September 5, 2018

Understanding Youth: Ron Whitehead Interview

After more than three decades in youth and young adult ministry — 22 of those as the Lake Union Conference youth director, Ron Whitehead in this interview...


After more than three decades in youth and young adult ministry — 22 of those as the Lake Union Conference youth director, Ron Whitehead in this interview with Herald managing editor, Debbie Michel, reflects on the state of affairs of youth in our territory.

Debbie:  You’ve been around for a number of years. Tell us what are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between youth of your generation and the current one. 

Ron:The reality of this generation, Gen-Z and millennials, is that it is so different; their worldview is so different, from my generation — the Boomers. Gen-Z and millennials still seek values from Scripture, but how they apply those values is very, very different.  

I'll give you an example: In my generation, we were okay to sit and listen, and let others tell us what to do, when to do it, why to do it. I remember when I was coming along, “Don't go to movies” was the big one. We didn't really question that much.  

Technology has taken over and the older adults are still trying to protect us from movie theatres. But, they’re not really protecting us. They’re protecting us from a building, not from what is going into our heads. It's not where we're watching things. We need to help our youth understand that it's what they're watching.  

Another thing is that this generation is not interested in how fancy the church building is, or how the lighting is. Even the worship style and the music are not as important to them.  It's about relationships. They're seeking a relationship with people in that building: “Will the people in that building love and accept me for who I am?” 

Debbie:  There are vast differences between earlier and most recent generations. So, in your estimation, what are some of the areas of youth ministry that are going well at this point in time? 

Ron:Club ministry is very strong in the Lake Union, that is our Adventurer program and our Pathfinder program. It’s known around North America as one of the best. Craig Harris is our coordinator for club ministries, and does a fabulous job for us. Our Adventurer programming is expanding rapidly in our Union. We're amazed at the growth that’s taking place. (Sidebar #1) 

Debbie:  What's driving that? Is it population growth, or something else?  

Ron:We've explored that: Why is Adventurer ministry taking off? We feel that parents understand the importance of getting their kids in a different environment than on a screen all the time — a different experiential, social, spiritual environment. I just think this new parent generation understands and wants to participate more in the lives of their children, rather than just letting someone else raise their kids.  

Another ministry area we're doing well in is summer camp ministry. We have some amazing camp ministry partners in our Union. The beauty of this ministry is we actually empower young adults to have a title, authority and responsibility to do ministry, not just watch somebody else do ministry. Young adults are in charge of spiritual programs, activities, safety; and are building community with youth.  

We also have an effective literature evangelism ministry. The mentorship is outstanding. Again, it's giving young adults an opportunity to get involved in the mission of the church. That excites me.  

Our short-term mission trip program is very strong. We have a worldview. We're not just “naval gazers,” I call it. You can see that with our international trips to Cuba, Puerto Rico after the storm, Belize, Haiti, and domestically to Kentucky and various Indian reservations. We have a Mathew 28 world mission view. Did you know we were the first union to respond to the Katrina storm disaster? And we kept sending support to this area for over a year-and-a-half. I love this union’s “can do” attitude to live their faith, not just talk their faith. 

Our Public Campus Ministry program is second to none. We have appointed a volunteer coordinator, Israel Ramos, who is an expert in public campus ministry. We're setting up chapters of Adventist Christian Fellowships on campuses. We have some amazing young adults on our public campuses who are living the gospel of Christ. Do you know we have more Chinese students than any other union in North America? We could actually make contact with them on these campuses, and invite them to know Jesus, before they go back to their home countries. 


Pioneer Memorial Church Adventurers Club is currently one of the largest in North America. In the last five years, the Forever Friends Club has experienced phenomenal growth: 


2014–2015: 45 members  2015–2016: 85 members 2016–2017: 102 members  2017–2018 : 135 members 


According to the director, Kemoree Duncombe, parent participation played a key role in the extraordinary growth. “The club’s main purpose is to strengthen the parent-child relationship and further the child’s development in spiritual, physical, mental and social areas. The activities assist parents in their important responsibilities as the child’s primary teachers and evangelizers.  

“Our instructors and staff consisted of parents working together to provide fun and informative experiences for our children. Parents made a commitment to attend meetings, activities and outings with their children. As leaders, it was important to have well-planned programs for the children while providing consistent discipline and structure. Regular parent meetings provided support for our parents who were welcome and valued at club meetings for their companionship, influence and assistance. Raising godly children truly takes a community effort.” 

Ron:This is hard to talk about, as I'd rather talk about the things we're doing great rather than the things we’re not doing well. The fact is this: We're losing over 51 percent of our young adults at the local church. We're not attracting, we’re not retaining, and we’re not meeting their needs. We're not connecting very well to this generation at the local church.  Debbie: Are we falling short anywhere? 

Just go ask any young person about their Facebook friends. How many are still active? Go back to any alumni weekend at any of our academies; find out how many are still active when they have those honor classes. Over 51percent are not active. I mean, those are just two of examples of many that we could offer. We don't have to do more research on this; we just know it's a fact.  

If a fast food restaurant was losing 51 percent of their customers (ages 16–35), they would do whatever is necessary to fix the problem of why that customer is not coming back. Why wouldn't we do whatever is necessary, as they would in the secular world, to figure out a way to connect this generation in a fresh and new way. Why wouldn't we do that, Debbie? I don't know why.  

Debbie: What are our local congregations doing to buck this downward trend? Are there any success stories? 

Ron:  I think of our church plant in Chicagoland with Epic Church. Also, Bolingbrook in Illinois is having some amazing success using cross-generational approaches to connect to this generation. I think of Paw Paw — they’re having tremendous success in the involvement of this generation in the mission of the church to the community, placing young people in critical leadership positions. I think of South Bend First in Indiana. That’s a very beautiful cross-generational, cross-cultural place where young adults are really thriving in right now. Fort Wayne, Indiana, has had some great success. They're having two services. And we have other success stories in each of our conferences.  

Debbie: If you could talk to someone on the leadership board of a local church about this situation, what would you tell them to do?  

Ron: I would ask them to first take time for prayer, as leaders, and start talking about the problem that we all have, which is connecting to this generation and helping this generation connect to the mission of the local church and feel like they're a part of the local church, not just a spectator or a visitor. Youth are an important part of a healthy local church. Prayer is the first step.  

Second, I would suggest that leadership begin talking about the loss. Until you admit that we're having loss (it’s like the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: “I'm an alcoholic, I need help”), we cannot figure out a new way forward.  

It's important to admit what's not working. Actually drill into that and figure out who is coming. Who are we missing? It is important to make a list of names – who is missing, find out where they live, work and go to school, etc. 

Debbie:  Church of Refuge (COR) came about to fix some of these problems, correct? Talk about how this resource may be helpful for local congregations hoping to attract and retain young people. 

Ron: Church of Refuge originally started by way of a major debate at the Center for Youth Evangelism meeting room table, where young adults looked at me, and said, "You're the Union Youth director, you're a professor for Youth ministry here at the seminary. You're (at that time) an associate Youth director of the North American Division. Why are all my friends leaving the church? You should fix it!” I looked back at them and, because I was as direct as they were, I said, "Well, why don't you fix it? This is your generation; these are your friends we're losing." It was a healthy debate of, well, who is in charge of this loss? Who is responsible for this loss? And we both agreed, we were both responsible for the loss.  

But, in that context, I said, “Well, let's do something that the Adventist Church has never done before, as far as I know. Let's go ask the customer — the young adult. Let’s ask them what they are looking for in a local church. Every time I fly an airline, every time I go to a certain hotel, they send me an email saying, "What did we do right? What can we do better?" Essentially, my church has never asked this generation: What are we doing right? What can we do better? In the past, it has been: “We tell you what you should do, when you should do it, why you should do it” and do not ask questions. Do you get it? This represents a disconnect!  

Twelve years ago, we asked close to 1,000 young adults, “What is it you're looking for in a local church? If you moved to London, Sydney, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta; what kind of church would you go look for?”  

We found these nine core values — nine things they think are important. (Sidebar # 2) One example is the Sabbath. They really value the Sabbath; they want a church [where] they can experience the Sabbath, but not just Sabbath morning!  



Church of Refuge COR Values 

  1. Sabbath 
  2. Discipleship 
  3. Acceptance 
  4. Community 
  5. Support 
  6. Service 
  7. Leadership 
  8. Budget 
  9. Change 


This is a generation where, if they're active in their faith, Friday night is the loneliest night for them because all their friends are at movies, clubbing or at sporting events. But, COR congregations understand that Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown is important to them — including the Sabbath afternoon, not just the a.m. Divine worship hour. A young adult put it to me this way to explain how he and his friends feel about the Sabbath. He said, “I can download a great sermon. I cannot download a great relationship.”  

This generation is looking for community, and they're looking for purpose. If the local church doesn't provide them community and purpose for their life, they're going to go find it at the local sports bar, YMCA, or at their work. This generation will find community and purpose somewhere. 

Young people also want to belong to a church that “lives” service. They don't want to belong to a church that prays about the poor, preaches about the poor, sings about the poor. They want to belong to a church that does something for the poor. You see the difference? 

Debbie:  I do. Talk about the February 2018 Youth Evangelism Congress. 

We have a youth evangelism congress every two years. We've done it three times now. This is where local churches send young adults and senior youth, 16– 35, to hear other young people explaining what they're doing with their time and talent to build God’s Kingdom; for example, they are sharing the gospel of Jesus in a public school settings, in their Adventist school settings, their neighborhoods and their workplaces. The Lake Union not only trains this generation for evangelism but resources them with cash. 

Ellen White [makes this appeal]: “With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Savior might be carried to the world!” (Youth Instructor, March 3, 1908, par. 4). 

We fire up this generation, we preach to them, we encourage them, and we train them. Here's what we haven’t done as well: We don’t deploy them (enable them, furnish them, provide needed resources, release them) to do ministry. 

In the secular military world, you train youth how to be warriors. But, eventually leadership hands youth equipment and other resources that allow you to be warriors. I believe [in the Adventist Church] we've trained generations how to be Kingdom warriors, but we have never totally [empowered and equipped] them to be spiritual warriors. If this generation does not have access to governance, and they do not have access to cash, then they are spectators; they are not participants.  

At the Lake Union Youth Evangelism Congress, after they receive scores of evangelism ideas, they talk about it; they pray about it around the tables with their ministerial directors (we have amazing conference ministerial directors). We said to the young adults, you are to now go back to your pastor and get their support then meet with your local church board. For every dollar that the church board votes, the Union will match dollar for dollar up to a certain amount. 


Youth Evangelism Congress Funds

Year Available Requested
2014 16,000 8,500
2016 32,5000 32,500
2018 87,500 87,500


Whitehead on why in the first year not all funds were picked up: We surveyed the participants. They said two reasons: 1): No one has ever asked us for our evangelism ideas, or our vision for evangelism. We never thought of ourselves as important to our church evangelism plans. 2): If we have evangelism ideas, no one has ever offered us cash to do them. My church has never offered me cash to do anything.  






Debbie:That’s wonderful! Let’s talk about another big evangelistic program you’re involved in. We’re a year from Oshkosh. What are some of the things to expect that we haven't had before? 

Ron: Yes, we are one year from Oshkosh. It's the largest Adventist Youth ministry gathering on the planet with some 50,000 people. It comes to our Union in a small town called Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Everyone around the world knows where Oshkosh is. They can't maybe tell you where some other cities are in our union, but they can tell you where Oshkosh is.  

We're working really hard on the story of David. David was an amazing Bible character. He had one shining moment when he brought down a giant. But, the rest of his life represents this journey of up and down in his relationship with God. But, he is called a man after God's own heart. If you go to the Hebrews 11 Bible hero chapter, we actually see him in the list. There are many stories in David’s life that we can't even present in Oshkosh because his life was so compromised. We're not going to present those — it’s still a G-rated camporee! The theme, “Chosen,” says it all: God chose David, as a young person, to be the king of Israel. But, notice that David keeps choosing God every time he messes up. The choice goes both ways.  

We're working on the spiritual programming. We're expecting over 1,000 young people to be baptized. We’re asking every club in North America to bring one person to be baptized. We have about 1,800 clubs coming.  We're going to create the largest human cross on the planet. The current world record, I think, is about 14,000 people. We're going to set a new world record at 17,000. We expect over 68 different countries. For the first time, China is bringing Pathfinders from Mainland China. Cuba also is coming. Dubai is coming with Pathfinders for the first time.  

It’s very exciting for our kids to experience the World Church, and to worship with tens of thousands of youth their age. When you're gathered in the 20 acres at the main stage area and you're worshiping Jesus together, there's something very unique, very extraordinary and special about that.  

Debbie: I’m looking forward to that experience! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.