One of the reasons Young Life has been so successful, are its leaders. Young Life seems to have a wide variety of leaders, mostly college aged volunteers, who are able and willing to befriend teens and win a hearing for the gospel.
When I attended club for the first time, I expected to be bored and preached at…I expected it to be a lot like my church youth group. I was wrong. We sang songs from top 40 radio. They ran funny skits that got us laughing. I was genuinely greeted with warmth and made to feel like I mattered. I later found out that Jim Rayburn, Young Life’s founder, had said “It’s a sin to bore a kid.” His philosophy was that Christ and his gospel was exciting, therefore club should be fun and exciting too.
So far, there’s nothing really wrong with making teens feel welcome, singing songs, and keeping kids from being bored. But from these experiences, Young Life leaders (often unpaid volunteers) use the club setting to befriend teens and share their version of Evangelical Christianity.
Another aspect of Young Life club is the “sell” for teens to attend a Young Life camp. Often times it is pitched that the trip to camp will be the “best week of their life”. The hype factor is high, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that many leaders viewed club as a way to convince kids to go to camp. Young Life camp itself was pitched for its many amazing activities, the water slide, the sailing, the mountains, etc….of course, the open secret was that it would be a great week to hang out with members of the opposite sex. I know from personal experience, and I’ll just leave it at that….
Behind all these coordinated efforts is your friendly neighborhood Young Life leader. As I got further involved with Young Life (first as a campaigner and then five years as a volunteer leader), I saw that there is a lot more behind that smiling face than meets the eye. I don’t share this to say all Young Life leaders are like this (they’re not), but to give folks a better idea of some of the things I saw that concern me about Young Life.
Young Life-High School Confidential
My first year in college I continued into Young Life leadership. I would meet weekly at our area director’s home for leadership meetings, attended by all volunteer and staff leaders for our county. It was during this time that my view of Young Life began to shift. As a campaigner and camp attendee, I was always amazed at my leaders. They were funny, yet could open up about the important issues in life like God, sex, and relationships. They always seemed to have some insight and were always pointing me back to Jesus and the Bible as my source of wisdom for life.
An almost constant topic was whether or not I was engaging in daily quiet times. Quiet times for Young Life leaders were like water for fish. “My First 30 Quiet Times” a small booklet by Ty Saltzgiver was almost always the first quiet time booklet given to new campaigners or campers that had decided to give Jesus a try.
Imagine my shock upon learning, that my Young Life leader in High School would go months without ever engaging in this spiritual discipline. In fact, it was very common to hear leaders confess that they had trouble keeping up with this practice. One that they so readily commended to others. But this is small in comparison to my next shock wave….this same leader later confessed that they had sex with someone they had met in town. Not only had they engaged in sex before marriage (something they consistently preached against) but they had sex with someone who was married. So now adultery was in the mix….
I asked them if the area director knew about their sexual foray with another man’s wife. They replied that they had confessed everything to the area director, but nothing of much consequence was done other than to acknowledge that what was done was wrong. What was even more confusing, is this same club had made a Young Life leader confess and then step out of leadership for getting pregnant. Again, I don’t know if it was sexism or circumstance, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for making one leader step down and the other continue. Above all, it was hypocrisy to be telling teens that the Christian life was exciting and worth doing, when the main man selling this product wasn’t even attempting to practice what he preached.
This is the same leader that was organizing and taking almost 100 students from the local high school to Saranac Lake for a week. This is the same leader that was taking teens cigarettes, throwing them out, and chastising them for smoking. Were they an incredibly likeable person…yes, without a doubt. But I look back and question whether this person should ever have been around young teens during this time in their life.
Does it make all of Young Life bad or cultic? No, of course not….but it is something to consider. Behind the smile of that Young Life leader may be a world that betrays the message they proclaim. And to parents, how well do you know the people that will be leading your children for 24/7 at your Young Life camp?