Ministry in a fractured landscape
Differing beliefs around sexuality and marriage lead to Ontario youth convention’s cancellation.
ON April 4, the All Ontario Youth Convention (AOYC) announced that its three-day May weekend was being canceled over concerns about the main speaker’s beliefs around sexuality and marriage. The speaker that had been hired was Kevin Makins, author of Why Would Anyone Go to Church? and pastor of Eucharist Church, an affirming congregation in Hamilton, Ontario. The planning team had spoken with Makins about his position and was satisfied that he wasn’t going to speak on LGBTQ issues. High school students across Ontario had already registered for the conference, which had “What Matters?” as its theme.
“In an age of political division, climate catastrophes, leadership failures and surface level interactions all around, it’s hard to believe that anyone cares about what counts,” the AOYC invitation said. “Come together. Meet with hundreds of other teens to stare down your fears, your doubts, and your questions. Courageously approach them head on, and do it in community. See if God has something to say about it all.” But the teens never got a chance to come together, ask questions or listen for God’s voice, because a climate of division among the adults in their churches interfered.
Though teens attend with a variety of church backgrounds, the AOYC has Christian Reformed Church (CRC) roots. The denomination holds its bank account and insurance, but “the CRC does not have direct involvement in programmatic decision making,” Al Postma, transitional executive director within the CRC in Canada, said. The assumption, however, that the CRC has more than an administrative relationship with AOYC is what prompted letters of concern about the choice of speaker not only directed at the planning team but to Canadian CRC leaders. Emails and online posts stating that “their children would not attend” led AOYC organizers to decide that “we could not proceed with an event that caused people to take sides.”
“We did not realize the extent of the division and polarization in the churches that attend the AOYC,” its leaders said in an open letter posted online. “Perhaps it’s impossible to lead an event like the AOYC given the current fractured landscape of the CRC.” Even though the team had deliberately avoided any mention of LGBTQ issues, “anything that could be viewed as outside alignment with the CRC could be misconstrued as pushing an agenda.”
Many congregations are planning alternate events in smaller groups of 3-5 churches.
While a few people who spoke with CC called the objections to Makins’ participation a “witch-hunt,” at least two others said that the planning team should have known that their choice would be controversial given the fact that Makins’ church is openly affirming. (Eucharist is part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec.) “We recognize that there were perspectives missing in our decision-making process,” the planning team said in its letter, and “we are frustrated with this reality.” But the letter also stated that they have been asking unsuccessfully for new members to join the team for two years.
Last June, the CRC Synod voted to keep a traditional stance on same-sex relationships. That debate has become both a lightning rod and a dividing line between members of the CRC, as it has for so many other denominations. And it’s not confined to church council rooms anymore. Many people see the AOYC controversy as a direct consequence of Synod’s decision. “In terms of polarization,” Daniel Zylstra said, “it’s symptomatic of the polarization throughout North America, mostly centred around conservative and Republican vs. liberal and Democrat.” Zylstra is pastor of Athens CRC in Ontario. “We can’t make room for each other. And now it’s negatively affecting our youth.”
Before the pandemic, as many as 1,000 people would attend the AOYC weekend annually. That makes it one of the largest gatherings of CRC people in North America, according to Henry Valkenburg. He has been a member of the planning team for 14 years. But “we don’t know how we can minister in this environment,” he said.
Anthony Elenbaas, pastor of Faith Formation at Immanuel CRC in Hamilton, Ontario told CC that today’s teens are conflict-averse, particularly in relationship to parents and adults. This was reported by the Renegotiating Faith report in 2018. And while “there are certainly youth that would die on this hill and in this fight, the point is that no one asked them,” Elenbaas said. “Youth are cannon fodder in the battles that their parents are waging around them. They are used by adults, marshalled in aggregate to make a point for both sides.”
On April 17, CC reached out to Kevin Makins for his perspective. “All I’ll say is that people aren’t doing well, and we need to have grace for each other,” he said. “If we can do that well, perhaps the youth won’t have to miss another opportunity to be steeped in the gospel.”
In the past, near the end of May, deacons across Ontario would be inviting teens in their home churches to “tell us about your weekend at the youth conference.” That won’t be happening this year. And the passage the planning team had picked won’t be flashed up on any screens or printed on T-shirts either. But it’s a verse that might resonate with many members of this fractured and fracturing denomination, especially those involved in ministry: “Turn [us] from worthless things. Give life to [us] through your word” (Ps. 119:37*).
*Psalm 119:37 uses the singular “me”; it is changed to plural here.
an aoyc weekend: what was it like?
“As a former youth leader, we have so many testimonies of God meeting youth at AOYC in ways we prayed all year he would get through to them in,” Kim Zantingh, who has worked in youth ministry for over 15 years, said. “Youth who were ‘troublemakers’ found God and repented; youth who had lost parents found healing in God’s love over this weekend; leaders who were tired from week in and week out silly questions found rest and recuperation and the energy for another year or two.”
My impression is that the young people who will miss out on the convention are being ‘used’ by other adults (older?) as ways of fighting their battles. I hope I am wrong about this.
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