For about a month now, I’ve been getting emails from lots of the bigwigs in American youth ministry. We’re all concerned about a new statement of “non-negotiables” that the unnamed power elite at Young Life have released and are forcing all staff to sign. The Christian Century has picked up the story HERE, and Christianity Today has an even better article HERE. (What they don’t report is that the most current statement by YL is toned down from the earlier version that I read.)
It seems that YL President Denny Rydberg and others in the organization are worried about the influence of neo-orthodox theology, and they are thus battening down the hatches on a certain type of conservative, Reformed orthodoxy. For instance, staffers are told in the statement that they must not introduce the concept of Jesus and his grace until the students have been sufficiently convinced of their own depravity and been allowed to
wallow stew in that depravity (preferably overnight).
The staff of YL in Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina objected. They argued that some students accept Jesus’ love and then subsequently come to an understanding of their own sin. The staff leader (and a YL veteran), Jeff McSwain, wrote a wonderful (but as of now, private) paper entitled, “Jesus Is the Gospel.” They even argued that this logical, linear explication of the gospel is completely inappropriate for the developmentally disabled kids in their Capernaum ministry. As a result, the entire YL staff for that area was fired. (Interesting note at the end of the CT article: YL says they will not require the statement to be signed by staff, so why was the Durham/Chapel Hill staff fired?!?)
It’s tragic that after 50+ years of solid, relational ministry, the YL elite feel the need to secure their theological borders against a perfectly thoughtful and orthodox theology (Barth/Torrance). (This kind of misunderstanding of the relational nature of the gospel is exactly what Andy Root combats in his excellent book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation.) But, this development is also a harbinger of the coming schism in evangelicalism…Rick Lawrence weighs in HERE; his comment section, I think, shows just how shortsighted and shallow is the theological understanding by many around the area of soteriology. Mark van Steenwyk in the fray HERE.
YL has embraced the very “gospel of sin management” that Christian leaders like Dallas Willard and Brian McLaren have criticized. It is unhistorical, and, arguably, unorthodox. Even Augustine, Calvin’s predecessor in all things Reformed, came to faith and then was convinced of and convicted of his sin. Remember, Augustine wrote his Confessions a couple decades after his conversion, so all of his talk of his own sinfulness was realized by him after he came to faith in Christ.
People come to faith in Christ in myriad ways. For the YL elite to bind their staff to one, formulaic articulation of the gospel shows a lack of respect for their staff’s ingenuity and, ultimately, a lack of faith in God’s Spirit (who is, of course, the real author of salvation).
[Update: Ben Dubow has begun a multi-part series HERE.]