It’s a rare opportunity for parents and teens to agree — both could be turned off by Young Life. Young Life, or YL, is an international ministry that draws teens to weekly events in all 50 states and in 70 countries.
Parents unfamiliar with the organization may think it just sounds like a party or something to interfere with youth group. Teens may steer clear of anything that sounds even vaguely “religious” or they may think some of the kids who go are hypocritical because they “party” on the weekend.
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? “Club is a party,” says Ashley Flowers, Area Director for LKN Young Life. “It’s chaotic, it’s fun, but every single second of the time we spend at Club is intentional. We’re breaking down walls with humor and allowing kids to actually be kids again…This is a hard time to be a teenager — the world demands a lot of them, but they aren’t quite ready for it. So club is a party with a purpose. Every club there is a talk that breaks down the gospel of the semester.”
“It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” YL founder Jim Rayburn has said. 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, well 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.
Ashley Flower’s parents chose to let her and her older sister find their own spiritual path rather than be raised in a religious tradition. “Therefore, I grew up making up my own ideas about God,” said the YL Area Director. When she hit middle school, she felt something was missing. “Pretty soon boys and popularity ruled my life but I found myself at night, before going to bed, wishing I was someone else. I didn’t understand why I felt alone and empty if I ‘had it all.’”
She started going to YL in high school with her sister. “I saw kids who were just like me — in the party scene — leave the party scene, and they looked so much more fulfilled…I loved the joy on my leaders’ faces and their friendships with one another seemed authentic — something that was very attractive to me,” Ashley said. “I then heard my YL leader give a Club talk about Jesus and his character. I had never heard anyone talk about God in that way and my hope at the end of the night was that someday I would know the God he was talking about.”
Some parents are wary at the beginning. “Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think about Young Life,” said Marcy Murphy, a LKN mom of two teens. “…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, Lynne Cuttino, said, “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,” continued Cuttino, “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.”
YL doesn’t only find support among parents. “The churches in the area who understand the DNA of Young Life are our biggest fans and many of them financially support us,” said Flowers. “They consider us missionaries to the local high schools.”
YL has been in the LKN area for about eight years. Flowers says one reason it draws about 300 students to Club and about 90 to the Bible study weekly is that the volunteers and staff go to the students. “Our leaders go to the high school and seek to get to know kids just as they are. We don’t worry if a kid cusses in front of us. We sit in the student section of the football games, we throw Frisbees with them in the parking lots after school and we really listen.”
Murphy adds that “YL not only teaches kids about God, it teaches them how to have fun in a healthy way. They do fun crazy things…which, to me, is awesome when young kids are under so much pressure from our society to excel, excel, excel. They are accepted at YL for who they are no matter where they are in life. Sometimes kids don’t get that at home.”
And sometimes, YL makes an impact at home. Area Director Flowers says her parents got curious about what their daughters were so excited about: “So they came to church with us and soon they began their own relationships with God. My family has been completely transformed. My parents would say that they came to know Jesus through Young Life without ever going to a single meeting.”
Next week: the teens talk about Young Life.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in Cornelius with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.