Tag Archives: cool

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.

Is Young Life a Cult?

4 May

Young Life is a para-church ministry that focuses on running clubs and summer camps for high school students.  They exist to introduce these students to Jesus Christ and the Bible.  I got involved with Young Life during high school, attended numerous camps, and served as a volunteer leader for five years.

Occasionally, I would hear someone accuse Young Life of a being a cult.  At the time, I dismissed it as a misunderstanding, or an angry denial of the truth of Christianity.  But I never considered it a cult….even after having been in a verifiable cult, I still thought warmly of much of my time in Young Life.

Now that I’m many years removed from my time at Young Life, and raising my own teens, I have been brought  back in contact with our local Young Life.  And it has made me wonder if one of the reasons I was ripe for a cult was the fact that many of the same cultic dynamics were present in Young Life?

Love Bombing

One of the tactics identified as cultic is Love Bombing.  Love bombing occurs when a religious group intentionally showers praise, friendship, and attention towards new members of the group.  They do this to try to emotionally connect these new members BEFORE fully disclosing the requirements and/ or theology of the group.

This is certainly a tactic that Young Life is guilty of  –  no doubt.  Most of what Young Life leaders and their campaigners do would fall under the category of Love Bombing.  As a leader, we would discuss our weekly “contact work”.  Contact work was the amount of time we spent hanging around the local high school or area teen hangouts, in hopes of making contact with students outside of Young Life.  Some leaders would organize sports events, or have teens they know intentionally invite other kids to an event, (like watching a football game on TV) so that the Young Life leaders could make contact and build a relationship with these students.  The sole intent of all of this was to then invite the students to attend a Young Life club or camp.  As a leader, I saw my motives as totally pure and godly.  But I was just in my late teens and early 20’s.  As a parent, I realize now, that I was evangelizing other people’s underage children without their consent.  This is another sign that Young Life might be cultic.

Young Life Club

Young Life club was a fun place to be during my high school years.  The skits were fun, we sang a lot of “oldies but goodies” from the Young Life Songbook, and I got to hang out with kids that I didn’t normally relate to at my school.  It also felt really cool to have guys in college taking the time to get to know me and discuss faith, music, politics, etc…I was a lonely teenager and Young Life helped me not feel so lonely.

As I got involved as a student leader, the dynamics changed.  I wasn’t just a kid at club anymore.  I was now involved with inviting my friends, going out of my way to be like Christ to others in my school (student version of Love Bombing), and was also given tips on how to help hype the club by always clapping and singing during songs, which included being told that we needed to scream like crazy when the leaders talked about Young Life camp.  In other words, we became a part of the backstage production crew that helped pull off a successful performance at clubs and camps.  We also spent a lot of personal time doing things like quiet times (anyone remember those Ty Saltzgiver booklets on quiet times?), memorizing scripture (NAV press anyone?), and journaling about our relationship with God and who we were going to reach out to for Christ.  Many times, our time as a campaigner was spent discussing with leaders how we could better improve on these three areas of life.

Young Life Ministry Strategy

One of the strategies that was often discussed at leadership meetings was that of making contact with “the leaders” in the schools.  This meant that as Young Life leaders, we would intentionally try to recruit the most popular and influential kids at a high school.  The thinking was, that if you could get the cool kids to attend, then other students would follow.  In other words, Young Life was gaming the pecking order of the high school cliques in order to try to build a platform to evangelize the school.  In this case, I would call this the “cult of cool”.

In the “cult of cool” thinking, the appearance of Young Life being cool was tantamount.  This meant that the Young Life leaders needed to be good-looking and in-touch with the latest fashions.  Star athletes and cheerleaders were often the focus of attention by Young Life leaders.  The good-looking people were often “randomly” chosen to be in the skits or brought up to help sing a song.  Were these things explicit?….not really.  It’s not that anyone said, don’t go after the ugly kids, or the girls that are overweight, or the punk rock kids with the Misfits t-shirt.  But if you focus on going after “the cool kids” in the high school, then usually these “un-cool kids” are quickly excluded from your ministry strategy.  It didn’t mean that those “other” students couldn’t be involved, they could.  But it was usually the result of them wanting to follow and be part of the “in crowd” that the more popular students represented.

This ministry strategy of Young Life does not make them a cult,  but it does make them appear to be more closely related to an advertising firm than a ministry.

Young Life Camp

Young Life camp was an incredibly fun time for me as a student.  Everyone seemed so open and loving.  The food was great, the outdoor settings were beautiful, and the nightly meetings were full of energy and emotionally charged talks about life, love, and Jesus.

But here’s the rub; so much of what I assumed was a result of  really loving people, was orchestrated.  Love Bombing and emotional manipulation would be an apt description.  Young Life camps are orchestrated to heighten ones emotions and encourage the students to make a highly emotional “decision to follow Christ”.

There were nightly talks about Jesus, including an emotional presentation of  his crucifixion that was followed  by a mandatory 10 minutes of silence to think about what we had just heard.  In my experience, the silence was  followed up by an hour of singing (mostly worship songs) by the volunteer staff.  Campers would then return to their cabins, where their leaders would lead an hour or more discussion about the talks and about where each student stood in regards to their relationship to Jesus.  Every activity was intentional in trying to persuade students to make a decision for Christ.

The final activity at a weekly camp was the “say so” meeting.  The verse about letting the redeemed “say so” was the basis for the name.  Kids would be encouraged to stand up among the hundreds of students and “say so” if they had committed or re-committed their lives to Jesus.  It was an intense display, full of emotional stories, lots of tears and hugs…followed up by more tears and hugs as we said goodbye to the many friends we had made during the week and got on the bus to travel home.

Again, I don’t know that the camps are intentionally cultic.  But they are intentional in their efforts to persuade every camper to make a decision for Christ during that week.  We would often times get complaints from parents whose children came home and were all the sudden “different” or “zealous” about their Christian faith.  Sometimes it was a change for the better; many times it was to a parents dismay.  Their child was now quoting the Bible to them and telling them that they were not real Christians and were hell bound.  Needless to say, some parents regretted having given permission for their child to attend.  They were told about the water tubing and sailing and all the fun their kid would have (which was true) but did not realize the amount of evangelizing that would be occurring (which was not highlighted in the brochures).  The fact it was a Christian camp was mentioned, but again, it was not the main focus of our pitch when convincing  parents to give their kids permission to attend.

So, is Young Life a cult?  I’m not sure, but I think they skirt close to the edge….My kids won’t be attending Young Life meetings any time soon.