Organizing a Strong Youth Program: YFAN, Youth for All Nations

1. Beginning an ethnic church children and youth program: My wife (to be) and I grew up in the Swatow Christian Church in Hong Kong, an excellent evangelical church with a great emphasis on children and youth programs. It was also an unusual ethnic church in that it used the Chaozhou or Swatow language exclusively, in a predominantly Cantonese city. We personally experienced the wonderful long-term impact of its many ministries, especially its strong emphasis on children and youth, throughout our own lives. So, when we helped start the Cincinnati Chinese Church fifty years ago, one of the first things we did was to help develop a solid children’s program, and then soon thereafter the youth ministry.

Photo 1A: One small group of the youth program of the Swatow Christian Church in Hong Kong, where we grew up and learned how important the children and youth program was.

Recognizing that children growing up in America are more American than Chinese, we emphasized the need for strong English-speaking teachers. Some people wanted to maintain Chinese culture and language through the Chinese church. However, we knew instinctively that English-speaking teachers would be better able to help kids understand the bible and Jesus’ teachings. Even children who were not born in the USA but migrated with their parents to America quickly become predominantly English-speaking, except for simple phrases in the home language. And in those days, that language could be Cantonese, Taiwanese or, later, Fuzhounese, quite different from Mandarin altogether. So if the kids were taught in Chinese at church, in practice that would often mean Mandarin, a third language to them, creating yet another complication.

I remember visiting a Chinese church in Paris, where children and youth were expected to attend Sunday school in Chinese (I don’t even remember which Chinese language), in order to maintain their Chinese proficiency. As a result, the children’s and youth programs collapsed, apparently because the kids could not fully understand biblical concepts in Chinese, got bored with church, and dropped out one by one.

We really cannot easily mix the two underlying issues of language learning and faith: if we want to teach Chinese, a very good intention, we could and should do that as a distinct activity, in order to allow the teaching of the Bible and Christian principles in the most familiar tongue, which in our case, for American-born or -raised kids, would be English. The primary role of the ethnic church is still to teach the bible, not the ethnic culture or language. Ethnic churches that mixed their motives had mixed results. However, determined families that wanted to train their children in bicultural biblical literacy were able to do that at home, for example, by doing home bible readings in Chinese, which I think is an excellent approach.

2. Cooperation with other churches: At this juncture, God sent a faithful servant, Bruce, whom we met in the “American” church we used for our services in the first years. We became great friends, and Bruce would thereafter always pop up to help us when needed. Typically, he would volunteer for one-year commitments each time we needed him, assuming that after that, we would be on a stable footing. That was an excellent strategy, which allowed us to not be too reliant on him and to face up to our own problems! Before I forget, Bruce is actually Caucasian, but it seemed so “natural” that it was easy to forget.

But the good thing was also that Bruce would later keep referring great (Caucasian) volunteers to us, especially to help our youth program, usually young men and women with a strong commitment to serve and willing to adapt to a cross-cultural situation. He himself would be available to be a special speaker, advisor or teacher as needed. He was essentially in many respects an “unofficial” cofounder of our church, from the critical beginning years, as well as at critical times later.

When we took youth teams to Central America to help the Chinese churches there, we discovered a commonplace phenomenon that illustrated the lessons and strengths of inter-church cooperation. There might be three Chinese churches in a city, all speaking different ethnic Chinese languages, coming from different cultural backgrounds (commonly Hong Kong, Mandarin-speaking from Taiwan, and Taiwanese). Because the adults were separated by language and culture, their youth groups were also kept separate, even though in reality they spoke one common language, i.e., Spanish. As the visiting mission team, we sensed the youth were, unfortunately, being kept separate mainly because of adult cultural differences, causing side effects on the youth and the youth programs. At least, that’s how it seemed to us, as outsiders.

But whenever our Cincinnati mission team arrived on the scene, the local leaders would graciously allow their youth from all three churches to join in our activities together. This made for an excellent “critical mass effect”, producing heartwarming youth activities, readily conducted in English and Spanish. Often we had a combined youth retreat, which was indeed very encouraging and inspirational for all, us included.

Photo 1B: Beginning the program in Cincinnati: we could pack all the children and youth in one room. Start small but keep growing them.

But the sad thing was that when we left, they broke back into three separate groups, each youth group too small to be effective, maybe only a dozen youth in each. Thereafter, we heard that the three groups apparently did not interact much, nor did they grow very much. This was a sad reality of ethnic problems among Chinese churches, complicating more important spiritual needs. But it reminds us to seek active cooperation with other churches to encourage and strengthen each other, especially important in helping to nurture the lives of the next generation.

3. Working with cross-cultural impact: I had heard that in a predominantly “white church” near us there was a very active youth minister who taught his youth strong Christian apologetics and academically tough classes, much more intense than the usual Christian youth group activities. I was intrigued, so I stopped by to join their Wednesday night services.

On one of my first nights I met Stephen, a young man in high school who was giving the evening’s message. I was astonished that he was teaching as if he were a seminary professor, with very lucid points and lots of good handouts. I befriended Stephen and the youth minister, Ben, through lunch and coffee chats. Ben began to send over some of their more adventurous youth to visit with our church, and we began to invite him over to be a special speaker at our church.

So, both consciously and unconsciously, we developed a great informal mixture of Asian and non-Asian youth, especially the youth from Ben’s group who had been well trained by him in apologetics and who later, amazingly, became great role models for our youth. Their names are practically legendary in our church lore: Avery, Greg, Stephen, Chad, Shawn, Jenny, all visitors initially, who then became integral members of our youth group, mission team members, youth counselors, and even youth ministers.

I joked to Ben that we had taken the “cream of the crop” of his youth group, in one way or another. He seemed pleased by the turn of events, pleased that his youth could serve the greater worldwide church. Over the years, indeed we continued to “borrow” (is “steal” too strong a word?) much of their “top talent”. I would assume that, in hindsight, if we were thinking of some kind of a win-win scenario, which I really wasn’t, Ben’s youth likely also learned many cross-cultural lessons by joining with us, much as we learned from them. In addition, since I loved to bring youth on missions trips, it became natural to include these “white kids” as integral parts of our mission teams. For the most part, they had never been out of the country before, especially to far-away Asia, so this was a wonderful additional life experience for them also.

4.Youth for All Nations concept: The combined mission efforts added to the flavor of our growing concept of “youth for all nations” (YFAN), meaning youth from all nations, to all nations. All this reinforced my strong impression that the church will grow if churches learn to work with each other, especially churches of different ethnicities and cultures, to learn great lessons from each other through “cross – pollination”.

Many of these “white kids” and even our American -born Asian kids experienced rather strong culture shock when we went to places like Thailand, where the people, culture, languages and food were all radically different, more so than going to neighboring Hispanic locations in the Americas. Suddenly halfway around the world, our cross-cultural team experienced eating fried insects, hearing and speaking exotic native languages, interacting with multi-ethnic tribal minority children, and riding on gigantic elephants.

I have no doubt that these mission trips changed the lives of many of these teenagers from different backgrounds, so that when they later moved on to long-term mission work themselves, or to solid professional lives supporting missionaries around the world, the impact of these youthful, truly cross-cultural mission trips was indelible.

Just a caveat, short -term mission trips work only if we are serious, and are not just bringing kids on missions for a fun time. The key, I felt, was the serious nurturing and training before going. Fully preparing them well, I liked to say, was 80% of the value of the mission, so that they could fully absorb the cross-cultural lessons when they reached the field. Indeed, the general nurture and training of youth in the youth group in a cross-cultural setting in Cincinnati, was basically also like that, a small flame that could create a wonderful fire and momentum, a key inspiration for all of life.

*To continue, please read Part 2*

Photo 2: Many, many, youth counselors are needed for a thriving youth program; just a sample of youth counselor All-Nations backgrounds, including Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Brazil in addition to USA origins.

1.从一个民族教会的儿童和青年事工开始。 我和我的妻子(当时尚未结婚)在香港的汕头基督教教堂长大,那是一个出色的福音派教会,非常重视儿童和青年事工。它也是一座不寻常的民族教会,在一个粤语为主的城市仅使用潮州话或汕头话。教会里面不同的事奉事工对我们产生了很棒的长期影响,特别是同工们对儿童和青年非常重视。因此,五十年前,当我们帮助建立辛辛那提华人教会时,我们做的第一件事就是帮助制定了坚实的儿童教导计划,然后很快开始了青年团契。

图片1:A.香港汕头基督教会的青年团契中的一小部分,我们在这里成长,并了解了儿童和青年事工的重要性。

我们认识到在美国长大的孩子更像美国人而不是中国人,因此需要有讲英文的好老师。有些人想通过华人教会保持中国文化和语言。但是,我们本能地知道讲英文的老师会更好地帮助孩子们理解圣经和耶稣的教导。即使是不在美国出生,而与父母一起移民到美国的孩子,也很快会以英语为主,除了在家中还使用一些母语中的简单短语。当时,他们的母语可能是广东话,台湾话或后来的福州话,都与普通话完全不同。因此,如果在教堂里用中文教授孩子,实际上这通常意味着用普通话来教导。这对孩子们来说,很可能是第三种语言,会带来另一个麻烦。

我记得去巴黎的一家华人教会,那里的儿童和青年被要求用中文来学习主日学 (我甚至不记得是中文的哪种方言),以保持他们的中文水平。结果,儿童和青少年事工失败了。很明显是因为孩子们不能完全理解中文的圣经概念,对教堂感到无聊,然后一个接一个地辍学。

我们不能轻易地将语言学习和信仰的两个基本问题混合在一起:如果我们想教中文(这当然是好事情),我们可以并且应该单独来教。而教导圣经和基督信仰的原理应该用孩子们最熟悉的语言。对于美国出生或长大的孩子,最熟悉的语言是英语。民族教会的主要作用是教导圣经,而不是民族文化。有些民族教会混合了这两个动机,也就有了混合的结果。但是,想要在双文化背景下对孩子进行圣经教导的家庭,可以在家中做到这一点,例如,在家中用中文阅读圣经,我觉得就是一种极好的方法。

2.与其他教会的合作。 在我们主日去的“美国”教会的最初几年中,我们遇到了上帝派遣的忠实的仆人布鲁斯(Bruce)。我们成为了很好的朋友。此后布鲁斯总会在我们需要帮助时出现。通常,每次我们需要他时,他都会志愿承诺帮助我们一年。因为他默认在此之后,我们将处于一个稳定的基础之上。这是一个极好的策略,它使我们不必太依赖他,而直面我们自己的问题!对了,布鲁斯实际上是白人,但他和我们如此亲切,使我们很容易忘记这一点。

而且更好的是,布鲁斯事后会继续推荐优秀的志愿者(也是白人志愿者)给我们,尤其是为了帮助我们的青年事工,志愿者们通常是年轻的男士和女士,他们坚定地致力于教会事工,并愿意适应跨文化的环境。根据需要,布鲁斯本人会担任特别演讲者,顾问或老师。从我们教会初创的头几年到后来的每逢关键时刻,基本上他在许多方面都是我们教会的“非正式” 联合创始人。

当我们带青年队去中美洲帮助那里的华语教会时,我们发现了一个普遍现象,反映了教会间合作的教训和优势。一个城市中可能有三个华语教会,每个教会都使用不同的方言,而且来自不同的文化背景(通常是香港人,从台湾来的说普通话的人和台湾本省人)。由于成年人被语言和文化所分隔,因此他们的青年组也被分隔开来,尽管实际上他们会说一种共同的语言,即 西班牙语。作为访问团,我们感到他们不幸地被分开主要是由于成年人的文化差异。这对青年和青年事工产生了副作用。至少作为局外人,这就是我们的感觉。

但是,只要我们辛辛那提宣道团队到达现场,当地领导人就会慷慨地允许来自所有三个教会的年轻人参加我们的活动。这产生了出色的“群聚效应”(“critical mass effect”),年轻人们轻松地使用英语和西班牙语交流,场面温暖人心。通常我们会进行一次联合的青年退修会,这对包括我们在内的所有人来说确实非常令人鼓舞和振奋。

B.辛辛那提儿童和青年事工的初期:我们可以将所有儿童和青少年聚集在一个房间里。从小处开始,但要不断成长。

但是可悲的是,当我们离开时,他们又分成了三个组。每个青年小组都太小了,可能只有十几人,而无法有效地进行青年事工。然后我们听说这三个小组之间似乎没有互动,也没有成长。这可能是华语教会中族群问题的可悲现实,使如此重要的属灵的需求复杂化。但是它提醒我们寻求与其他教会的积极合作,以鼓励和加强彼此,对帮助培养下一代的生活尤其重要。

3.发挥跨文化影响。 在我们附近的一个白人为主的教会中,我听说有一个非常活跃的青年 牧师,他向青年人传授基督信仰的护道学和学术严谨的课程,而通常的基督信仰青年团契通常更侧重于青年活动。我很感兴趣,会在星期三晚上加入他们的活动。

我在最初去的一个夜晚遇见了斯蒂芬(Stephen),一名还在上高中的小伙子。那天晚上他分享信息。让我感到惊讶的是,他的信息就好像他是一名神学院教授一样,观点很清晰,还预备了很多讲义。我通过午餐和咖啡聊天结识了斯蒂芬和牧师本(BEN)。本开始派遣他们一些比较喜欢冒险的青年去我们的教会拜访,我们开始邀请他作为特别讲员来在我们教会讲道。

因此,我们在有意和无意间,发展了一个由亚洲人和非亚洲人组成的年轻人的非正式团体,尤其是包括了来自本牧师那个团契的年轻人。他们在护道学方面接受过良好的训练,后来成为了我们青年人的榜样。他们的名字在我们的教会中几乎成了传奇:艾利(Avery),格雷格(Greg),斯蒂芬(Stephen),查得(Chad),肖恩(Shawn),珍妮(Jenny)。最初的所有来访者,后来都成为我们青年团契的组成部分,宣道团成员,青年顾问甚至青年牧师。

我对本开玩笑说,我们以某种方式夺走了他青年团契中的佼佼者。他对这件事的后续发展很高兴,因为他的青年团员可以为更大的世界范围的教会服务。多年来,我们继续“借用”(用“偷”这个词语气是不是有点太强烈?)很多他们的“顶尖人才”。我想,事后看来,也许这是一种双赢,虽然我最初并没有想到。本牧师团契的青年很可能通过与我们一起学习了许多跨文化的经验教训,就像我们从中学到的那样。此外,由于我喜欢带年轻人去宣道旅行,所以很自然我也会把这些“白人孩子”作为我们宣道团队的组成部分。在大多数情况下,大多数人以前从未出过国,尤其是到遥远的亚洲,因此这对他们来说也是额外的很棒的生活经历。

4.万国青年的概念。 各个方面的事工努力使我们有了一个不断发展的“万国青年, Youth-for-All-Nations, YFAN”的概念,意思是从各国来,到各国去。所有的这些增强了我的一个信念,如果教会学会彼此合作,尤其是不同种族和文化的教会,通过“异花授粉”,彼此学习重要的教训,那么教会将会不断成长。

许多“白人孩子”甚至是在美国出生的亚洲孩子,当去泰国北部这样的地方时,经历了相当强烈的跨文化冲击。那里的人,文化,语言和食物都截然不同,甚至区别比去邻近的拉美地区都大。突然间,跨越了半个地球,我们的跨文化团队经历了吃油炸昆虫,说许多稀奇古怪的外来语言,与多种族部落的少数民族儿童互动以及骑巨型大象的历险。

我毫不怀疑,这些宣道旅行改变了许多来自不同背景的青少年的生活,因此当他们后来开始长期从事宣道工作时,或者转向支持世界各地传道士的扎实职业生涯时,对这些年轻人来说,真正的跨文化宣道之旅的影响是不可磨灭的。

有一点需要注意,只有我们认真对待,短期任务旅行才会起作用,而不仅仅是让孩子们度过愉快的时光。我觉得最关键的是去之前的认真培养和训练。我常常喜欢说,为他们做好充分的准备是宣道80%的价值,这样他们在到达现场时就可以充分吸收跨文化的经验。确实,在辛辛那提,青年团契的总体培养和跨文化环境基本上也是如此,一小团火苗可以创造出美妙的火焰和动力,这是影响他们一生的关键灵感所在。

*请继续阅读第2部分*

照片2:一个蓬勃发展的青年事工需要许许多多的青年辅导:这只是他们万国背景的样本,最初很多人来自亚洲国家,包括马来西亚,韩国,台湾,新加坡,柬埔寨,香港,还有一些来自巴西和美国。

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