I recently saw a tweet that implied one of many negative stereotypes about Young Life.
Thank you, Rich Homie Yuan. Your contribution to the extremely clever “starter pack” trend is noted.
I don’t give a care if you retweeted this. I really don’t. I could go on and on about high school drinking and how it’s illegal, but I’ll refrain. You’ve attended a D.A.R.E program, and chances are if you pander to rudeness like your retweet exemplifies, you probably think wearing your D.A.R.E. shirt ironically is hilarious.
I really just want to explain what I think this tweet means.There is a widespread stereotype about “the type of people” that go to Young Life. I’ve heard “partiers,” “posers,” and “fakes,” to name the nicer labels. There’s also a widespread stereotype about what Young Life is, from both believers and those not of the faith. I’ve heard it’s “just an excuse to party,” a place to get a boyfriend or a girlfriend (or drinking buddies), or a “watered down church.”
First of all, Young Life isn’t church, nor does it claim to be. Young Life is an organization rooted in Christianity and run by Christian leaders, yes. Their mission statement is simple and awesome: “Every adolescent will have the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and follow Him.” But it’s not church. Their mission statement is basically the same statement that we’d hope the youth groups of our church to have, but that’s not always the case. During my senior year, I felt so much more welcome at Campaigners and grew so much more from the time spent there than the countless others in my church community at the time.
But I’ll start from the beginning.
I think I really noticed Young Life my sophomore year of high school. There was an awesome group of people who would yell “COME TO CLUB TONIGHT!” at the end of Student Council meetings on Mondays, and I already looked up to those people tremendously, so I was intrigued. I mentioned wanting to go to my parents one night, and they immediately talked about their high schools’ Young Life organizations:
“I remember it was the leaders who brought the kegs to weekend parties,” my mom said. “I heard so many stories about the ragers the Young Life kids had.”
I was scared off. I didn’t want to be in that scene and I still don’t want to be.
I remember thinking that I knew for a fact that the people I admired weren’t like that at all. It wasn’t something I thought I know, it wasn’t a misconception, it was a fact. I knew in my heart, 100%, that those people who smiled and wore funny Young Life shirts and yelled at me to come to club were genuine Christ-followers. I knew they pursued admirable lives. So why were they involved in this club everyone told me was bad?
My first personal encounter with it was when I met Shelby that year. Shelby was a super sweet Young Life leader who would come and sit with me and my friends at our lunch table once or twice a week. It was real awkward at first, but I appreciated it. My friend Amber and I talked with her a little at first, but we started having cool conversations about our lives and school. I found myself telling her small details that I didn’t think mattered when they came out of my mouth, but when she nodded and smiled and said something actually meaningful in response, I realized that I only thought they were dumb because no one had really ever said they weren’t.
She eventually had to stop coming to lunch because of a new policy the administration passed, but I’ll always remember her sidling into our lives and talking with us for those 30 minutes at a time.
I still didn’t go to Monday night club. I had excuses and didn’t understand what it actually was. But still at the end of every Student Council meeting, I would hear “COME TO CLUB!” and become just a little bit curious.
I met Taylor as I tagged along with some friends for Freebirds and a movie. I had come last-minute and didn’t know Taylor at all. She immediately welcomed me. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so genuine and nice right off the bat. We sat two seats away from each other in the theater and were laughing the whole time. It was the Katy Perry movie and we both loved it a lot. We yelled ‘THANK YOU FOR BELIEVING IN MY WEIRDNESS!” to each other after the movie and it was grand. She’s kept up with me ever since.
I came to one club I think my junior year. It was incredibly fun, but I felt kind of intimidated. It was loud and fast-paced and so many people wanted to high five me, it was wild. I guess I still wasn’t convinced.
Then my friend Megan started going. Megan was and is one of my best friends, and I don’t use that term loosely. She didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in a Christian home like me, so when she got saved at a summer camp with me, her life flipped. She couldn’t go to church regularly since her parents didn’t attend, and we couldn’t drive yet. She also played competitive soccer on the weekends. Not only that, but sometimes she would get a hard time for going to Bible studies. But she made it to Young Life.
For me, I had my youth group. I had parents who were believers. I had college leaders for Bible studies through my church. I took the awesome aspects of Young Life for granted. Not everyone was like me. Young Life on Mondays was this safe place. It was fun, there was music, people danced until they were sweaty, we played games. At Young Life, we laugh collectively and guys, that is such a rare and important thing.
I met incredible, thoughtful, open, and welcoming college students. I met new people. And every Monday night, I got to hear the truth of Jesus. For me, that doesn’t get old. I’ve heard Christians, those who should care the most about getting the good news out, back out of Young Life all together because the message was “weak.” They said it was barely even focused on Christ, it was just “fun.”
And I would think: when’s the last time you sat down with people coming from everywhere, all types of homes and families and living situations and heard the gospel shared simply and beautifully? How often do you hear the “rowdy” kids sing an acoustic worship song?
Jesus continues to be present in our lives because there are people who haven’t encountered him yet. He offers healing and peace. In Mark 2:17, Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But honestly, if you’re going to be judgmental, you’re sick too.
We are closed up in church walls. We keep the good stuff in. I was a greeter for my youth group, so I understand the purpose of visitor’s forms (I’m the one who handed them out), but man, we make people fill out visitor’s forms!
We automatically label you a visitor. We all too often let you alone to sit with whoever brought you because we have our friend groups. Third row from the front, two seats in, homies all around was my usual. I’m completely guilty of that, but I’ve been working on it and so is the church as a whole.
But at Young Life, were you ever a visitor? NO. You were merely on your first step to being a regular. That’s how you’re viewed. You’re a new person to high five, a new person to listen to, a new person to grab McDonald’s with after club. And that’s special.
I started coming senior year. I still wasn’t an every-weeker, but I made it when I could. I remember going to a girls-only sleepover with all of the area’s clubs. We were all so different. The room was hot and smelled like feet. But towards the end of the night, these girls, these leaders, sat on stools in front of us and poured themselves out. They talked about stuff I’ve never heard of anyone being brave enough to admit. They said they were dirty and ugly, but through Jesus Christ they were changed for the better. We worshipped after and I cried and cried and cried. There were so many tears coming out of me and I couldn’t breathe and I don’t know what happened. I was pretty embarrassed. I haven’t cried since.
And then we had several more leaders write cardboard confessionals. They wrote the sad, terrible parts of themselves on pieces of beat-up cardboard. Then they flipped them over and showed how they had found peace, cleanliness, and comfort through Jesus Christ.
I did that for the very last club. I wrote on one side that I was always second choice. A lot of the times, I didn’t feel like people prioritized me. On the other side, I wrote that Jesus died for ME. And I did it with girls I have never loved more: my Campaigners group.
Campaigners is the part of Young Life I champion with every fiber of my being. We met on Wednesday nights with Taylor and Shelby. A few of the girls were good friends, but most I hadn’t spoke with the entire time I’d been in high school. We just dove into the Word and got questions answered and somehow it worked. I have no idea how. We laughed and sometimes our voices trembled because we were sad or felt hopeless, but we found joy and unity and love. Most of all of these, we loved.
At the start of Campaigners, my friend came whom I had been praying for for two years. And I felt like I needed to limit myself. I needed to not offend her, but I wanted so badly for her to hear the truth. I chose my words carefully as she listened silently the entire meeting.
And then, towards the end, she started talking. And talking. All about all that she had been through. I won’t share it all because it’s her own beautiful story to share, but she had been in the dark, and now she was here. She was sitting next to me on this big comfy couch with the fan whirring and people leaning in to hear her. I didn’t cry after she left that night. But I remember telling Taylor as I left, “I can’t believe this. I’ve been praying for her all this time and then she comes here and everything changes.”
I am forever grateful for everything Young Life and Campaigners and my beautiful leaders have done for me. I have a singular experience, I know. I can’t speak for the entirety. And neither can you. I know there are flaws with Young Life. But there are flaws with the church, your Bible study that meets in a hipster coffee shop, or whatever it is that those who are Christians have deemed superior to Young Life.
Currently, my College Life small group has been such an important part of my transition here in Austin. There was something special, invigorating, and so comfortable to me the moment I met my group and my two leaders. You don’t just find that anywhere.
In my experience with Young Life, I have noticed a need for more accountability. I hope to be able to be held accountable and hold others accountable as I train for leadership next semester and beyond. Any organization is made up of imperfect people. We all mess up. Maybe we don’t change right away. But what I can say for certain is that for about two hours every Monday night, there was a group of strangers meeting in a small room. And for those two hours, nothing else pressed in. Not school, not families, not drinking, not the struggles that make up our days and weeks and lives. How did you spend your Monday nights? Because I sang and I danced and I loved Jesus and others.
And if I stayed home, I regretted it.