Call it a movement. Call it a “confederation of possibilities.” Call it a Spirit-inspired meeting of minds and hearts. Or just call it GYC—Generation of Youth for Christ. The eight-year-old young adult organization has grown from a handful of idealistic college students to a powerful force for Bible study, evangelism, and mission service in the life of North American Adventism—and now around the world. The organization’s annual conference, held this year in Louisville, Kentucky, December 30–January 3, has become a headline event for Adventist youth and outreach emphasis. Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently interviewed Justin Kim, general vice president of GYC and pastor of the Oakwood (Detroit) Adventist Church. Kim has been a key part of the leadership group that shaped the phenomenon now touching the lives of thousands of Adventist young adults.—Editors. [Related Story]
’m always curious to learn how a movement got started—what ideas drove it, what hearts were passionate about. I’ve heard, Justin, that you were “on the ground” when GYC began—part of the original core group. Tell me about that. Originally, we were just a group of young people in the Boston area, all from different secular colleges, who all happened to be Korean and liked hanging out together. One night at a normal social gathering, the conversation changed to a Bible question, to a theological question. Next thing we knew, we had been studying Scripture until almost 7:00 in the morning. We were simply on fire. We decided to start a ministry of young people and just travel from church to church, urging people to get back to the Word, preaching and sharing what we knew, getting excited about God. Like several others there, I had been a nominal Adventist, but when I finally understood why we were Adventists, what Adventists do and what Adventists believe—who Adventists are in our core being—it was tremendously exciting. We started to share our discoveries with everyone, and we found that there were a lot of other young people out there with the same backgrounds and same experiences. They were in the Adventist Church, but not really in the church, especially the college students who were influenced by other denominations and who didn’t really know what Adventism is all about. We formed a group we called SPARC—Students Preparing Adventists for the Return of Christ.
How big was the first group in Boston?
Maybe 10 to 12 persons. As we organized, we got to know a lot of other student groups in the area, one of which was led by a friend, Israel Ramos. He was a missionary at the University of Michigan in the campus ministry program led by Samuel Pipim. Pipim invited us to come to the University of Michigan to showcase our ministry, which we did. Israel and I became really good friends, and kept in touch as our life circumstances shifted. One morning about 2:00 or 3:00, he instant-messaged me from California while I was preparing for a midterm. I really didn’t want to study for the test, and I was just fooling around on the computer. The gist of the IM conversations was: “Hey, if there are groups like yours and mine around, there must be other young people around. Let’s just have a small retreat, or a little conference, that will encourage everyone to connect with each other.”
We agreed that one of the core principles we wanted to emphasize was racial diversity. He was Hispanic, I was Asian, and we just loved worshipping together with believers from all different backgrounds. So we brainstormed about other leaders we could invite to join us. We got Andrea Oliver, who’s an African-American, then a student at Princeton University. We brainstormed about all the leaders on college campuses that we knew of—mostly secular universities—with the idea of pulling a group together.
Israel suggested Pine Springs Ranch in southern California as a possible location, and we assembled about 200 names. We told them, “Let’s just have a time when we can hang out together; we’ll invite some committed speakers we know who can teach us the Bible.” And that was the first GYC—in 2002. We ended up having about 400 people at the retreat. It was packed—not enough of anything for everyone who came—but it was clearly scratching an itch that many young adults were experiencing.
Where did most of the early attendees come from?
The first year the large majority came from secular university backgrounds.
We were all looking for something clear and helpful because we were in environments that challenged our identities—so many denominations, so many ideologies and beliefs. We needed a sharp, clear definition of what Adventism is about and a way to articulate that belief in a compelling way. GYC was so refreshing because it provided a framework for us to understand and get passionate about the Adventism many of us had grown up in.
Did some structure emerge as a result of that conference that has stayed with GYC since then?
The first group of leaders coalesced at that conference, and we decided we needed an experience like that every year. We looked at the 400 who came to Pine Springs and thought, Well, maybe 600 people will come out if we go to a hospitable place like the campus program at the University of Michigan. That next year—2003—we registered nearly 800 people, and more than 1,000 people joined us on Sabbath. That’s when we realized this event had turned into something so much bigger than any of us. This wasn’t simply a young people’s get-together. This was turning into a movement with momentum.
Every new movement needs supporters, and you must have had yours.
In addition to Pipim and the University of Michigan campus ministry program, we did as we were counseled and related everything we were doing to the local conference. We kept the Michigan Conference informed of all that we were doing, and we also invited the General Conference education secretary, [Humberto] Rasi, to join us. That weekend in Ann Arbor was a really formative one for us—Rasi joined us, David Asscherick spoke. It was a powerful experience for all of us. Meetings started at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 10:00 p.m. Everyone was exhausted by the end, but the passion and the intensity for the things of God made us all believe it was a worthwhile sacrifice.
I’ve heard that some other ministries and church entities weren’t so supportive in those early days.
The Michigan Conference was very supportive, as was the ASI organization, since some of the children of ASI members had attended GYC Ann Arbor, and they came over and helped us out.
At the same time there were a lot of groups and individuals who were cautious and suspicious of us. I don’t blame them. We were a group of young people who wanted to make an impact on the church, and we weren’t from any Adventist university, so they were asking, “Where did these guys come from?” That’s where most of the hesitation came from initially.
Were there some who felt that your focus on the authority of the Bible and a call to distinctive Adventism were problems for the church?
I think there were some who thought we were mimicking an ultraconservative side of the church. And, in truth, our group did attract some from that edge. The clarity of the message we were emphasizing certainly was welcomed by more conservative members, and it colored our public image at the beginning. We believe now what we believed then—that we’re trying to bring all sides of the church together under a very clear banner of what the Adventist message means to all of us as young people, to our generation.
From what I’ve heard, your annual attendance doubled each year. Is that true?
In 2003 we had just over 1,000 attending. In 2004 we had a little bit over 2,000, and then the year after that  we had about 3,600. Last year in San Jose, about 6,000 people came to the GYC conference on Sabbath.
Tell me about the relationship between GYC and other ministries—both church-sponsored ones and supporting ministries such as 3ABN and ASI.
When we started, we were really idealistic—and that’s what I think attracted everyone to GYC. There are thousands of Adventist-raised young adults out there not in Adventist universities—some of them not even coming to church, but who still want to be authentically Adventist. And they wanted an experience with a group of believers—a mission experience, or an organization, or a club where they could find other young Adventists. We wanted to provide a network where these young people could connect or plug into the many ministries operated by the church and independent groups. There are canvassing groups, mission groups, AFM [Adventist Frontier Mission]-style groups. When 3ABN saw what was happening at GYC, they jumped onboard and said, “Hey, we want to televise this. There’s something fresh here.”
Because some of our early leaders had attended ASI events, we took some cues from that organization as well—but a little bit more cutting-edge, a little bit more fun! Like ASI, we invite ministries to exhibit at GYC, and our programming model looks a lot like theirs. That was one of our first goals—to bring ministries and young people together. Ministries need young people, and young people need ministries. We just connected them. Above all, we wanted to get young people involved in evangelism in any way possible. Evangelism has a way of solidifying the Adventist identity, giving us a purpose, pulling together our gifts. Whether these ministries are organized by the church structure or spring out of the passion of other groups, if they’re doing the work of evangelism, we want to connect young adults to them.
It sounds like getting young adults connected to evangelism is one of your highest priorities.
Absolutely. One of the most popular things we do every year is the evangelism outreach on Sabbath. I think I’m being real when I say that almost everyone is initially afraid of evangelism. But when you have thousands of young people doing it together, it neutralizes the fear. Then God gives so many an amazing experience on the streets on Sabbath afternoon that they come back fired up to share those experiences. The experience of doing personal evangelism puts its brand on your heart.
My 16-year-old came back from that Sabbath afternoon of witnessing last year in San Jose and called us that night on the East Coast to say, “Dad, Mom, I got two people signed up for Bible studies this afternoon.” He was excited. For him that was the highlight of his GYC experience.
That kind of story happens every year. After having this “crazy” personal evangelism experience, they want to connect with another ministry or school that has an evangelistic component. That’s what we’re aiming for.
As I’ve talked with GYC leaders over the last several months, I’ve heard a common commitment to helping GYC transition from an event to a year-round commitment to Adventism and mission that’s expressed in local congregations. How will you and the others in leadership make that happen?
While we’re thrilled at the potential—and the impact—of the annual conference, we don’t want it to be just an annual conference. We’re aiming to help attendees understand that their commitment to evangelism and to mission is a year-round thing. We’re currently in the process of developing an annual calendar with training events and smaller-scale opportunities in various regions. Departments have been created—one for networking and another for resources. We want to provide evangelistic training videos, materials and books, and Bible studies throughout the year so that those who have been inspired by an annual conference will pick up that work any time of the year. Our networking department has grown up to help foster other GYC groups around the world—and we have a lot of them popping up, domestically and internationally. We know that it’s our job to keep GYC attendees focused on soul winning and connected to ministries into which they can pour their passion for Christ.
Tell me more about the kind of young adults who get involved with GYC.
We think that Adventist young adults are waiting to be challenged, and when they’re not, they sink back into either apathy or cynicism. Some of the ones we’re working with—both liberal and conservative—have developed a critical, even cynical perspective about the church and its theology. Young adults are both idealistic and very realistic: that combination makes them very sensitive to mistakes the church may have made, or injuries done to them or others, or when members don’t seem to live what we preach. We want GYC to be a place where they can be reinspired—to provide a buffer zone and serve the world church by bringing these people back to the center. We want to support this church: we love this church, and we believe that this church is God’s end-time remnant for all those who want to truly follow Jesus.
You said that GYC grew out of an evening of intense Bible study, and from what I’ve heard the organization has become known for its strong emphasis on Scripture. How are you and other leaders sustaining that focus?
The best way to study Scripture is for yourself, and winning someone to Christ through a Bible study forces you to study Scripture yourself. We learned again that two people studying Scripture is a powerful unit. We saw what happened for us. It’s a sure formula that works, and we wanted to promote it to other young adults. The habit of studying Scripture together began solving all of our problems as young people. It gave us a purpose. We found out why we had to be Adventists. Financial problems, academic problems, relationship problems—studying Scripture was the solution for everything.
What part does belief in the Spirit of Prophecy play in the life of GYC?
We hold the Spirit of Prophecy very dear because it’s so important in the last days. We know that, at times, there has been an abuse of the Spirit of Prophecy in the church, in which it was overused, even surpassing the authority of the Bible, and that resulted in unhealthy spiritual lives that were unbalanced. While strongly and clearly committing ourselves to the Spirit of Prophecy, we want to protect against its misuse, even while we try to reach out to those who deny the validity of the gift of prophecy. It’s disturbing to learn that so many who call themselves Adventists don’t accept the ministry of Ellen White. There is just so much useful information there, so much spiritual encouragement that benefits us and adds momentum and fuel to the Holy Spirit’s fire.
You also said that GYC began with a focus on worshipping together. Tell me about the role of worship in the life of GYC. You’ve obviously left the small intimate gatherings long behind. Now you’re planning worship experiences for thousands of people at a time.
GYC wanted to provide a new style of worship. What we learned from our study of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy was that Adventist worship should be different from any other type of worship out there. So we wanted to provide something fresh and different, at the same time loyal to our beliefs and our church without copying other denominations and other styles. And we aren’t much caught up with repeating worship forms just because they’ve been around a long time. We asked, “What can we offer that the Lord will be happy with? How can we worship with reverence? How can we emphasize the sacrifice of Jesus, knowing both decorum and vibrancy at the same time?” That remains the challenge every year at our gatherings, but I know the Lord is guiding us and it’s certainly resonating with the young adults who attend.
What age groups are you reaching?
We originally had our target range from 18-35. As the annual conferences have continued, the average has been getting younger. We’ve been seeing academy students come up in droves, and it’s also becoming a family event just because of the timing of it. The annual conference is scheduled near or after Christmas to accommodate the college students’ schedules, but families conclude that since everyone is off for vacation, they might as well make it a family event. So we are having fathers, mothers, grandparents, and younger siblings come out. GYC is increasingly becoming a family event!
You’ve involved many church leaders in your annual GYC events. Tell me about the interface that you have had with top leadership at the General Conference.
We always try to incorporate church leaders. The reason for that is we want the young people to recognize church leaders, to help our peers understand that there are godly men and women in these institutions. We’ve had vice presidents come; we’ve had [General Conference president] Jan Paulsen come—and he was gracious enough to participate in a Q & A session. Mark Finley has been gracious to come every year, and his contribution has been powerful because his identity is evangelism. His enthusiasm for evangelism flows through every aspect of GYC and has added to the momentum. We try to include evangelists and local conference leaders and union conference leaders as well.
What impact do you think GYC has had on the Adventist Church thus far?
I think we’ve given young adults encouragement to be bold in what they believe. Not just bold in a reckless, annoying way, but in a winsome, Christlike, classy way to stand up for our beliefs. GYC has affected a lot of preachers, a lot of adults, a lot of young people who may have previously been distracted by structures and arguments but who are now stepping out to serve the Lord in powerfully effective ministries. That’s a beautiful effect, and we hope that continues. That’s what we’re praying for at this year’s conference.
This article was printed December 24, 2009.