Youth Unlimited, an organization helping churches challenge young people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and transform this world for him, is celebrating “100 Years of Belonging to God.”
The organization’s executive director Rick Zomer gave a brief presentation to the Christian Reformed Church’s 2019 Synod, reviewing the history and looking to the future.
“Youth Unlimited is eagerly exploring ministry offerings that equip churches in their ministry to emerging adults and are excited to see what God has in store,” Zomer said. As part of that exploring, Zomer led a workshop at synod asking “Why are they leaving, or What are We Doing?" looking at young people exiting the Church.
Still based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and serving churches across North America, Youth Unlimited has changed in form and in name over its century-long history. In 1919, associations of young Christian men formed the American Federation of Reformed Young Men's Societies. The early founders were young Dutch immigrants to North America who met in small groups for the study of scripture and personal spiritual growth. After a merger with a Reformed Young Women’s Society and a few subsequent iterations, the organization became Youth Unlimited in 1993. (See more of the history from youthunlimited.org.)
Several events over this year will commemorate the centennial, including a golf outing and two celebration dinners this fall in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Woodstock, Ont. Zomer also will participate in Inspire 2019, the CRC’s denomination-wide conference taking place in Windsor, Ont., in August.
Youth Unlimited currently supports churches in their youth ministries by organizing and carrying out short-term missions known as SERVE trips. Begun in 1989, 1300-1400 young people will participate in SERVE in 2019. Other programs from Youth Unlimited’s history include Compass 21, a youth ministry assessment tool developed in 1989; and longer-term summer mission experiences called SWIM (Summer Workshops in Ministry), which ran from 1962 to 2001, and Encounter (replaced SWIM in 2001 and merged with SERVE in 2006).
A 1994 SWIMer, Rita Masselink Gasser was shaped by the experience: “I helped out with Vacation Bible School. I had helped out with VBS in my hometown, but this VBS was different, and I was impacted by the way the church family reached out to the community and showed them God’s love. SWIM also provided me the opportunity to be inspired by other Christians’ service and willingness to help those in need.”
As early as 1920, annual youth conventions were a big focus of the organization's work. They ran for more than 80 years, with a brief break during World War II, said Elizabeth Bosscher, Youth Unlimited’s communications and events coordinator.
“In the early 2000s, we tried Summits, which were smaller convention experiences, at multiple places during the summer instead of one annual convention. In 2011, 2013, and 2015, conventions were replaced with ‘Live It,’” Bosscher said. Those were experiences of learning and living the Word, which combined a convention-like atmosphere with other activities. According to Zomer and Bosscher, an increased popularity in SERVE overshadowed “Live It,” so Youth Unlimited decided to place emphasis on SERVE, no longer running conventions.
“100 years of ministry has created ripple effects far beyond what we can imagine this side of heaven,” Bosscher said.
Past Banner stories about Youth Unlimited: