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 [www.state.nj.us
]. 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.