Youth “Rule” in Pennsylvania
Youth-led outreach leads conference agenda.
Six in 10 young people will leave the church permanently or for an extended period starting at age 15, according to research by the Barna Group.1 As leaders at the Pennsylvania Conference watched youth grow through Sabbath school, Pathfinders, summer camp, and academy, then slowly disappear as young adults or when they went to college, they decided that youth ministries could no longer be business as usual. They needed to offer more—something that would attract young adults.
In 2005 the Pennsylvania Conference hired Kris Eckenroth to serve as youth and young adult ministries director and to tackle a specific challenge. He was to create ministry opportunities that would help accomplish the conference mission, “Revealing Jesus, Making Disciples,” then mentor churches in developing youth ministries at the local level.
“Our emphasis was to take youth and young adults into hands-on ministry for Jesus, mentoring and discipling them as they worked to share the gospel in practical ways,” says Pennsylvania Conference president Ray Hartwell. “In our new emphasis the youth director would also resource and train local youth leaders to do the same—create hands-on ministries for young people to engage in with their communities and each other, and, ultimately, experience a growing relationship with God.”
Knocking on Doors
Eleven students began knocking on doors in 2006 as Eckenroth partnered with Jim Wibberding, then pastor of the Lansdale Seventh-day Adventist Church, to create Pennsylvania Youth Challenge (PYC), the first literature evangelism (LE) program in the conference in more than a decade. As students knocked on some 6,000 doors that first summer offering literature, prayer, and Bible studies, they were learning about sharing Christ and seeing God use them in powerful ways.
“It was hard work, but well worth it. Not only did we earn money for school, but we grew in our walk with Jesus,” says James Weigley, a student leader for this new team.
The following year two PYC teams headed into communities: one covered the Lansdale church area, while the second canvassed the Harrisburg area, passing along all Bible study leads to the Harrisburg First Seventh-day Adventist Church. More than 20 high school- and college-age young people spent five weeks of their summer sharing literature and God.
Under the leadership of Tara VinCross, senior pastor of Chestnut Hill Adventist Church in Pennsylvania, PYC continued to grow. In eight weeks during the summer of 2014, 21 young people knocked on the doors of about 44,500 homes and prayed with more than 6,000 people in communities across Pennsylvania. The group was divided into teams that traveled to conference churches and schools for one week at each location and canvassed their communities. They offered Bible studies and handed out information about upcoming events. Bible study leads were given to the local churches.
A “Cool” Ministry
While that first PYC team was knocking on doors in 2006, another team of high school- and college-age students was sharing Jesus with children who would never have the opportunity to attend an overnight summer-camp program. More than 35 unchurched children attended that first Cool Camp, a summer day-camp program held at the Kenhorst Boulevard Seventh-day Adventist Church in Reading.
“We found that day camp was an extremely powerful evangelistic tool,” says Eckenroth. “We had unchurched families forming bonds to their neighborhood church that they would have never otherwise experienced.”
The following year the Cool Camp team traveled to four different locations, offering a one-week summer day camp.
“We experienced the same results in these locations,” Eckenroth says. “A strong connection with the unchurched.”
In 2010 the Cool Camp staff grew to two teams traveling to both churches and schools for four weeks, offering a one-week summer day-camp program. Today two teams share Jesus with kids for five weeks every summer.
Cool Camp leaders find that more than 80 percent of the children attending the program across the conference don’t know simple Bible stories or who Jesus is. But they’re learning. In 2011, 36 children accepted Christ as their Savior at the Kenhorst Cool Camp. The experience deeply impacted the young camp leaders.
“I would do this every week, all year long, for free,” says staff member J. C. Mendez, Easton, Pennsylvania. “Cool Camp is evangelism, reaching children who then go home and sing the songs and share the stories and lessons they learned with their parents,” a teammate added.
That summer changed the Kenhorst church, too. They realized that God had given them a big mission field in their own backyard. They invited the children who attended Cool Camp to come to a kids’ program on Sabbath afternoons at the church. Students from Blue Mountain Academy in Hamburg helped with the venture. Children began attending not only the Sabbath afternoon program but also Sabbath school, church worship services, prayer meeting, and Friday night’s Youth Connect. Whenever the doors were open, children came. The next summer more than 90 children—about 60 a day—attended Cool Camp. Church members sponsored children to attend Reading Junior Academy, next to the church. One preteen girl was baptized this past summer. Her mom is now studying too.
“Coming into this trip, I expected and hoped I would grow closer to the Lord in ways I never could back in the States . . . but I never could have anticipated just how impacting this trip would be,” says Anthony Schiavone, a member of the Souderton Seventh-day Adventist Church. “I have changed and learned so much about God and myself. . . . Even more than that, I am excited to put these new changes to use back home, because I have grown not only for myself, but for others.”
Schiavone was a part of the annual youth and young adult evangelistic mission trip. Each summer young adults are invited to raise funds, receive training, and share the gospel in another country. They preach a 19-sermon series that shares the foundations of the Adventist beliefs. Then they’re challenged to come home and preach the same series in their own community.
“Despite growing up Adventist, many of these young people say they never fully understood Adventist beliefs,” says Hartwell, who launched the first mission trip specifically for young people in 2010. “These ‘missionaries’ were strengthened in their own faith, with several being baptized alongside those they shared the good news with. Others were baptized in their home church just before preaching another evangelistic series here in Pennsylvania.”
Hartwell was inspired to organize these mission endeavors when he read what Ellen White wrote about how this type of ministry is a powerful educational and life-transforming tool: “There is no line of work in which it is possible for the youth to receive greater benefit. All who engage in ministry are God’s helping hand. They are coworkers with the angels; rather, they are the human agencies through whom the angels accomplish their mission. Angels speak through their voices, and work by their hands. And the human workers, cooperating with heavenly agencies, have the benefit of their education and experience. As a means of education, what ‘university course’ can equal this?”2
An Army of Youth
Reaching youth and young adults, nurturing them in their growing relationship with Christ, and equipping them and leading them into lives of service are top priorities for the Pennsylvania Conference—and lives are being transformed.
Christina Ivankina, a public school English teacher in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, was part of a youth and young adult evangelistic trip and joined the Cool Camp team for several summers. When the team held Cool Camp in Shamokin, Ivankina knew many of the kids. More than 70 kids attended that Cool Camp sponsored by the Shamokin Adventist Mission Group, which has only six members but is passionate about reaching its community. When two key members moved away, the group wondered whether it could continue Cool Camp. Ivankina, though, was determined not to quit, because, she said, these kids needed to know Jesus. The children lived in poverty, and hope was hard to find. So Ivankina moved closer to the area and became a part of this small mission group. Together they continued to share Jesus with the children and their families throughout the year.
Each month Shamokin mission invites children to a Cool Camp follow-up. They play games, learn Bible stories and life application, and eat. Members found that many of the children go without meals because their families can’t afford enough groceries, so each month they prepare a meal for the children.
Many kids have grown beyond the recommended age of Cool Camp, but they keep coming anyway. When Ivankina teamed up with the Pennsylvania Conference women’s ministries team and invited girls 12 and under to a princess tea, several teenagers begged to be allowed to attend as well. Nearly 40 girls—all of them from the community—filled the fellowship hall to learn what it means to be God’s princesses. Church members worked behind the scenes to make the event possible.
This is what conference leaders hoped to see: young people not only serving in a youth mission project for a summer or two but living a life of service and mission to their community.
“While present finances have led to changes in how the Pennsylvania Conference is able to staff leadership positions, we have renewed a commitment to leading youth and young adults into mission,” Hartwell explains. “We have drawn together a team of passionate individuals who are taking leadership for several individual ministries that engage our youth and young adults in service for Jesus and in personal spiritual growth. Ellen White writes, ‘With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Savior might be carried to the whole world! How soon might the end come.’3
“We continue to be committed to this inspired counsel for our church, which is motivating our restructuring youth work for mission,” Hartwell said.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 271.