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。



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。


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。



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。




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。






Close Menu