Leading through Relationship: The Story of Youth in the CRC

Young people from a Youth Impact Club in Honduras are helping to bring healing to their communities.

There’s a vision in Isaiah 2 of a house on a mountain. Lifted high above the surrounding hills, the house draws all nations toward it. People climb the mountain together to learn God’s ways and walk in his paths. As they approach amid so many different cultures and peoples, they come a bit wary as well. 

On the mountain, however, there’s a promise that all will learn a new way of being in relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa. 2:4).

On the mountain of the Lord, there’s enough—enough food to squash scarcity, enough peace to quell violence, enough room to hold difference.

Today, across the nations, guides draw us toward the mountain of God. Sometimes those guides lead through their decades of wisdom. And sometimes, thanks to God’s mysterious wisdom, those guides lead us from their youth, with humble hearts fiercely dedicated to living justice and loving mercy.

Youth and a Love of the Nations

For more than 50 years, World Renew has witnessed the leadership of youth across continents, cultures, genders, and needs. In Cambodia, for example, young people are working with a World Renew partner to take the initiative in changing their stories of drug addiction, childhood malnutrition, and visual impairment in their village to one of hope and potential for the future. 

In the slums of Bangladesh, thousands of young girls are bravely reframing cultural narratives that label them as “less” because of their gender. In Honduras, hundreds of adolescents are learning to tell their stories of trauma and abuse in order to bring healing, not only to themselves but also to their communities still scarred by civil war. And more than 1,500 young adults throughout Canada and the United States step up each year to ask what they can learn and who they can be for the cause of peace.

These are bold and sometimes surprising voices drawing us all nearer to the mountain of God.

“In our work, we have learned the voice of justice from even one of these guides can create a positive ripple of impact for generations,” said Ida Kaastra-Mutoigo, co-director of World Renew. “When mouths are silent about abuse of power, hearts are broken.”

Such is the case with Ben VanderWindt. Originally from Hamilton, Ont., VanderWindt has participated in a number of leadership activities within the denomination. He is a political science and religion major at Calvin College who has been a young adult representative at Synod. He’s participated in Calvin Seminary’s Facing Your Future program and Fuller Seminary’s Growing Young team. VanderWindt also has benefited from a variety of internships and programs with World Renew.

He said these experiences have triggered something deep within him: a calling that led him to advocate for global peace and church unity from Hamilton, Ont., to Kabale, Uganda; Uppsala, Sweden; and the New York headquarters of the United Nations.

Throughout his travels, VanderWindt has developed a particularly strong passion for how issues of migration and displacement shape the call of love for the Reformed church today. This passion, he says, flows from his experiences of church as a young boy as well as his broadening understanding of church thanks to congregations around the globe.

“The Christian Reformed Church loves people well, and I have directly benefited from that,” he said. “I have also known love through the global church thanks to my time in Kabale, Uganda, as part of World Renew’s Embark program. During that trip, we lived with the community, followed local church leaders, and learned from their leadership and development strategies. I learned a lot about the everyday, consistent grace of God, even in the way he provides bread and water. That’s a love that God has for us that I have not always appreciated.”

VanderWindt found himself particularly moved by the significant love of the Kabale church in advocating for justice in Uganda. Church leaders frequently gather around tables with government representatives and business owners to learn from each other and better communicate the needs of Uganda’s citizens. In Uganda, VanderWindt experienced what he deems to be the very best aspects of a loving, Reformed faith: “informed, relevant, thoughtful and intentional shaping of culture, driven by justice.”

That kind of faith has left an impression, inspiring VanderWindt’s participation as a youth representative for World Renew at the ACT Alliance, a network of Christian nonprofits serving internationally. “ACT has really maintained my hope for the church in a global context. There are so many smart, passionate and faithful youth making a difference in their countries,” he said.

Now interning with the ACT Alliance at the U.N., VanderWindt continues to extend the love of Christ in new contexts. Still, his first love and deepest hope for the gospel rests in the structure of the church itself and the way it will invite future generations to draw their communities toward God’s love.

“There’s a consistent problem for youth with feeling valued in the church,” he said. “Together we get to keep asking, ‘What does it mean for the church to empower young people, even when those youth may express their faith differently than the generation before?’ We need to learn how to hear new ideas while also honoring tradition in order to bring the unified voice of the gospel: loving our neighbor as we love mercy, live justly, and walk humbly with God.”

Mentors and Relationships Are Key

For the past several years, Faith Formation Ministries has overseen a growing network of Youth Ministry Champions. Each of these champions, present in 30 out of the 48 classes (regional groups of churches), seeks to empower and encourage those working on the frontlines of youth ministry in Christian Reformed congregations. Many of them also serve in youth ministry in their own congregations.

This network of people has witnessed youth leadership in every area of the denomination. Some of those Youth Ministry Champions gathered in Chicago at the end of April and shared stories of doing ministry with young people.

Ron DeVries oversees the network of champions. “Hearing story after story from our Youth Ministry Champions about the amazing leadership of youth across our denomination, I am filled with hope and optimism about the youth in our congregations,” he said. “We need to celebrate the stories of young people leading in our congregations.”

A major theme emerging from these conversations was the importance of mentoring.

Ron Hosmar is the Youth Ministry Champion for Eastern Canada and commissioned pastor of youth and congregational life at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Ottawa, Ont. He started a mentoring program in his church about six years ago. All the youth in grades nine through 12 are paired with an adult in the church.

Hosmar was intentional about asking young adults to be mentors. He knows they have much to contribute to the life of the church and understands how important it is for everyone at church to form genuine relationships. The mentors and mentees meet monthly to talk about life and faith.

“As our youth graduate, we hold an evening of celebration with the mentors and mentees that includes food and sharing and praying for them,” Hosmar said. “It’s wonderful hearing how the mentor relationship has blessed both the mentee and the mentor. Youth ministry models are changing, and mentoring is a key component for any youth ministry moving forward.”

Hosmar is now working with other churches in his classis to help them develop mentoring models that work for their unique congregations.

“Relational warmth is so important to youth ministry,” DeVries said. “It is so important for churches to be continuously walking alongside the youth in their church through genuine relationships.”

Research from Fuller Youth Institute in their Growing Young and Growing With books; from Renegotiating Faith, a report by five Christian organizations in Canada; and from Faith Formation Ministries’ Family Faith Formation materials backs up what these youth ministry leaders are experiencing in their own corners of the denomination.

“Beyond the programs that our churches set up for young people, the relationships that we form with them are key to their faith formation and involvement. This is where mentorship plays a key role,” said DeVries.

Many of the champions are young people themselves. They love the church, its ministries, and seeing other young people bringing their gifts to the community of believers to build a body of Christ that fully lives out the heart of the gospel.

“We want to celebrate the work and leadership of these young people,” said DeVries. “We need each other to fully and faithfully follow Jesus Christ, and that includes both young and old, and it is a gift to see people from all generations working together to achieve that unity and fullness.”

After all, it’s only when we seek to hear every voice, when we climb the Isaiah mountain together, that we learn God offers enough peace and hope for all of us.

About the Authors

Paola Fuentes Gleghorn   

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