This is a continuation of the previous post, Andy “Goldbrick” Delaney, written at the suggestion by a young friend (Björk) who encouraged me to capture the story of the beginning of my journey with Young Life. Interestingly, I was visiting Björk’s company offices earlier this week. I looked at the office building across the street – it’s where I was formally introduced to Young Life.
In the last posting I mentioned that a couple from my community had providentially stumbled onto Frontier Ranch, suggesting that I check out Young Life as a solution to a vision that was evolving to better care for the kids in our community – kids of various and/or no church backgrounds. This is the rest of the story…
Wanting to find out more about the ministry, I looked up “Young Life” in the Yellow Pages (yes, Yellow Pages) and placed a call with what turned out to be the regional office. They connected me with a Young Life office located closer to my community. Calling that office, I had a 5 minute conversation with the Area Director, Jim Green. He gave me an “elevator speech” of the mission of Young Life. It was only a five minute conversation because Jim was literally headed out the door to serve at a Young Life camp for a month. He said we should reconnect in a month to explore this further.
A month? Patience was a virtue that I lacked. Somehow I ended up with a book written in 1963 by philosopher Emile Cailliet about the Young Life Mission. I spent the month waiting by reading the book – twice. Everything I read drew me in. I couldn’t wait for Jim to return from his month at camp to find out more.
Upon his return, Jim suggested I come to his office (across the street from Björk’s present-day office) for a bag lunch together. He wanted to show me a couple movies (movies, not videos) about Young Life. I took a long lunch and drove 40 minutes to meet with him. He had a couple reel-to-reel movies tee’d up for me to watch. The first one was a general, very well done, informational movie about the mission of Young Life.
The second movie blew me away. It was called A Time for Living, an award-winning film featuring Young Life camps across the United States and Canada. I was hooked! I had never seen anything like it in my life. I went to Bible camp once as a kid but it was nothing like this!
I was 23 and wondered how I might get to attend a Young Life Camp.
Asking what next steps might be, Jim suggested I round up a handful of adults from our community for an informational meeting about Young Life and the possibility of starting the ministry. A week later 20 adults crowed into my living room to listen to Jim and his committee chair describe what Young Life could look like in a community like ours. We were all spellbound. Why had we never heard of such a thing?
At meeting’s end Jim told us that a group of kids and leaders were headed to Frontier Ranch in a couple weeks and I should try to round up a few kids and tag along. Long story short, two weeks later I was accompanying 10 high school kids on a trip that would turn out to be the “best week of their lives.” And it turned out to be the best week of my life, too. What I witnessed that week was transformative for me…
I witnessed unconditional acceptance. To my utter surprise, Frontier Ranch had a smoking pit. Since the ministry drew kids that were far from God, as one can imagine some might have been smokers. The kids were invited to camp to discover Jesus, not to expereince behavior modification. In a world where American Christendom was moving toward what Christian Smith described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, this was extremely good news to those expecting religious people to tell them what they should not be doing. As an early Christ-follower, I found it quite intriguing.
I witnessed high adventure. The movie A Time for Living showed high adventure and it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. The kids (and I) experienced things few of us had ever dreamed of doing. For example, one day we took buses up to St. Elmo, CO, a mining ghost town, then proceeded to climb 12,822′ Chrysolite Mountain. Not many have experienced hiking close to 3000′ above treeline!
I witnessed excellence. In 1950, Young Life had the opportunity to purchase a resort in British Columbia that was originally designed to attract Hollywood-types. As they considered the purchase Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, took the board of directors to visit Malibu Club. As I understand it, a board member asked what would need to be changed to turn it into a youth camp. Rayburn’s response was something like, this: “We want to bring kids to camp to meet the King of Kings. If this place is good enough for Hollywood folks, then wouldn’t it be good enough for the King’s kids the way it is?” I witnessed the attitude of excellence for the King’s kids that week at Frontier Ranch.
I witnessed leaders engaged with kids. My prior observation of adults involved in youth ministry was them primarily playing the role of crowd control. They often stood off to the side while the kids participated in the program. During “chapel,” they stood or sat around the perimeter, shushing kids as needed. That week I saw leaders fully engaged, participating, hanging out with, and sitting among the kids they brought to camp. Years later Guy Doud, 1987 national teacher of the year, referred to Young Life leaders as “Jesus with skin on.” At Frontier, I witnessed kids fully engaged with everything going on, including the talks about Jesus. Leaders engaged with kids and kids engaged with Jesus! Wow!
And I witnessed Jesus in a new way. I heard Jesus talked about in new and fresh ways. The speaker, Mal McSwain, talked about Jesus in a manner different than I had ever experience. He was a story-teller, helping us picture Jesus in a way that brought him to life. Jim Rayburn always said that if kids could meet the real Jesus, they would fall in love with him. And kids did.
Upon returning home from Frontier Ranch, I started a Campaigner group with the 10 kids that I accompanied to camp. In Young Life, “Campaigners” is the name of the small groups focused on helping kids grow in their [newfound] faith. Through Campaigners, leaders continue to walk with kids as they learn how to follow Jesus. That group of Campaigner kids, their friends, and I ended up starting Young Life in our community – introducing kids to Jesus and helping them grow in their faith for over 20 years. And it all started with a broken down station wagon on the road to Buena Vista, CO.
(In the previous post, I suggested that my involvement with Young Life over the past five decades has had a most significant affect on my theology and my journey to becoming a “practical theologian.” That’s the next post.)