The goal of the Austin Texas Youth Conference was to help everyone, both Latter-day Saints and their non-LDS friends, grow closer to the Savior. They succeeded in a big way.

They say things are big in Texas—big state, big ranches, big stories, big ideas.

And after meeting the LDS youth in Austin, the state’s capital, you’d probably add a few more things to the “big” list. Things like big testimonies and big hearts.

As a matter of fact, their love for Christ is so big that they wanted to share it with all their friends, LDS or not. They wanted to host an activity that would bring LDS kids and non-LDS kids closer to the Savior and closer to each other. They also decided that such an activity would be the perfect way to cap off the year’s seminary study of the New Testament.

Both youth and adult leaders were called to help organize the event. They decided that since football is such a big sport in Texas, former BYU and Houston Oiler quarterback Gifford Nielson would help attract a crowd. They invited Tim Ross, a Church member well known in the area for his wacky TV weather reports, to speak, figuring he would draw people out too. The conference would include slide presentations, testimonies, prayers, workshops, and of course, there would be some serious, heartfelt talks about the Savior—how much he means to the youth of Texas and to people everywhere. There would be lighter activities, as well, like a dance and a Texas barbecue.

Equipped with an irresistible agenda, they went out to contact various youth groups in the vicinity and invite them over for the big day.

That’s when a big problem came up.

“I contacted several youth groups, and they were really excited at first,” said Anna Francis, 17, a member of the youth planning committee. “But when it got to their ministers, they decided they didn’t want them to come to a Mormon activity. Some of them seem to think that Mormons aren’t Christians, so they said we had no right holding a conference on Christ. It’s sad, because we were trying to help them see that we really are Christians.”

At that point, Plan B went into effect. Since all the youth groups invited declined the invitation, the LDS kids were encouraged to invite their nonmember friends from school. “All the Mormon youth fasted and prayed that everything would work out, and that more people would want to come,” said Tomasyn Harlow, another member of the planning committee. “We invited our friends and talked to people all over the stake. It worked. We ended up with over 225 people.”

Actually, that was quite an impressive turnout. “On a beautiful Saturday like this, they could have been in a million other places,” said Bob Ferguson, a member of the stake high council who was assigned to coordinate the conference. “They could be out waterskiing, fishing, hitting all the new movies. They could have been out working and earning some money. But they wanted to come here to get closer to Christ.”

And the event turned out to be a big success after all.

“I think this is the best we’ve ever done,” said Johnny Apel, 16. And that’s a pretty big compliment. After all, this is a stake that sponsors memorable activities at the end of each seminary year that correspond with the book of scriptures they’ve been studying. They’ve put on things like a “Nephite Festival” that was their version of a county fair in the land of Bountiful, complete with a realistically simulated earthquake and storm, followed by a beautiful talk on Third Nephi.

Then there was the big “Wander in the Wilderness,” where the seminary students were taken to a desolate area, divided by their birth months into twelve “tribes,” and required to complete 12 Old Testament-oriented tasks like rescuing Daniel from the lion’s den, building a tower of Babel, and building an ark. At the end, they were treated to a big feast, similar to that of the Passover.

With activities like that, rating the “Come unto Christ” youth conference number one really says something.

What made the event such a big success? The location wasn’t out of the ordinary—much of the program was held in the chapel, and the workshops were held in church classrooms. Meals were brought in and either eaten outside in the Texas sunshine or inside, picnic-style, on blankets on the gym floor.

So it was the theme itself and the attitudes of the kids involved that made this such a big event. “What could be more important than to come unto Christ?” said Tisha Perry, age 16. “I hoped that this activity would help me to get closer to him, and it did.”

You could actually see some changes taking place right before your eyes as the day wore on. “I really don’t know where it started, but lately I’ve had a real problem with listening to what my parents say and following the counsel they give me,” Greg Harkrider, 16, told the entire group. “I just want them to know that I’m glad that I listened to what they said and came today to learn more about Christ. That’s what I need to be here for. I’ll try to be better because of this.”

And responses from the 30 or so non-LDS kids who did come were positive as well. Rick Moore and Eric Bradshaw, two 16-year-olds who met on the set of a movie they were both involved in, came to the conference because the subject was of great interest to them both. Rick is LDS. Eric is Presbyterian. “Pretty much everything that’s been said here today I’m 100 percent with,” said Eric. “This is really encouraging for me.”

Darla Marburger, 16, who came with her LDS friend Milli Egger, 14, had a response similar to Eric’s. “This has really helped me to grow spiritually,” she said.

“I’m just glad someone has taken the time to teach us more about Christ,” added Milli. “It’s important to learn now, when we’re young and impressionable, so we have a better chance of turning out right.”

Richard Cromwell, a very popular high school teacher and an ordained Methodist minister, also paid big compliments to the event. “This is great!” he said. “I’m all for anything that helps bring the kids closer to Christ.”

The spirit of the day was not diminished when the lights in the gym went down low and the music was turned up for the dance that finished off the conference. A stake music committee, made up mostly of youth, had previously selected all the music that would be played, making sure it was fun to dance to, yet didn’t contain inappropriate lyrics.

While the music played inside, the youth on the organizing committee wandered outside for a breather. They inevitably began discussing the big subject of the day. “Being a part of all this really makes me want to work harder to be better—to be more like Jesus,” said Mark Davies, 17. “That would be so great.”

“We heard a lot about Christ today, and his spirit was here,” added Anna. “That’s exactly what we wanted.”

“Oh yes,” Thomasyn agreed. “Even though it didn’t turn out exactly like we’d planned at first, it was a big success.”

There it was. Still another big to add to the Texas list.

[photos] Photography by Bret Gunnell and Lisa Johnson

[photos] Stake members and their non-LDS friends blended together perfectly. Classes, workshops, video presentations, speakers, games, and even discussions at lunch helped them all to “Come unto Christ.”