Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It is a rare opportunity for parents and teens to agree — both could be turned off by Young Life. Instead, Young Life, or YL, is an international ministry that draws teens to weekly events in all 50 states and in 70 countries.
But parents may think it just sounds like a party and a place to see and be seen. Teens may steer clear of anything that sounds even vaguely “religious” or they may think the kids who go are hypocritical because they party on the weekends.
So how does the national organization draw more than 90,000 teens to the club meetings and nearly 38,000 to the Bible studies, called Campaigners, every week? “We often describe Young Life as a party with a purpose,” said Justin Cason, Area Director for Young Life in Bluefield, Va. “We want students to have fun and feel free to be themselves.”
“It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” YL founder Jim Rayburn is quoted as saying. Rayburn was a young Presbyterian youth leader and seminary student in Gainesville, Texas, when a local minister handed him a challenge: consider the neighborhood high school as his parish and develop ways of contacting kids who had no interest in church.
That was in 1938, even before iPhones, travel sports teams and other distractions got in the way of Sunday morning church-going traditions. Rayburn started a weekly club with singing, a couple of skits and a simple message about Jesus Christ. According to the YL website, attendance jumped dramatically when the group started meeting at young peoples’ homes. Young Life was officially established in October 1941, 72 years ago.
I asked the local YL leader what brought him to the group as a teen. “I went to my first Young Life Club because a pretty girl invited me,” Cason said. “I went to club that night and I have been hooked ever since.”
Cason brought Young Life to the area just over a year ago and focuses his efforts, for now, at Graham High School. He plans to hold the first club meeting in the next couple of months but he’s already taken a group of guys from Graham to a YL weekend camp last fall.
However, some parents are wary about YL at the beginning. “Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think about YL,” said a North Carolina mom whose two teens have attended YL. “I had never heard of it. I asked our church youth group minister and her comment was, ‘Just be sure there are great leaders involved.’ After doing some research, and meeting all of the YL leaders, I got the impression they were a great group of ... college student volunteers ... who wanted to work with kids who might be struggling for whatever reason or help kids who were interested in deepening their relationship with God.”
Another mom told me, “We’ve actually had parents say, ‘I hear so and so goes to YL, and I’m not sure I should let my child go.’ My favorite response was from one of our best leaders. Her response was ‘Yeah, and aren’t you glad so and so found YL!’ If a kid is not a believer, YL offers a ‘safe’ place where a kid doesn’t have to change, can have a blast, and still gets to hear about a great God instead of a stereotypical ‘thou shalt not’ God.”
Cason says he hasn’t seen any resistance from parents or teens to YL in the Bluefield area, hasn’t heard any preconceived ideas about it being a party or churchy. I’ve noticed in some areas, parents or church leaders are wary at first because they want their kids to stay active in their church, but Cason says that hasn’t been a problem either.
“It is worth saying right off the bat that Young Life is not in anyway trying to compete with church,” said Cason. “We are a para-church organization and we work alongside of churches.”
“The churches in the area who understand the DNA of Young Life are our biggest fans and many of them financially support us,” said Ashley Flowers, area director for Young Life’s Lake Norman region, which has been operating for about eight years in that part of North Carolina. “They consider us missionaries to the local high schools.”
Cason agrees, saying he has established relationships with local pastors who want to see Young Life grow in the Bluefield area. “If we have a student who is involved with Young Life as well as their youth group, we encourage them to continue their involvement in youth group. We do not find a lot of push back from churches because a lot of churches understand what we are doing and our mission.”
Often, YL leaders will come to football games or show up on campus with a Frisbee after school to get to know the kids, just as they are. “Our method for reaching them is what we call ‘Earning the right to be heard,’ ” Cason said. “As the saying goes, ‘People don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.’ That is what we want to do in Young Life. We want to build relationships with students and earn their trust before we tell them about truth.”
Cason says YL reaches all kinds of teens. “Whether it is a student who comes from a rough home or a great home, a student that is an outcast or the prom king; they are longing for an adult who cares about them and is willing to listen. As we build relationships with students it is inevitable that there will be an issue that arises in a student’s life that we can speak truth into.”
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.