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New Horizons

Twenty-Two Years of Youth Ministry

Mike Dempsey

“Okay, boys, grab your jackets; it’s time to go!” Church was starting in thirty minutes, and this morning was the annual Christmas play. My job as a Los Angeles firefighter required that I work three Sundays in a row followed by six off. The three Sundays that I worked were difficult for my wife, Diane. She felt very much alone dropping the kids off at Sunday school and then walking by herself into our non-denominational church’s large auditorium filled with strangers. So, instead, she and our three children would attend Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, California, during my three working Sundays. There, in the church of her youth, she felt more at home with friends and family around her.

But because they were in Long Beach three Sundays straight, our boys had missed a Christmas play rehearsal.

A Warm Welcome

As we approached the school where church was held, our boys’ excitement was palpable. They could hardly wait to be in the play. We went straight to the Sunday school room and were met by the teacher.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Because your boys missed a practice, they will not be allowed to be in the play this year.” The look on our boys’ faces caused my stomach to turn over. I tried to squash my anger and disappointment. As we went home, I did my best to explain to the boys what had just happened.

Later that day, Faith OPC was also having their annual Christmas program. It was family tradition to celebrate the birth of our Lord with several of our friends and their kids who were a part of the program. We looked forward to watching them. The two play directors—and Sunday school teachers for as far back as anyone could remember—were Jan Gekler and Ruth Fleming. As we walked through the back door, Ruth caught my eye. “Oh good!” she exclaimed. “Mrs. Gekler has a few extra hats and scarves. Would your boys like to be carolers in the play?”

Here was an expression of love that changed my heart and a kindness that I have never forgotten. Although our sons had not been to any of the rehearsals, these faithful servants found a place for my boys and a place in my heart. My wife and I sat in the audience with our young daughter and watched the boys join in the retelling of Jesus’s birth. As the carols were sung and the sweet treats were passed out, I wondered why I was even trying to find another place to fellowship and worship. Here at Faith OPC, we already had sweet communion with fellow believers, and the hearts of our young ones were being prayed for and guided by God’s Word. What more did I need?

Youth Ministry Through the Years

Thirty-eight years have passed since that December evening. I have thanked Ruth and Jan many times for their part in our return to Faith OPC.

Our return also led to a fulfillment of the call that I had always felt to minister to young people. Twenty-two years ago, I was asked by the session at Faith OPC to lead a ministry aimed at our growing high school population. They stressed the importance of continuing a ministry that expressed the love of Christ. I’m still in that role now.

Since 1997, our ministry has changed many times, dictated by the needs of our particular group at the time.

Our first group of kids had never had a youth group of their own and were very excited to participate in any and all activities. We had a Bible study on Sunday evenings where we sang a cappella and then studied the Bible together, followed by a time of informal fellowship.

That first group formed a friendship with smaller OP churches in central California, which led to several visits to pass out flyers in their local neighborhoods. The car rides there and back were long, so my wife came up with the idea to, at designated times, open a “grab bag” full of treats and puzzles that she had prepared. But before they could have the bag, the kids had to guess its contents by the Bible verse on the outside. My wife wrote Psalm 24:4 (“He who has clean hands”) for hand sanitizer or Leviticus 11:4 (“There are some that only chew the cud”) for bubble gum.

By this point, we had about forty high school kids in the group as word spread to sister churches and friends. When these kids grew older and started college, we realized that a college ministry was needed. So, in 1997, we added a study in our home that included a Wednesday evening sit-down dinner on china plates. My wife is an excellent cook, and, after living on dorm food, the draw from real food is strong. And so “Bible Bistro” was born. We saw this ministry grow as well, due to the college students’ real need for sound teaching and socially safe fellowship.

We decided that we should be always open in order to provide for the varying schedules of the college students. On the Wednesdays that we were out of town, we cooked ahead and gave house keys to our faithful young people who then served dinner, lead a study, and cleaned up. This was an important lesson for us to be ready to entertain strangers at all times—even when we’re not home. We have had people come back after years away, knowing this fellowship was there to be enjoyed and blessed.

Every December, we provide a “formal” nine-course dinner for our high school and college students. It is a great way to unite our two ministries. Our house and yard are transformed into a dining establishment and staffed by volunteers from Faith OPC. Each guest is assigned a seat by place card. At the third and sixth courses, the diners change dining rooms and dinner partners according to the back of the place card. After dessert, all of our young people go out into the neighborhood and carol to our neighbors as a gift and witness.

Through the years, our young people have also cooked and delivered meals to our seniors, provided dinner and entertainment for our congregation, and traveled to other OP churches to provide a day of games and fellowship with their youth. They have done disaster relief; purchased, delivered, and served food at a local rescue mission; passed out Bibles at the local swap meet; and many other ministries.

God’s Word clearly states that they will know we are his disciples if we love one another. It was love that brought us back to the OPC, and it is the love of God in action that we are trying to teach our younger generation. 

The author is a ruling elder of Faith OPC in Long Beach, California. New Horizons, December 2019.

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