Natalie admits she was partying and doing the “typical high school things on the weekend” when a girl at her school told her about Young Life. “Well, it’s like youth group, but better. Everyone goes!” the girl told her.
“So I thought, “Why not?’” Natalie said. “I was the only sophomore. Everyone was either a junior or senior, and I thought ‘Wow, I’m hanging out with all the cool kids!’”
“She was lost in the high school world,” says Lake Norman Young Life Area Director Ashley Flowers, who watched the transformation in Natalie. “She was partying…and in the midst of it all she only felt lost and empty.”
But for the first month, Natalie admits, she didn’t get much out of it: “I would just zone out when the leaders began to mention God or Jesus because I was angry with God, and didn’t really understand why I needed to hear about him.”
Eventually, she started hanging out one-on-one with one of the leaders. “I think that’s really when I started to understand that YL was a place where leaders (who love Jesus, and follow Him) come and meet me where I am,” said Natalie. “I didn’t have to find them, I didn’t have to ‘clean up my act,’ or change who I am for these people to like me and want to be my friend. I realized that they just really wanted me to have what they had, which was to be a part of their family and to know Jesus.”
Ashley Flowers remembers how Natalie’s approach changed, even physically: “She really leaned into the talk at the end of every Club where a leader would get up and share about Jesus. She had so many questions. She then began coming to Campaigners (the small group Bible study) and bought her very first Bible.
“She was sometimes a pain in the butt because she had a truly pessimistic attitude and was a bit judgmental,” adds Flowers, “but, as she spent time with her leaders and they poured into her, she was becoming a different person. She stopped partying, began loving people around her.”
Natalie says she didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t to feel good about herself or accepted. “At club, you get to sing your heart out and play crazy games with your friends, and at campaigners you get to have an open discussion about Jesus and ask questions about Him,” she said. “Young Life is a safe place where people will love you no matter who you are.”
It doesn’t matter if you are a talented athlete or senior class student body president, teens in high school are often lonely, insecure, and looking to belong. “I really didn’t feel like I was worth anything,” said Wesley on a video presentation I watched a few years ago…just days after seeing her crowned Homecoming queen. “I felt like I didn’t have any value. I didn’t care about other people. I was kind of shallow, selfish. I didn’t care about them. Why should they care about me?”
But YL turned her around and the big smile on her face, with or without the crown, was the outer evidence of the inner transformation.
Cassidy was raised in her family church but joined YL because she thought it was a good way to fit in at school. “During the beginning of the year everyone wants to go to Young Life. It actually does feel like the cool thing to do because everyone at school is talking about it.
“I think what people fail to realize,” she continued, “is that people are drawn in to something there. It doesn’t just happen because it’s a social scene. It happens because there are people there who make high schoolers feel wanted and, for the first time in many people’s lives, they get to hear the greatest love story ever told. I think, more importantly, it’s a place to go where your image doesn’t matter anymore.”
Alex, a junior at Lake Norman Charter School, was also raised in the church but feels YL triggered greater spiritual awareness. “I thought I was a good little Christian girl,” she said. “At camp, I realized I was going to church to look good and for the social-aspect. I definitely believed in God, but it wasn’t until camp that I truly accepted Him as my Heavenly Father. I realized that I wanted to live my life as He wanted me to, for Him.”
LKN Young Life had to charter seven buses to carry the 405 teens and leaders who recently attended the fall/winter camp at Windy Gap. But YL doesn’t always click with everyone. “I am no different from those people, but it seemed as if they were almost in denial,” said one young woman. “They seemed to show fake, or maybe just separate, personalities when they were at YoungLife than they showed when they were at school, parties, (or) spring break.”
But the young woman went to the summer camp where she had a chance to see a “whole new side to a lot of people who like to keep those sides of themselves hidden. It was a special moment to hear people being so honest and vulnerable. Young Life is really one of those things where you get out of it what you put into it. If they choose to focus on going for God rather than the popularity or social status they may gain from it, they will get everything and more from YoungLife.”
Natalie, now a freshman in college, is training to be a Young Life volunteer leader: “I can’t wait to share the great story about Jesus with other high school kids who are just like the high school me: broken, confused, and lonely. I can’t wait to go out and meet all the other ‘Natalie’s’ in the high schools and just get to know them and show them Jesus’s love for them.”
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