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Youth Advance builds the future, and present, of the church

Organizers work to identify and train the most outstanding teen leaders in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

MALVERN, Pa. — I n a hotel meeting room northwest of Philadelphia, a gray-haired facilitator sings karaoke with a group of teens.

The playlist ranges from Katy Perry’s “Roar” to the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” to the hit “Let It Go” from the “Frozen” movie.

Youth Advance participant Isabella Isaziga attends the Pitman Road Church of Christ in Sewell, N.J. (PHOTO BY DAVE SMITH)“This is so pretty,” the facilitator — Bill McGee — proclaims as he emphasizes every syrupy word of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

As the music fades, the atmosphere turns more serious — but not too serious. 

Students take their seats as McGee, minister for the Tabernacle Church of Christ in New Jersey, teaches a lesson on “The Relationship Bank Account.”

The focus: treating every relationship — at home, school or church — as a spiritual opportunity.

For 30-plus years, Youth Advance has worked to identify and train the most outstanding teenage leaders in Churches of Christ in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. 

Destiny Chase, upper left, from Manchester, N.H., Troy Davis, upper right, from Sewell, N.J., and other teen “ambassadors” sent by Churches of Christ work on a leadership skills assessment. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

“The most important thing I learned was, to be a leader you have to serve alongside the people you are leading,” said Julia Mahoney, 16, a member of the Newark Church of Christ in Delaware. “You can’t just tell them what to do. … You have to actually set an example for them.”

The annual weekend seminar began in 1982 as a recruiting tool for Northeastern Christian Junior College in Villanova, Pa. 

Youth Advance participant Haley Wicks attends the Wetzel Road Church of Christ in Liverpool, N.Y. (PHOTO BY DAVE SMITH)
When Northeastern Christian closed in 1993 and merged with Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., the event disappeared for a few years. 

But a group of area Christians who saw value in Youth Advance revived it. 

“It really challenges these students to think deeper than just the one hour (of worship) on Sunday morning,” said Ryan Ice, youth minister for the Grand Central Church of Christ in Vienna, W.Va. 

Individual congregations select representatives — called “ambassadors” — to attend Youth Advance, said Matt Wilson, the organization’s president.

“It’s not like a regular youth rally, with a $25 fee,” said Wilson, 32, who participated himself while growing up in the Cedars Church of Christ in Wilmington, Del. “The students or the churches are paying $220 for their student to come here. It is an investment for a small church to make.”

Youth Advance particularly benefits small congregations that have only a few teens and can’t afford to hire a youth minister, said McGee, a former men’s basketball coach at Northeastern Christian and Ohio Valley.

“Youth Advance gives these kids confidence to lead,” said McGee, the organization’s vice president. 

Nilisa Arkward from Long Island, N.Y., Derek Lopez from Princeton, N.J., and Kaylie Niehls from Pottstown, Pa., enjoy a “get-acquainted” activity during Youth Advance in Malvern, Pa. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Two years ago, the event — traditionally conducted in the Philadelphia area — expanded to a second venue in Columbus, Ohio. 

On back-to-back weekends, the most recent annual seminars drew a combined 73 student ambassadors and 27 adult youth leaders/ministers from nine states. 

Organizers seek partners interested in taking Youth Advance to more areas.

“You hear older people say all the time: ‘You’re the future of the church,’” said Logan Davis, 17, a member of the Pitman Road Church of Christ in Sewell, N.J. “Youth Advance is really giving us the opportunity to develop our skills.”

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