“Sometimes I feel like I’m the only young person who sticks around my church,” said Joya VanderMeulen, 24.
She’s not alone.
“Our generation is leaving the church in numbers that are unprecedented,” said Rev. Mark Hilbelink, 28. “It is a challenge, and it is difficult [for young adults] to be in such a minority, not only in our churches, but in our denomination.”
VanderMeulen, from Waterdown, Ontario, was one of 68 young adults who attended re:kindle, a leadership summit for young adults in the Christian Reformed Church. Most of them, ages 18 to 31, were nominated by local pastors and churches to attend the conference after showing leadership in their home churches.
Synod delegates and young adults prayed together.
Photo: Karen Huttenga
“It’s nice to know that there are other people in the same boat,” said VanderMeulen.
“What we are doing here does not have a lot of precedent,” explained Hilbelink. “[We’re] gathering a group of young adults who love the church, who want to see the church make it to the next generation, who want to grow in leadership in the church.” Hilbelink, one of the event’s organizers, is the pastor of Sunrise Community CRC in Austin, Tex.
However, Hilbelink said that many young adults, even pastors, feel depressed and burned out. Since many people aren’t comfortable with young adults in leadership, he said, it is an emotionally draining experience.
During the summit, the group gathered to worship, listen to speakers, watch short films, and discuss issues facing young adults. Then they divided up into small groups for discussion and devotions each night.
“It’s really cool to just hear everything from people from different backgrounds,” said Miguel Valdez, 19, from Word of the Cross CRC in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “It’s encouraging to know that the people that are in my denomination aren’t just statistics or cold numbers on a page, but they are people and God works in all of our lives.”
Jenica Groot-Nibbelink, from Dorchester, Ontario, appreciated the genuine conversation. “I wasn’t expecting the honesty and transparency that they’ve had, but I was really grateful for hearing other people voicing that frustration, too,” she said.
Over the weekend, the young adults heard several speakers ranging from young adult leadership to cultural gaps to dating relationships. One speaker encouraged attendees to persevere in the church.
“What I’ve really gotten out of this weekend is to not give up on your church just because you don’t feel like it’s convenient for you,” said Holly Dekkema, 18, from Newmarket, Ontario.
This dedication to the church is important to re:kindle leaders, but finding acceptance of young adult leadership in churches takes time.
“A big church is like an ocean liner,” said Rev. Moses Chung, director of Christian Reformed Home Missions. “If you’re going to make a turn, you’ve got to really know where you’re going. Maybe it will take five or 10 years to change the direction.”
“We feel like one of the major impediments is that churches just aren’t talking about this,” said Hilbelink.
To help address that issue, Synod 2011 approved the plan for this event. (Synod is the annual leadership meeting of the CRC.)
Amy Vander Vliet, 27, was a youth observer to Synod 2010, where the proposal for re:kindle originated.
“In 2010, the youth observers came up with a plan to put on some kind of a synod conference for young adults. [We] wanted to give young adults the chance to do something related to synod,” she said.
So in 2011, Vander Vliet and others proposed to synod a triennial young adult summit in order to provide a visible voice for the young adults and spark interest in church government. It also would foster an institutional pathway for young adult input in the CRC as well as connect young adults with their peers from the denomination.
So the re:kindle event was scheduled so that it overlapped with the beginning of Synod 2012. Each participant paid a $100 fee and paid for their transportation, and the denomination supplied food, lodging, and materials using $30,000 of gifts designated to the Leadership Exchange.
However, once the planning got started, the aim started to shift.
“We wanted people to show up and our common sense was that they wouldn’t pay . . . to show up for a junior synod,” explained Hilbelink. “When Amy came back from synod, we were sitting there like . . . ‘So, are we really expecting people to come to this?’”
Vander Vliet explained, “We realized we couldn’t get interest in a mini-synod immediately. If you haven’t been listened to locally, why would synod listen? We had to backtrack.”
Some attendees wanted to discuss the issues before Synod 2012.
John Horlings, 20, was especially interested in the creation stewardship report coming to synod. “I wanted to see the process of making these rules and regulations. I was talking to one [delegate], and one of the big issues is the environment,” he said. “It would have really been cool to see that conversation and offer a youth perspective.”
Others questioned the message of encouraging the participants not to give up on the church. Aaron Mamuyac, 23, also from Port St. Lucie, said, “Most people here are heavily involved in church. To me, the audience is wrong for the message and the premise of it is a little off.”
“There could have been more of a prevailing topic,” explained Valdez. “We needed a specific discussion point for conversation and a more clear objective and goal. I feel like that kind of got lost in the mix.”
Despite the change in direction, attendees to re:kindle did have an opportunity to talk with delegates to Synod 2012. After an address by the CRC’s executive director, Rev. Joel Boot, delegates and young adults divided into small groups to share their concerns and pray for the church.
“It’s really nice having the chance to have meals with synod representatives and really talk,” said Horlings.
The young adults were excited to continue the discussion in their home churches and bring more young adults into the movement.
“I plan to take this weekend and do it on a smaller scale back home, specifically with mentoring and learning new strategies with young people” said David Bultman from Kalamazoo, Mich.
“I thought it was going to be a lot more like synod, that we were going to be having a lot more discussion with synod . . . I thought that’s why we were here,” said Laura Vandervliet, 22, from Guelph, Ontario.
Despite that, she was still excited about the event. “God showed up this weekend and did amazing things. There are so many young adults who didn’t have this experience and are still struggling with the church. I want them to know what is going on—and that we are starting to have a voice.”