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Young Life is a para-church ministry that focuses on running clubs and summer camps for high school students. They exist to introduce these students to Jesus Christ and the Bible. I got involved with Young Life during high school, attended numerous camps, and served as a volunteer leader for five years.
Occasionally, I would hear someone accuse Young Life of a being a cult. At the time, I dismissed it as a misunderstanding, or an angry denial of the truth of Christianity. But I never considered it a cult….even after having been in a verifiable cult, I still thought warmly of much of my time in Young Life.
Now that I’m many years removed from my time at Young Life, and raising my own teens, I have been brought back in contact with our local Young Life. And it has made me wonder if one of the reasons I was ripe for a cult was the fact that many of the same cultic dynamics were present in Young Life?
One of the tactics identified as cultic is Love Bombing. Love bombing occurs when a religious group intentionally showers praise, friendship, and attention towards new members of the group. They do this to try to emotionally connect these new members BEFORE fully disclosing the requirements and/ or theology of the group.
This is certainly a tactic that Young Life is guilty of – no doubt. Most of what Young Life leaders and their campaigners do would fall under the category of Love Bombing. As a leader, we would discuss our weekly “contact work”. Contact work was the amount of time we spent hanging around the local high school or area teen hangouts, in hopes of making contact with students outside of Young Life. Some leaders would organize sports events, or have teens they know intentionally invite other kids to an event, (like watching a football game on TV) so that the Young Life leaders could make contact and build a relationship with these students. The sole intent of all of this was to then invite the students to attend a Young Life club or camp. As a leader, I saw my motives as totally pure and godly. But I was just in my late teens and early 20’s. As a parent, I realize now, that I was evangelizing other people’s underage children without their consent. This is another sign that Young Life might be cultic.
Young Life Club
Young Life club was a fun place to be during my high school years. The skits were fun, we sang a lot of “oldies but goodies” from the Young Life Songbook, and I got to hang out with kids that I didn’t normally relate to at my school. It also felt really cool to have guys in college taking the time to get to know me and discuss faith, music, politics, etc…I was a lonely teenager and Young Life helped me not feel so lonely.
As I got involved as a student leader, the dynamics changed. I wasn’t just a kid at club anymore. I was now involved with inviting my friends, going out of my way to be like Christ to others in my school (student version of Love Bombing), and was also given tips on how to help hype the club by always clapping and singing during songs, which included being told that we needed to scream like crazy when the leaders talked about Young Life camp. In other words, we became a part of the backstage production crew that helped pull off a successful performance at clubs and camps. We also spent a lot of personal time doing things like quiet times (anyone remember those Ty Saltzgiver booklets on quiet times?), memorizing scripture (NAV press anyone?), and journaling about our relationship with God and who we were going to reach out to for Christ. Many times, our time as a campaigner was spent discussing with leaders how we could better improve on these three areas of life.
Young Life Ministry Strategy
One of the strategies that was often discussed at leadership meetings was that of making contact with “the leaders” in the schools. This meant that as Young Life leaders, we would intentionally try to recruit the most popular and influential kids at a high school. The thinking was, that if you could get the cool kids to attend, then other students would follow. In other words, Young Life was gaming the pecking order of the high school cliques in order to try to build a platform to evangelize the school. In this case, I would call this the “cult of cool”.
In the “cult of cool” thinking, the appearance of Young Life being cool was tantamount. This meant that the Young Life leaders needed to be good-looking and in-touch with the latest fashions. Star athletes and cheerleaders were often the focus of attention by Young Life leaders. The good-looking people were often “randomly” chosen to be in the skits or brought up to help sing a song. Were these things explicit?….not really. It’s not that anyone said, don’t go after the ugly kids, or the girls that are overweight, or the punk rock kids with the Misfits t-shirt. But if you focus on going after “the cool kids” in the high school, then usually these “un-cool kids” are quickly excluded from your ministry strategy. It didn’t mean that those “other” students couldn’t be involved, they could. But it was usually the result of them wanting to follow and be part of the “in crowd” that the more popular students represented.
This ministry strategy of Young Life does not make them a cult, but it does make them appear to be more closely related to an advertising firm than a ministry.
Young Life Camp
Young Life camp was an incredibly fun time for me as a student. Everyone seemed so open and loving. The food was great, the outdoor settings were beautiful, and the nightly meetings were full of energy and emotionally charged talks about life, love, and Jesus.
But here’s the rub; so much of what I assumed was a result of really loving people, was orchestrated. Love Bombing and emotional manipulation would be an apt description. Young Life camps are orchestrated to heighten ones emotions and encourage the students to make a highly emotional “decision to follow Christ”.
There were nightly talks about Jesus, including an emotional presentation of his crucifixion that was followed by a mandatory 10 minutes of silence to think about what we had just heard. In my experience, the silence was followed up by an hour of singing (mostly worship songs) by the volunteer staff. Campers would then return to their cabins, where their leaders would lead an hour or more discussion about the talks and about where each student stood in regards to their relationship to Jesus. Every activity was intentional in trying to persuade students to make a decision for Christ.
The final activity at a weekly camp was the “say so” meeting. The verse about letting the redeemed “say so” was the basis for the name. Kids would be encouraged to stand up among the hundreds of students and “say so” if they had committed or re-committed their lives to Jesus. It was an intense display, full of emotional stories, lots of tears and hugs…followed up by more tears and hugs as we said goodbye to the many friends we had made during the week and got on the bus to travel home.
Again, I don’t know that the camps are intentionally cultic. But they are intentional in their efforts to persuade every camper to make a decision for Christ during that week. We would often times get complaints from parents whose children came home and were all the sudden “different” or “zealous” about their Christian faith. Sometimes it was a change for the better; many times it was to a parents dismay. Their child was now quoting the Bible to them and telling them that they were not real Christians and were hell bound. Needless to say, some parents regretted having given permission for their child to attend. They were told about the water tubing and sailing and all the fun their kid would have (which was true) but did not realize the amount of evangelizing that would be occurring (which was not highlighted in the brochures). The fact it was a Christian camp was mentioned, but again, it was not the main focus of our pitch when convincing parents to give their kids permission to attend.
So, is Young Life a cult? I’m not sure, but I think they skirt close to the edge….My kids won’t be attending Young Life meetings any time soon.
Tags: Bible, Campaigners, Christian Faith, Christianity, Club, cool, Cult, Cultic, Emtional manipulation, Evangelism, Faith, God, high school students, Jim Rayburn, Lake Champion, Love bombing, Ministry, para-church, Parental Consent, Quiet time, Saranac, Ty Saltzgiver, volunteer leader, Young Life, Young Life Camp, Young Life Club, Young Life leader, Young Life songbook