I have no history with Young Life. I didn’t know about it as a teenager. I first started to hear the terms “Campaigners” and “Do life together” around the year 2000, while I was participating in a church full of the group’s volunteers.
In seminary I met some more Young Life volunteers, along with some alumni and even staff. I also learned the organization’s history as a mid-20th century evangelistic para-church operation, it’s “relational” and “Win the right to be heard” strategy.
Since then: books by Andrew Root and Mark Oestreicher have expanded my understanding of what Young Life has always been about; a youth ministry coaching cohort surrounded me with enthusiastic Young Life boosters; a story last year about a volunteer who quit over the organization’s ban on gay leaders caught my attention.
But in all that time I have had zero actual experience with any activity related to the organization. I am a pastor in a progressive church that belongs to a mainline denomination. My theological convictions differ significantly from those of the evangelical sub culture that Young Life represents. Evangelistic tactics like recruiting teens into clubs at their school where food and games set up talks about Jesus are simply not in my repertoire.
So when the new area director for Young Life emailed me and asked to meet, I nearly deleted the message without replying. Instead, I sat on it for two days. I remembered an invitation in 2010 to bring my church youth group to an evangelistic revival another church in town was hosting and how I had responded to that invitation with a superior note to the organizer about how we Presbyterians didn’t do that sort of thing; how he then replied with a curt, “I guess you’re too good for us”; how seeing that organizer around town for the next six years was never not awkward.
I replied that I would be happy to meet with the Young Life guy.
Sitting down with someone who represents something that gives you pause, something, even, about which you have values-based reservations, is not open-mindedness so much as grownup-ness and professionalism. Hiding behind what you’ve heard as an excuse to decline invitations made in good faith is a bad leadership strategy.
Also, John Vest is right: progressive youth ministry has to become more evangelistic.
So we met. He’s delightful and curious. He knows where my church is coming from, where we obviously disagree in our approach and values, and yet he’s eager to learn about our work with youth and the community. Our conversation made me want to be equally curious about him and his work with youth.
We’re having lunch in January. You know, to Do Life Together.