The 2014 Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) meeting was held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, from January 1-5. The GYC (former General Youth Conference) is an independent ministry started in 2002 by college kids that has taken the NAD territory by storm, and recently branched into Europe (a second meeting is planned for this summer in Austria). Supported by the General Conference and sponsored by the deep pockets of ASI, GYC is thriving.
I was intrigued by the theme of the Orlando conference: Before Men and Angels, with a sleek logo featuring a rising sun over planet earth framed by a feather. As I compared this year’s theme with those of previous conferences, a pattern emerged: although GYC stands for Generation of Youth for Christ, none of the conferences so far have mentioned “Christ” in their themes. We had “Now is the Time” (2005), “By Every Word” (2006), “Be” (2007), “For This Purpose” (2008), “Unashamed” (2009), “Unhindered” (2014, Europe) to cite a few.
As usual, registration for the conference was required for attendance during the week but open to the community on Sabbath. I arrived just in time for the sermon, and walked into a gigantic conference hall (6,200 attending according to ANN). By the time I found a seat towards the back, it was time for the special music. Although this was a youth event, modern instruments and contemporary Christian music were nowhere to be found; the 100-plus voice choir was accompanied by piano, harp and orchestra directed by an enthusiastic young conductor.
Ted Wilson was the speaker on Sabbath morning. Justin McNeilus, GYC’s outgoing president, introduced him as the “president of young people” - a title appreciated by Wilson. He went on to praise the authority of the General Conference and asked the audience for their full attention to Elder Wilson. “I know it’s not popular," he said “but we will stand behind the authority of the General Conference.”
Wilson started by inviting people to open “your Bible, iPhone or iPad whatever you have” to 1 Corinthians 4:7-10, the passage/theme for the conference. From there Wilson went on to list four concerns he has for the church.
His first concern was the loss of identity. He started by calling GYCers to:
“Faithful adherence of the Word of God to the Spirit of Prophecy.”
“Reject post modernism, relativism and secularism as contrary to the word of God.”
“Shake the Mars Hills of the day.” (referring to Paul’s sermon at Athen’s Mars Hill)
Wilson explained that “lifestyle, music, distorted views of the Great Controversy, improper interpretations of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy have marred the simplicity if the church.” “Leave this complication,” pleaded Wilson. In other words, do not question historical/traditional Adventism - simply embrace it.
Wilson’s clarion calls for the youth to maintain an Adventist identity were based on his description of Adventism as a “prophetic people, a prophetic movement with a prophetic message and prophetic mission.” He bemoaned the “loss of SDA identity among some leaders” and stated that Adventism is “much more than another church.” He said we should not “minimize” neither “magnify” the differences between the SDA church and Protestantism at large.
Wilson praised the “historical-grammatical method” of biblical interpretation and the “prophetic understanding from a historicist perspective.” He condemned attempts to “reinterpret Daniel to fit a contemporary mode” and considers Adventist prophetic interpretation “as current as today’s news because it is from God himself,” a clear reference to the interpretations found in The Great Controversy. “This movement will triumph,” he exclaimed.
Wilson’s second concern was the “growth of worldliness.” He spoke against “compromising, the growing tendency to allow the world to shape one’s thinking,” lowering of the “standards, diet, rest, amusement, worldly music and Hollywood’s glitzy ways.” “We will never reach out to them by compromising our standards and coming down to them,” said Wilson. Indeed, the dress code at the conference was quite strict and not a few outfits reminded me of a bygone era.
Wilson’s third concern was the “danger of disunity.” On this point he was clear:
God has given to Seventh-day Adventists a divinely inspired church organization and mutual agreements called church policies, which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are part of what holds us together as a worldwide family. To discard or ignore these mutual agreements violates a sacred trust and creates unnecessary discord.
“There is to be no pluralism in God's ranks,” he said, a clear reference to the recent controversies surrounding the ordination of women to the ministry in the NAD.
Wilson’s last concern was “spiritual complacency and apathy.” To fix this Wilson recommended that people “get involved” in the mission. “Love it! Live it! Preach it!” he said. We have a “heaven-guided theology” that should cause us to “not to worry about the harvest that's the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Surely getting involved in the process is a step in the right direction but does this mean that any method will work? Handing out free literature has proved to be an ineffective method of outreach for decades but apparently that means little when you’re on the “right side of history.”
In his altar call, Wilson called for faithfulness “as you face the greatest test for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the great controversy.” Hundreds went to the front.
To those who’ve followed Wilson’s trajectory in the last four years as president of the worldwide church, there was nothing new in this sermon. His message has been clear and consistent: “Look within - we have all we need right here.”
The morning meeting ended with the theme of the 1962 GC Session, the de facto Adventist hymn of the 20th century, Wayne Hooper’s “We Have this Hope,” accompanied by the piano.
Ellen White and UFOs and Other Goodies
Many seminars were being offered in the afternoon, some quite colorful, cf. “Ellen White and UFOs.” One of my interests in coming to this meeting was to witness firsthand reports that GYC advocates Last Generation Theology (LGT) and perfectionism. This should have been apparent not only from the conference’s theme but from the name of some of the speakers in years past. I was attracted to “The Individual Conflict: Victory Over Sin” presented by Kameron DeVasher, a pastor from Muskegon, Michigan.
I arrived a few minutes late for the 3:15pm seminar and was told it was full. I pleaded with the gatekeeper and was allowed to come in. The room was packed with 344 people, standing room only. I was surprised to see Elder Wilson seated towards the front; I later discovered that DeVasher is Wilson’s son-in-law.
I was initially impressed by DeVasher's approach. He focused on Christ and his power to keep us sanctified. He gave good tips on how to stop focusing on self and start helping people and getting involved in the kingdom of God. “Who would be against that?” I thought. I picked up a few hints here and there that he might be in the LGT camp (e.g., translating “hope of glory” in Colossians 1:27 as “hope of character”). I decided to ask him directly. After most had left, I approached him, congratulated him on his balanced approach in the seminar and asked if he was a proponent of Last Generation Theology. He said he agreed with 99% of its tenets, even though he avoided bringing that up during his seminars to avoid confusing people. He asked whether he had disappointed me for not bringing it up and I said I was glad he didn’t.
Because I had missed his previous seminars, he graciously provided copies of handouts by email. The handouts had copious quotes by Ellen White interspersed with Biblical texts. Session 3 was about “Repopulating Heaven” and introduced for the first time in the talks the notion that character perfection/sinless perfection is a requirement for translation. Needless to say, the famous quote, which purportedly supports LGT (“When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people…” COL 69) was used. This reading seems to be based on the dichotomy of body and soul found in some Ellen White statements about character perfection such as: “our vile bodies are to be changed, and made like His glorious body; but the vile character will not be made holy then” (OHC 278), i.e., the Second Coming. This notion is problematic as it is not much different from the dichotomy that separates the “immortal” soul of man from his mortal body. Such a separation cannot be easily proved in the Bible; Paul explains that the totality of man’s “corruption”, i.e., mind + body will be made “incorruptible” at Jesus’ coming (1 Cor 15:53-54).
The reason why DeVasher’s seminar handouts depended heavily on Ellen White is simple: perfectionism cannot be easily extricated from a straightforward reading of Scripture. This unabashed use of Ellen White’s statements on theology indicates a view that she is infallible and can be set side by side with Scripture. But there’s a good test to see if any theory that goes around in Adventism holds theological water: remove all of Ellen White’s quotes (especially since they are often out of context!) and see whether you can build a exegetically cogent case for your idea strictly from the Scriptures. I’m afraid advocates of LGT cannot.
That GYC subscribes to LGT should have been clear to anyone who watched the 2:38 min promo video for the Orlando conference. It features a young man musing about the insignificance of his life. Thirty seconds into the video he says that, although even his cat could survive without him, “God can’t.” From there he goes on to build the case that God needs his help. “You see, Creation waits to see if in our testimony, the righteousness of God will be vindicated,” he says. “My life,” he continues, “ is meant to vindicate the character of the Creator before men and angels.” In other words, we are vindicators of God; God needs us and we need to help God.
The video and theme are ostensibly based on the words (not the meaning as I will argue) of 1 Cor 4:9: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals” (NRSV). The interpretation proposed in the video is a prime example of proof-texting gone wrong, for the reading of the passage in context says nothing about “vindicating the character of God." This is a distortion of Paul’s intention in the passage. 1 Cor 4 is devoted to explaining to the church in Corinth why Paul and Apollos insist on laboring for them and how this is perceived by them (vv. 10-13). The pronoun “we” in “we have become a spectacle” in v. 9 clearly refers to Paul and Apollos in the condition of apostles, not to Christians at large. This is clear in v. 5 when Paul says that “it is God who judges me” no the other way around; he is asking God to judge what kind of labor he has offered on behalf of the Corinthians. This has nothing to do with the “vindication” of God’s character and sinless perfection as signs for the “universe.”
Anyway, there’s no reason to belabor the point: the notion that the Creator of the Universe, the glorious, magnificient, pure and holy God needs the help of miserable, sinful, rotten creatures is plain wrong. It is not found in Scripture; in fact it has precious little good to say about mankind. The senior pastor of a large Adventist congregation was outraged by the video: “The idea that God needs to be vindicated by us is pure blasphemy.” But why exactly these kinds of theological distortions end up being supported by the highest tiers of Adventist leadership is disturbing.
Although no Christian who understands the importance of the new birth would advocate relaxing the ideal of victory over sin, sinless perfection is taught by GYC is clearly on the other end of the spectrum. Add a questionble view of the end times and you have Last Generation Theology, a potent and dangerous mix of salvation by works and apocalyptic eschatology.
In retrospect, DeVasher’s seemingly balanced approach on his last seminar may have masked a perfectionistic agenda and that is cause of concern. This lack of clarity can generate confusion. I don’t believe people at the seminar understood fully what it means to achieve “victory over sin” in the biblical sense. And I think it is rather unfortunate that our young people are getting a heaping dose of perfectionism at GYC conferences, which will later come to haunt them spiritually and emotionally as it did me in my younger years.
The Sabbath closed with a report followed by a devotional. The numbers were in: 2,800 canvassed the day before; 22,622 doors knocked on; 15,517 GLOW tracts handed out along with 2,238 copies of The Great Controversy and 2,089 prayers offered. This resulted in 216 requests for Bible studies.
GYC clearly wants to breed a new generation of active, devoted SDAs. But as with any lay movement, you are bound to encounter a very simplistic view on spirituality often fueled by theological naïveté. The fact that this organization has embraced one of the more problematic Adventist speculative theories on soteriology and eschatology is proof of that. The energy we feel in the air may be refreshing and energizing initially, but it also raises concerns. For example, Wilson’s appeals that no revision be made to certain prophetic interpretations is clearly an attempt to dampen further inquiry and study. This is in keeping with his 2010 appeal that non-Adventist literature be rejected.
Having a fundamentalist, independent ministry grow to this size in less than a decade is nothing short of surprising, and has chagrined some youth leaders in North America. One source reports that some have complained that the GYC usually does its own thing without working with local church leadership. This goes to prove that GYC has become a force to be reckoned with, probably because it fills the void of years of neglect our young people in the NAD have endured.
But should we criticize a movement that seems to be engaging and energizing young Adventists all over the world? Despite the cutting-edge graphics, extensive social media outreach, good organization and steady growth, the efforts towards generating “revival and reformation” in these young and impressionable minds by unhealthy proselytism rooted in sectarianism, exclusivism and legalism are clearly misguided. I believe our theologians and leaders need to take a closer look at what is happening at GYC. The threat that some of its theological positions pose to the spiritual equilibrium of thousands of Adventist youth worldwide is palpable. And that is never a good thing, no matter how much buzz it generates.
Is GYC something I would like to see my teenage daughter involved in? This is not a risk I’m willing to take. I know one family from South America who sent their son to the GYC a few years back. It took them months to bring him out of depression for not “measuring up.” I wish this were an isolated case but Luke Whiting’s testimony as a former GYC VP serves as yet another cautionary tale. Andy Hanson probably got it right when he said that “emotional, anti-intellectual, conservative movements like GYC don’t accomplish much in the long run in spite of all the hoopla. They are ineffective in achieving their own long-term goals and can be spiritually harmful to the young innocents who blame themselves for delaying the Second Advent."
Before GYC can become a well-rounded organization, solid mentoring by a wide swath of Adventist theologians and leaders will be crucial in order to bring its eschatological ethos full circle with the five solas of historic Protestantism: “Soli Deo Gloria, sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.”
Maybe then I’ll be willing to take a second look at GYC.
André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. He contributed two chapters to En Espíritu y en Verdad, a book on music and worship recently published by Pacific Press (2013).