Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is Young Life Really For EVERY Kid?

This guest post was written by Julie Wisch in Chicagoland, IL. Julie has been a volunteer leader for five years, yet is commonly mistaken for a Junior in high school. While summer interning at Timber Wolf Lake she set a bike intern record by falling off her bike fourteen times in front of campers. You can read more from Julie on her blog.

"Your group is pretty self selecting, isn't it?"

I was a bit confused. No. Of course not. Young Life is for all kids. We don't just "select" the types of kids we want to come. We work really hard to make sure that anyone would feel welcome walking in the door. That makes us the opposite of self selecting, right?

What did this teacher's aide know anyways? My defenses were up. I was ready for a debate. She must have seen that.

"When I say self selecting, I mean you only have kids there who choose to be involved, right? The kids are selecting themselves."

There's a lot of wisdom in that question.

The traditional suburban Young Life model really plays to this. When we spend our time leading the kids who show up on their own, the kids who are brought by their friends, the kids who have older siblings involved in Young Life, we are doing good work. Please don't read this and think I am negating the value of this model of ministry. When we are "introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them to grow in their faith," we are true to our mission.

But how wide of a net are we casting?

When I choose to go to a basketball game, what happens? I talk to my kids that I know well, I talk to their friends, I maybe interact with a few parents, but that's about it. At my furthest stretch, I will strike up a conversation with a kid I do not know. However, this kid has also "self-selected." This kid is choosing to be involved in his or her school by supporting the team. This kid must have the resources to get to the game, whether that be their own car, an involved parent, or a friend with a car. This kid is choosing to engage.

Where are the kids who are disengaged? Where are the kids who don't "select" to join any group? To be a part of a community?

I've been lucky enough to be allowed access to the school where I lead YL. I would say my biggest "success" in this arena has come from being a part of my high school's tutoring program. I show up at the school and am put with a group of kids who are required to be there. They're in the room because they're failing their classes. They're in the room because they are disrespectful students. They're in the room because they're not engaged. PERFECT. These are the kids I am talking about.

Another idea....the bus stops after school. My area director and I noticed something striking about the bus stops near the school I led at in college. They were almost 100% segregated. Maybe this isn't true everywhere, but it was a fascinating testimony to the way our city was divided. The white kids were taking the buses that headed west. The bus to the south east side of town was entirely black. The Hispanic kids were all headed northeast. Are all of your kids riding the same bus home?

This isn't a post about race. I actually hate to bring it up, because I'm afraid that's all you'll hear. It's not. I mention race because that's been a piece of the picture at both of the schools I've led at. And it's an easy piece to see. At a school that was nearly 50% African American, our club was 90% white.

Is it also true that maybe 10% of the kids at the high school I lead at are athletes, and closer to 60% of the kids at our club are athletes? Is it also true that we know the majority of the orchestra and the dance team, but have never met anyone in the anime club? About 72% of high school students graduate in four years. I only know one kid well that falls into that other 28%. The "disengaged." The kids who are really struggling.

So this is the question. Who are you reaching? Does your club's makeup match the makeup of your school?

Maybe your club composition isn't even the right metric. I don't think club has to be a part of a successful ministry. It's a great tool, but maybe it's not the right one, depending on your kids. Not everyone dreams of screaming Brown Eyed Girl and drinking soda through a dirty sock on Wednesday nights. Let's think about this more in terms of life-on-life discipleship than club attendance....

Are you setting yourself up to only meet a certain type of kid? How can you widen your net?

Any thoughts for Julie? Push back? Amens!? If so, please leave a comment below.


  1. This is a great thought-provoking post and I think it is good to think broadly about this and remind ourselves, as leaders, to keep reaching for those kids.

    BUT - as a full-time working professional volunteer YL leader for almost seven years (and three during college), it is hard enough for me to even find time in the week to connect with those kids who are "self-selecting" to come to club. I think as leaders we can guilt ourselves into always looking for "that other" kid, instead of being fully engaged with the kids who ARE there. I think we fail if we don't cast a vision for our kids that throws the "net" wide and far within their school, but sometimes the hardest thing for our kids to do is to ask a friend to come to club - they go out on a limb each time they ask because that means they face possible rejection.

    I just think, as much as we do need to be reminded to keep seeking after ALL kids (and this is a great, great post for that!), I think we also need to have grace for ourselves and to be sure we are being completely present to the kids that God has already placed in our lives.

    1. Love the post, love the reply, really engaging stuff. I've been leading at my school for 4 years and had the good fortune to be placed here as a student teacher. There is a definite difference between the kids "self-choosing" and the kids participating in my lower-level 9th grade classes. Now, how I try to love kids in the classroom and translate YoungLife values to a new position in kids lives is a whole, other, long story... but the idea that there are kids who we miss and groups we target? Absolutely true. I coach golf and soccer... that produces a pretty consistent group of kids that come to our club, campaigners, and camp... And this post made me think of something else that is very, very important... You said it's not just about race and I agree. What about the introverts? I listened to a wonderful TED talk on the Power of the Introvert and the speaker gives an anecdote about being surprised at camp when her "counselor" wouldn't settle and let her just read a book... and instead wanted to make sure she was having "fun"... I think we can be so gung ho, loud, and crazy that we sometimes alienate kids that are more introverted and would love to know Jesus, but would also love to quietly read a book. Knowing the kids we have coming to camp, club, and campaigners and providing them spaces in which to be themselves AND learn about Jesus seems to be the bottom line we should reach for.

      Scott Reintgen

    2. Lauren,

      Wise words. Thanks for sharing. It's easy to beat ourselves up, but important to live in the grace the Lord offers, and remind ourselves that we aren't him. I think the tension between Julie's words and your comments is very healthy. Both are right on.


    3. Scott,

      Love the thoughts on introverts. As an extreme extrovert, I needed that reminder.


  2. Great post Julie. It really picks out comfortability. We get comfortable so often in life, faith, and pursing high school students. This really points out that there's never a time to be fully satisfied with what the Lord has done through us. He wil always do more if we open ourselves up to that. Well said!

    Lauren: Loved what you said about teaching high school students to cast the "net" wide. Great wording! I think this is a HUGE component we can so easily miss when leading. We always want to be the "leader" rather than teaching the students to follow us and lead others. Paul said "follow me, as I follow Christ." But, then he told Timothy to make disciples. Similarly with Jesus and His 12 disciples. We wouldn't be followers of Jesus today if it weren't for them taking the initiative and being obedient to God's command to lead. This can so easily be missed. We can get comfortable once we've gotten a kid to club, camp, campaigners, and just be done. The Lord calls us to more and part of that is leading our friends in a way that they learn to lead their peers. Never a time to be "comfortable" in our lives, faith, or pursing high school students. It's so exciting to teach kids the "why" of YL and then see them grow to be a part of something so much bigger than themselves! God Bless!

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Julie--This is such a great post! It's interesting to look back at what Young Life club was like when I was in high school and the kids that were coming to club. I never noticed these things then but now as a leader it is a great challenge to look at who we are reaching out to as YL leaders!

  4. I am a volunteer area director and I work in the same school for which we have club, campaigners, etc. I have often thought of this "gap" I see between what you call the self-selecters and what I call the fringe kids. It constantly tugs at my heart and I feel that I must be falling short because the fringe kids aren't coming to club. This is emphasized by the fact that I work with these kids at school on a daily basis. A few months ago, I felt God urging me to ask a kid to come to club. We finally "got" him on kidnap night. I was so happy, but my heart sank the next day when he told me he was completely out of place and uncomfortable. I made sure I talked to him and I saw several of our key kids and a leader talking to him. This was hard on me, since I'd been praying for months about him coming to club. Maybe he needed a friend to be with him, maybe they both would have been uncomfortable. I don't have an answer. I am in contact w/so many students every day who so obviously need Jesus. I thought working in the school would be such a blessing, but the guilt I feel because I can't seem to reach these kids, almost makes it worse. It takes a long time to form a relationship with them. They have been hurt and abandoned, and often see me as another adult who is going to come in and out of their lives. All of this to say, that yes, it's difficult to bring the different teenage worlds together in one Young Life club.
    Thank you for your post!

  5. Great discussion, thank you Julie! I've been a leader, student staff, summer staff, summer intern twice, weekend wrangler, etc etc. So it's safe to say I'm YL to the core.

    I think Scott brings up a great point about introverts. This is something that has been heavy on my heart for several years, as I can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed at camp or club and emotionally shutting down. Not all kids will respond the same way to our traditional methods of "breaking down walls," and this is where leaders come in--it is crucial to recognize the personality traits of each of our friends and relate to them on THEIR terms, not on ours. If a kid doesn't find love and compassion in being the bottom bun of a human cheeseburger, chances are he won't find Jesus there either. That definitely works for some, but not all!

    Just as we often end up reaching out to "self selecting" high schoolers, our leaders tend to fit a certain personality type as well. I think it's important to remember that every club needs all different types of leaders (not just the outgoing, funny, musician-atheletes). Young Life is a beautiful, amazing, powerful thing that God has used to change my heart and my whole life... but we have to be careful not to get swept up in fitting the YL image and allow kids to completely be themselves. No matter who they are!

  6. This is something that I have struggled with so much and I am so thankful there is a post on it. At least half of the girls that I spend time with from my high school are girls who do not attend club, or if they do it is very rare and only by me begging. The tension I find in that is finding a way to talk to them about Jesus when they are not hearing the Gospel at club. It makes the process so much longer. I also find myself so wrapped up in spending time with these girls who may be the "farthest out" that I feel like I neglect other girls who do come to club and who want to spend time with their leader. I have only been leading for 2 years, so I don't even know if there is an answer to these questions. My only solution has been to be faithful in prayer and to continue to "walk in wisdom toward those who are without."

    1. Hi Emily!

      That's the tension I spent the bulk of my last 4 years of leading in. (Just started at a new school and have been VERY focused on club kids thus far...) I think it is AWESOME that you're hanging out with kids that want nothing to do with Young Life. Keep it up :)

      Club is a tool. Totally. A really well designed one, at that--Without it, things take longer. Again, I'm totally on board with what you're saying. I've spent a lot of time thinking about maybe a couple of things for you to think about:

      1. Is there a different tool you can leverage to encourage conversation with these non-club kids? If club isn't the place, church probably isn't either. What about service? Is there a forum for you guys to serve and use that as a means to spend time together but also for you to deliberately live out the gospel in front of them?

      2. Are you actively turning away kids that WANT to hang out with you (club kids) to pursue kids who don't want to? Is there ego involved in this thought process or are you following a call? (I'm not being critical of what you're doing at all. I do know that it's easy to get sucked into feeling like a better leader because you're working with kids that are harder to deal with. Maybe you're already aware of this. Maybe it's not a struggle for you. Just something I think about a lot.)

      3. I don't know where you're at with these club kids, but are you in a place with any of them where you can start replicating leadership? Can you be in active conversation about ministry with them and invite them into hanging out with this other group of kids? (Depending on the situation, I get that this could be a terrible idea. But it also could be a cool way to disciple your club kids whil not abandoning the other group.)

      4. Praying and faithfulness. What a great idea :) Thanks for serving kids.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I posted and thought I should clarify some things in my post.
    I definitely appreciate connecting with kids that are 'introverts' as I consider myself to be one :).
    I've had a couple of kids I've made progress with and I've been a leader for several years.
    I have something pretty heavy to share, however:
    I have to admit that I had a very strong relationship with one of my kids; we honestly became like best friends. But because of a lot of my pride and being unwilling to see how I was pushing so hard to be what I thought was a "good leader" and even closer friend, my kid and I stopped talking after my kid became a leader, and realized that I was becoming so reliant on our friendship. I wish I had seen it and I wish I had changed. I'm not asking for an answer of how to fix it; I know there's probably a 1% chance we could ever be friends again. Has anyone experienced something similar? I still pray for forgiveness and it's been years.