Youth Fellowship Meetings
The Youth Fellowship Meeting is a weekend event hosted by local congregations. Beachy Amish-Mennonite young adults come to hear speakers, meet friends, and play games. About a decade after their 1953 founding, the meetings were broken up into two districts, east and west. By the mid-1990s, the meetings were sufficiently large enough to be unmanageable by local congregations, so they were divided into five districts. Since then, some districts maintain a sizeable attendance while others consistently have a low turnout..To some extent, the spring weekend youth meetings at the Beachy Amish-Mennonite-sponsored Penn Valley Christian Retreat is now attracting the large crowds.
The Youth Fellowship Meeting—
What It Is, and How It Came to Be
By Harvey Yoder (1963)
The Youth Fellowship Meeting as it is known today was first held at Nappanee, Indiana, on Ascension Day, 1953, but the “Ascension Day Meetings,” as the meetings were first called, actually began on a small scale four years before this time. Ascension Day itself had something to do with the Meeting’s beginning since, as a former resident of the area states, it is “considered a holiday by our people...,” and is at “a time of the year when the farmers are not quite as busy as at some other times.” This naturally was a good day for young people to get together. It was the interest of a childless, elderly couple near Ft. Wayne, Indiana, however, that probably did more than anything to give the Meeting its start.
Dan and Anna Zehr, both in their early sixties at this time, lived some distance from the Maple Lawn Church near Nappanee, to which they belonged. Because they desired fellowship, and had a special concern for the small young people’s group of their church, they invited all the Beachy youth of nearby churches to their home for Ascension Day, May 5, 1949. The Nappanee-Goshen social committee made up of three young people, planned the day of informal fellowship, spent mostly in singing together and in playing games on the lawn. Fifty-four young people, from Nappanee and Goshen, Indiana, and from Plain City, Ohio, were present for this first “Fellowship Meeting.”
On May 18, 1950 and May 3, 1951 such gatherings were again held at the Zehr home on Ascension Day. Attendance was 72 and 64 respectively, for these Meetings, with youth groups from the Davies Co., Indiana, and Hartville, Ohio, congregations also being represented.
After the 1951 Meeting the Zehrs felt they could hardly accommodate so many young people in their small home, so David Zehr (Dan’s brother) invited the young people to their home near Topeka, Indiana, for Ascension Day, May 22, 1952. This was the first Meeting for which a program was planned to replace only games and singing. The attendance for this year had increased considerably and when rain prevented them from meeting on the lawn, permission was gained to use the Emmatown Mennonite Church nearby for the program.; The forenoon was spent in singing hymns and the afternoon program was as follows:
Devotions . . .
Special Music . . . Madison Co., Ohio group
“The Ascension of Christ” . . . Eli Beachy
Poem . . . Davis Co., Ind. group
Witnessing for Christ at LaJunta . . . Effie Zehr
“A Tour Through Palestine” . . . David O. Burkholder, Jr.
Special Music . . . Stark Co., Ohio group
Benediction . . . Clarence Miller
After this successful Meeting the local committee discussed with the late Bishop David O. Burkholder Sr. the possibility of extending an invitation to all Beachy young people for a similar Meeting to be held at the Maple Lawn Beachy Church the following year. Bishop Burkholder, they found, “had great interest in ... you and wanted to help in any way he could.”
This bishop then discussed the matter with the other ministers of his church, as well as with those of the neighboring churches of Goshen and Amboy, Indiana, and Centerville, Michigan. After some time this letter of invitation was written by Bishop Burkholder, signed by other ministers of three congregations, and sent to the various Beachy churches:
April 1, 1953
Dear Bro. in Christ,
Greetings in Jesus holy name to one and all.
The reason I’m writing this letter is to inform you that the annual Young People’s Meeting of our group of churches here in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan has been held on Ascension Day for the past four years. This year, the Lord willing, it will be held at our church here at Nappanee, with the understanding that an invitation will be given or sent to all of our group of churches in Pa., Va., Ohio, Mich., Canada, Indiana and Iowa to invite the young people, as many had been looking forward for several years for this privilege.
I have been asked by a member [number?] of my co-ministers to send out these invitations.
The Lord willing we will have services on Wednesday evening, May 13, on Thursday morning, May 14 and also Thursday evening.
For those that can stay for the week end, we will make other arrangements.
Would you kindly bring this before your church and let me know how many we can expect?
Wishing you all the grace of God.
Your Brethren in Christ,
David O. Burkholder, David A. Bontrager, Ezra Miller, Jacob L. Mast, Irvin D. Miller, Steve Yoder, and Eli A. Miller
This Meeting was planned by the Nappanee and Goshen literary committees, along with those local ministers who were interested. Bishop Burkholder personally wrote to David Miller, a minister from Thomas, Oklahoma, and to Jacob J. Hershberger, a minister from Lynnhaven, Virginia, asking them to “come and be prepared to preach as often as necessary,” but no particular subjects were assigned them.
Of these two ministers only Jacob Hershberger was able to attend, so on the first evening he brought the main message, with Ecclesiastes 12:1 as his text, after an opening message by Amos Schrock of White Pigeon, Michigan. The following morning the opening message and a prayer was given by Eli Miller of Topeka, Indiana, after which Hershberger gave a message from John 11, with the words, “Take Ye Away the Stone, “ as a text.
After the noon lunch, served in the basement of the church, the program was in charge of the young people. Twenty-six-year-old David O. Burkholder, Jr., who had served on the committee arranging for the Meeting, served as moderator for the afternoon session. For devotions Henry Tice of Grantsville, Maryland, read I John 2 and Raymond Kauffman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, led in Prayer. Each young people’s group represented then had the opportunity to introduce the members of their group present, giving the name, address and occupation of each. After a discussion about future Meetings, an election was held to organize a committee to plan for a Meeting the following year. David O. Burkholder, Jr. was elected president, Ray Gingerich of Kalona, Iowa, vice-president, and Otis Yoder of Milford, Indiana, secretary-treasurer. (Yoder later resigned and was replaced by Henry Tice, who had had the next largest number of votes). After the election Dan Zehr gave his testimony and told of his vision for an annual Fellowship Meeting for Christian youth. This session was then adjourned after a prayer, led by Steve Yoder, and the singing of a few hymns.
After the evening lunch Clarence Miller of Burr Oak, Michigan, opened the evening session with a short sermon and prayer, and Hershberger brought a message from I Timothy 2:22, “Flee Youthful Lusts.” This was followed by hymn singing from about 9:00 – 9:30. Apart from this singing and the part of the service in charge of the young people, this first church-wide Meeting was conducted largely in German.
Attendance at the various sessions of this Meeting ranged from approximately 175 the first evening to about 375 on the last evening, with those attending being largely young people.
This was a larger group than had been expected, and interest seemed high from the first. Not all were in favor, however. The Meeting was accepted “by a limited amount of enthusiasm by both the home congregation and the Beachy group.” “Some local members stayed away, as it was a ‘new movement,’” and many were uncertain of its outcome.
But the Meeting had been born, and was destined to enjoy healthy growth. In February of the following year the committee met in the Somerset Co., Pennsylvania, area to plan the meeting to be held there that year. To assist them in their planning, they chose an adult advisor from the Beachy congregation in that community, Ervin N. Hershberger. Together they agreed on the following guiding principles to be followed by later committees, as reported by one of the committee:
Either German or English, or both, may be used, depending on the wishes of the host congregation and the speaker.
Four sessions, one of Wednesday evening and three on Thursday.
An introduction by the young people if desired.
A few of last year’s minutes to be read.
President is limited to 2 years. He is to be moderator. He is to be chosen from the former committee.
At a minister’s meeting held November 10, 1955 at the Weavertown Church in Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, the matter of the Youth Fellowship Meetings was discussed at some length, although the main purpose of this meeting was to discuss the forming of Amish Mennonite Aid. Some of the ministers present seemed to want the Meetings discontinued, but all at last agreed to have them continue under a group of regulations which were then given to the committee:
Agreed; that the Ascension Day Meetings shall be under the control and supervision of the ministerial body.
Agreed; that the committee elected by and of the young people shall be responsible for the selection of a suitable location for conducting such Meetings. This selected place to be with some Beachy congregation
Agreed; that the home ministers of this selected place shall supervise the young people’s committee in arranging the program.
Agreed; that insofar as these Ascension Day Meetings are concerned, this group of ministers has resolved that the pulpit shall be reserved for ordained ministers only.
Because of the suggestion that the committee plan the Meetings with the ministers of the host church, the adult advisor plan was not continued.
Present interest of the Beachy group in the Meeting seems to range “all the way from enthusiastic support to cold aloofness,” but only one congregation has felt that her young people should not attend at all. Some have objected to the use of the English language for the greater part of the Meeting, and others fear that pride will develop in the “young boys” who here assume leadership and seem to take the place of ordained men. Others fear that it might hasten the development of a Beachy “conference,” or that for some the Meeting merely gives youth an “excuse to run around” or an opportunity to “copy fashions from each other.”
Many who raise questions also point to the positive points, however, that it has “increased spiritual interest in some of our young folks,” “provided practical training in assuming responsibilities,” helped in “closing the gap between parents and their young people,” and has given a good occasion for fellowship with other young Christians.
The past two years a supply of good books and free literature has been made available at the Meeting, and interest in this and other aspects of the Meeting continues to grow. Attendance has increased to as high as 600 – 800, so that high school auditoriums have been used for the Meetings of the past few years. Because of this increased attendance, plans have been made for two separate Meetings, an eastern Meeting in the spring and a western one in the fall.
Perhaps if Bishop David O. Burkholder, Sr. were living today he would repeat with even greater conviction the statement he made at the Youth Fellowship Meeting of 1955, “It is a joy to my heart to have been able to help get something like this started.”
Above and Below: Youth mingle different meetings
(above, Tennessee; below, Virginia)
(Top): A youth fellow gives a topic at a session (Pennsylvania)