In 2012, Lighthouse Trails posted an article titled “Young Life’s History of Embracing Contemplative Authors Continues,” showing that the Christian youth organization, Young Life, was introducing Young Life leaders and kids to contemplative/emergent authors and speakers. The article we wrote talked about a meeting we had in 2002 with the Young Life director of training in Oregon, hoping to persuade him of the dangers of the contemplative prayer movement and hoping he would pass along the information to the leaders at the Young Life headquarters in Colorado, which he promised to do. As you can see in our 2012 article, as well as the letter below written by a former Young Life leader, Young Life has not discontinued its promotion of contemplative/emerging. The letter below is just one leader’s experience, but we believe it contains valuable insight into how an organization, which started with a sincere desire to help young people, can get off track by minimizing its focus on the Gospel and the Word of God in order to “reach kids.” As we have so often said, so many leaders in the church have set aside the true lasting power of the Gospel for limited powerless substitutes.
Dear Editors of Lighthouse Trails:
I have benefited greatly from the research on your website, helping me to understand the origins of false gospel movements in the Christian community.
It has been nearly five years since I resigned from working for a popular, global youth ministry. Because of its popularity, it has been difficult for me to discuss my experience and found few who want to hear the reality. I want to share my story in hope of helping someone else who might be struggling, as I did.
My husband and I discovered Young Life in our late twenties when we moved to a smaller town. After going through the “40 Days of Purpose” book with our church, we were determined to find a place of service where our gifts could be used for God. I had a college degree in public health with an emphasis in adolescence and had worked in several youth organizations to prevent kids from using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. I sincerely thought that as a Christian, if I were serious about helping kids, with Jesus as the only real solution instead of a band-aid fix from a state program, then I should go all-in. I would forsake my public health career to serve the Lord in ministry.
My husband jumped in to volunteer as a leader, and I took a part-time job as an office administrator for the local Young Life chapter. We quickly became absorbed into the culture of this ministry of warm and generous Christians.
“Incarnational Evangelism” is the term I began reading and learning about as I immersed myself into the culture. It’s difficult to describe the fast-paced, messy, impulsive, do-whatever-it-takes-to-love-kids by serving them to Christ environment I dove into. Every week at club, we would try to lure the kids with a media-rich, party atmosphere and then a short gospel message, attempting to convince them that Jesus was what they needed. There was also great pressure to get them to camp at the end of the year because surely their eyes would be opened if we prayed hard enough and loved hard enough too. There at camp, away from hometown distractions, they would hear the gospel a little every night followed up by a cabin discussion. Through our example of loving them, the hope was that the Holy Spirit would work on hearts, and they would see Christ and realize He is “better than beer” and would fulfill them, giving them an abundant life. And, if they rejected the gospel, that was okay, because we would love them anyway. We did not realize we had created in our selves a kind of pseudo-martyr philosophy.
It wasn’t long into my time there before I thought I would make this my career. I eventually moved up from office administrator and volunteer leader to part-time, career, middle-school program director. I remember adopting this different perspective of serving Christ and sharing the gospel without ever having to talk about hell, God’s judgement, or that no one is righteous by his own works. Despite Young Life’s Statement of Faith in which I agreed and signed onto, it was the philosophy of incarnational evangelism and its focus on love and grace that became more dominant (largely due to the books and spiritual formation training I was given). I actually started to believe that I could reject the notion I had from reading the Bible, that I’d really have to suffer rejection like Jesus did in order to share the gospel. I remember thinking, this mighty, positive, well-funded, popular, contagiously exciting and loving community of people, adventure, and rewards, would be my new avenue to a lifetime of serving God! This was a pseudo-servant attitude of sacrifice that I was developing; later it would come crashing down.
In my town, Young Life had a very positive image with many leaders in the community who personally supported it monthly. The director of the program was hard working, charismatic, and seemed to know everyone and was liked by everyone. Later, I realized what a conflict of interest this was as the pressure to maintain your program funding sources required you to cultivate a sterling image in the community. This came at the cost of sharing the true gospel, which proclaims that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and salvation found in the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. Rejecting that puts you in violation of the Law and under eternal judgment. The social pressure to draw wealthy supporters causes directors to keep the message warm and fuzzy but frighteningly devoid of the truth and meat of the gospel. Our focus was off-center from the truth of the whole gospel. Instead, the focus became serving our community by reaching out to lost kids and helping them get through this difficult time in their life by loving them and spending time with them. I became another program builder, promoter, fundraiser, and half-truth teller in a branded YL shirt with a smiley face.
Frantically running from one activity to the next, all the while praying and wanting people to come to Christ but with very little lasting fruit, I became disturbed. In the schools, I would do what is known as “contact work.” I spent time volunteering in various ways, often as mundane as crowd control at lunch time, for example. This would permit you to visit with students, making contact so that eventually the kids would see you as a friendly face. Then, in time and through word of mouth, kids would come to club where a snippet of the gospel was mingled with exhilarating games, crazy stunts or skits so that kids were entertained and able to listen to you tell the most important part of why we get together: Jesus.
We bent over backward to serve kids to Christ. Feeding, entertaining, listening, and driving them to and fro, leading them by fun experiences and hopefully meaningful conversations that would discuss Christ, but honestly it didn’t come up as often as I would like. Often, kids learned that they could just smile and tell us what we wanted to hear in order to get what they wanted or needed that day. Some would want to meet and study the Bible, but the truths from Scripture just never seemed to take effect in their lives. I’ll never forget one encounter with some girls who were regular attenders and classic examples of shallow soil. They told me they knew that every question asked in small group discussion could be easily answered. All you had to say was either, “Pray more, or read the bible more.”
Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely loved and prayed for the kids I ministered to, but I was so ineffective at leading them to Christ, I felt like a poser. I wanted them to know the Lord like I did, but I was cut off from sharing the gospel or talking about it at school where I was spending my time. Kids would ask me, “Why are you here?” I couldn’t tell them it was to share Jesus because I would get thrown out of that public school because the understanding we had made with the administrators was, that we were there to assist them and be a positive adult role models, not evangelizing kids in the hallways. As a program leader, I walked a fine line not wanting to upset relationships in the community that took a long time to build. I just had to say, “It’s because I care about kids, and that’s why I’m here.” Kids who had been to camp before with me would say, “This is the lady that took me to camp.” I became just a gateway to a cool summer camp that was like a resort for exclusive young people who got into the “club.” Not just anyone can go to a Young Life camp, you have to come with a leader from a Young Life area group.
The founder of Young Life, Jim Rayburn, taught that if you can “win the right to be heard” in a kid’s life, then they will automatically want to hear the gospel and likely want Christ to change their life too. In addition, if you are as compelling in Christ, like Jim Rayburn was purported to be, then flocks of kids will come to hear the gospel. He taught that when they know that you care, they’ll listen to whatever you have to say because that’s all that a kid these days is looking for.
This was the illusion of what has become modern youth ministry. It was productive in activities, busyness, and massive effort while producing metric data of campers and club attendees. You show this to your donor list of business leaders, and they are proud to support it. But on the other side of the same coin, it was absolutely fruitless in converting hearts to Christ and saving lives from a slavery of sin. So afraid of losing our hip, entertaining youth haven with the community, we often missed the opportunity to share the whole gospel truth. This is where I started noticing that I was not being faithful to Christ. We were not teaching of God’s righteousness or need to repent of sin in accordance with God’s Word. I was promoting another gospel of love and grace, and I was living a lie to these kids.
At camp, there was a ceremony at the end of the week for kids who made commitments to Christ. These commitments were by way of a leader so they could be corroborated. Some were legitimate, some were merely caught up in the emotion of the week or trying to garner favor from leaders or other campers, perhaps. The ceremony entailed throwing a rock in the pond symbolizing their old life, then putting another rock on a pile symbolizing their new life. From that moment on, they were supposed to enjoy reading the free Bible they were given, remembering they were new creations in Christ; you were forgiven and free. In reality, these kids were exhausted, sunburned and barely understood their emotions, thoughts or what they had actually committed to. The ceremony was as good as it got when it came to follow up. The kids were being released into the wild soon and with that, the rush of emotions from their time “on the mountain” would end. Often, so would their new found faith as well.
I tried so hard in following up with kids when we got home. Often kids went from their “camp high” back to life, and didn’t want to get together and study the Bible with me. And honestly, why would they?! There is a saying that I heard later, that “What you lead them by, you lead them to.” We were leading the kids to Jesus by fun, emotional attachment to leaders, experiences, but not by the Word of God. I was convicted when I read scripture teaching “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). In my time at Young Life, the scripture “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7), was not something we truly esteemed. We did not use it to lead kids to Christ, clearly and from the beginning. It was as if I was ashamed of the gospel.
After praying and trying to work out a time to connect with kids upon returning from camp, it was time for the hectic cycle to begin again. Time to get back to club/camp promotion (there were short Fall and Winter camps also), fundraising golf tournaments, the annual auction, and of course, contact work to get a new crop of kids to the next fun activity where they just might hear about Jesus. When I would become depleted during these times, questioning whether this was really working, I would look at the smiley face postcards of myself and other leaders with kids that we would send to donors. Maybe watch an inspirational video from the Young Life national office to pump me up about how faithful we were to Christ. All this to assuage my disturbed conscience as I gradually understood how far from the gospel we were. We also attended mandatory, regional Young Life staff meetings and trainings, which also helped numb the conscience and wrestling of my mind with the Holy Spirit’s convictions that something was not right.
However, the spiritual food we received at these trainings was a heavy dose of flattery, “understanding youth culture,” and spiritual formation teaching. I was given free gifts of books by contemplative and emerging church authors, Young Life-branded clothing, and my very own Message/NIV parallel Bible. We were led through lectio-divina exercises, silence, fasting, prayer, coupled with great food and fun play times with other staff. To help us feel valued these often took place at the beach or a donor’s nice home. I loved these times of get away and retreat; they made me feel special and important, but they didn’t answer some of the nagging problems with the fruitlessness I was seeing as a result of our great efforts to win kids to Christ. We were not trained in how to share the gospel, basic apologetics, like refuting arguments of evolution or inerrancy of Scripture. The intern training program and staff trainings I went to did not handle that information, but it was reserved for those who went to seminary classes through Young life. It wasn’t until after I left Young Life that I realized the reasons for that lack of training were likely due to how controversial these issues had become in the church. As many differing and more liberal interpretations of Scripture were being taught, we seemed to shrink away from specific views on doctrine. What I learned instead through the staff training was that it was better to keep a “good vibe going” through self-help focused spirituality and experiencing “God’s love” through the staff community.
I was conflicted and really dying on the inside, surely grieving the Holy Spirit. After several episodes of spiritual abuse with my direct supervisor that led me to seek a counselor for anxiety, I realized something was very wrong. I believed the Word of God to be my source of strength and clarity. Yet I was so confused how to reconcile what I was reading with what I was doing in ministry. The two seemed worlds apart, and no one else involved in the ministry seemed to see it. I was getting depressed and barely able to keep going in my work. In one of many prayer times with the Lord, at the end of my rope, I cried out to the Lord. My heart truly wanted to bring Him glory with my life. I repented of seeking a group of people promoting another Jesus, another gospel instead of being true to His word. God woke me up and revealed once again to me through Scripture how dangerously involved I had become in promoting a false gospel. I had been listening to false teaching and in love with the group experience instead of in love with Him and His Word. I learned that you cannot separate God from His Word.
Through my time in Young Life, I was exposed to the teachings of: The Message and Eugene Peterson, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell, Jesus Calling and Sarah Young, Henry Nouwen, William P. Young, Upper Room Book’s “Guide To Prayer,” John Piper, Phillip Yancey, Chris Lowney (Jesuit Leadership), Stephen Covey, Donald Miller, Peter Scazzero and more. After five years of ministry, I resigned from Young Life, and the Lord has been very good to me and my family. I don’t doubt that other leaders may have had a better and more honest-to-Scripture experience in this ministry, but this was mine and why I had to leave.
Jennifer Roberts (pen name to protect her privacy and her family)
For resources from Lighthouse Trails that deal with protecting children and youth people, click here.