A Place at the Table: Christian Dunn on Empowering Students

Christian Dunn is the youth pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship (Vineyard at the Barn) in Landenburg, Pennsylvania. He has worked in ministry since age 16, when he co-founded and co-led a traveling youth ministry called East Coast Aflame which held conferences and training camps for young people.

Tell a little bit of your story, how you grew up, and then how you ended up in youth ministry.

Sometime in junior high, I switched over to this church that I'm in now. There wasn't a Vineyard back then. It was an independent church that hadn't really tracked along with the Vineyard. It was started by sort of a hippie Jesus People movement on a campus at the University of Delaware in the 1970s. I came in during the late '80s, and God caught my heart through the power of the Spirit, the excitement of worship in this church, and my experiences on some mission trips.

When I was 16, my pastor sat me down and said, “Look, we've got nothing for young people.” It had been a different volunteer every six months or so. They were great people, but I think he was getting desperate, so he asked one of his sons and me to do something. We started a Bible study, and it was horrible. We were 16! It was in my parents' house, and there was a cappella worship with something like ten teenagers all going through puberty. I mean, it was bad. But at the same time, it was kind of neat. There was something good about ministering to the people your own age.

And so the group grew big enough that we had to move out of my parents' house to the church. At some point, when I was about 18, I started reaching out to other churches, and a partnership with them grew. The guy I was working with – we still work together – came back from a youth conference and said, “We need to do a youth conference here!” This was around 1995. So we did a youth conference sight unseen. Nobody had ever heard of us; we didn't invite in a big-name speaker; we just did it. But 700 teenagers showed up.

Are you serious?

Yes. We just went for it. We rented a hotel and everything. It was crazy. But it was kind of the height of the renewal conference craze time of the 1990s. So it wasn't unheard of, but this was still pretty amazing for us.

For the next six years after that, we traveled and did youth conferences and meetings and networked with people just from the word-of-mouth from that first conference. So for the next phase of my life, I went to college and did traveling ministry. I traveled with teenagers for enough years that we all got into our early 20s.

We were all buddies. There was a group of about 15 of us, and it was awesome. It was one of the best times of my life. I got married during that time too.

I can't remember exactly when, but sometime in my mid-20s or so, it all just stopped. It felt like God said, “This season is over.” So the church said they wanted to hire me on full-time. And that's officially when I became a youth pastor. By the time I was 26, the church had hit a point where 30-year-olds and 12-year-olds were at the same meeting. So we started a legitimate youth ministry, and our church was adopted into the Vineyard.

Three or four years ago, I was asked to lead the regional youth task force. So I've had the joy of watching around four cycles of youth come in and out over the past 20 years.

As the regional coordinator, could you talk about some of the conferences and other things you've been doing to empower youth in the East region where you are?

I'd say one of my favorite things about our region is that we've got incredible youth pastors, both paid staff and volunteers. And what we have in the East Coast that I think is really neat is this huge camaraderie. When we have an event, a high percentage of people come. There's a whole lot of buy-in, and people love each other.

We have youth pastor conferences, and we get 70, 80, 90, 100 people coming – and that's just the leaders. I've been doing youth ministry for a while, and I've never had relationships with youth pastors that have been as brotherly and supportive as I do now.

When I came on, we had been doing winter retreats and youth pastor conferences. Those are both annual events. Something we've added to that is to have two smaller ones, since our region is longer – Maine to Virginia – and every once in a while all the youth from the whole region get together. This year we had 670 kids for a weekend of worship. It was great. This isn't a scientific estimation, but I think there were about 15 kids that received Jesus. We brought Robby Dawkins in to preach on healing and power evangelism, and we saw 70 people raised their hands to say that they had been healed during the weekend. I've also heard stories of kids going home praying for people.

The other awesome thing we do in this region is something called Project Timothy. It's a weeklong leadership boot camp for teenagers; I run it at my church and youth pastors give a week of their time to come here and help me run it. They pay $200 for seven days, and we train them on how to lead a small group, how to teach in front of people, and other things. Have they done the five-step prayer model? Have they practiced and failed? Have they learned the concept of deliverance? Have they learned how to prophesy and pray for healing? Have they ever done an outreach?

So we bring them in for a crash course. We also give them a test analysis, and during the week they practice doing all the things I mentioned.

What age range do you bring in for Project Timothy?

Ages 14 to 18. So the cool thing is, now I've got youth kids, and they can't think about not coming. They're 19- and 20-year-olds who are sticking around, asking me to come back. The first year we had around 50 kids, and the next year we had about 80; 50 new and 30 returning, since you can come back as a second-year student. Then this past year we had 50 new students and 50 who returned from the first two years for a total of 100 teenagers.

How do you do it for $200? Do you do host homes or do they sleep on the floor?

I don't know how long they'll do this, but right now our church housed all those people in homes.

Wow. How big is your church?

I think total membership is around 500.

And they put up 100 teenagers. That means one in five people in your church is hosting a teenager.

Yeah, people will give us their houses and say, “Put ten kids in here.” Then we take care of all the food and extras. So we keep the price really low. And we're fortunate to have a lot of land here, so we have a 20-acre space in a semi-rural area.

It's kind of like a spiritual retreat. We work with the students on their personal life with God. We talk about Bible study and quiet times. So there's the ministry focus, and there's the personal focus. We always take them out and do hands-on ministry in the streets and to each other.

The other cool thing we do is to bring in key leaders to speak each night from around our region. They get exposed to people like the regional church planting coordinator. So there's a whole lot of investment, and it's paying dividends. These students are going back and leading Bible studies and teaching at their youth groups and starting outreaches, doing Bible studies in their schools. It's pretty awesome. It's totally one of those things where you think, “God's really in this one.”

Since I'm also on the national youth task force, we've talked about how we can offer this nationally. But I have a band of teenagers who have been through Project Timothy three times, and they're saying we should offer it road-trip style. They've been connecting with other regions through Facebook to bring us along as the staff. So that would be cool. I think it's a real possibility.

Here's a question: Why is all this stuff working so well? I know the first answer is that God is good and he blesses you. But lots of other people are trying this kind of thing, except it doesn't work. And I think God still likes them. But in addition to the answer of “God loves us and just does these things through us,” are there aspects of the overall health in your region that contributes to this growth? Any thoughts on what's made it work so well?

There are a couple things. I think that from the top down, teenagers are important. When I came on the regional task force, Phil Strout told me, “I believe in teenagers, and I want to invest in what you're doing. I want to release you to do what you can with these guys, and we'll make them a priority.”

It seems like something new is moving, both in the churches in my region and also in the students. There's a real hunger there.

They followed through with that with monetary support and, more broadly, just giving me a lot of freedom. I've been able to step out and try some risky stuff, and they've been okay with that. So I think it starts with that priority at a leadership level.

I also think that the camaraderie helps, because I know I've talked to some people in the other regions, and they say, “Well, it would be tough to do that here because we're all kind of isolated.” So there's that factor of having that team working together. I couldn't do these things if I didn't have seven or eight other men and women who have a lot of buy-in … and do it for free. None of us are getting paid any extra, but I couldn't do it without them.

So I think there's a lot of support for our regional leadership. A lot of unity and a lot of community gets it done.

A lot of people who are interested in ministry and who deeply love Jesus aren't necessarily as committed to youth as maybe you or Phil are. What reasoning would you give them that it's worthwhile to invest in teenagers?

The research shows that if you don't get teens locked into God, they don't have as great of a shot at finding him. Most people who last with Jesus for their lifetimes made that call before the age of 21. A lot of that has to do with an experiential element – where you've experienced something about God that you can't deny.

And if you sit down with a pastor and you ask him, “Why are you doing this? Why are you in this?” they'll most likely tell you a story from their childhood or teenage years when God met them, unless they have some amazing conversion experience on a barstool in their 20s or something. But a lot of people had that initial teenage turnaround. And a parallel issue is, what is the church in America seeing now? Well, they're seeing teenagers drop off; they're losing them in their early 20s. That's a big topic of conversation across the board, not just in the Vineyard.

So my firm belief is that there's fruit when we give young people the actual experience of the kingdom of God. That's why we want teenagers truly engaging in this stuff. So in our big winter retreat last year, with about 350 people at each one, I had a teenager teach a main session. I have teenage bands lead worship for the whole thing. This year I had teenagers teaching some of the workshops. We do prophetic ministry, where you can sign up for a time slot, and you get a ten-minute session where people pray for you in a side room throughout the weekend.

Not only do you give teenagers a chance to do it, but you also set an expectation on them and put your trust in them: “You can do this. I expect you to do this.” They don't have to go to several years of VLI first. What's wrong with a 13-year-old being taught how to hear the voice of God and prophesy to somebody? I have incredible kids in my youth group at 13 right now who are leading worship and prophesying. And they rival some of the adults.

Give teenagers the opportunity, be willing to deal with some of the inevitable messes, and be willing to coach them through things. But again, we want to create lifelong disciples. So if you want that to happen, you've got to start in the teen years, and you've got to start with real, experiential Christianity.

I can't tell you how awesome it is to sit down with a teenager and have them tell you about a healing they witnessed. It’s like when Jesus sent out the disciples and they all came back telling him stories. This happened just a short while ago with me. Someone asked me to pray with them for physical healing. So I grabbed this 13-year-old girl and told her, “Help me pray.”

And through her hands this person was healed. Later on, when the doubts of early young adulthood come, she will have this buildup of all the stories of times where God has broken through in her life and through her. So it's going to be a lot harder to walk away from that experience than it is to walk away from games, or the feeling that you were never really allowed in or that there was no room for you at the table.

This past Sunday morning at the regular church service, we had prophetic words preached from the mic. Two of the four words were from teenagers. We have our teen band lead worship on Sunday morning on a regular basis. Are they as polished as the adults? Probably not. But there's a value you're giving to them.

Thinking big picture – even with all these great things happening, there of course are other people in the Vineyard who are discouraged, who are just kind of flatlined, who haven't seen things like this happen. So, in general, what are you excited about in thinking about the future of your church and the future of the larger Vineyard?

Well, there's so much. On the local level, I'm excited because I really do feel the presence of God is getting stronger in our meetings. And I feel that the worship is especially strong. In most of the Vineyards I visit, it seems like the quality of the worship is growing – and the worship is what initially drew me in as a teenager. So I'm excited about that.

If we can harness these young people and give them a place at the table even now, this could be a really promising initiative for the Vineyard.

I'm also excited about kind the fresh emphasis in some parts on power evangelism. That was the topic of one of the first John Wimber books I read when I was 17 or 18, and it's a part of who I am. So this might be biased, but I love the idea of ministering to people through love, through prayer, through a word or healing. There seems to be a renewed emphasis on the lost and on seeing people's lives changed.

And we're seeing it happen. I think people are hungry for what the Vineyard has to offer. We get a lot of people coming to our church who are saying they're just looking for something more. Many of them are even Christians, but they're looking for the special presence of God. I think if we ever were to lose that, I wouldn't want to be here anymore either. But I think as long as the presence of God is in our worship and the presence of God is in our ministry, in the laying of hands on each other, the kingdom of God is happening. And again, the teenagers are seeing that happen in front of them as they participate; those things really grab them.

And at a regional level I'm very excited, because it feels like there's something big brewing. It seems like something new is moving, both in the churches in my region and also in the students. There's a real hunger there.

I think you can look at church history and there are cycles. There are ups and downs. There is a surge of young people who are serious about God, bold enough to take it outside of the church, and gifted and passionate about it. Kids are praying in groups. Kids are evangelizing and praying for people on the streets. Kids are starting their own youth ministries at churches that don't have them. This is happening up and down the East Coast. The students care.

They care about character. They care about issues. If we can harness these young people and give them a place at the table even now, this could be a really promising initiative for the Vineyard. If the Vineyard picture looked like older people and younger people, hand in hand, doing the kingdom of God, how could we be discouraged with that?

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