WASHINGTON — Thousands of youth flocked to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Saturday for the ecumenical gathering “Together 2016,” which sought to unite those of various backgrounds to “stand together for Jesus,” and had been preceded by an online endorsement from “Pope Francis,” the head of Roman Catholicism.
The event featured speakers such as Francis Chan, Ravi Zacharias, Lou Engle, Christine Caine and Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd, as well as music from Michael W. Smith, Hillsong United, Lecrae, Jeremy Camp, Lauren Daigle, Casting Crowns and Kirk Franklin, among others.
“Everything now is protests: ‘I’m against this’ or ‘I hate that.’ We really believe there is a longing to come together. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can come together around the hope of Jesus,” organizer Nick Hall of PULSE told the Washington Post. “There are moments when God’s people come together, and God does something that can heal, change, define generations.”
Worship leader Matt Maher, who identifies as Roman Catholic, also told the outlet, “If we’re singing the same songs together, then we can’t yell at each other.” He has outlined at other ecumenical events that he believes it is his calling to work toward to the unification of Christians and Catholics.
“We’ve never seen a unified church before in the history of the church since the Reformation. We don’t even know what it looks like,” he said at OneThing 2015. “I think what the work of unity starts with [is]: It starts with us praying together. It starts with us fellowshiping together. It starts with us having a common respect for each other, a love for each other.”
A number of those on stage mentioned unity as they addressed the crowd, including Lecrae, who declared in prayer, “When Your word tells us how to pray, it doesn’t say, ‘Go and speak to your Father, go and speak to my Father.’ It says ‘Our Father.’ It’s collective. We are family. Let us pray as family, God. Coming together saying, ‘We care about one another.'”
Lou Engle spoke of racial divides, referencing the cities of Minneapolis, Ferguson and Dallas. Francis Chan asked those gathered if after praying and worshiping together, attendees would be willing to be rejected for Christ together.
Liz Shedden, who serves as the director of Chan’s office, told Christian News Network that Chan “prays through the request” before agreeing to speak at an event, but that “he doesn’t look into many details surrounding the event, so he knows very little of the event itself.”
Casting Crowns frontman Mark Hall told reporters that he thought the gathering was timely considering recent headlines.
“[Our nation] is in a bit of a storm and a lot of people are hurting. It felt like everyone just came together and prayed it together,” he said.
But some had expressed concern prior to the event as organizer Nick Hall (no relation to Mark Hall) had announced that Jorge Bergoglio, also known as Pope Francis, would be delivering a video message to those in attendance.
“We are humbled and honored by his involvement and are eager to share his message with the crowd that gathers at Together 2016,” he told the Christian Post last month. “That His Holiness would choose to speak into this historic day is a testament to the urgency and the need for followers of Jesus to unite in prayer for our nation and our world.”
Hall also traveled to Rome to meet with the Roman Catholic leader and other Vatican officials ahead of the event.
“We’ve been praying for this and God has been answering our prayers,” he said in an online video in speaking of Bergoglio’s support of the gathering, explaining that he and a representative from the Vatican discussed how to unite Christians and Catholics.
A video endorsement from Bergoglio was posted and circulated online through the group’s social media channels ahead of the event, encouraging youth attendance.
“I know there is something in your heart that moves you, and that makes you restless, because a young person who is not restless is an old person. And you have youthfulness and youthfulness breeds restlessness,” the Roman Catholic pontiff stated.
“What is your restlessness?” he asked. “Do you know what it is or do you not know? Do you want to know what your restlessness is? I invite you to a great gathering of youth in Washington, D.C. to find the One who can give you an answer to your restlessness.”
Hall posted the endorsement on social media on June 21, which sparked much controversy.
“Well, guess I’m not going,” one commenter named Alberto wrote. “Sorry, but this is a bad choice.”
“Christians and false prophets will join hands and become one in this event. The great falling away is happening before our very eyes. We will not be silent!” another named Kenny commented.
Hall, aware of the concerns, told the crowd on Saturday, “We’re not saying it’s time to compromise Scripture. But there is something about reaching across the aisle.”
The event ended five hours earlier than expected due to the heat index, which resulted in a number of attendees suffering heat-related ailments.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that a message from Bergoglio was played at Together 2016, which was previously promoted by the organization PULSE, led by Nick Hall, in a national press release: (see “Pope Francis to Address Americans at National Mall Event ‘Together 2016’ With Special Video Message.”) For unknown reasons, PULSE decided to circulate a video invitation/endorsement from Bergoglio via their social media channels rather than playing a video message at the event as the group initially announced.