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Lilly Grant expands youth ministry program

By Sally Jongsma

Asked how the two million dollar Lilly Grant titled "Programs in Christian Vocation: From Insight to Ministry" is affecting the youth ministry program, Dr. Sydney Hielema blurts "It's huge." He smiles, pauses, and then says more properly, "It's extremely significant."

Enrollment in Dr. Sydney Hielema's youth ministry classes continues to increase.

Enrollment in Dr. Sydney Hielema's youth ministry classes continues to increase.

"Basically we've been carrying a two-ton load in a half-ton pick-up," he says.

Dordt's youth ministry program was approved four years ago, but without provision for additional staff. Since then the number of majors in the theology department has quadrupled, leaving department members taxed and unable to offer new courses they felt would be important for their students interested in youth ministry. This year's addition of Dr. Tom Wolthuis to the department means that new courses will be offered, and Hielema will be relieved of some of the supervisory work for youth ministry interns.

"I can hardly imagine a better person for the job," says Hielema. Wolthuis is both an academic and a pastor.

The youth ministry program at Dordt College is thriving, as increasing enrollment indicates. Its success is also sobering. The professors take very seriously the responsibility of training future youth ministers. They are well aware of differing views about youth ministry training. Some believe it should be done in seminaries or Bible colleges, preferably on the master's level. Others believe it doesn't really fit in a liberal arts curriculum.

Hielema has good answers to both of these views. "In a sense whether it should be an undergraduate or graduate program is irrelevant," he says. People and churches are deciding by their actions. Because of the need for people to staff their youth programs, many churches today are hiring students directly out of college as youth ministers. Hielema believes its better to make sure they're prepared as well as they can be on the college level rather than send them with no training at all.

And while some colleges that consider themselves in the liberal arts tradition find that offering such a program is too vocationally oriented, Dordt College has long articulated a view of serviceable insight that not only allows but encourages programs that are academically rigorous and that prepare students for specific service once they graduate. Education, social work, engineering, agriculture, and graphic arts are just a few of the programs that might be put into the same class of offerings as youth ministry.

A Youth for Christ employee visiting campus and attending some classes last year remarked that the youth ministry program was the most academically rigorous he's seen. While Hielema cannot confirm such a statement from his own knowledge of other programs, he is committed to working against the stereotype that youth ministry is for people who can't make it in seminary.

"The biggest question many of these students face is whether to pursue ordination," says Hielema. He expects that as many as a third of them will eventually do just that, either by going to seminary or through other means.