Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 7th C: Questions We Need To Be Asking

This Guest Post is is written by Drew Martin in Nashville, TN. Drew, a long time YL volunteer and staff spouse, has served as a pastor in NC for 5 years, and is currently working on a PhD in church history at Vanderbilt. This is the third post in our current series on YL & the local Church, "The 7th C."

I recently had two fascinating conversations with close friends. I’ve adjusted some of the details to protect their identities, but substantially this is what they said…

The first was with a local pastor in town who loves Jesus and loves high school students. Naturally, I assumed he would love Young Life. I was wrong. He said he had deep reservations with Young Life. Yikes.

Of course, my immediate assumption was that (like many critics of Young Life who I have spoken with in the past) he just didn’t understand. He must just not get relational ministry. It must be that nobody ever told him about the need to go meet young people “where they are.”

But I was wrong.

He told me that he loved relational ministry and that a significant portion of his time was spent out in the community and at the local schools. On any given night of the week it was likely that he and his family were sharing dinner with their high school friends. How could someone like this not like Young Life? I was stumped. So I asked him what the deal was.

He told me that a lot of the core, mature students at his church had stopped coming to church stuff so that they could participate in Young Life. They simply couldn’t do Club and Youth Group, Campaigners and Bible Study, YL Camp and Church Retreats. They had limited time, and they had to choose. They chose Young Life. He found this very frustrating.

The reply that so many of us would give in that situation would be, “Yeah, but at least somebody is caring for them. Does it really matter who or where as long as it is happening? If my high school friends are growing in their relationship with Jesus through Young Life isn’t that what matters?” That answer used to satisfy me, but it doesn’t anymore.

The reason why it no longer satisfies me relates to the other conversation I had recently. This one was with one of my closest friends from my old high school club. Now he has graduated from college and we talk from time to time.

We talked on the phone the other day and I asked him how he was doing. We talked about jobs, relationships, and reminisced about old times. At some point the conversation turned to his relationship with Jesus. Something in his voice told me that things weren’t going too well. He told me that he still believed, but that he didn’t really pray that much or read the Bible. He didn’t really have any Christian friends in his area and he wasn’t really involved in a church or Bible study. I asked him if he was growing in his relationship with Christ and his answer was short and sweet. “No.”

What is the connection between these conversations?

I think the connection has to do with all of the research that has come out recently on youth and religion. Study after study seems to say that young people find Jesus irrelevant to their daily lives. They might have “faith” but that faith is vague, doesn’t involve much commitment, changes pretty rapidly, and basically functions like an accessory – you can put it on if you want but it’s not exactly essential to who you are.

That research describes my high school friend perfectly.

But there is more to it than that. The research also seems to indicate that those who do have a strong faith that is relevant to their lives are characterized by at least two things: 1) a commitment to a community of believers, and 2) a faith that is doctrinally robust.

Basically my pastor friend was saying that he felt like Young Life in his town was undermining those two things.

Was he right? It’s hard for me to say, being as I don’t live in his town or have any personal experience with Young Life or his ministry there. But my conversation with my former high school friend (and countless other similar conversations) has caused me to take that question more seriously over the last few years. And I think it is a question that we all should ask:

Is there anything that we are doing as Young Life staff, volunteers, spouses, and committees that is causing young people not to connect with a) communities of faith that b) teach robust doctrine?

If we DO NOT think communities of faith that teach robust doctrine are important, why not? What makes us so sure? Can we back that up biblically? Should we be surprised when church leaders (even those who love Jesus and believe in relational ministry) look at us with skepticism?

If we DO think communities of faith that teach robust doctrine are important, are we demonstrating that value practically in the things we do? My understanding of Young Life has always been that the purpose is to reach out to young people who would not otherwise come to church. Is it possible that in our excitement to fill our clubs, camp buses, and Campaigner groups we are instead actually taking young people out of the church?

Is Young Life really intended to be a “community of faith” that “teaches robust doctrine?” Isn’t that what the church is supposed to do? Have we at times unintentionally tried to replace the church instead of serving the church? Are we willing to take the concerns of my pastor friend seriously?

As a long time Young Life volunteer and current staff spouse and pastor, I think these are hard questions we need to be asking ourselves.

Please leave your comments for Drew below. If you would like to write a Guest Post on this topic or others, please submit via email to YL1941 at gmail dot com.


  1. Thanks Drew (and Drew) for the post! I am in full agreement that we can not, and should not, pull kids away from church (and also teach a robust faith).

    Years ago I inherited a club in my area that was full of Christian kids. I challenged the club leaders to not have it be a youth group, there were plenty of great church youth groups in the area. The club didn't change so I closed the club.

    If I suspect a kid is a church kid in one of my clubs I make it very clear that church is first and to only come to YL if they have the extra time on top of church or they have a friend that simply won't go to their church. Once or twice it has actually backfired and a student thought we were "un-inviting" them to YL. Most of the time they understand and I they get the idea and most come to YL while prioritizing church.

    At the main school I lead club at there are 2500 students. I've been there for 10 years now and I can say with a fair level of certainty that about 10% are involved in a church on a regular basis. I'll be generous and double it to 20% (500 students). I'm happy to focus on the 2000 other students while the youth groups take care of the 500. The problem YL leaders face is the 500 are the "low hanging fruit". The church kids are easier to get to come to YL. Of course we all know those kids need as much love and outreach as every other student. But in YL I believe we should embrace Paul's approach in Rom 15:20, "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation."

  2. I echo Sean.

    In my current club (we just started 5 weeks ago) I have been building friendships with high school students over the last year through my church involvement. We held bible study each Wednesday night last year and had few students from the church attend.

    I decided to focus my time at the nearest high school instead and went to games, band concerts, etc... I built friendships with 4 guys who were underclassmen. After a few months, these guys started to come to bible study.

    At our bible study, we would pray and talk about how great would it be if so and so (insert farthest out kids) would come to know Jesus.

    These guys got a vision for their school that extended beyond any meetings, clubs, bible studies. It was simply to share their faith with the kid who sat next to them in Algebra 3.

    Young Life just happens to be the vehicle for that to happen. They view themselves as missionaries to their school. In theory, the hope is that kids come to know Jesus and begin to dig into the faith community these other guys are already a part of with our church.

    For kids who are already invested in local churches, this must be our message to them. Young Life can not (for their long term spiritual health) replace their growth from their church. If they have additional time (and a heart for their friends to know Jesus) Young Life should be a usable vehicle to bring otherwise resistant friends to hear the Gospel in a neutral setting.

    Students should value their church over Young Life - but this will ONLY happen if it is being modeled for them by YOUNG LIFE leaders.

    The other thing in my experience (6+ years of YL staff and time volunteering as a leader before) is that many Young Life clubs/leaders feel like their connections with youth ministry in their area is ALWAYS a failure. That may be the case, but we must enter each conversation anew. One church youth pastor may dislike our ministry and not even want to engage in a conversation, while another may want to partner in deep ways.

    Paul also encourages us to do this, I believe. 1st Cor 9:19-23, Paul tells us that he has become all things to all people in order to save as many as possible.

    We must be the initiators and go to churches to try to build relationships...

  3. Drew(s)! thanks for posting this... some great points. I think the need for a "doctrinally robust" community is something we in YL need to recognize and not try to duplicate. Being a broad, interdenominational, evangelical mission we cannot take definitive stands on the many doctrinal issues not covered in our statement of faith. These issues (about Baptism, Lord's supper, church government) are really important and I try to encourage my campaigner kids to look to their parents, pastors and youth pastors for guidance on these issues. I'm here to lead them in reaching their school for Christ, not to teach them about dunking or sprinkling.
    I am like many YL staff and leaders in that I grew up outside the church, and Young Life was the first "faith community" that I felt like I belonged to. For those reasons, it can be easy to dismiss doctrinal details as irrelevant and unnecessary. We don't want to forget that people have these beliefs for good reasons, and that being doctrinally robust is a good thing, not just for our kids but for us too...and it helps keep the Church and para-church in their respective places when we don't try to overstep our bounds.
    For example, I'm leading a Bible study right now with kids from the youth group of my local church-- some of whom occasionally attend club, but the Bible study is not a "YL" thing, I'm just trying to use my gifts to help my friend to youth pastor-- and I feel an incredible freedom to go places theologically and doctrinally that I wouldn't and probably shouldn't when I'm leading a campaigners group for a bunch of kids from a variety of different churches in town.

  4. Sean, Joey and Sam, Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'm going to pull them together for a "comment post" this weekend, just so others get a chance to read your comments that aren't regularly checking the comment section!

  5. Hey, Great question. I planted a YoungLife area in Australia and it was exactly this 'C' that is missing from the ministry. Countless young people came to Christ and our leaders and I worked tirelessly to connect them to established churches. This, by-and-large failed.

    In 2009 we travelled across the US and met with many senior YL staff to try to find if there was a solution to this problem, suspecting it to be a catalyst for church planting (the church planting movement being really active in the US). As it turns out YL is not being used as a model for church planting.

    So we are in the process of planting a church which provides the community and doctrinal teaching here in Australia using YoungLife as a key partner. Would love to hear any feedback.

    Peter Wiedemann
    Ipswich, Queensland. Australia

  6. Interesting thoughts. We do need to be intentional about what "church" or "body" we lead kids towards. One tough issue, particularly in the South, is that there are many churches that I would not encourage a high school kid to be a part of. Nor would I blame them for feeling a dis-connect with some of the churches they have grown up attending, being a part of, or whatever we call it.
    Just because it's a church doesn't mean that they are leading kids in relationship with Christ. I have to honestly say that I think many churches, even some "prominent" ones, give a bad or innaccurate picture of who Jesus is.
    That's where intentionality is important. We need to lead kids to the body that is leading folks in relationship with Jesus. The real Jesus- the Jesus that loves sinners where they are at regardless of their response. And those churches do exist.
    But I also believe we can give kids(committee,parents, etc.)a vision for being a true picture of Christ in whichever church(through relationship)they are a part of.

  7. When people ask me "How's YL going?" I steal a response from one of my RUF friends and say "I will let you know in 20 years. I think that local youth pastors are thinking about next week Sunday School (that is what it is even if you give it some tricked up name) attendance, pizza party, etc. I get it!

    Young Life is NOT taking kids out of are leaving and not returning for other reasons. I have heard this rhetoric for 32 years. The church has a bigger issue than Young Life. I am tired of Young Life being the whipping post for some, NOT ALL, youth pastors. Here are some legit reasons.

    Give this a read.

  8. Great point, Jace. This post could easily be reframed for church pastors: "Are we as pastors unintentionally undermining the participation youth in our churches with our well intended methods of ministry?" No doubt our churches are full of problems (see DD's comment), and they have their own questions they should be asking.

    But in the meantime, the question remains for those of us associated with YL: are we helping or (unintentionally) hindering kids to connect with Christ through the church?

    Thanks to everyone else for the thought provoking comments as well!

  9. My husband and I are on committee and our kids were in YL in high schools and led in college. A prominent youth pastor in the area has been critical/unsupportive of YL because of the very issue that your friend brought up. My question is, is there anything in God's word that indicates, instructs or gives examples that we should lay blame on others for the apparent lack of faith or "walking away from the faith" by some people? What none of us is able to see is the true state of another persons's soul. Remember, there have been and will be those who have cast out demons, healed and prophesied, but Jesus will say, "I never knew you," I'm not saying we shouldn't look to strengthen YL's ties with local churches and that we shouldn't care about robust doctrine. It might be helpful if you defined "robust doctrine." I think I know what it means, but it would help to get it out there. I'd say more churches don't have this, than have it. My observation is that training for YL staff is concerned with robust doctrine. Why not pass it on to the leaders and kids? Thank you for getting this discussion out there.

  10. How do I get in touch with Drew Martin, the author of this blog post?