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In Portland, a New Generation Emerges at GYC Event as Last Generation Theology Remains

Screenshot: GYC board chair Justin McNeilus announces the new GYC executive committee.

The 2023 Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) conference met in Portland, Oregon, from December 27-31. According to GYC, about 3,000 people gathered at the Oregon Convention Center to worship, pray, and study the Bible together. Now in its second generation, more than 22 years after its creation, the yearly conference is marketed as a gathering organized by and for Seventh-day Adventist young people serious about their faith. The theme for this year was, “But If Not,” based on Daniel 3.

The exhibit hall featured booths from groups all over the country. Very conservative organizations and self-supporting schools primarily funded outside the denominational structure dominated the space. This included Fountainview Academy and Weimar University as well as Coming Out Ministries, a conversion therapy group currently facing controversy as it tries to directly impact Andrews University students. GYC excludes some denominational entities and progressive organizations, although General Conference-run ADRA was there. Self-described longtime partners with GYC, 3ABN, the televangelism organization led by quadruple married Danny Shelton who is dogged by fraud allegations, covered the conference live. 

On the first day, I asked Alyssa Ingram what drew her to this event all the way from Colorado. She said,  “It’s nice to be around like-minded people.” I heard similar reasons, particularly from first time attendees. 

The first evening service set the tone for the five-day event. GYC’s opening music seemed reminiscent of another generation. Four singers dressed in suits and ties or long dresses were accompanied by two violins and a pianist as the conference began with hymns and the event’s theme song, “But If Not,” inspired by the Daniel 3 text. The first verse opened with, “This world is dark and filled with such confusion. / The truths of God seem hidden from its view. / But I am called to bring light to the darkness / By living out the truth.”

At this moment the GYC dream became apparent. Though designed by and for young people, the conference does not attempt to appeal to contemporary youth fashion, music, or culture. GYC sees itself as the uncompromising bastion of an older generation’s ideal. Daring to be a Daniel means being unaffected by their peers’ culture because there is nothing about this generation’s culture worth saving. It must be rejected. 

A pastor in the Michigan Conference, GYC president Andrew Park’s keynote address about “seeking the word” ranged in topic from local church decline to his personal testimony. He opened by sharing that the biggest decision of his life was to leave Michigan State University and spend his junior year at Ouachita Hills College, an unaccredited self-supporting institution in Arkansas. As he closed his talk, he focused attention on sexual sin, reading a version of 1 Corinthians. 6:9-10 that excluded the “effeminate” and “homosexuals” from the kingdom of God. A few Last Generation Theology themes appeared as well. Park closed with two appeals inviting listeners to repeatedly “receive the word,” evoking a book title by Samuel Koranteng-Pipim who, along with current GYC board members Israel Ramos and Justin Kim, “played a major role in the birth and growth of the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) (formerly General Youth Conference),” according to Pipim’s personal website. He was forced to resign from GYC leadership due to a 33-page letter that detailed his alleged rape of a 20-year-old woman, a sexual sin he only admitted to four months afterward, when it became public. He was disfellowshiped from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

GYC’s second day was primarily defined by its four seminar time slots, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Over a dozen presenters included Amazing Facts speaker Doug Batchelor, Adventist Review’s John Peckham, and former Michigan Conference president Jay Gallimore. 

I attended the two morning seminars from Eric Walsh, a physician and lay Adventist pastor, who appeared on Fox News in 2016 over a dispute with the Georgia Department of Public Health. According to the state, Walsh had not disclosed his outside employment to his previous employer, the state of California. “Due to the violation of California law and DPH policy, the offer was rescinded.” With the help of attorneys hired by the Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis-aligned First Liberty Institute, Walsh argued that this was a religious liberty issue. The Los Angeles Times reported, “But Walsh never mentioned that he had recently been placed on leave from his job in Pasadena because of controversial sermons he gave on homosexuality and evolution, Georgia officials said.” He received a $225,000 settlement from Georgia.

Walsh highlighted health disparities caused by systemic racism, how one’s zip code often has more of an effect on life outcomes than genetic code, the failures of the two-party system, and even the injustices of the United States exploiting other nations to this day. In the same breath, Walsh disparaged the Black Lives Matter protest movement and those protesting for peace in Palestine as “superficial,” saying the church should be “dealing with the root of the issue others cannot.” After pivoting to health disparities between Black Americans and their white counterparts, Walsh’s “root” was simply healthier choices. He argued that if everyone followed the Adventist health message, inequality would begin to disappear. 

Walsh’s first seminar addressed other issues—the negative influence of lobbying and how poor white folks experience challenges wealthy Black folks do not. He did not offer a vision for rectifying these issues, but instructed attendees not to villainize those who differ from them. He offered a criticism of higher education for “discouraging critical thinking,” and provided an Ellen G. White quote on income inequality from A Call to Stand Apart, “ the first Ellen White book prepared by the White Estate especially for twenty-first-century young adults.”

In the afternoon, I attended a seminar called “Sunday Law: Rumor and Reality,” by Joe Reeves and Cody Francis. A convert from Mormonism, Cody Francis is the ministerial director for the Michigan Conference. Prior to this he was the academic dean at Hartland College, part of a self-supporting institute in Virginia. Joe Reeves, who grew up in the conservative “independent Adventist movement,” recently replaced Adventist Review editor Justin Kim at the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference. The presenters first established the difference between a rumor and objective reality. For them, reality rested in the writings of Ellen G. White, the Bible, and what was directly observable. All else could generally be chalked up to rumor. 

The presenters spent time criticizing Adventists who question the concept of a literal Sunday law with international enforcement. They cited Spectrum articles by Admiral Ncube and Matthew Quartey. When Reeves and Francis provided quotes from the articles, the audience voiced loud disapproval, a disruption that took a moment to subside. 

The presenters argued three key ideas:

  • Sunday law will be a project achieved by a broad, popular coalition of Protestants, Catholics, labor unions, environmentalists, and the State.
  • Sunday law will begin in the United States and then become international. 
  • It is the Christian nationalist movement that is actively advocating for Sunday law and as such, it is a danger for Seventh-day Adventists to engage with Christian nationalist politics.

The last point left the GYC audience clearly divided. I spoke to Thomas Bremner from South Carolina after the presentation. Bremner, who wore a “God, Country, Guns” hoodie, told me, “I don’t disagree with what he said in there about the Christian nationalists being tied to Sunday law… I know they’re not Adventists, but I still don’t feel good about it. I voted for people because they were proud Christians before, now I don’t know what to think.” 

The social makeup of the GYC crowd was not uniform. There were distinguishable cliques at the conference, identifiable by their suits and ties or long dresses, and some who wore cowboy jeans and thin blue line caps, and other political conservative accouterments.

Folks like Bremner fit into the latter camp, while most conference organizers fell into the former. I asked William Duran, a student from Wisconsin, why he dressed in such a specific, sharp suit-and-tie style each day. “I guess there’s two reasons,” he replied. “The reason that motivates me is that when we’re in this space that is supposed to be completely dedicated and reverent to God, our dress should reflect that. The other is that this is my fifth year, and when you get to know the team and start to help out, this is just kind of what’s expected.” 

Thursday’s evening meeting included an invitation to join GYC and Michigan Conference assistant publishing director Seth Roberts and Streams of Light Publishing in “hand delivering” The Great Controversy and a magazine on mental health “into every single home in Lansing, Michigan, in seven days this April.” The state’s capital has a population of about 113,000. 

This had been preceded by a quick visit by Oregon Conference Ppresident Dan Linrud.  He was joined by GYC’s vice president of evangelism, Junior Vertus, a pastoral intern in Michigan. They briefly discussed the next day’s evangelism and service opportunities.

Vertus told me later that Linrud both “partnered in prayer” with GYC leaders and contributed “financially as well as [in] the planning process of GYC.” 

I asked the Oregon Conference about Linrud’s GYC participation and whether it indicated approval of GYC’s theology and of the organizations present. In response, Juan Pacheco, assistant to the president for communication, replied, “Elder Dan Linrud attended GYC 2023 as a gesture of support and welcome to our young brothers and sisters from around the world for the general spirit of community and faith that the conference embodies.” The conference did not reply to questions about Linrud’s financial contributions noted by Vertus. It is unclear if the contributions were personally from Linrud or from the conference. 

The monetary support came weeks before the Oregon Conference announced significant budget and personnel cuts across the conference. 

On Friday, GYC leaders invited participation in several community group-led and independent outreach projects throughout Portland. According to Vertus, 1,500 people joined the projects. Participants provided 107 beds for children who sleep on floors and 2,050 care kits for unhoused people. Three hundred people remained at the conference center to pray for those and several other service projects, Vertus said.

Discussing the projects from the stage, GYC leaders struck Last Generation Theology thematic notes. On Monday evening, Vertus stated, “My goal is the same as yours. To see Jesus come in my generation.” This was predicated on working toward individual and denominational sinlessness. Those who espouse Last Generation Theology say the remnant church must consciously work to perfect itself, and until this work is done, Christ cannot return. 

Christian Yang from Southern California spoke with me about GYC’s position on Last Generation Theology. “To be completely honest,” he said, “I didn’t really understand what they meant when they said that, but I don’t disagree with how you’ve described it.”

Yang was not alone. Amelia Dean from New York and Robin Haskin from Florida shared similar thoughts when I asked them about their understanding of Last Generation Theology at GYC. “It hasn’t happened yet for a reason. The work we were called to isn’t finished,” Dean said. Haskin added, “We know our generation is special. Everyone can feel the whole world is in battle between Jesus and sin. Christ wins in the end, but he does it through us.”

The Saturday session was open to the general public at no cost. Many attendees started with Sabbath school during which the GYC executive team sat together on stage, reading through and analyzing Daniel chapter three, engaging the conference’s theme, “But if Not”. 

Jermaine Gayle, the senior pastor of UCHURCH in East Lansing, Michigan, preached the sermon. According to the introduction by GYC president Park, Gayle’s ministry has had a profound impact on him personally. Park also asked that clapping be replaced with amens for musical performances. Outside of seminars, politics and the state of American society received mention only in offhanded comments and dog whistles from the front. Gayle’s sermon, however, pulled no punches. 

An immigrant from Jamaica, Gayle decried Seventh-day Adventist political engagement entirely, calling on those in the church to “Get off the backs of the Republican elephant and unhitch our carts from the Democratic donkey, and we need to pray!” His sermon criticized college campuses he characterized as progressive, arguing that higher education today brainwashes youth in the same way Babylon’s schools tried to turn Daniel from God. Gayle gave an impassioned call to reject what the world says about identity or power and to seek God and God alone for understanding. 

The conference ended Sunday morning with a “final charge” delivered by Adam Ramdin.* His message had similar themes to Gayle’s, specifically rejecting political engagement and warning that soon Adventists would be persecuted by the State in partnership with the papacy. Drawing parallels from the execution of John the Baptist, Ramdin said, “It is apostate Protestantism, evangelical Christianity, which will dance before the state. And the state will say, ‘what do you want?’ And the daughter [protestantism] will draw her orders from Rome [the Catholic church] and say, ‘Give me the head of God’s people.’”

Ramdin stressed remaining faithful, not avoiding but embracing impending persecution as the greatest opportunity to demonstrate one’s faith. After calling those interested in mission service to come forward, Ramdin’s address ended and Park took the stage for the last time. He made a simple appeal as people prepared to leave the conference for their homes: If the conference had impressed anyone to make a change in their life, Park asked them to tell someone next to them and pray together to make that change. After a few minutes of praying in groups of twos and threes, GYC 2023 came to a close.

Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report.

*Correction: This article identified Adam Ramdin as pastor at the Mentone Church in Southern California. He is the executive director of Lineage Journey where his bio identifies him as the Youth Director for the North England Conference which does not appear to be accurate. Update: Adam has now updated his bio to reflect his change of employ.

Title image: GYC board chair Justin McNeilus, president and COO at Sterling State Bank, announces the new GYC executive committee (screenshot).

About the author

A Spectrum summer intern in 2022, Matthew Peinado is a student at Walla Walla University majoring in social work. He graduated from Portland Adventist Academy. More from Matthew Peinado.
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