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Young Life?
Posted by: GuitarDave ()
Date: April 11, 2006 01:36PM

Hello here...wondering if anyone here has ever had any cult-like experiences with Young Life? I did myself, in the mid-eighties, when I was in high-school. Back then, there were considered a destructive cult by some, though I don't see anything on the net in that direction, these days.

Thanx! dave

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Young Life?
Posted by: phoenixgirl ()
Date: June 04, 2006 11:50PM


I agree that Young Life is a cult in the sense that it encourages separation from the outside world, implies that all other types of Christians are inferior, and practices mind control, although I know that some people take offense at the term. Some definitions of a cult don't fit, but that doesn't mean the organization is benign. I think that Young Life is organized in an irresponsible way that allows ill-intentioned or misguided people too much access to our children.

I was involved with Wyldlife in the early 90's, Young Life as a "campaigner" (someone who attends the Bible study meetings and recruits others) in the mid 90's, and as a leader in the late 90's and early aughts (quit 2001). I think it's fair to say that I am familiar with the organization and how it works.

1. Young Life's goal is to get kids to "accept Christ." YL often touts the statistic that "3/4 of all people who will accept Christ will do so by the age of 18." Therefore, they focus on middle and high school aged teenagers.

2. Young Life's leaders are told to "win the right to be heard." This means to befriend teenagers with the intent of converting them.

3. Young Life explains to its leaders that they must attract the popular or second-tier popular students to Club (the so-called fun night which is a cover for proselytizing) because then the less popular kids will want to attend, thereby maximizing return for effort. (I attended a leader training conference two times, and both times a ladder was drawn representing the tiers of high school groups, with popular athletes being at the top and alternative/goth kids being at the bottom, and the second tier was circled for emphasis).

4. Young Life leaders "disciple" Campaigner kids so that the Campaigner kids will be the worker bees in the school. When they are ready, they are then encouraged to disciple other students who are "younger in Christ," and to continue the cycle, resulting in further recruitment.

5. Campaigners are encouraged to pray and read the Bible every day and to have an "accountability partner" with whom to share secret failings and sinful thoughts. This process leads to mind control.

6. Campaigners feel pressure to bring "unsaved" people each week, especially people who have never before attended YL.

7. There is a tenuous relationship with churches. Although YL says that it works with churches and encourages church attendance, the accepted viewpoint is that all students who have not attended YL are considered unsaved until they prove their zealousness or begin attending YL. Kids get the impression that this is the only way to be a Christian.

8. The pinnacle of the YL process is attending camp. Most kids are not going to experience a desire to convert during a ten minute talk crammed in somebody's living room. Camp is designed to play on emotions -- eliciting excitement and revelry one minute, and then catharsis and release the next. There is at least one talk per day, then time to reflect and share with one's group and leader one's questions. After the most intense talk yet at the end of the week, students are sent out with the instructions not to talk for twenty minutes and to search their hearts and see if they want to let Jesus in. They then return to singing and clapping and are encouraged to share the news that they have converted. Now these new converts will enter the ranks of Campaigners and begin recruiting more students.

YL claims that very few adults can be converted (with the explanation that satan or pride has hardened their hearts), so they focus on minors. As a teacher, I know that critical thinking skills are not developed until the late teens. I believe this is the real reason that YL focuses on this age group. They are in the black/white stage of thinking in which they want answers and for the world to make sense. Later they will be more comfortable with ambiguities, but at this point, they will have already developed checks in their thought processes to discourage questioning.

YL encourages former YL kids to become leaders as early as the second semester of their freshman year of college. They are told to go where the kids are -- to walk the halls of school, go to the mall, play basketball on the school court after school. They are told that they are ambassadors for Christ, when really they are kids themselves, barely able to do their laundry. While most have good intentions, it easy to imagine how a 19-year-old could end up being a poor role model.

Each area (usually a county) has an area director, a paid staff member. It might even have one or two paid interns. These people must raise most of their salary from churches and fund raisers. Each area also has a committee of parents who oversee the goings on to whatever level they desire (they are volunteers, after all). Unlike a church where the staff members range in age and duties, Young Life leaders tend to be in their twenties (although those who choose to make it a career can be older) and tend to excel at acting like a teenager. They spend most of their time with teenagers and other leaders. There is not much of a reality check, and there aren't many examples of "real grownups" to emulate.

And now for my own personal experiences with Young Life:

My sister who is 7 years older was involved when she was in high school. She took me and my mother to a family weekend at a Young Life camp when I was 11, and took us to a Billy Graham crusade when I was 12. After her encouragement, I accepted Christ at the crusade and felt relief that I wouldn't be going to hell. My sister is now a minister in a liberal church and does not believe in evangelizing others or hell.

In middle school my involvement was minimal and most of my friends were Jewish (protestants were in the minority in my town -- I was the only WASP in my elementary school class). In high school, perhaps because all of my friends had their "groups" -- Hebrew School, Indian Cultural Society, etc. -- I ditched my former friends and became a zealot for YL. My freshman year I was "discipled" by a sophomore. My 23-year-old leader told me that satan was attacking me when I confessed catching a bit of a porno as it came through in patches in a hotel and liking it. She made me memorize verses for use in fending off satan's attacks.

By my sophomore year I was an old Campaigner pro. I befriended people with no friends -- the new girl who needed someone to show her around, the overweight girl who ate alone in the courtyard at lunch, etc. -- and brought them to club and, ideally, camp. I led Bible studies among my friends. When a friend stopped having "quiet times," I emailed her a Bible verse every day.

In my zeal I felt that I had to be perfect. As a strong-willed person, I managed never to curse, never to drive above the speed limit, never even to kiss the boy I dated for over a year. Still, I felt unworthy and guilt-ridden, and I confessed unkind thoughts to others. Despite my desire to draw others in to my worldview, I think I scared them away by my extremism.

After fifteen years of working for YL, our area director left to get a job that made real money, and there was difficulty finding a replacement. A 23-year-old intern, John Baldino, was given the position. John encouraged fanaticism and total commitment to Young Life. He also, it later came out, was molesting teenaged boys in our group.

A friend attended one of the churches that competed with YL to attract kids to its evangelistic programs. His parents were on the YL committee. A boy who was a member of their church told church leaders that John had molested him. I am sorry to say that police were never involved and the church and YL handled this matter privately. The church withdrew its support of YL and my boyfriend's parents quit as committee members. Thanks a lot for leaving us alone with this jerk!

The remaining committee members told John that he must never be alone in private with kids. He disobeyed them, and I saw him wrestle inappropriately with boys and give girls messages while straddling them (perhaps in an effort to prove to us that he was not gay?). I told parents of friends on the committee about this, and they quoted a Bible verse about how no one can have darkness in him and walk in light, but they did agree that John's days at my school were done and had him assign somebody else as our leader. Later I found out that right before his wedding (yes, that's right, he's married with children now), he confided in a high school senior who was the closest thing that he had to a friend that he struggled with homosexual urges. Just the fact that he would confide in a high school student is so, so wrong.

Then, 7 years later charges were brought that he had molest 7 males over the past 8 years. After the charges came out, 3 more males came forward. Who knows how many more are out there. You can see his picture on the New Jersey Sex Offender registry []. In the news articles after his conviction (received only probation), John was quoted as apologizing for "anything that went on." He couldn't even phrase his apology in the first person.

I don't blame YL for John turning out to be a molester. I do blame YL for having very little accountability. After high school, I moved a few states away and became a leader my freshman year. The 40-something area director and I ran YL at this one school, while other leaders led at a few other schools in the county. I'd say the area director put in about 5 hours a week running our club and campaigners, whereas I put in 10 to 15 and was an unpaid, full time college student. But you should have heard the moving, amazing stories of teenagers lives whom he had claimed to help when we would have a fund-raiser. I was always like, "Who is that kid supposed to be? Must be someone from 10 years ago." He wasn't doing anything criminal, but he had no accountability, and did very little work and purposely misled donors into thinking he was doing a whole lot more than he was.

I don't have enough bad things to say about Young Life. From its obvious preference for all white, all protestant affluent schools (excepting Urban Young Life, but just the fact that it has a different name and different week at camp belies the segregation therein) to its focus on the second tier of popular kids in a school to its manipulation of emotions over the week of camp, Young Life has flown under the radar for too long.

Parents, just because the leaders seem nice and encourage your kids not to drink or do drugs doesn't mean that YL is benign. The leaders may be telling your kids that they need to cast out demons or confiding in them as though they are friends. No one really knows what is going on there except for the kids themselves, and they don't have the judgment to know when somebody who is the ultimate recruiter -- somebody with the "wisdom" of an adult but who acts "cool" -- their leader, does something inapproriate. And we have to ask ourselves, what kind of an adult wants to spend 10 to 20 hours a week trying to pick kids up in the library or getting pied in the face to the hoots and cheers of a bunch of teenagers? It may be someone with good intentions, or it may be someone who is getting some sort of validation or inappropriate excitement from interacting with your children.

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Young Life?
Posted by: mscougar ()
Date: June 20, 2006 04:15AM

I have also had an experience that really left me confused and hurt by some of the ideas promoted by Young Life. I am still trying to understand how I feel about this organization that I loved for a while. It has been difficult to transition away from this organization and find a new community. Sometimes I feel like the feelings that I had in Young Life were addictive and I crave the security and joyful high of knowing that what I was doing was the "right" thing. I am still in the process of recovering and understanding my involvement in this organization. Has anyone read any good books about leaving this type of organization and rediscovering their faith in a more balanced and healthy way? I would be interested in reading this to understand and relate to other people with this experience.

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Young Life?
Posted by: profnachos ()
Date: June 20, 2006 05:05AM


Wow, what a write up, and this is your inaugural post!. I must confess to not knowing much about it, although I think I have heard of it, and met people who were "saved" through YL.

Is this organization widely accepted in the mainstream Evangelical community? Seeing the demographic that it seeks, it sounds mainstream.

Thank you for the post.

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Young Life?
Posted by: profnachos ()
Date: June 20, 2006 05:07AM

I am still in the process of recovering and understanding my involvement in this organization. Has anyone read any good books about leaving this type of organization and rediscovering their faith in a more balanced and healthy way? I would be interested in reading this to understand and relate to other people with this experience.

Ditto for me, although I have never been affiliated with YL.

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Young Life?
Posted by: mscougar ()
Date: June 20, 2006 11:58AM

I also wanted to say thank you for your post. It has been very difficult to find people willing to share an experience like this with Young Life. There are some great people involved in the organization, but ultimately I think that there are some very manipulative techniques used in Young Life and I agree with you that there is too much access to young people without enough supervision. The young lifer kids are encouraged to rely more on the young life leaders than they are their own parents for faith direction. In fact, if the family isn't involved in young life, it is encouraged to separate from what the family believes.

I came from a mainstream protestant church and by the end of my senior year in high school I was convinced that my church and my parents were not real Christians. I was convinced that (to quote one of my leaders), "only 1/3 of all Christians are really actually Christians." This seems absurd to me now, but at the time, I truly believed this.

It has been difficult for me to separate what is good about Young Life from what is manipulative. I am still a Christian, but I am much more open to the mysteriousness of God and the openess of God. I don't believe that one religion or denomination has the only access point to the beauty and bounty of God. I have started to untangle the good (like God's love is bigger than we can even imagin) from the bad (like only 1/3 of Christians really are Christians), but what is more difficult to untangle is the relationships with the people.

Some of the people from Young Life are still in my life, and I still care about them, but on the other hand I am angry with them. I am confused because I think they really cared about me, but I feel betrayed by them. Have you found a new community of people in your life? What is your relationship with Young Lifers like now? Have you managed to maintain friendships with any of your Young Life friends independent of worshipping or being in Young Life together?

Thank you again for your honest critique of Young Life in high schools. I think parents reallly should be aware that Young Life can deeply influence high school kids in a negative way. As a high school student I thought it had saved me from the confusion and pain of just growing up really, but I think what kids really need is their parents to be involved and really know what is going on in their kids' lives.

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Young Life?
Posted by: phoenixgirl ()
Date: July 07, 2006 07:08AM

Wow, thank you for all of the responses. I will try to answer your questions as best as I can.

ProfNachos, I do think that YL is widely accepted in the evangelical community. The church I attended in college listed YL leaders as missionaries (of sorts) whom they supported. However, the liberal PC(USA) church in which I was raised was wary of YL. In high school I thought my family's church was "soft" and made up of false Christians just like MsCougar.

MsCougar, you are absolutely right that YL provided a high that was addictive. My parents were cleaning out their basement and getting rid of old stuff, and I received a video of my time at summer staff in the mail today. Watching it made me remember how fun it was to be goofy, young, and "on fire for the Lord" together with the others.

"Has anyone read any good books about leaving this type of organization and rediscovering their faith in a more balanced and healthy way?"
A book that really helped me was Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winnell. It's out of print but you can order a used copy from It helps you make sense of a manipulative experience and figure out what needs that type of community filled for you. I also read some books by John Shelby Spong (retired Episcopal Bishop), who doesn't take the Bible literally and suggests a practical, inclusive faith. I also read The Spiral Staircase about Karen Armstrong's (probably the biggest writer on major religions today) renunciation of her vows to be a nun after 7 years.
Also, my favorite website is ( It's written by two guys whose former faith was just the sort you'd find in YL, although I don't think they actually had experience with it.

"Have you found a new community of people in your life?"
I haven't found a new religious community, but that's been by my own choice. According to the Myers-Briggs test, I am an INTJ, which is the most independent personality type and the least likely to believe in a higher power. I mention this just to explain that I don't think I'm really programmed to need something outside of myself, although I wouldn't say that I know what is out there, and I suspect that anything of the sort has to be good. So anyway, with the help of a very extraverted husband, we have developed a community of friends but have not made more than a half-hearted effort to go to church. And as you mentioned, without YL there is less distance from your family (no more fretting about how their misguided ways are damning them to hell). My sister, who introduced me to YL, is a minister in the PC(USA), so she has gone the route of finding a new (but obviously different) faith community. To me, you can just tell when you find a church that isn't like YL -- there is no cult of the personality leader, no sense that you are "right" just for being there -- just nice people of all ages who want be there for each other and the community.

"What is your relationship with Young Lifers like now? Have you managed to maintain friendships with any of your Young Life friends independent of worshipping or being in Young Life together?"
I don't have much of a relationship with any of them except those who have similarly become disillusioned with YL. In my town growing up, protestants were in the minority vs. Jews, Hindus, and Catholics (perhaps one of the reasons I gravitated towards YL -- looking for where I belonged), and I have found my non-YL friends accepted me (they accepted me when I was in my crazy YL phase, so why not now?), but I have found that the love of my YL friends seemed to be conditional on my toeing the line. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my deconversion (as I call it) was uncomfortable for them because it made them wonder if it could happen to them. To be fair, I'd say I lost half of the friendships due to my changing and them not knowing how to react, and the other half due to nearly a decade elapsing since I left high school. I did find that some of my YL friends were more open-minded and saw me as pretty much the same old person. For the other half, it was like I went from being Mother Theresa to being Jack the Ripper. :)

It makes me sad when I think of the friends I lost, but I guess a true friendship would have passed that test. It did with my husband. We met in college when we were both leaders, and I slowly went from being completely fixated on my faith as taught to me by YL to being an irreligious agnostic. He knew deep down that I was much healthier this way, and his faith had never been as fanatical as mine, so somehow we made the transition (this was before we married).

MsCougar, I wish you the best of luck as you try to make sense of it all. You wrote, "Some of the people from Young Life are still in my life, and I still care about them, but on the other hand I am angry with them. I am confused because I think they really cared about me, but I feel betrayed by them." I can totally relate to this. You feel like you were duped or taken advantage of. I want to shake the leader who told me that the first stirrings of puberty were attacks of the devil. On the other hand, we know firsthand how these people came to think and believe that way . . . we were on the same road for a while.

I think it's good to be angry. You need to mourn the years that could have been spent differently. At the same time, the anger will help you change direction. You need something to light a fire under your behind because it's no easy task to leave an insular community like that. It takes a while to make new friends or adjust your relationships with the old, and it can be very lonely. And yet, despite the loneliness, it is joyful and invigorating.

Apparently we don't have enough posts here to send Private Messages, but I have the same name (Phoenixgirl) at the Walk Away from Fundamentalism ( forum. I should warn you that sometimes people are crass, and sometimes there is an anti-religion bent (although certainly people can walk away from fundamentalism and still have faith, and all are welcome), but all in all it was a crucial place of support for me during the early days of my process.

I'm so glad that you found my post helpful. I was hoping that I could provide some much needed "inside info" on YL on the web because there just isn't that much out there.

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Young Life?
Posted by: nccg_concern ()
Date: July 08, 2006 07:14AM

Good job on that post of yours! I was thinking what a good post it was as I was reading it =p

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Young Life?
Posted by: shockme2 ()
Date: May 24, 2007 01:04PM

I was looking through the comments on how people think YL can be a cult and i cant understand where your coming from. Im in campaigners and have been involved in YL for five years. I can honestly say i would'nt be alive today if it wasnt for YL

I can see why people may think campigners as kinda creepy b/c we talk about trying to get our friends involved with coming to YL and as Phoneix girl pointed out [i:ff3dbd8988]6. Campaigners feel pressure to bring "unsaved" people each week, especially people who have never before attended YL. [/i:ff3dbd8988] that is very much true alothough i do not look at my friends who i bring to YL as unsaved i just look at them as awsome people that i want to get to know better. I love bringing my friends to younglife club to hang, have fun, and bond.

I've talked to my other campiner friend about what they think as in trying to convert the "unsaved" and she told me she does'nt think its her job. Its not anyones job to convert someone to christianty is that persons choice and if you beleive it Gods choice.

What I'm trying to point out is that what i see myself doing is just trying to make better realtionships with my friends by using YL.

I think YL is an awsome way to be introduced to christ. I dont know about the YL you people were invovled with but the YL involved with introduces the option of becoming a christian in a non threatning manner. I took some of my friends to a YL camp last summer and i asked them if they felt pressured or angry about the YL talks and they said no in fact those same friends told me they thought the talks were going to long boring talks about belvive in christ or go to Hell type of talk but instead they told me they like the talk b/c it was short and OPTIONAL. Before the talks they were always like your welcome to what you beleive and whatever you can try out this thing of beliving or not. It was a nice and clean talk.

Young life is just awsome. Its good in so many more ways than bad. Younglife has "led" me to a good path in life. I before younglife constantly attacked by the church i used to go to with how i should'nt do this or that. Or how i should'nt hang out with non christians. I also got this at home. When i was twelve to fourteen i thought God could'nt exist but younglife helped me with that now i beleive in God as a LOVING god not a EVIL controlling God. You can think that Younglife manipulated me into bleiving but i made this choice on my own with a little help of YL and my friends.

As for the leaders I have only met one bad leader who was just "bible throwing lunatic" who when in cabin time would correct us on everything we said. They got fired of course. All the other leaders are great and really chill.

If someone replies to this i would be glad to reply back

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Young Life?
Posted by: rrmoderator ()
Date: May 31, 2007 08:16PM

To whom it may concern:

"Young Life" is a Protestant fundamentalist ministry that seeks to immerse minor children in its beliefs.

Historically, the organization has done this without parental notification or consent, i.e. through written forms kept on file at its offices.

It is unclear whether this has changed in recent years.

That is, if Young Life now requires that every minor child it works with bring home written notification stating its purpose and subsequently that a consent form from his or her parent(s) or legal guardian must be signed.

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