Loewen filled unique role as district youth minister
by Myra Holmes
For nearly 10 years Wendell Loewen has served as the Southern District Conference (SDC) youth minister, a unique assignment among the U.S. Mennonite Brethren districts. While Chris Eidse serves the North Carolina District Conference as pastor for their district-wide youth group, Loewen’s role has been to support and guide an extensive district youth ministry that serves the 40 Mennonite Brethren congregations in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Loewen resigned from his district assignment this summer and a reception was held in his honor July 31, the first evening of the SDC convention. Loewen’s resignation was prompted by his appointment as Tabor College’s campus pastor and dean of spiritual formation, a position he adds to his duties as associate professor of youth, church and culture. Loewen, his wife, Shelly, and their three children live in Hillsboro, Kan., where they attend Parkview MB Church.
While other districts encourage youth camps and events, none duplicates the efforts of the SDC. Each summer some 1,000 students and youth workers attend the SDC junior, junior high and senior high camps. The Southern District Youth Conference (SDYC), scheduled this year for Nov. 13-15 in Hesston, Kan., typically impacts 650 high school students and youth workers, making it the second largest regular gathering of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
“This communicates to me that youth ministry is very important to the district,” says Chuck Taylor, chair of the SDC.
Loewen’s job description intentionally limited the district youth minister’s involvement so that events would continue to be primarily volunteer-run, says Taylor. Loewen’s task has been to come alongside the Youth Commission to guide and plan events, to nurture youth workers and to evaluate needs and provide resources for local churches.
Over the years, Loewen has seen the Youth Commission shift their approach so that camps and events complement the youth work of the local church. For example, to do more evangelism among youth, the annual youth convention intentionally emphasizes a first-time commitment to Christ. It’s a good fit, because as a weekend event, SDYC provides a great opportunity for students to invite friends who might not know Christ.
Camps, meanwhile, offer a longer getaway, taking students away from distractions and allowing them to “dig in deep” with God. So more and more, camps intentionally emphasize discipleship, another felt need.
Loewen has also seen an increased effort to nurture “homegrown leaders.” Instead of bringing in big name speakers and bands for camps and events, the Youth Commission seeks out local teachers and worship leaders.
Youth and local churches have responded well to these shifts. SDYC has made “a quantum leap,” Loewen says, in both importance and attendance—from about 200 to well over 600. A new convention for junior high youth is gaining momentum. Camps have strengthened and grown.
Loewen has been part of the growth, although he refuses to take credit, instead pointing to the many volunteers and youth workers whom he says are “extremely committed to God and to youth.” Working with such gifted people has been a highlight of his tenure, says Loewen, and is one thing he’ll miss.
He’ll also be sorry to leave the “front lines” of youth ministry, as he calls it—an apt term since he describes the needs of today’s youth in battle terms. “Our kids are growing up in the conflict of two contrasting stories,” Loewen says—the loud, self-serving voice of culture and the still, small voice of God.
Loewen sees hopeful signs in this fight for the hearts of the next generation: youth workers dedicated to helping teens identify and discern the voices around them. And an increasing emphasis on short-term mission experiences, which, he says, take youth out of their culture and help them experience the richness and depth of life with God.
SDC chair Taylor says Loewen’s passionate work on behalf of the district youth will be missed. “He has made an impact on the Southern District that is immeasurable, and for that we are thankful,” Taylor says.