Young Life: Reaching Hearts for Christ through Fun, Friendship, and Adventure

By Pam S. Walker

A steady stream of teenagers descend into the basement, squeezing onto the carpeted floor as they sing along to the words on the PowerPoint projected onto the makeshift screen. Several silly skits follow before a college-age girl comes to the front and commands their attention.

“Hi guys! I’m glad you are all here tonight! My name is Amanda and I am going to share a super personal story with you tonight and talk about some things from the Bible.”

After sharing her story of losing a father to cancer, she goes on to share how we all have a hole that we try to fill with many things. Using a flashlight, she explains that if we take out the battery and try to fill the flashlight with other things, it won’t work.

“It won’t turn on and fulfill its purpose unless it’s filled with the battery. This battery is Jesus. We are all searching for something or someone to meet our needs, but the only person who can ultimately satisfy us is Jesus.”

Amanda is one of 76,000 volunteer Young Life leaders around the world who meet every week to share the love of Jesus to high school students in a setting called “club,” short for Young Life Club. Young Life is a non-denominational Christian ministry that reaches out to middle school, high school, and college-aged kids in all 50 states in the United States and over 100 countries. More than 150,000 students attend weekly club meetings throughout the school year in the U.S. and 171,900 internationally, where they hear about Jesus in a fun and inviting setting.

Reaching Young Adults for Christ Since 1941

Since 1941, Young Life’s leaders have been living out the ministry’s mission to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith through fun, friendship, and adventure. In addition to reaching high school kids, Young Life includes outreaches to middle school students (WyldLife), college and university students (Young Life College), teenagers with disabilities (Capernaum), adults with disabilities who have transitioned out of high school (Beyond Capernaum), teenage moms (YoungLives), military teens (Club Beyond), teenagers living in smaller communities, multiethnic students, and students in exchange and hosting programs for international kids (Amicus). Combined, these ministries reach more than two million kids around the globe.

Female campers having fun during the cabin challenge at Young LIfe’s Castaway Club in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Photo courtesy Ben Dodds

Methods of the Ministry

While things like technology have changed over time, the core methods of the ministry have remained constant over the past 78 years. This includes a discipleship group called Campaigners (short for the original name of Young Life Campaign) for young people who have made the decision to follow Christ. These co-ed groups meet weekly for Bible study, fellowship, prayer, and worship. Those attending Campaigners are encouraged to attend church regularly, many of whom attend with their Young Life leaders. Or, if there is a family background with a particular Christian tradition, their leaders encourage kids to connect with those places of worship.

Another core component of the ministry is something called “contact work” where Young Life leaders are assigned to serve specific schools and encouraged to form friendships with the students on their turf. Whether attending basketball or football games, or volunteering as a band instructor, these volunteer leaders spend much of their time forming friendships where they “earn the right to be heard” by building relationships with students first and then getting the opportunity to share their faith and life with the student.

“It’s one of the most unique things about Young Life that separates this ministry from others,” said Rick Scherr who serves as the area director in northern Kentucky.

“The reason we do this work is out of obedience to the model that Christ gave us. God becoming man to reach us. It is very true to the biblical model of who Christ was and how he reached others,” Scherr said.

The dining hall at Crooked Creek Ranch in Fraser, Colorado, seats over 400 campers and leaders. Work Crew (high school Young Life volunteers) serve the campers for a full month at a time. Photo courtesy Ben Dodds

Before leaders get assigned to a school, they must attend New Leader training, which requires them to visit schools, write papers, take quizzes, and participate in leadership meetings. While each area within Young Life has some autonomy in how they operate their ministry, Rick and his wife, Amy, have been hosting a weekly Leadership meeting at their house for the past 22 years. Each Friday they feed and train 80 leaders on evangelism and discipleship. This group has grown so much over the years that when they had a chance to move to a larger house, their one requirement was to be next to a large parking lot so that the students would have plenty of places to park.

Young Life Camp — The Best Week of Your Life!

From the beginning, camping has played an integral part of the Young Life ministry. With 34 picturesque camps located throughout the U.S. and beyond, hundreds of thousands of kids get to spend a week or weekend in what many consider the best time of their lives. In 2017, more than 166,000 kids attended camp in the U.S. and around the world.

“It is a beautiful, intentional way to enable young people to experience and respond to the gospel,” said Young Life Vice President of Communications, Terry Swenson.

“Camps bring about lasting change in two primary ways. First, they give kids a clear presentation of the gospel in the context of an experience of freedom, safety, abundance, and relationship; and second, they give young followers of Jesus a chance to grow in their faith either through serving on work crew or by attending a camp designed as a discipleship experience such as our wilderness or adventure camps,” Swenson explained.

A group of high school boys from Prior Lake, Minnesota, cross a glacier at Young Life’s Beyond Malibu in British Columbia. On this week-long discipleship trip,leaders and their high school friends get a chance to escape the everyday stressors of life and escape to the mountains. Photo courtesy Ben Dodds

Over the years, Rick and Amy have always emphasized praying over the campers to their Young Life leaders. “You never know who that last-minute camper might be,” they tell the kids. Such was the case one year when Jenna Henderson came to the school bus to see her brother off to camp and told her friends that it looked like fun. When her friends insisted that they bus would wait for her, Jenna went home and packed. That summer at Young Life Camp, Jenna met Christ. And when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while in high school, she knew that the Lord would help her with the battle. While in college, she became a Young Life leader and later married Scott, who was also a leader. When her cancer came back, she shared with the Young Life kids that even through her suffering, God was still good. As the cancer got worse, Jenna still faithfully led Young Life and even went to camp three months before her death. Today, Jenna’s testimony of God’s faithfulness and her love for Young Life continues to impact so many through her journal entries and posts that her husband, Scott, published in the book, “Worth the Suffering.”

Volunteers — Investing in Lives for Eternity

Volunteers like Jenna form the backbone of the Young Life ministry. Swenson explained that these are committed adults who are willing to give time to invest in relationships with kids who may not otherwise have a chance to hear about God’s love for them.

“The willingness of a volunteer, whether college student, professional, etc. to give themselves to kids and to model what it means to follow Jesus is in itself a powerful witness,” said Swenson.

Young life employs 5,255 staff members and is led by Newt Crenshaw, who became president in 2016 at a time when Young Life was experiencing historic growth. Crenshaw has created a strategy for reaching even more kids with the gospel worldwide. This movement known as Young Life Forward includes the four primary areas of focus: Deeper in Christ — seeking the Lord first and helping kids grow in their faith; Together — building and equipping teams that reflect the worldwide body of Christ; Innovation — creating new ways today to reach kids tomorrow; and Growth — impacting all kids within sight and just out of reach.

For more information on the ministry and its many outreaches, see www.younglife.org.

A mud volleyball competition at a local Young Life Club near Vail, Colorado. Over 100 high school kids from Eagle Valley High School participated in multiple games of mud volleyball. Photo courtesy Ben Dodds

Capernaum Ministry

In the 1980s, Young Life expanded its outreach to meet the needs of young adults with disabilities by forming a ministry called Capernaum. The ministry provides those with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to experience God’s love through club, camps, Bible studies, and even proms that are uniquely designed for them. Throughout the country, an average of 4,450 young adults attend a Capernaum club each week.

The Northern Kentucky Young Life Capernaum began hosting a Royal Prom for young adults with disabilities in 2014. As one of the largest disability events in the area, this yearly event offers a free dinner, dancing, carnival-type games, a gospel message, and a grand entrance on the red carpet as volunteers line up on each side to welcome and cheer on the guests as they arrive. Nearly 700 volunteers make this event possible, along with the support of many area churches. Guests are assigned a volunteer escort who accompanies them throughout the evening to ensure everyone stays safe while having fun.

Guests at the Northern Kentucky’s Capernaum Young Life Royal Prom experience a grand welcome on the red carpet as volunteers cheer them on as they arrive. Photo courtesy Northern Kentucky Young Life Capernaum

Rick Scherr, area director for Northern Kentucky Young Life, says the Young Life students and leaders are encouraged to get involved and serve in the Capernaum ministry.

“What God can communicate through these students is really beautiful. It encourages them about their personal faith and God and His love. The overlap of how we do Capernaum work is one of the most beautiful things that we have going on.”

Pam S. Walker is the former national editor of Answers magazine, a publication of Answers in Genesis, and is a freelance writer living in the Cincinnati area where she writes for various Christian publications.

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