One Hundred Years Young
A grateful look back at 100 years of Reformed youth ministry.
On September 17-18, 1919, eight young men from Chicago and Michigan met to organize an organization we now know as Youth Unlimited. They sought to promote “the future maintenance of our Reformed life-view” and named themselves the American Federation of Reformed Young Men’s Societies (AFRYWS). Interestingly enough, all were first-generation immigrants who were acquainted with the teaching of the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper. Their old country Gereformeerde Jongelingsbond would serve as a model for their program.
Membership in local societies consisted mainly of working young men, post-high school. Some had just returned from military service in World War I. Emphasis would be on male leadership with each local unit self-governed. “Mixed” young people societies as found in so-called “American” churches were frowned upon.
At AFRYMS meetings, the curriculum consisted of Bible study, followed by topics in church history, current events, social studies and occasionally issues before upcoming synods. Calvin College professors often wrote the study materials. In many ways these societies made up for a lack of college education.
Not to be outdone, young women organized a decade later, but annual conventions remained segregated. I attended my first one in 1955 at Rock Valley, Iowa. Together with Harry Mans and Casey van der Stelt, our small delegation from Niagara had been charged to bring the next convention to Hamilton, Ontario, the first one ever in Canada.
Although the Rock Valley event was “for men only,” there were no objections to female companions at the final banquet in nearby Orange City. The talk of the town were two young men from Alberta who had flown their own plane to Iowa. They were known to offer flights. Two young women accepted on the condition they would be back in time from their lunch break. Once airborne, the pilot realized he was low on fuel and had to fly to a distant air field to fuel up. When the two store clerks finally returned to work, their tale of a two-hour break raised more than a few eyebrows. Eventually the proposed merger of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s federations put an end to separate conventions.
Driving home from Rock Valley with an additional passenger, Henk Hart, we brainstormed how we could outperform the convention we just left behind.
Richard (Uncle Dick) Postma, one of YCF’s founders, provided just enough guidance to Hamilton’s convention team before stepping back and letting folks like Dick Fahrenhorst, editor of the Calvinist Contact, businessman Peter Turkstra, Rev. John Ehlers and others to pull off a convention unlike any other. Turkstra got local businesses to underwrite the mass meeting at the Hamilton Forum and some activities at McMaster University’s Drill Hall.
Each convention featured an oratorical contest. For decades, local and regional competitions determined who would compete for a Calvin College scholarship. The five contestants at Hamilton were Warren Boer, Carroll De Kock, Dirk Hart, James Olthuis and Howard Van Til. Each delivered a problem/solution speech. Like contenders at other conventions, they would later surface as prominent leaders in church, education and society.
Not long after the Hamilton event, conventions became campus events, at times reaching 2,000+ attendees. The co-ed format brought the added benefit of budding romances. After my 20 years on the staff of what is now Youth Unlimited, I frequently run into couples who met their life companion at a YCF convention.
YCF also provided a ministry to military personnel by sending out a pocket-sized devotional and hospitality guide. At its peak there were 3,600 recipients. A full-time secretary often added hand-written notes to help alleviate fears and loneliness. One incident brought a few chuckles when one of our men, at a remote post in northern Turkey, reported he was interrogated by his superior about the contents of the hospitality guide in his shirt pocket. Its list of European addresses looked suspicious.
The late 60s and early 70s were a challenging time in youth ministry. The world was in turmoil. Insight magazine tackled topics reflecting the times: we ran articles on mental health, the occult, being adopted and our denomination’s priorities.
In 1962, SWIM (Summer Workshops In Ministry) was launched, giving young people opportunities to help outreach ministries in other communities. Today, a short-time program called SERVE has replaced it. Also in 1962, a junior girl’s program was started called Calvinettes (now GEMS), while an independent Cadet Corps program for boys, located elsewhere, was persuaded to move in with us under the umbrella of United Calvinist Youth.
Although YCF conventions no longer exist, regional gatherings like the one that takes place in Ontario each May continue to flourish. Those of us who grew up in first generation immigrant families treasure how YCF groups helped shape our vision. We had a federation song, “Calvinists Are We” sung to the tune of “Sound the Battle Cry.” Older Christian Courier readers may still recall its lyrics. At conventions we got exposed to new gospel music unlike any found in our hymnals, which made us feel a bit complicit in an activity that wasn’t quite “kosher.”
During the past 100 years much has changed in youth ministry. Faith formation, hands-on ministries, new media and leadership training may be packaged differently, but the vision of that small group of men in 1919 remains the same. With communication tools those pioneers couldn’t possibly imagine, God’s youthful church moves on creatively and without reservation. This calls for a big celebration!