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.