For the most part, the discussion mirrors much of the discussion that has happened here at the Christian Agnostic and Young Life Watch. It vacillates between those who attended and think it was fine, mostly positive to those who didn’t like the tone or hypocrisy of some Young Lifers and their beliefs.
The comment I found most similar to my own experiences is below. It’s interesting, although I attended Young Life over 20 years earlier than this poster, the dynamics and methods they describe are almost identical. The bolded sentences are my doing, otherwise, this is the post in its entirety and unedited.
Past Young Lifer here. I was really involved in the program back in the early 2000′s when I was on the tail end of a really religious upbringing. I’ve been an atheist for over 10 years now, but I look back on this experience as a mixed bag of pleasant experience as regret.
Young Life was meant to be really open and fun and unlike most traditional church groups, they knew how to not freak people the hell out with a heavy handed approach to faith. Basically, it would be weekly house party (albeit a really, really tame house party) at somebody’s place where kids would hang out, maybe smoke cigarettes in the front yard, play Frisbee, chat, flirt with the opposite sex,etc. Then everyone would head inside. A bunch of guys with guitars would lead the group in singing popular songs (lots of Goo Goo Dolls and U2 back then…. mostly any song about heartbreak, feeling alone or lost). There would be some sort of group game and then a 3 minute talk about how people sometimes feel lost and without purpose (these talks would slowly build on each other throughout each semester and ultimately culminate in a big reveal that there just might be a God out there who loves you and can make you feel better.) There would always be a super strong push to get kids to sign up to go to one of their summer camps.
What Young Life provided was a safe place for kids to have fun and be vulnerable with each other. For teenagers, that is a valuable commodity. It worked really well.
As a kid who grew up in the church, I already knew what the message was. I already knew what the summer camp was trying to do. I realized that this was just a watered down version of what I’d been doing my entire life, but I could see that it honestly seemed to be working on getting numbers up – it seemed like good marketing.
And so I was 100% bought it.
That’s when a few of my more fervent friends invited me to join in to a group called “Campaigners” – and this is where Young Life starts to get a bit weird.
Campaigners would meet at 6am every Monday at the Young Life Leader’s house. We’d sing Christian Praise songs, read scripture, eat bagels – normal youth group stuff. But then we would start talking about who we wanted to bring to the next group, how we should talk to them, why it was important to save their souls. It was mapped out to a creepy level of detail: Jake and I have the same class down the hall from you. I’ll start a conversation about plans for Wednesday in that class and then we’ll bump into you in the hall and we’ll ask them to come with us to the next Young Life. Someone else will ask them later that same day. Maybe a 4th person would contact our target as well – all with one very clearly stated rule: never give away that this was all planned. Unpopular kids looking for friendship and approval were very, very easy targets.
Once they came with you, your job was make sure they had the best time ever. You introduced them to all of your friends. You hung out with them afterward. You took them on family vacations. But then you’d check in Monday morning and report how all of this was going to your fellow Campaigners who would make sure they stayed on the hook. Each week at the open function, they’d be really encouraging them to go to camp this year. They’d bring photos of last year and all the cool stuff they did and tell them that they have to go. And for horny teenage boys, pictures of their crush in a bikini is usually about all it took.
So flash forward to summer camp each year, there’d be a mix of about half Campaigners and half non-religious friends up at a camp in Minnesota with sailboats, zip lines, the best food I’ve ever eaten, disc golf, games, music classes, attractive members of the opposite sex who didn’t have to act church-y, campfires, non-religious sing along….. It was basically a week of pure bliss. And each night after a somewhat ambiguous talk about needing “outside” help, they’d leave you alone for an hour with your thoughts. And in retrospect, it’s crazy how effective that is. You plant an idea and then give someone a quiet moment where that is the last thing in their mind- and then it grows. Kids were converting in droves and I felt like I was part of something important.
Unlike my super creepy church youth group that was all talk, Campaigners was like the Christian SWAT team.
But at the same time, this is the group that ultimately made my faith unravel because they made me see that to be an effective evangelical, you really had to get to know and love the friends in your life – and knowing meant listening and actively engaging. Those things have to come before your agenda. But if the whole reason you’re making friends is to serve an agenda, does that really even count as a friendship? If you are getting together weekly to chit chat about that person’s spiritual progress when that particular topic has barely even come up with them – it’s some fucking spy movie shit and your personality starts to rip. As I got to meet people outside of the flock, I began to realize that when we sang songs about being lost and genuinely bonded in our heart to heart talks that I felt every bit as lost as they did – that the cure we were pitching was every bit as empty as the drugs, drinking and pre-marital sex the prudish church had always been warning about.
We were just teenagers. Everybody felt lost and disconnected. The magic of Young Life wasn’t Jesus – it was creating a safe place where it was okay to be vulnerable.
These days, I’d be really wary of sending any kid off to a camp like that because it is run by really, really smart grown ups who have a pretty good system for indoctrinating kids. These guys are just as good at marketing as any other corporation in our country. Pretty girls in bikinis don’t have anything to do with that brand name t-shirt, but dammit I’m going to buy it because I don’t want to be alone and feeling ugly. Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with zip lines and being vulnerable with close friends, but I want both of those things and if this summer camp can make me feel this good – who is to say it wasn’t Jesus the whole time?
The whole thing was such a mind-fuck – on one hand pleasant, on the other hand just a giant trick that I helped perpetuate.
If I could recreate the Young Life experience I had and remove that religious component, we’d have something capable doing real good in the lives of teens. But that’s the shitty part: it’s hard to do much of anything without hidden agenda. If you aren’t “fixing” troubled kids, if you aren’t helping people see the light – then what you are doing is just a waste of time.