When teens gather at this year’s All Ontario Youth Convention in late May, many will be following in the footsteps of their parents. The annual convention, which has grown to be the largest annual gathering in the Christian Reformed Church, will be 40 years old this year.
In 1975, more than 350 excited young people gathered that first year at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, for an event organized entirely by volunteer young adults.
“We were all young adults with a vision to provide a convention for all youth from the Christian Reformed churches in Ontario, an event where they would draw closer to God, grow in their faith, [and] be challenged to share the message of Jesus,” said Wilma Hiemstra, an organizer of the first convention. “In the 40 years [since], the goals have remained relatively the same.”
For over half of the convention’s history, the six leagues (geographic regions) of Ontario took turns hosting the convention, which meant kids criss-crossed the province in school buses to attend conventions in Kingston, Guelph, London, Hamilton, Ottawa, and St. Catharines. “There were a few lean years where the numbers went down and where youth events in general suffered. God was faithful, and the convention went on to grow [with] up to 1,000 attending,” said Hiemstra. Today attendance averages around 800.
As the convention grew, so did the caliber of the speakers and bands. Found Free, New Commandment, and a lot of local talent provided the music for the first convention, said planning team member Nellie Hoogendoorn. Speakers were often CRC pastors with a heart for youth, and praise teams were gathered from within the host league. In the 1990s, popular speakers like Brian Bosscher, Jolene DeHeer, and Jeff Klein spoke, while singers and bands like Jacob’s Trouble, Randy Stonehill, and Hokus Pick led worship. Recently, the convention has hosted speakers Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, and bands Article One and Rend Collective Experiment have worshiped with youth.
The convention is still run by volunteer young adults. Many former conventioneers later come back as leaders at subsequent conventions. Eleanor Kuyvenhoven is one of them. “I attended the first AOYC in 1975,” she said. “It was there that I had my first real encounter with God. It was the beginning of my Christian faith journey.” Kuyvenhoven attended one more convention as a teen, and has not missed one since 1991, when, as a youth leader, she started taking her youth group each year. She is now on the leadership team, organizing the important prayer component of the convention. About a dozen volunteers pray for the convention in the weeks leading up to it and help set up prayer rooms at the event; several also serve as spiritual directors and counselors during the convention.
Over the years, fashions have changed and speakers and musicians have come and gone. The convention is now held at Wilfred Laurier every year, allowing the planning team to put more effort into the event itself, rather than logistics. Young people from the early years are now sending their children to the convention.
But the focus—the worship, workshops, and fellowship—has been a constant. “AOYC has spanned so many generations,” said Wilma Hiemstra. “Truly God has been faithful.”