Re: Young Life?
Date: October 23, 2021 02:19AM
Wanted to revive this discussion, if you'll indulge my tale.
My experience in Young Life left me so confused it took me years to unpack, and even when the #DoBetterYoungLife movement started, it took nearly a year for me to find out about it. I had removed myself from the Young Life or evangelical sphere that thoroughly.
Once upon a time though, I was deeply involved. I went to Club as a teenager in the early aughts. I had “given myself to the Lord” maybe a year or so earlier, and was in my early days attending a Foursquare church’s youth group when their group disbanded and was taken over, essentially, by Young Life. So it wasn’t like Young Life brought me to Christ, but it cemented the relationship. I was part of a core group of youth that sort of seed-sprouted YL in my city, and then region. I became so dedicated after a week at camp, that I re-dedicated my life to Christ, and expressed dismay to one of my leaders that I wasn’t sure I would be able to sustain the relationship. That there were a lot of situational circumstances at home that I felt would preclude my being a Christian, that I could “backslide” and it would all be for nothing.
My leader suggested that I become a WyldLife leader, in addition to Campaigners. So when I got home, I applied and was accepted and trained. I spent roughly three or four years as a leader working with middle schoolers, and helped start a Club in a new region that was advertised to me essentially as being ‘inner city.’ I am white and led cabin time for a handful of little girls of color. I did not understand the implication of this at the time. I did all this and YL Club, and various work crew and camp trips, special events; I even went to the church that other leaders were going to (they rotated churches a strange amount, too).
At one point, while on a work crew trip to one of Young Life’s camps on the West Coast, I was part of a group conversation that revealed some people had made claims of YL being a cult. I remember being shocked by this at the time.
I spent a month after I graduated high school working at a different YL camp, cleaning toilets. I can attest that every aspect of the camp experience is orchestrated. They are winning souls for the Lord, that’s the whole point. At one point early in the week, you are disoriented by your leaders dragging you out of your cabin late at night for a ridiculous obstacle course. It’s meant to be a bonding experience, but it’s aim is to wear you down, so that later in the week when you hear “the Talk,” you’re more open to the message. The 10 minutes of silence that follows is emotionally manipulative and underlined by some staffer ending it singing a moving Christian song with acoustic guitar. Campers who have been to camp multiple times are pulled aside early in the week and told to not tell anybody else on the trip what happens during the week. My sister attended one of these camp trips, during which she informed me that during a cabin time she had talked about her feelings regarding some situational problems I was having with mental illness at the time. That leader told my sister that I was going to hell, because of my mental illness.
These leaders are barely trained, if at all, and questionably experienced to work with kids. I knew one leader who was a former drug addict turned schizophrenic with his mental health well controlled. I knew of staffers/leaders with lapsed safety certifications. Camp incidents are always kept quiet. Students are pressured to bring other kids to Club, or to Camp. The Area Director of my region was a charismatic, type A personality who did kind of run things in a vaguely authoritarian way. He was still worshipped by kids/leaders. For years I thought of the situation as “maybe the people in my area were just kind of snobbish/cliqueish”. Now I know better. There was a cult-like structure to it all. Love bombing, which I was very susceptible to at the time. Leaders are taught strategies to try to reel kids in. The extent of how far they wanted you to go to bring in students made me uncomfortable when I was a leader, and I suspect I didn’t perform in that as intensely as they wanted. I was eventually “disfellowshipped” of a sorts, and ‘fired’ as a volunteer leader over the phone, for ‘not being dedicated enough.’ They still manipulated me enough to get me to give my testimony at Club before I was sent on my way. Because I ‘had a good testimony.’
For years after I thought to myself, what they didn’t realize by doing that - it basically took me out of Christianity entirely, and basically reversed everything the organization had tried to do in the first place. They wanted to win my soul for the Lord? Not anymore.
Even after I’d left, at one point I’d worked past my anger and confusion enough to really miss the Young Life experience, and I briefly flirted with reintegrating myself with the organization. I stayed away.
Young Life does need to do better. However, they don’t seem inclined to do so. In fact, as I hear, they are doubling down on their policies, including the anti-LGBT stance, all of which seems so out of place in this current age - I can hardly see how this current generation of teens is going to continue to be accepting of this group on proselytizing on their campuses. But there will always be vulnerable teens, just as there are vulnerable adults susceptible to cults. I was a vulnerable teen, and I was pulled in. There will always be vulnerable teens, even in a Gen Z world (and especially now with the sharp increase in mental illness statistics), and we as adults need to be aware of the signs. We need to be able to recognize when teens are displaying overzealous, amped-up behavior. I hope we don’t fail them.