By Michael Romain
Monday, Maywood — If you didn’t know who he was, you’d easily mistake Theodore Matthews for one of the dozens of young adults that he oversees as youth pastor and preaching assistant at Rock of Ages Baptist Church (headed by Rev. Marvin E. Wiley). The church is the largest in Maywood and one of the largest in the state. From here on, I’ll refer to Mr. Matthews as “Rev. Matthews,” but not without hesitation. Attaching that designation to someone still pursuing his undergraduate studies, who you may easily imagine walking carefree across any of America’s collegiate quadrangles, is kind of like picturing a rapper (say Kanye West or Jay-Z) getting a senior discount. “Reverend” just sounds old-fashioned. But a younger, vibrant generation of clergymen like Rev. Matthews is forcing us to re-evaluate our standardized conceptions of church and the leaders who head them. The topic of generational transition, especially in churches in Maywood and its surrounding areas, is a fascinating one I plan on exploring in-depth at a later date. In the meantime, though, I spoke with Rev. Matthews about much more immediate fare, like what CODE RED means and how he came to have so many responsibilities at an age when most of his peers are more concerned with their own swag than with saving other people’s souls.
I’m in my twenties [he laughs].
You’re in a position that a lot of people your age in ministry would love to have. To be over a ministry at a church this size is some people’s career aspiration–and you don’t even have a bachelor’s degree yet! That’s a huge accomplishment. How did you get here?
I was born and raised in Maywood. I went to St. Paul and Walther Lutheran schools. I’ve been at Rock of Ages for about a year and a half. But before I came here, I served the youth ministry at City Point Community Church in Chicago (formerly Proviso Community Church). I came to Rock of Ages, because part of me has always known that Maywood is the area where I was called to serve. I noticed that it’s not what it was when I was growing up and I felt compelled to help out where I could. [Rev. Wiley] called me in and wanted me to help in the area of youth outreach.
I believe that preparation meets opportunity. Growing up, I was always interested in community outreach. I did a lot of reading and my mother was entrepreneurial and active in the community. This background prepared me to be able to tackle this thing. At this point, the formal education is really for personal gain more than anything else. I’d been out of school for 3 or 4 years [having left to pursue ministry full-time] and it didn’t seem fair to go out and tell kids to finish their degree while I didn’t have mine. So, right now I’m finishing my bachelor’s up at Concordia, while also taking online classes in Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute.
In addition to being youth pastor, I also serve as preaching assistant to Pastor Wiley [so I divide my time between different roles]. Mondays are youth ministry stuff. I research youth culture, look up current studies, look for ways to connect with youth, network with other youth pastors across the country, conduct Bible study and do outreach. Other days, I spend out in the community, hit parks up, start conversations with people, minister to them. I offer spiritual guidance. But beyond that, everything else just falls into place.
Since coming into this role, what have you done differently with the church’s youth ministry?
I rebuilt and re-branded the youth ministry here. Right now, we service 75-100 youth at any given time. Last year was our first youth conference I hosted. More than 500 people were in attendance. The theme that year was “Believe Again.” This year, our theme is “CODE RED.” The conference itself is called the Chosen Youth Conference and will be held next week, July 19-21, at various locations throughout the community.
We developed this year’s theme based on what was happening in the community. We wanted to raise awareness and alarm about the issues facing our youth. It’s time for us to raise the alarm for our teens and come together and stop fighting. CODE RED signifies a rescue mission.
What other activities does the ROA youth ministry offer?
Last month we launched our first annual girl’s lock-in. We’ve also launched a mentoring program for both males and females. We offer different life skill development workshops, among other things. Our building is open for the young people to hang out in. We coordinate with Vision of Restoration (VOR) [the church’s social service arm]. We’re actually still receiving youth to enroll in our Summer Youth Jobs program. VOR does job placement for young people, ages 16-21. Some of our partners include Illinois Communications Channel, the villages of Maywood and Broadview and Rock of Ages Baptist Church. We were intentional about picking places where the youth can get long-term employment beyond the summer.
We offer a hands-on experience primarily in skilled work. For instance, if a youth has an interest in media communications, we can set him or her up in an internship at Illinois Communications Channel, where they can see the day-to-day operations. We’ve also setup checking accounts for each youth at Fifth Third Bank. So far, we’ve placed about 50-60 youth so far.
We’re also still accepting enrollment in our mentoring program, which will launch again in the Fall. Right now, we’re looking to only take about 40-50 kids to meet the mentors that we currently have.
Tell me more about the upcoming CODE RED youth conference.
We’ve got music featuring gospel recording artist Tye Tribbet, who has sort of redefined his image in a very major way. His new album is centered on the fact that he wasn’t perfect, made mistakes and now the message is that your greatest mistake can’t stop your greatest possibility. Also, he’s young and still relevant. His next album, “Greater Than,” releases next month in August. We also added Pastor John Hannah and gospel artist Jonathan McReynolds. That will be Friday night at Proviso West’s gymnasium. And Saturday, we’ll have the Rock the Block event at Connor Park on 10th and Washington, where there will be a basketball tournament and other activities.
Our larger strategy is to saturate the community with our presence. To have the Saturday event at 10th Park was intentional. It’s the most visible park and it’s known for its violence. We want to take a place where people feel unsafe and make it safe again.VFP