by Cindy Tutsch
In 1879, teens Luther Warren and Harry Fenner wanted to do evangelism for Jesus. Praying together often for ideas and vision, young Fenner and Warren initiated the first Adventist youth group. Their Michigan Adventist Youth Society was successful from the beginning, and soon spread to other conferences.
In the early years of Adventism, youth work was often initiated by youth for the purpose of sharing Christ with their non-Christian friends, first in their own communities. Soon, their focus expanded, and youth began extending their evangelistic outreach to the world. Early SDA Youth Societies’ emphasis on personal revival combined with regular missionary activity buoyed the members, providing a strong sense of purpose, structure, and community.
So how does youth ministry compare today with the purposes of youth societies in the early years of Adventism?
Although nearly every facet of youth ministry today — Pathfinders, short-term mission trips, youth camps, youth and young adult retreats, youth camp meeting programming — could be said to have sprung in some way from Warren and Fenner’s dreams in 1879, there are differences . Are those differences in principle, or merely differences in practice?
Today’s youth programming and ministries are usually adult-initiated (GYC might be an exception) and administered. Although there is still an underlying aim of evangelism, that focus is often centered on evangelizing the youth of the church, rather than for the conversion of non-Adventist youth. In addition, the methodology for achieving the salvation of Adventist youth is often more entertainment-oriented than organized with the purpose of providing opportunities for youth to do sustained, systematic evangelism.1
Let’s again note that Youth Societies in early Adventism sprang up as youth-initiated and youth-managed organizations in response to Christ’s clear mandate to evangelize the world. (Matthew 28:19-20) Although the response to the call to witness and save souls was strengthened, perhaps even awakened, by adults in Adventist congregations who shared this passion for the lost and by Ellen White’s own messages on youth organization and empowerment, nevertheless early Adventist Youth Societies were largely the outgrowth of youth commitment.
By 1903, however, adults had largely assumed the management of Youth Societies. Certainly, every organization goes through periods of growth that include some degree of institutionalization. But this growth need not stifle the initial purpose for the organization if some plan is kept in place whereby that original purpose and vision is not obscured by bureaucracy or programming that does not contribute to the founding purpose. In the case of Adventist Youth Societies, the vision of reaching the world for Christ appears to have remained intact at least to the turn of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, however, personal proclamation and verbal witness have been in serious decline in churches now influenced by a post-modern culture. Adventist youth ministries may now be in danger of not only a loss of mission (outward — toward others) but even a distortion or reversal of mission (inward — toward us). Additionally, it is becoming increasingly rare to find an Adventist youth professional who is willing to identify ‘Babylon,’ much less suggest that the mission of Adventist youth includes calling other Christians out of it.
In 2011, at least in North America, with occasional exceptions in the Hispanic and African-American culture, there are few or no Youth Societies, no Missionary Volunteer societies, and even Adventist Youth Societies (AY) are largely defunct. With the exception of student literature evangelism programs, on-going, systematic organization of youth for the purpose of working for the lost is largely missing from Adventist youth ministries.2
Though there is evidence of informal small Bible study groups within the Adventist youth ministries structure, much of today’s youth ministry focuses on youth rallies, camporees, retreats, forums, and camp meeting programming. These feature dynamic preaching, drama, and culturally relevant gospel music, with little or no emphasis on organizing and training for soul-winning outside the Adventist community.
In his book, Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage, evangelical James Logan writes, “For a long time, some leaders and analysts within Methodism have regretted the unfortunate tradeoffs experienced when Methodism went ‘a whoring’ after [the respectability of the more formally-structured main- stream denominations], and shifted its accent from lay ministry to professional ministry.”
Although the transfer of youth ministry from youth to professionals may have affected the paradigm shift from evangelism to entertainment, that shift may not have been inevitable. Youth professionals could successfully restore evangelism in youth ministry if they again see themselves as coaches and mentors, training youth for actual soul-winning, rather than seeing themselves as primarily programmers of inward focused ministry.3 It seems evident that today’s Adventist adolescents need more than entertainment or fast-moving programming to anchor them to Christ and to His church body.
Youth ministries advocate Kevin Ford once wrote, “The problem with most Christian young people is that they have no game. We keep giving them all the things they need to do as Christians — read the Bible, have devotions, study, pray, do God’s will, do the right thing — but they have no reasons to do all that. There is no game to use it in. They need a mission.”
The reason today’s young people do not appear to have the same appetite for evangelism as evidenced by the members of early Youth Societies may be they’re getting little exercise in evangelism. Adventist youth in the 21st century, particularly in western culture, are in danger of being spiritual couch potatoes — over-entertained and under-challenged, and filled with spiritual junk food. To appreciate the meat of the Word and the beauty of a living, life-changing relationship with Christ, they must once again organize and seek training in order to experience the rejuvenating reality of evangelism.
It is yet possible that this generation of youth will re-capture the vision of early Adventist youth societies and become that segment of the church body who model, lead, and inspire the church at large to engage in Spirit-led inclusive evangelism. Maybe it will be today’s youth who will see beyond gender, age, education, power, and tradition so that, “the boundary of man’s authority will be as broken reeds, and the Holy Spirit will speak through the living, human agent, with convincing power.” (Selected Messages Book 2, pp 58-59)
1 I am defining evangelism here as sharing the Good News about Jesus (the gospel message) in the context of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14.
2 There are some fine exceptions. Philadelphia Youth Challenge and REACH Philadelphia led by Pastor Tara Vincross is a model of systematic, on-going youth-led evangelistic training.
3 A good example of such coaching is in Robert Folkenburg’s generationally inclusive ShareHim initiative.