Young Life-How the “Cult of Cool” Crushed a Teen’s Faith

7 Aug

I was a Young Life volunteer leader for 5 years.  As a leader, we were encouraged to go after the “leaders” at our school.  The kids that everyone looked up to.  The ones that led the pack. Decades of ministry experience showed that if you could get a “leader” to come to Young Life, their followers would come as well.

In High School, the “leaders” are almost always the popular kids.  Kids with good looks, talent, or charisma.  In other words, they were cool.  I’ve dubbed Young Life’s method of targeting popular kids the “Cult of Cool”.  Meaning that there is an unhealthy emphasis on reaching “cool” kids and making sure that Young Life and it’s leaders are “cool”.

I know, I know…cool kids need to be loved too.  And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t.  But there are some unintended consequences that follow when you focus on cool.  One of them, is the kids that aren’t as cool, feel left out or marginalized.  For a ministry that claims to love all teens, it sure seems that the “cool” ones get most of that love.

You’re free to disagree (as I know many of you do), but I want you to understand how that played out for one Christian family whose daughter attended Young Life.  Here’s a brief summary from randall’s comments that I don’t want you to miss:

Young Life crushed the spirit of my younger daughter. She was “heavy” in High School, and some of the “top students” they target didn’t like her. So, after being involved and going to the former Soviet Union, she was told she could not be involved any longer. She has never recovered from the disappointment.
Are they a cult? I don’t know. Are they cold, insensitive and cruel? Without a doubt.

Responding on another post randall added this:

I don’t believe it even for a second. My daughter was/is still a victim of YL.

It wasn’t fun for my daughter when she was told she couldn’t participate because the “other” kids didn’t think she fit in (she was overweight and not part of the “popular” crowd). When we approached the Leader, she had no answer; she just walked away.

More recently, he shared this:

You should take the time to read my comments from previous discussions. I am still dealing with a brokenhearted daughter who has turned her back on Jesus because of  Young Life.

Stop drinking the Koolaid…

I highlight what Randall has shared because I think it’s important to see what Young Life did in the case of his daughter.  She was a normal Christian kid, willing to travel overseas to share her faith.  But because she was overweight and didn’t “fit in” (read-not cool like us) the Young Life leader asked her to not come back to Young Life.

This is where the “cult of cool” can lead you.  Instead of showing love and acceptance, this Young Life leader showed shallowness and conditional love.  And that is a far cry from the mantra that Young Life exists to show every kid the love of God.

In the end, Young Life not only crushed this girls spirit, but they shipwrecked her faith.

I know this may sound odd from someone who no longer has faith.  But it’s wrong to treat families this way.  Randall was raising his daughter to be a Christian, and Young Life’s “cool” version destroyed it.

It may be a sin to bore a kid, but it’s even worse to destroy their self-esteem so that your club can stay “cool”.


PS from Randall-

It is not my desire to destroy Young Life. I hope that, if they read these comments, that real change will come and that everyone would be welcome. Ministries that “target” certain types of people (young or old) almost always damage those who “don’t fit in.” I’ve seen it and personally spoke with those who have been ignored because they were in the “target group.”

I pray that para-church groups will realize that they have responsibilities not to offend the least of these and respond accordingly.

23 Responses to “Young Life-How the “Cult of Cool” Crushed a Teen’s Faith”

  1. christianagnostic August 7, 2012 at 6:30 am #


    Thanks for letting me put your comments together into a post. I’d love to hear anything else you’d want to say about your story…

    • Andre LaBouyer January 3, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

      I was involved with Young Life for over 20 years (a month as a camper, and the rest as a volunteer leader). Please allow me to state the obvious. 1. All Christians should obey the law. 2. Christian ministries should keep their clients completely safe. 3. Christian ministries should not have to constantly remind their staffs that they need to follow Jesus (emphasis on constantly). 4. A favorite quote of mine is, “remember who gives you the paycheck.” Being rude and harassing people who are supporting you is not productive. [Yes, I have many incidents that I can document that support these four points.] Summary: Jim Rayburn (founder) was a phenomenal Christian and person. The leaders I have known fell way short of what I read in his bio. Sadly, YL could be a phenomenal ministry. I didn’t allow my kids to attend, and personally would not recommend to someone who asked me what I thought about it.

      • christianagnostic January 6, 2016 at 4:40 am #

        Interesting comment….thanks for sharing it. I assume you were involved with YL staff or committee?

    • Andre LaBouyer January 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      Ps, I still am a Christian Believer, and diligently attempt to follow the Master’s footsteps. Jesus Christ is the bottom line for me…

  2. randallslack August 7, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    It is not my desire to destroy Young Life. I hope that, if they read these comments, that real change will come and that everyone would be welcome. Ministries that “target” certain types of people (young or old) almost always damage those who “don’t fit in.” I’ve seen it and personally spoke with those who have been ignored because they were in the “target group.”

    I pray that para-church groups will realize that they have responsibilities not to offend the lease of these and respond accordingly.

    • christianagnostic August 7, 2012 at 4:30 pm #


      I’ll add this comment to the post….I think it’s important that people know you’re not out to destroy Young Life.

      Thanks again…

  3. randallslack August 7, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    “Least of these” – stupid spell check!

  4. christianagnostic August 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on Young Life Watch.

  5. Freedom August 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    Great post!!! It really does appear that YL is only interested in being the “cool evangelical kids” club. For an organization that claims to be Christian, they do a ton of things 100% contrary to what Jesus actually taught. Jesus didn’t go after the “cool kids” and I seriously doubt “If I can get the “cool” fisherman to follow me, the rest of them will follow.

    In the process, they are hurting A LOT of good kids that are growing up and don’t yet realize that if a group doesn’t think you “fit in” then they aren’t worth your time. Teens want to feel they fit in somewhere, anywhere (heck, people in general feel that way.) When an organization claims they are founded on what Jesus taught rejects people because their personality or body type doesn’t fit the mold it is going to hurt kids. If I saw that as a teen, I would want NOTHING to do with any type of Christianity. At this point, I can only image how they would react to me in High School as a jeans and Iron Maiden, Metallica and Slayer T-Shirt wearing teen (I also work the normal shirts and shopped at the Gap and the other popular stores of the time). I am sure I would be considered “scary and evil” yet wouldn’t see the me that was an Altar Boy in the Catholic church (and no, I was never abused by a priest – lol!)

    YL loves to quote about how many people have been “saved” because of their work. I would love to see the numbers on how many people have been completely turned off to Christianity because of their actions, words and thoughts.

    • christianagnostic August 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm #


      When an organization claims they are founded on what Jesus taught rejects people because their personality or body type doesn’t fit the mold it is going to hurt kids. If I saw that as a teen, I would want NOTHING to do with any type of Christianity.

      Excellent thoughts……

  6. incognido August 19, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    As a young person around 12 my brother died in an accident, I still remember that day so many decades later. I went to some youth meetings, to a church that had an “evangelist” speaking about “Satanic” abuse when it was a real marketing scheme/apologetic. After a week learning that there was a satanist witch coven under every bush, along with some Jesuit infiltrator. After a week of being scared to death I went forward, one of many “false conversion moments”. Back in the room we talked about my dead dog, did it go to heaven, in the back of my mind (granted I was 12) I wondered where did my drug addict brother go, was he frying in hell right now. I mean I remember the police dragging him out of our house when he was high on crystal. I remember being thrown across the room and not being able to call the police because I got the numbers mixed up, a sin I repeated many times in my life. I did go watch some evangelical films and a family Christian family showed me great kindness (I learned this was the vilest of sins in the evangelical religion as it did not produce results immediately and did not have the same hype). I remember them because they cared, not perfect, who is, but they cared.

    Well he died, time to move on (a theme I learned at church) there is no room for grief, I can say I have been able to watch other family members die horrible deaths and not shed a tear or show any outward signs of emotion. Of course inside I was ripped to shreds but I kept it quiet and close and above all I did not make a mess. I then became an official Christian at college when I responded to the “Gospel”, though I still had questions (another sin I kept committing) but I did respond in the correct way. I learned to loath all humanity, we were worthless, evil, vile, filthy, God hatting apostates, and God redeemed us, but just barely. Actually God only redeemed a very very very very very few, and the rest, He allowed to be deceived until the last days.

    I struggled with that, and I admit that is vile weakness. But it bothered me that God would create evidence for an old earth and evolution to deceive us. Of course I understand that is all BS now, there is way to much evidence for an old earth/ universe and there is even more evidence that supports the Theory of Evolution. I would chuck all this in a second for a day of peace and grace promised when I became a Christian, but that is an unreasonable expectation, and it is.

    I joined Younglife as a leader, I gave all I had in money, time, and energy. As long as I produced I was a vessel of grace, the nano second I did not I was a violent monster menacing staff family members and their families. I admit I did go to their house a couple of times, they lived right down the street and invited me but all that was taken out of context. I did apologize for all my emotional clap trap and was forgiven. But I would never hurt anyone and it killed me when I was told this, another sin on my part.

    It was nice to make up with those that I loved, and said they loved me. I agreed with their ministry though they found mine a joke, which it was. I learned much in Younglife, dont question, bother people, struggle with events or ask for help. I can say those lessons have stayed with me.

    I think Younglife is a ministry of God and lead by Jesus, I just wish they did not see me as in league with Satan. That would be nice.

  7. christianagnostic August 19, 2012 at 7:36 am #


    First off, I just want to say how sorry I am about your brother. That must have been awful to lose your brother, especially at 12 years old. I can’t imagine how painful and confusing that would be.

    you said

    “Back in the room we talked about my dead dog, did it go to heaven, in the back of my mind (granted I was 12) I wondered where did my drug addict brother go, was he frying in hell right now. “

    This is especially painful. Not only did you lose someone you loved, but now you had the extra burden of whether they were suffering even more than when they were living. Hell is an awful doctrine. I am reminded again as I read your comment of just how awful it really is.

    “I joined Younglife as a leader, I gave all I had in money, time, and energy. As long as I produced I was a vessel of grace, the nano second I did not I was a violent monster menacing staff family members and their families. I admit I did go to their house a couple of times, they lived right down the street and invited me but all that was taken out of context. “

    I obviously don’t understand all the ins and outs of these situations, but it seems from your description that you were having emotional distress from all the pain in your past. I know from my own time with Young Life, that most of their leaders (including myself) were woefully ill-equipped when someone was suffering with deep emotional scars. Many times good people will simply blame a person rather, than do the hard work of finding them help. I’m sorry you experienced this sort of rejection and misunderstanding.

    I don’t know if my comments help or comfort you…but thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Live4Christ September 17, 2012 at 1:33 am #

    I’d just like to say that YL is active in my community, and it has done some incredible things for unexpecting people. Also, the ‘Youth Leaders’ of our YL have been reaching out to everyone. In fact, one of our kids has started a program in our school where kids can go eat with the kids in the Special Needs room. He has also applied and received grants from many different company’s, and was able to remodel the room for the Special Needs kids. Every day during lunch their room is packed full of students wanting to hang out with them. Some of the relationships formed in there are so strong, not only do the kids hang out in school, but also outside of school. Its so humbling to see the disabled kids in the students section at football games, or eating out with others on the weekends. The project has gained nation wide attention, and all the glory is given to God. The way all different types of kids join together for such a great cause is unbelievable. Even the kids who hate religion and what Christians have to say are starting to see what YL is doing in our community. YL has brought so many people closer and its great to see such incredible change in our poverty-strucken, inner city school. God is doing great thing.

    • christianagnostic September 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm #


      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m glad to hear that someone took notice and did something good for the special needs students at your school.

      I have a really big soft spot in my heart for special needs children.

  9. rebekah September 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    I have been involved in Younglife my whole life… my parents meet through younglife. I do have to say that younglife does have a lot of cool people in it but I think that not all of younglife is the same. For example my leaders are great… almost every campaigners (the bible study for younglife ids who are already Christian) the leaders talk about inviting kids who aren’t necessarily popular and how upper classmen should invite under class men and how we shouldn’t form cliques at younglife… I feel that you should be exposed to both extremes of the system before making any judgment…

    • christianagnostic September 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm #


      Thanks for your comment.

      Always good to hear another perspective. I’m glad to hear that your leaders want everyone to feel welcome and not just “cool” kids.

  10. Maria January 11, 2016 at 4:41 am #

    My daughter became involved in young life in high school, she was popular and ran with the attractive elite crowd.

    She is now married to a YL leader, is 24 and given me a list of boundaries and topics we are allowed to discuss when her and husband allow contact with me. They will not pay her educational debt, (I foolishly took out Parent Plus loans for her—at the time she did not know her now husband). I paid for 90 percent of their wedding, filled with YLers, was treated horribly, and am completely brokenhearted.

    I am not permitted to contact her spontaneously. I am not permitted to visit them, I am lied to by them and treated like a stranger. Her love for other YLers is UNDYING. Her love for me is very conditional. It’s scary, I am afraid of her husband so my 2016 resolution is to cut off all contact (when they do occasionally text or call), stop asking for her to pay her portion of her educational debts, and try and move on with my life. I’m 55.

    As a single mom when she became involved in YL, I was certainly too naive to think of it as a cult, although before her first YL camp trip in high school, I asked the leader directly: is this a cult?? I should’ve went with my gut feeling, but I thought going through a divorce, this may be something that would keep her from drinking, partying etc…How naive I was!!

    I even joined YL committee and walked out at a dinner when several committee members told me my other daughter (I have 3) was going to hell because she was living with her boyfriend. I knew then this WAS NOT CHRISTIANITY.

    From my experience, it is a cult. Period.

    • christianagnostic January 11, 2016 at 5:37 am #


      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am very sorry to hear that your daughter’s involvement with YL has led to relational conflict.

      I really don’t know what else to tell you, except that I hope your relationships will be mended and restored over time.

      Best to you-CA

    • mechanicdude January 12, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

      Maria- It is because Young Life is a cult filled with dangerous people that you should consider not give up on your daughter. Time is on your side… YL is not as strong as they would like us to think they are. They paralyze parents with fear as they hold their spiritual knife to our childrens throats. Do not fear them, that is their power over us and we can fight back if we have courage. Good luck -MD

  11. Victoria April 4, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

    Young life has just started at my daughters school. I can see that they are going after the “cool” kids and since my daughter doesn’t fit in with that group, she has no interest in going. It’s hard because she goes to a small school, and even though she is a good athlete and student she has not been invited to any of the activities. It’s hard to explain how they are Christian if students are being excluded.

  12. Sarah October 9, 2019 at 5:50 pm #

    Thank you for the time and effort you have spent on this blog. I have found the information and the different perspectives offered here to be most helpful in deciding if Young Life is suitable for my 14 year old freshman daughter- who is a “cool kid”. We are Roman Catholic and I am a volunteer teen youth minister at our church. I want to explain what that means to me: We have over 100 teens and 30 adult volunteers in our program, and three professional youth ministers with degrees in theology and youth ministry and a Director of Religious Education with a doctorate in theology. Our diocese offers even more resources and trained professionals to support the varied needs of those we serve. Our teen youth group just spent 4 Sunday nights discussing all types of social injustice and how Jesus has called us to combat them in different ways and we’ve been learning about the lives of five saints who worked for social justice. We will spend the next 4 Sunday nights discussing the topic of racism in a similar way. In addition to our other activities, we invite the youths and adult core members who feel called to give their witness on these topics with prepared talks (one 10 min talk per night). I know we are doing our best to represent the Gospel accurately to these teens. We are having fun together through group activities that are meant to share otherwise solemn Christian teachings. So you can maybe understand that I am very suspicious of a “Christian” youth program that seems to be all about partying and being part of an “in” crowd. There does not seem to be an emphasis on applying the Christian teachings toward action in the community at large instead of only with each other. Some points that I hadn’t considered as a parent: The summer camps being a big indoctrination spot- my dtr will probably want to attend them w her friends, the potential for my daughter’s friends to become a clique of only other young lifers thereby excluding her other friends, the potential that she could feel encouraged to exclude her family for not wanting to join in young life with her. The fact that the “youth ministers” are woefully unprepared to handle real spiritual and emotional problems of those they serve- no depth of training or support for them to do so. My intent was to allow my daughter to attend one session of young life with her friends out of a sense of ecumenical fellowship, now I have have further cause to doubt that decision.

    • christianagnostic October 11, 2019 at 5:16 am #

      Sarah- Thank you for your kind words in both of your comments. I’m afraid I have mostly been an absentee blog host for a few years now. New career has really been great…but I rarely have time to write or even respond on the blog these days.

      A couple of thoughts for you….in my experience (and many others I’ve heard from), many YL leaders are anti-catholic. I know I was …but that was many years ago.

      This isn’t to say there aren’t Catholics who support and are involved with YL…there are-but with it’s roots in Dallas Theological seminary and the Evangelical movement at large-there can be many who are suspicious or completely anti-catholic in their version of Christianity-and many of these leaders will openly question your choice to raise your daughter within your faith tradition.

      My other food for thought may seem counter-intuitive. If you feel your daughter is mature enough or that you have the relationship to be able discuss the topic-let her attend a YL meeting and then have a good, open and honest conversation about the meeting. My oldest son attended YL a few times while I was actively writing this blog. I didn’t oppose it, he informed me and I let him make the choice because I knew he would come home and we could have a good conversation about what he experienced and my concerns. He went twice and decided he didn’t like and thought it was weird that a grown man he didn’t know wanted to hang out with teens and “become their friend”….and that was the end of it.

      Of course it’s anecdotal and may not be helpful for your family. I know I would not let one of my children attend YL (theoretically-cause he’s never expressed an interest) because of their vulnerabilities as a person.

      Anyway, I’m glad you’ve found the blog helpful-best of luck to you.

  13. Diane July 10, 2020 at 9:04 pm #

    Thanks for this forum. I’ve known for a long time how YL is deceptive (Jesus/Christ not in its name) and discriminatory. LGBTQ kids who were lured to the group (and who were closeted) learned only later of YL’ explicit anti-LGBTQ policies re staff employment & volunteer leadership opportunities. This betrayal is excruciatingly painful to LGBTQ folks.

    I have just asked a local school board member, a lawyer, to investigate a grant that was awarded the local YL group by the community’s charitable healthcare foundation. As a retired educator, I was appalled by the description of the grant-funded YL program. The program intends to spend the $5K grant on using YL program leaders to train highly engaged YL students to identify vulnerable peers involved in (illegal) substance abuse and report/connect them to “resources”.

    Kids are not stupid. They will figure out who snitched on them. The YL well-meaning kids could wind up accused of bullying/harassment. They could ignore privacy rights. And worse, they could become victims of violent retaliation that causes physical harm or death. We already have professional, faculty, staff, guidance counselors, social and healthcare workers employed in the school system who are trained and have the expertise to address substance abuse among vulnerable populations. The school system made no request for YL to engage in such a program.

    The YL leaders who dreamt this program up are probably well-intentioned, but this is manipulating YL kids who do not have the maturity that comes with age or experience that’s needed in working with substance abuse among their peers. Red flags and alarm bells when I read about this grant-funded program. Healthcare foundation never consulted with school system.

    What kind of people would put a group of teens in a position to essentially snitch on their classmates who are using illegal substances? What if the YL teen makes a false report? What if a YL teen reports a peer with a different racial background? All sorts of issues here.

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