I haven't yet read Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family, but I've been reading every interview with him that I can find.
You may be familiar with Sharlet from his blog, The Revealer, and from an earlier project he's long been associated with, Killing the Buddha. Now that his book is finally out in paperback, I'll be reading it soon. (Hardcover? What am I — made of money?) In the meantime, there are those interviews.
In this one, with Chuck Warnock of Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, Sharlet mentions the Family's family-connection with Young Life, an organization with finances that "were for a long time tangled up with the Family's."
Aha, yes, that makes sense. To explain why, I should probably rehash my old Why Young Life Is Evil rant, but it's been almost 20 years since the last time I recited that. So instead I'll just share the story of the last time I delivered the WYLIE speech.
I forget why I had been up all night that Friday — staying up all night wasn't that unusual for me in college — but I remember that I was very, very tired and hypercaffeinated when I arrived in the dining hall for breakfast Saturday morning.
Breakfast on a Saturday morning was unusual for me in college, but I saw a familiar face and went over to sit down with my old roommate Lou. "What are you doing up for breakfast?" he asked me. And I told him, whatever the reason was, then asked him the same question.
He was heading off to some big seminar with Young Life. Lou was a Youth Min major — a kind of pre-seminary major for people who wanted to specialize in youth ministry. The professors in that program were really into Young Life, a popular sort of para-church franchise that offered whole programs and curriculums and training seminars for youth pastors who wanted to learn Youth Ministry the Young Life way.
Lou was apparently required to go to this seminar for some Youth Min class, but I was disappointed that he hadn't figured out some way to ditch or weasel out of it, because I considered Young Life to be evil.
Being, as I said, very tired and caffeinated, I said this out loud. "Young Life? They're evil. You should ditch."
Lou said something jokey and dismissive along the lines of, "Gee, why don't you say what you really feel?" but I didn't pick up on the signals he was giving, so I took that invitation literally and launched into the extended dance mix of my Why Young Life Is Evil rant.
It was only when I was reaching the end of said rant that I began to be dimly aware that there were a bunch of other people sitting around us at the long tables of the dining hall. People in Polo shirts with popped collars. Young Lifers. And their professors.
So. I immediately tried to remember what all I'd just said. It'd had a bit more caffeinated flourish than the usual rendition, but it was still just the standard Young Life Is Evil rant I was giving all the time back then. Reviewing the highlights of that in my head, I didn't see anything that required an apology. It was a bit awkward and uncomfortable to have said all of that surrounded by Young Lifers, but there was nothing that needed to be taken back, amended or corrected.
Because, after all, Young Life is evil.
Their Big Idea for youth ministry is scarcely hinted at in anything on the group's Web site, so I can't quote this in their own words, but it goes something like this: If you want your youth group and your youth ministry events to be popular, you've got to get the popular kids to come. So the popular kids should be your priority — the jocks, the cheerleaders, the attractive kids, the Heathers.
So basically, Young Lifers accept and adopt the stratified hierarchy and caste system of high school. A Young Life meeting — by design — looked like a casting call for the villains of every decent high school movie ever made, the richies or preppies or whatever you wanted to call them.
This seemed to me an inversion of the gospel, and a perversion of it — a betrayal of everything Jesus taught and demonstrated. The WYLIE rant started with a sarcastic preamble about how Jesus must have selected fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes for his closest followers because those people were so popular. The lepers, Samaritans, perpetually unclean hemorrhagic women, slaves and the rain dogs of every kind — those were the cool kids, right? The winners? The in-crowd?
Then from there I'd kind of work my way up to Romans 12 — the whole, "Be not conformed to the pattern of this world" bit — or to Acts 17 and the bit about those early Christians who "turned the world upside-down." That's not what Young Life is about, I'd say, they don't want the world to be turned upside-down, they like it fine just the way it is, with the people on top staying on top and all those other people on the bottom staying on the bottom.
Evil. E. Ville.
And, as it turns out, probably more evil than I realized.
Because while I stood by everything I had to say in the WYLIE rant, it was still, in my mind, a critique that I would have expected Young Lifers to deny or defend against. I believed that I was stating the case for the prosecution. But it turns out this was also nearly identical to the case outlined by the defense.
Sharlet recounts how the founder of the Family — and thus, also, ultimately of Young Life — Abraham Vereide, was driven by what he said was a vision from God in which God told him, "Christianity has gotten it wrong for 2,000 years — all this talk about the poor, the suffering, the down and out. I want you to focus on the up and out. I want you to be a missionary to and for the powerful."
Evil? Yes it is.
Now imagine what happens when you take this approach and apply it to the local high school. Imagine what happens when you decide to be a minister to the youth there, a minister "to and for the powerful."
Consider what this does to the kids themselves — not just to the kids who don't "merit" your attention because they're unpopular losers, but to the powerful and popular kids who do receive that attention. They've received that attention because of their status, not because of who they actually are. That attention is thus conditional, and if they are being told that this attention is an expression or extension of God's love for them, then they are also being taught that God's love for them, likewise, is conditional.
God loves winners, therefore God loves you, they are taught. So, what happens if and when you lose?
Yeah, that's evil.