo is particularly helpful to his staff, giving them the opportunity to connect with 10 different convention and visitors bureaus without having to fly to 10 cities, and to connect or reconnect with those representatives, he says. At this January's RCMA, Dittmer is serving on a panel for vendors who want to know what religious meeting planning is all about.

“One of the curious things about youth gatherings is that we have no no-shows,” he says. In Atlanta in 1998, 32,000 people were registered; only four did not show up. “We're talking about a youth audience who has spent a huge amount of time getting ready, raising money, and looking forward to it. We don't need attrition clauses because we have no attrition.”

Dittmer has this advice for other planners: “Tap into the skills, abilities, and energies of people in the church. Don't be afraid to be creative. Let your imagination flow. Make use of available technology.

“Enjoy what you do. If you get bogged down in details on a bad day, it can be really bad. That's when volunteers pick you up and give you encouragement.”