Skip to Content

Bethel Temple Community Bible Church: Holistic Youth Ministry

Bethel Temple Community Bible Church: Holistic Youth Ministry

Rev. Lou Centeno, director of Proclaimers of Hope Ministries of Bethel Temple Community Bible Church, grew up in the so-called "Badlands" of Philadelphia. "Worse than the violence and the alcohol and the drugs and the trash," he recalls, "was the hopelessness." A pervasive sense of despair drove him, and many young men like him, to crime and gangs. "People are angry in our city," Rev. Centeno observes. "They're angry because they feel that nobody cares - nobody cares about me, nobody cares about what's happening to my neighborhood, nobody cares about what's happening to the city, nobody cares about what's happening to the world. They end up becoming a part of the problem." The result is "a cycle of deterioration and disconnectedness, ... rising despair and violence and crime and anger."

This is why the third arm of Bethel Temple's mission statement, following discipling our members and evangelizing our community, is revitalizing our neighborhood in the name of Jesus Christ. Ministries of revitalization give community residents hope: "Somebody cares, and I can be part of the solution." By pouring love, time, skills and resources into the community, ministry staff at Bethel Temple not only meet pressing needs but give people a new vision for their future, breaking the cycle of despair.

One important way that Bethel seeks to stop the cycle is through extensive youth outreach. "We're not an entertainment ministry," says Rev. Van Dyke. "We've gotta be about something different." The difference at Bethel is that youth are challenged on many levels, based on a solid foundation of mentoring relationships with caring adults. Rev. Van Dyke talks about the various forms that this takes:

    They're expected to talk to their friends and to introduce them to the Lord. That's not our job; we train them to do it, but they have to be the ones to do it. They're challenged when they get an idea for some kind of ministry. I used to come up with all the ideas myself, and I've realized why no one really got excited about it. If they come up with them themselves, then they're much more invested. In missions projects, they're challenged to do things that are way beyond what anyone would say [is possible] - Peru last year for a missions trip, before that, Mexico. ... And the whole area of holding them accountable-sexual choices, getting in their faces about what kind of choices they're making-that's a challenge; no one else is doing that in their lives. So all those things are what the world's not doing. We are one place in the community that's doing it, and that challenges them to live above mediocrity, which is what the world's offering them.

It would be easy for Bethel to lower their expectations because of the significant needs of their youth. Most come from poor and broken families. Many have academic difficulties and behavioral problems. Some have a background of drug sales and substance abuse.

Hector was one of these young people headed down a dangerous path. Friends in high school told him he should try Bethel's youth group, and there he learned about Jesus Christ. Now Hector volunteers on youth nights, leading a room full of squirming young children in games and Bible stories. "Three years ago, I wouldn't have even thought that I would be at this point, working with the youth ministry," he reflects. "It's great to be able to teach the kids what I've learned." At Bethel the focus is not just on youths' needs but on helping them become part of the solution.

With monthly Youth Sundays and a Servant Leadership Team that supports church outreach ministries, the church seeks to incorporate youth at every level. "There are a tremendous amount of options for them to get ownership in the life of the church," says Rev. Van Dyke. "They're not the church of tomorrow; they're the living, breathing church in the reality of today." Because the youth know that "what they say really matters" to the adults of the church, the youth take what the adults say more seriously. Giving youth responsibilities in church outside of youth group also allows them to learn first-hand from adults who model discipleship and service.

Over its history Bethel Temple has found various ways to cultivate a relationship with the junior high school kids across the street - for example, by connecting with kids informally during their lunch hour, and by training kids in the church's Arts and Media Center. "Obviously that would not be a time for proselytizing, but that's not our style anyway," says the associate pastor, Joel Van Dyke. "It's much more relational evangelism." Bethel's Director of Economic and Community Development concurs. "You get to meet kids and form relationships with kids long term ... I think kids need to know that you care about them and that you're willing to go where they are." The relationships formed at the school lead to opportunities outside the classroom for giving a personal testimony and addressing youths' spiritual questions.

A passionate evangelistic and discipleship focus does not mean that the youth ministry neglects "this-worldly" needs. Staff give their time and the church's resources to help youth with practical concerns. When Rev. Van Dyke made a follow-up visit to a girl who had recently accepted Christ, for example, he d iscovered that the family had just been evicted from their apartment. He brought them food, and invited the family to stay in a church-owned building that was unused at the time. The whole family joined the church.

[chap. 8, pp. 176-177, plus new material]

Note: Bethel Temple now has a new senior pastor, Rev. Fred Estrada. Following the time of our study, both Lou Centeno and Joel Van Dyke felt called to take positions as missionaries.