This mosaic combines elements of past GYC promotions. It was showcased at the GYC booth at their 2022 convention. [Photo: Samuel Girven]
Twenty years. It’s a milestone that founders say proves the “experiment” was a success. That experiment is Generation. Youth. Christ. (known by its moniker “GYC”), the youth conference turned revival movement. It was formed by a group of college students who were frustrated with how the church related to its youth. And, they persevered despite the odds and formidable opposition.
“There was a lack of young people being treated seriously,” says Israel Ramos, co-founder of GYC. “All the adult speakers went to adult meetings, and then the kids were just kind of put aside. People felt like we couldn't handle a good, theological conversation. We couldn't handle a call to a higher standard of living.” Ramos says he knew this wasn’t the case. “There was a large group of people that I knew personally that did not fall under those categories.”
Justin Kim, another co-founder, says that they were exposed to all sorts of different forms of youth ministry in the Adventist Church. “Our peers were studying neuroscience and nuclear physics, and they were in their late teens, early '20s. And then they would come to the Adventist Church, and there's some pizza party.”
Kim says that he observed his peers become “intellectually unfulfilled, and spiritually searching.” When his peers didn’t find the level of interaction they looked for, they left the Adventist Church. “I grew up not knowing who Ellen White was until I was 17 years old. I didn't know anything about 1844, or Daniel 2, 7, 8, or 9. It's funny now. Some of these things that I think in Adventist history we have shied away from because of how it's been pushed on one generation. In the '90s it was just swung to the other side, and I'd never even heard of these things.”
It was this intellectual and spiritual longing that drew Ramos, Kim, and several other young adults from public and Adventist universities to form what was then called the General Youth Conference. “At the time, the only intellectual fulfillment that we saw was in some of the more progressive sides of the church that were really deconstructing the church. It was very an interesting perspective that you can be intellectually satisfied but not help the church. So the experiment was, what would it look like if it was just as intellectually challenging but constructive for mission, for ecclesiology, and for what the church is trying to do?”
First convention beats the expectations of founders
Held on Dec. 18-22, 2002, the first GYC was situated in Mountain Center, Calif. at the Pine Springs Ranch. Kim says that he thought 50 people would show up to the conference, themed “Pentecost: He Will Do It Again.” “We had 200 people register and then 400 people show up on Sabbath, which for a bunch of 22-year-olds, we were like, ‘This is crazy. God is coming tomorrow because there's 400 people that are meeting.’”
Because those that attended came from diverse backgrounds, Ramos says they ensured the conference had messages with deep meaning. “One of the things that sticks out to me was Justin was saying, ‘You're so lucky that you get to study the Bible,’ because I was at studying at an Adventist college. And ‘You get to study these things. We have to do that in our free time, but you get to do that towards your degree.’ We wanted to do something that would have a classroom kind of setting or depth to it,” he says.
It was an all-day affair—participants got up early, and went to bed late, with the first meeting beginning at 6 a.m. and the last meeting concluding at 10 p.m. “I think we really went against a grain on a lot of stuff,” Kim says. “We had no social recreation activities. For youth programming, and that's like the death nail, we're going to have program at six. ‘No, no, no, young people don't wake up at six o'clock.’ Well they do if the programming's good, if it's challenging and you see evidence at GYC.”
An even more surprising part of the conference’s success was due to the inability to spread information at the time. “You're living in a time where there is no Facebook, there is no social media, very few people have cell phones. And so you’re communicating through no established channels,” Ramos says. “In addition to that, we have absolutely zero clue what we're doing when we try to negotiate. We went in to negotiate with the Sheraton Hotel in Ann Arbor to lower their prices, and we walked out there with the same exact prices that they established from the beginning. We had no negotiating power, we had no negotiating ability. The fact that we were able to pull these conferences off by the grace of God was completely miraculous.”
Staci Schefka, a participant at the first GYC, and later a member of the convention’s executive committee, journaled extensively about her experiences surrounding GYC. She shared those journal entries with the Lake Union Herald. “Being here I have realized how big GYC could become and the potential to really shake the church and the world. This is nothing small,” she wrote on Dec. 20, 2002. “Over 400 young adults are here and all are catching a vision for service. GYC is for young people who aspire for spiritual and academic excellence. These young people seek to be highest of the high. And they will reach the world with the gospel. This church began with young people. It will end with young people.”
Early supporters boost GYC’s mission
By 2003, GYC had cemented itself in the itineraries of over 1,000 people. Held at the Sheraton Hotel in Ann Arbor, Mich., the conference registered 800 people. Themed “Higher than the Highest”, over 1,000 people showed up to participate.
By this time, the success grabbed the attention of several church leaders, who both spoke at the conference and contributed to its success. “I think our earliest supporter was the Michigan Conference,” says Ramos. “When you think about Jay Gallimore, he was the [Michigan Conference] president. It took a lot of courage for him to put his name on something which he had very little control over it. I mean, even by the time we got to Ann Arbor, no one called him to say, ‘Hey, we're coming into your town.’ He just kind of showed up.”
Gallimore was a speaker at the 2003 GYC and even filled in for a speaker that didn’t show up.
The Michigan Conference’s Center for Adventist Ministry to Public University Students also was an early sponsor of GYC and its mission. “We were also connected with Public Campus Ministry,” Kim says. “At the time, Public Campus Ministry was not highly encouraged. It was a discouraging point to Adventist education and considered to be a rival to Adventist education budgets.”
Kim and Ramos also pointed to Humberto Rasi, former General Conference education director, as an early supporter. “Behind the scenes, he helped us a lot with a lot of counsel and General Conference support.”
After the Ann Arbor, Mich. convention, Adventist-layman’s Services and Industries (ASI) also came on board as an official sponsor. On March 8, 2004, past and present ASI leadership commissioned a meeting in Detroit to begin a years-long process of mentorship. “They were highly impressed with the success and organization of the conference and the large attendance of youth,” Schefka journaled. “Right then they realized that GYC was targeting the future of ASI in a way ASI has failed to do. They offered to meet with us to discuss how we can work together and to give us tips on how to run effective conferences. They have been very generous.”
GYC responds to mounting criticism
Seventh-day Adventist division Youth directors jointly authored a “World Youth Advisory Statement” on April 2, 2006. In the statement, the directors registered their concerns about the maturing GYC.
“We are concerned that local church youth leaders and some college students are under the impression that this group is authorized by the General Conference Youth Ministries Department because of its close name association. They are independent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Youth Ministry,” the statement read.
The statement continued. “This is something we do not take lightly. The General Youth Conference (GYC) has no Seventh-day Adventist Youth Ministries Professionals within its leadership structure. Any group operating as an independent supporting ministry should work with and through the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The youth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church should be encouraged to allow God to use them to evangelize the world as promised. We should also encourage them to work within the Body of Christ, His Church.”
Reflecting on the statement, Ramos says that the growing movement “probably caught [church leaders] off guard.” “We did communicate with them from the very beginning when we went to Ann Arbor. And I think now it's a little easier to understand now after I work for the church, you receive a bunch of letters from people all the time and it's hard to discern.” He also referred to a theological gap between GYC and world church leaders. “Even though they were employed by the church, that gap was hard to bridge. You're not going to support something that you don't fundamentally believe in.”
GYC responded to the statement by writing their own statement—a “Statement of Clarification”—that was submitted to the world church. “I think one of the biggest challenges that happened as a result of [the General Conference’s statement] is there was kind of a wildfire. People saw the statement that weren't supposed to see it. And in essence, it went viral before things went viral,” Ramos says. “That created kind of a weird context for people because the statement was it was not a well-researched statement and there were several holes in it.” Their response detailed in excess the mission, history, and spirit of GYC. “I don't know if they even read our letters. Some people did because they responded to them, and others didn't. I think there's elements of humanness that I think are always in play. We had some meetings and ultimately, we changed the name of our organization to what it is now.”
The mission grows and matures
By the 2010 convention, held on Dec. 29-Jan. 2 in Baltimore, Md., over 5,100 people from 43 countries participated. “GYC's initial focus was actually more so on theology and revival and those kinds of things, from my perspective,” Ramos says. However, as GYC continued to mature, so did a focus on evangelism to the communities in which the convention was held. “Evangelism kind of came in 2004, 2005. We brought in an evangelism department. ASI gave us some substantial funding. We didn't want to put that funding into our programming because we didn't want to be dependent on that. So we put that funding into evangelism.” Some of these initiatives included literature evangelism and construction projects.
To this day, GYC incorporates some form of evangelism into its yearly convention. “It's morphed through its emphasis through the years,” Kim says.
At every convention, GYC also hosts an exhibit hall where participants can find out ways they can serve Christ. “The booths that arose up, which I think was really a key point to GYC's development, was showcasing, "Hey, you're being revived. Now go do something and go join Adventist Frontier Missions,” Kim explained.
GYC also sought to distance themselves from any particular ideology within the Adventist Church, while also helping bring clarity about relevant issues to young adults. “We would even say it in the beginning, we don't believe in a conservative church, a liberal church, we want a biblical church. GYC was not liberal, not conservative, it was biblical. Our emphasis was always the Bible and that was the basis of our unity,” Ramos says. “There was a lot of segregation even more so than there is now. We brought in David Williams, he's an expert on racism. We have rich people, and we have poor people. We also had a very strong emphasis on women in leadership. A lot of women were connected. But it was all foundation. We focused on the Bible.”
In addition, GYC’s unique focus has created a movement that the Adventist Review characterized as “more than a weekend.” Kim, who's now the director of the Adventist Review Ministries, explains, “It's more than a weekend in the sense that people often who have never attended GYC thought it's just another event to go to, a conference that you attend, you register, and you come back and it's an isolated thing." He continues, “I would say the majority of those who attend GYC, if they have an open mindset and experience all that there is to experience on the weekend, they come away with a different view of not only the conference or only the church, but really their own lives and the world.”
Kim says that this is not just a North American phenomenon. “I mean I can attest that this exists in Asia and Africa and Europe, in Australia, and in South America. And so it's not just a weekend, it's a way of thinking that's not even unique to GYC or Adventism, but I think stems from scripture.”
Reflecting on the past, looking to the future
“I think we genuinely invested everything that we had,” says Ramos, now the director of Public Campus Ministries for the Michigan Conference. “I mean, people paused marriages, paused having kids. At weddings when we were getting married, GYC was part of the sermon. And I mean everything. It consumed us because we believed in it, and we believed in the organization, and we believed in the movement. You can't ever take that life back.”
“I'm at the point where there's nothing really that I could give. I think we emptied the tank,” he reflected. “I do think it falls upon the next generation to take it and to do what they're going to do with it. There's going to be some things that they do that I'm not going to agree with. I wish they would not do mistakes and things I wish they would avoid. But this has never been anyone's thing, it's always been God's thing.”
Kim concurred. “In many ways, GYC is our child. It's older than our children. It's been a joy to go all out for a movement and I look forward to what will happen in the future. I appreciated GYC that it started as an experiment. In the last 20 years, I've been able to see that it's not only for my type of Adventism, but I've seen a lot of those who have been in Adventism for a very long time. And to see them have the same experience shows that this experiment is pretty amazing.”
Andrew Park, the pastor of Bay City and Vassar churches in Mich., has been GYC’s president since 2020. Looking toward the future, he says that GYC continues to see the value of an in-person conference in a changing world. “What I have come to realize for myself is the limitation of the virtual. People oftentimes think about how can we innovate. I don't know, innovation's a big emphasis. I'm not saying innovation is bad, but when it comes to where we are today after COVID, I have personally come to see the value of the in-person.”
“And when it comes to our conferences,” Park continued, “how can the word of God be put on display at our upcoming conference or this conference? Really spending time and prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide those things and asking God to bring the people that He wants to bring. That's really the most important thing that I see moving forward for the organization.”
Samuel Girven, 15, is a student at ASPIRE Academy and Northview Adventist School