Registration for the annual youth convention, which has run since the 1970s, opened in January. Over 800 teens and leaders were expected to attend.
Tim Scholman, a member of the conference’s planning team, said after they introduced the speaker, they received a variety of emails and messages. The open letter says these inquiries were, “about the main speaker for AOYC 2023, Kevin Makins, and his beliefs around sexuality and marriage.” The team said some of the letters were kind, while others have contained “hurtful accusations.”
In June 2022, the CRC’s synod confirmed that the denomination holds to a traditional biblical interpretation for teaching on sexual matters. Yet Eucharist states, “2SLGBTQIA+ persons and families participate as full members in our community, for baptism, service, and participation at every level of leadership” and that pastors are “free to marry couples who are a part of our church community, and this is not restricted on the basis of sexual identity or gender expression.”
Natasha Chandler, another member of the planning team, said some churches said they were pulling their youth’s registrations and asking other churches to do the same. She said, “We were also facing the loss of support from organizations that we've partnered with for years. There would be a financial impact, but that wasn't a factor in our decision.”
The AOYC attendees come from a variety of churches and denominations, but the AOYC has been supported by the CRC denomination for years. Scholman said that until receiving emails after the speaker announcement, no one on the volunteer team was, “aware of the tone, intensity, and polarisation of conversations happening within many CRC congregations.” He said that for many it’s now obvious, “Anything that could be viewed as outside of alignment with the CRC would be misconstrued as pushing an agenda.”
Al Postma, transitional executive director, with the CRCNA Canada said that the CRCNA Canada was not directly involved in the decision to cancel AOYC and was not involved in “programmatic decisions for AOYC, including the selection of the main speaker.”
Makins said two members of the planning team visited him in person to share their reasoning for the decision before releasing the public letter. Makins said, “I feel a sense of grief that the ethical debates and the kind of discerning that is going on in the life of the wider church and the wider CRC church is having such a direct and negative impact on the youth.”
In 2018, Makins blogged about a different missed opportunity where he was uninvited as a speaker after a planning team had approved him for Pitch’n Praise, a youth camping event run for decades by the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. That event is no longer running.
The theme for AOYC 2023 was to have been “What Matters,” based on Psalm 119:37: “Turn me from worthless things; give me life through your word.” Scholman said, “We still feel that Kevin Makins is a local speaker uniquely gifted to speak into that theme.” He said the team had asked Makins about his beliefs and how he navigates them in spaces like the AOYC where there are a variety of congregations and denominations represented and they were satisfied with his response.
Greg Harnden, a father of four in Classis Quinte, understood Makins wasn’t scheduled to talk about same-sex marriage but he nonetheless had concerns. “As in any youth ministry the conversation many times goes off topic,” he said. Harnden, who’s been involved in youth ministry for more than 20 years, said he’s had concerns of the “direction of the AOYC in the last number of years” and said the planning team “was, in my opinion, very naive to think that this speaker was not going to be an issue with parents.”
Daniel Zylstra, a pastor at Athens Christian Reformed Church, had a dozen youth from his church planning to attend AOYC. Zylstra said, “AOYC is a sadly predictable casualty of Synod ’22’s decisions and how those decisions have stoked division in the CRC. I am frustrated because, as far as I can tell, this was so predictable.”
Scholman said, “We will not host a gathering that invites further division for teens, parents, youth leaders, and churches. That has never been the heart of the AOYC and runs contrary to our vision. We do not see a way forward in this season. Our hope is that by choosing to pause at this critical point in the planning cycle, a path for future years will be found.”
Makins suggests part of that should be to determine the goals for the annual convention—whether it be primarily “to make youth CRC Christians" or to "make a space for youth to meet Christ." He said either of those goals could be met but would likely take different means.
The open letter from the AOYC said, “The AOYC depends on shared leadership from a diverse range of churches.” It said calls for participation in leadership over the past two years have received “very few responses.”
“It’s a reminder that we all have a role to play in investing in and shaping the direction of ministries that are important to our communities,” the AOYC letter said.