National Youth Commission aims for deeper connection, greater impact
by Myra Holmes
Since 1976, the USMB National Youth Commission (NYC) has focused primarily on planning the National Youth Conference, a once-every-four-year event for high school students. These gatherings have provided a way for youth and youth workers from Mennonite Brethren congregations across the U.S. to connect, worship, serve and learn. For countless numbers of students, National Youth Conference has been a turning point as they’ve made first-time commitments to Christ, renewed their faith or answered a call to ministry.
That’s about to change—for the better.
While the national events are good, a few days every few years simply isn’t enough to go deep, says NYC chair Kyle Goings. “We realize we need to expand our focus.”
So the NYC is working on a new strategy that will expand connections and impact for youth ministry in USMB congregations. The strategy will focus on the student, the youth worker and the desired impact.
Student connections still important
The national gathering isn’t going away. Now called the National Youth “Convention” to delineate it from district “conferences,” the event will continue to be an important way for students to connect.
But Goings, who also serves as youth pastor at First MB Church, Wichita, Kan., says that in his own ministry, his impact is greater when he becomes more than an “event planner” and actively empowers students to embody the gospel in their families, school and community. Similarly, the NYC is turning attention to empowering ministry between gatherings, and the convention will become a time to celebrate the connection and ministry that’s happened in the interim.
This shift in focus might mean a change in venue. The past three conventions have been held in major cities to provide opportunities to serve, but a more intimate camp setting could be a better fit for celebration and connection. The NYC is exploring options and will be asking for input this summer on possible locations for the 2019 convention.
Connecting youth workers
NYC hopes to invest in USMB youth workers through what they are tentatively calling the “National Youth Worker Network.” All those who work with youth ministry in USMB congregations, whether full-time staff, part-time volunteer or “anything in between,” will have the opportunity to connect and tap into resources to encourage and equip their ministry.
“We want to be intentional about helping youth workers connect with one another in order to encourage and support each other and to share their passions, talents and resources to build stronger youth ministries at the local church level,” says Russ Claassen, Southern District youth minister and network director for the NYC. “Our Mennonite Brethren churches are filled with great youth leaders; let’s find a way to use that to make our ministries better.”
Claassen says that connecting with other youth workers locally is valuable. As youth pastor at Koerner Heights MB Church, Newton, Kan., he regularly meets with such a group himself.
“A network of USMB youth workers would not replace that, but enhance it,” says Claassen.
In addition to a common passion for youth, USMB youth workers share a common theology and perspective on the issues youth face. And, he points out, the network could be a place for church planters, churches that don’t have youth workers or parents to find support.
Opportunities for connection have already begun. NYC partnered with Group Publishing, a well-known resource for church ministry, to offer discounted registration for their Simply Youth Ministry Conference and with the National Association of Evangelicals to offer free registration for a webinar on ministry to teens and young adults. Claassen says response to both opportunities was small, “but it’s a start.”
In the future, NYC hopes to offer free webinars through a partnership with the Wichita, Kan., campus of Tabor College, the USMB school in the Midwest. And a new website being developed will include a “resource bank,” where youth workers can share ideas. NYC hopes to launch the new website this summer.
The first step toward developing such a network is finding and contacting USMB youth workers, which is easier said than done. There is no USMB database of youth workers, especially volunteers, so the NYC has been investing significant time in contacting churches. Goings says that congregations can help by simply letting their youth workers know that resources are available.
Bigger impact through service
The past three National Youth Conventions have incorporated opportunities for students to serve in urban settings, which has been a powerful experience for many. But here, too, the NYC dreams of bigger things. They hope to equip students for service well beyond the convention through what they’re tentatively calling Project: Serve.
Through Project: Serve, the NYC hopes to make funds available to “world changers” with ideas to serve their community. For example, suppose a youth group notices that impoverished people in their community need winter shoes. Project: Serve might help them rent a small storage unit, promote a shoe drive and distribute shoes at Christmas time.
In addition to the funds, Project: Serve will provide guidance, connecting these youth groups with reputable resources or with others who have tried similar ideas. Ideally, a “story crew” will document each funded project, and videos of the projects will be shown at National Youth Convention.
Goings cautions that Project: Serve is still a dream. While the NYC hopes to have concrete steps in place by this summer toward the next convention, youth worker network and website, it will take more time and research to implement Project: Serve. “It just means we want to get it right,” Goings says.
Big dreams mean NYC is moving into “uncharted territory,” as Goings says. So the NYC craves prayer as they step out in faith and seek God’s guidance. They also welcome ideas or questions in this “very organic” process. Email the NYC at firstname.lastname@example.org –Myra Holmes
Photo: Named 2015 was the most recent National Youth Conference and took place in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Vance Frick for CL
Photo: Youth and sponsors working at a community garden in Denver during Named 2015. Photo by Vance Frick for CL.
Thumbnail photo: Members of the NYC that planned the National Youth Conference in 2015. Photo by Vance Frick for CL.