In the late 1930’s Jim Rayburn, a Presbyterian youth leader was given a challenge that eventually changed the face of youth ministry forever. Jim’s pastor encouraged him to reach out to the neighboring high school and especially to those students who had no interest in the church. Today this continuing effort is called Young Life and it is all over our country and world with about 3,500 staff members.
Without hesitation, I thank Rayburn and his small band of friends who loved Jesus and loved young people in a way that revolutionized youth ministry. Many church ministries today are visible on campuses, at football games and loving the “furthest out” due to the example of Young Life. I personally have partnered/volunteered with Young Life my entire time in ministry and continue to support many aspects of the mission.
While I have a deep love for the church and a heart for Young Life, they both have bumps, bruises and blinders that hinder their potential impact.
In church youth ministry circles I hear folks talking about Young Life stealing kids from the church or only targeting the “in crowd”. “They talk about integrating students into the church, but we haven’t seen that yet!” I’ve also heard my Young Life friends talk about the boring, frozen church who continues to teach a dry Gospel and entertain Holy Huddles of students. The outdated body of believers who are fearful of what lies beyond the church walls. I’ve seen truth in all these statements and I’ve also seen the opposite.
So how does the church,Young Life and other para-church ministries get beyond the “he said, she said” debate that is heard on many middle school playgrounds?
Starting Point: Both groups have the privilege of participating in Kingdom work with some of God’s most inquisitive, passionate and challenging creatures. The words of Jesus found in Matthew 9 are ringing in my ears as I write this, ” the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. Both the church and Young Life have wisdom, resources and strengths that must be shared and in doing so the Kingdom and more young people “win”. Working with adolescents is overwhelming and doing so alone is unhealthy.
Partnership: A youth pastor letting a Young Life leader borrow a projector is not partnership! Shame on the church for calling that partnership and shame on the para-church for not asking or expecting more. Mark DeVries uses a powerful image of web when describing a sustainable and life changing way of reaching students in the name of Jesus Christ. First, Mark draws stick figure people on a white board that represent parents, youth workers, teachers, YL leaders, neighbors and coaches. Then draws a line to and from each of these people creating a web. When a young person pulls away from their parents, the prayer is that they run into the other God-fearing adults represented in the web who then play a vital role in the Kingdom and in that student’s life. If the people in the diagram don’t partner together then no web is formed and the family of God loses opportunity after opportunity. Next to a teenager’s parents, I believe youth workers from the church and Young Life can potentially be the biggest players in forming the web for a wide variety of students.
Better Hand-Offs- It seems like every Summer Olympic games features the fiercest relay team in history that eventually drops the baton in the final race and blows their chances of earning a medal. The church could do a much better job of giving and receiving students. We work with a kid for a period of time and then we prepare them and send them to college, the military or the workforce. The job of the “web” is to help connect that student to a living, growing body of faith in the next stage of the journey. A more important job of the “web” is to work diligently to give each student repeated opportunities to experience Jesus in a tangible way and to demonstrate to them what the life of a follower if Christ actually looks like.
Young Life could be better at hand-offs as well. I agree that the teenage years are a crucial time for beginning in faith, I also think we must take a more holistic approach to student evangelism. What is the best way for a Young Life volunteer leader to assure that a young person that they have introduced Christ to and walked with through High School continues to grow spiritually throughout life? My answer would be to connect that person with as many Christ centered adults that I could possible find, strengthening the web.
Parasitic relationships happen between ministries where there is little vision and passion. If either the church or Young Life were to take their ball and go home, we miss out on both spiritually depth and width that comes through evangelism.
Symbiotic relationships involve trust, they take loads of intentionality and they are a better reflection of the Body of Christ.
Have you witnessed or been involved in a healthy ministry partnership?
Should the two just go about their own business?
Are there major hurdles to this symbiosis that I have missed?