Youth ministry has its roots in the Lake Union. You may be familiar with the story of two boys, 14-year-old Luther Warren and 17-year-old Harry Fenner who ambled down a country road in Hazelton, Michigan, one hot summer day in 1879.
As the telling goes, they were worried about their friends who seemed to be slipping away from God and wondered what they could do to help them. As they walked and talked, the idea of establishing a boys’ mission society began to develop in their minds. Kneeling in a corner of a deserted field, they prayerfully committed their plans to God.
Soon after, the first Adventist Youth Society was born in Luther’s bedroom, comprised of six or eight boys. Although the group was initially not too charmed by the idea of singing, praying, and planning outreach together, Fenner and Warren persisted, and soon their efforts paid off. The society began to meet regularly, placing an emphasis on personal spirituality, healthful living, and mission.
The girls in the church got wind of what was happening and wanted to be in on the action. The meetings were then moved out of Luther’s bedroom and into the downstairs parlor under the friendly but watchful eye of an adult. The society soon expanded their schedule to include social events as well, and the youth of the Hazelton Church began to thrive.
The through line of this passion for youth service continues in the Lake Union today with the contemporary Youth Evangelism Congress, allowing youth and young adults an opportunity to pitch their ministry ideas and receive funding to, in the words of Youth director Ron Whitehead, “Just try something.”
Right after the last Youth Congress in February 2020, the world as we knew it changed, so we decided to conduct follow-up interviews with the 18 youth groups that received funding to hear how they navigated the unprecedented year and a half. As expected, the pandemic either killed or deferred some dreams, while others made the pivot. We were delighted to hear stories of how God poured out His Spirit on our resilient youth to make their visions a reality.
Three years ago, Carolina Torres moved to Indiana from Miami to attend the Indiana University Northwest. The 26-year-old soon noticed there wasn’t much to do after church services each week. “It was isolating and boring,” remembers Carolina. She had grown accustomed to joining other youth in Florida for walks on the beach or at the park. These activities were also a non-threatening way to mingle with prospective members in a neutral setting.
In June 2018, Carolina started a Sabbath evening program at the Hammond Church by hosting a vespers service, followed by a social—playing board games or a sporting activity on the five-acre plot outside the church. Although Hammond is a relatively small church of about 75 members, with less than 20 youth and young adults in attendance, it was a little disappointing to her that only 10 people showed up.
However, she was undeterred. After the 2020 Youth Congress, Carolina decided to give the idea another try… and then COVID wiped out those plans. Again, in June 2021, feeling this time would be different, she gave it a shot. And she was right. The After Glow program, as it’s called, brought out 40–45 people, two-thirds from the community. “People were locked up for a year and they wanted to do this,” surmises Carolina. “Praise God!”
It turns out many attending After Glow learned of the event during the summer Vacation Bible School and warmed to the idea. The ripple effect has continued with some of those families showing up for church services and enrolling their children for the first time in club ministries. For example, this year, the Adventurer Club swelled from 11 to 21 children.
In reflecting on the bumpy road to success, Carolina says it’s all about God’s timing. “It didn’t challenge my faith when it didn’t work [in 2018]. I realize God works in mysterious ways, and when He says, ‘It’s time,’ it’s just a wonderful thing to see.”
There are a few lessons Carolina, a care manager for a community action organization, is taking from this experience. 1) Prayer works. “There was a lot of prayer,” she notes. 2) A church that catches the vision is a blessing. “It was incredible to see how supportive the members were. If they couldn’t actively support, they donated.” 3) We’re stronger together. Various ministries joining forces, from VBS to club ministries, resulted in a lasting bond with the new families.
Green Bay Adventist Media
If you met Madeline Konshak right before the 2018 Youth Congress, it would not have been in church. The 23-year-old was struggling to reconcile her mother’s death and what she describes as poor treatment from the church. “I felt hurt that she was alone most of the last few years, with no one coming to see her,” explains Madeline. “It was hard for me to justify why I should go to church. I still believed in God but had a hard time with the church.”
Fast forward to 2020, Madeline was at the Youth Congress feeling more optimistic. She was receiving mentoring from the new church pastor, Kevin Moreno, and he encouraged her not to let the setback dampen her relationship with God.
When she returned home to the Green Bay Church, Madeline, along with two other young adults, Joel Campbell and Josue Hilario, decided to launch a YouTube channel, “Adventist Youth, Real Connections.” [https://bit.ly/3acZolh]
In the introductory video, uploaded March 2020, Joel says with urgency that they were keen on using the platform to connect with their peers. “We have to do all we can, now more than ever, to reach people and, most importantly, to develop a relationship with Jesus.”
For Josue, he expresses on video how it was important that the content reflect a certain authenticity. “We want to show with this channel that even with struggles, we can have a life centered in Christ.”
Editing the testimonials and devotionals has been Madeline’s responsibility. She says when she listens to the videos, she can’t help but feel hopeful. “Hearing everyone’s devotionals about what went on [in] their lives and how they’ve used their faith in a real way has encouraged my relationship with God.”
The lockdown slowed the number of videos produced so far to just under a dozen. “You don’t realize how much you need human interaction to get things done,” Madeline says, adding that they’re hoping to pick up the pace now that they’re meeting in person again. “We can’t give it up.”
They plan to invest in new equipment and eventually carve out some space in the church’s facilities for a studio.
Community Lifestyle Center
The Elmhurst Church Youth Department collaborated with Health Ministry to use food and nutrition to attract residents in their suburban community located west of Chicago. As a lifestyle center, the church had already established ties to the Chicago Vegetarian Society and were seeking opportunities to do even more.
Then came the pandemic.
“People were suffering and scared about COVID,” says Rodney Pidu Jr., a 24-year-old who works in the healthcare field and one of the key young adults involved in the initiative. “Everyone was conscious about building up their immune system. We wanted to just meet their needs by showing them how to keep their body healthy.”
In consultation with the board of elders, the Elmhurst Church took the plunge—making sure to operate with proper health protocols—and hosted a series of seminars and cooking schools between December 2020 and June 2021. The results exceeded their expectations.
“I was amazed by the amount of people from the community who are interested in these topics,” says Rodney. “When we held these events, 70 percent were from [the] community and 30 percent from the church.
“One of the most successful ones was the food fest. During that time, 100 to 200 attended during the day. We had quite a lot of people from the community and took that as an opportunity to connect them with our other ministries.
“One family really connected during one of the health seminars regarding the immune system and consistently attended our seminars. They began attending Sabbath services, and when they found out we had Pathfinder and Adventurers clubs, they enrolled their grandchildren. We started with something as simple as eating healthy, and they’re now worshiping with us.”
Rodney says this experience has taught him it’s not about trying to reach people with out-of-the-box ideas. “A lot of times when we’re trying to come up [with] ideas for evangelism, we’re trying to invent something no one has thought of before, but health has been here a long time, and there are new ways we can present it in a different light. Jesus came to heal, and people respond because they’re looking for something like that.”
Kenyan native Davis Gumbo sat on the board of the Northbrook Church as they brainstormed ways to reach their suburban Chicago neighbors. One idea tossed around was to host a health expo, drawing on the expertise of one of their members, Samuel Lespinasse, a medical doctor.
Around this time, the 32-year-old attended the Lake Union Youth Evangelism Congress and decided to apply for funds that could help take the health expo to a higher level. When the pandemic hit a month after the congress, the church realized they were positioned to meet a huge need for health education. They delayed the expo until October 31 (2020), a date with special significance. “We wanted to shift people’s minds from Halloween to something more spiritual,” says Davis.
On that Sunday, in the church’s fellowship hall and foyer, they set up eight stations, each representing one of the laws of health from the NEWSTART acronym: Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sunshine, Temperance, Air, Rest, Trust in God.
Davis recalls the church had prayed and said if only one family could be impacted, they would consider the mission a success. True to form, God opened the door. A young couple arrived at the health expo, and Davis learned the husband had some familiarity with Adventism during his early years. After the event, the church kept in touch. The couple eventually began attending and are still there today.
Davis, a mechanical engineer employed as an energy efficiency consultant, says one of the surprises from this initiative is it has bred a spirit of collaboration beyond Northbrook. They’ve since hosted another health fair, partnering with the Gurnee Church. Now they’re gearing up to host an evangelistic campaign with four area churches.
Nevertheless, he looks at evangelism not so much as an event. “If you’re a believer, then wherever you go, whomever you come in contact with, that’s an opportunity to make an impact on your community.”
Teen Connections for Christ and Fieldwork
The Lansing Church youth realized they needed a safe space to invite their friends to enjoy social events and study the Bible. One of those young people, Lilly Widdicombe, was a homeschooler at the time and thought these interactions with friends outside the church would serve as a good seed-planting opportunity. “Some young people can have a negative connotation of religious people, so it’s important for them to see that we were fun to hang out with… that normal people love Jesus, too!” she says.
Before COVID, they hosted game nights, Sabbath afternoon Bible studies, and also were hoping to increase their community outreach by donating socks and other essentials to the homeless. Those plans were placed on hold but, by the following spring, they were busy with a large-scale project to help their community.
On March 21, 2021, under the guidance of Chad Bernard, Michigan Conference’s Youth director, they partnered with the local chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace (SHP) and built 120 twin-sized beds for children and families in need, shattering the non-profit organization’s chapter record of the number of beds made in a day.
Although Lilly was away at Andrews University during this event, she says it’s experiences such as these that have really built her faith and deepened her connection with other youth. “The whole experience pushed me outside of my comfort zone and gave me a safe space to learn and grow from my mistakes,” says the 20-year-old biology/pre-med major. It was doing mundane tasks of sending out emails to group members and summoning up the courage to call strangers on the phone that allowed her to form a stronger bond with her peers and mentors.
She also came to appreciate the fact that you can “bloom wherever you are planted.” “Working for God can be a big thing, but it doesn’t have to be so big,” she explains. “I was working for God in my home church, doing small, everyday things that were missionary work, and that was beneficial.”