One of the most highly trafficked posts in the history of this blog is, “Something Is Wrong at Young Life,” which I wrote shortly after the firing of Jeff McSwain from Young Life staff. At the time, I wasn’t the only voice in the mix, either. Christian Smith (whose book I’m working through this week) and others spoke up, and both Christian Century and Christianity Today covered the mess (the differences in the headlines of those two articles is telling: CC: “Young Life draws fire over new ministry guidelines;” CT: “Entire area Young Life staff out after evangelism mandate.”)
Whether or not McSwain and his staff were evangelizing kids was never in question; the question was the content of their message. McSwain follows post-Barthian theologian, J.B. Torrance, in believing that the starting point of God’s relationship with the world is reconciliation, not hell. Thus, McSwain did not follow the Young Life plan of camp talks which starts by telling kids that they are separate from God and leads toward embracing the reconciliation of Jesus. Instead, he taught that Jesus’ reconciliation is the starting point, and he encouraged kids not to reject that gift of grace.
In November of 2007, I was dismissed by Young Life for what was termed “theological differences.” Since 2001, I had been preaching the gospel with an emphasis on theological belonging, the idea that humanity belongs to Jesus Christ by virtue of creation and redemption. Rather than splitting Christ as Creator from Christ as Redeemer, I was keen to preserve the gospel symmetry proclaimed by Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the Christ who created and reconciled all things (Col. 1:16, 20). This is the gospel “that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23). This is the gospel that declares that every person is included not only in the first Adam but also in the second (Rom. 5:18).
My point was that preaching this kind of a Christ-centered message actually brings congruence between our incarnational work and our proclamation message. In other words, we habitually embrace kids at their worst because that is the way God is! We do not show love and grace to kids so that we can eventually introduce them to a different “god” (i.e., a god who is angry and withdrawn). This was the thesis of my paper “Jesus is the Gospel,” which I submitted to the Young Life Senior Leadership with their permission in August of 2007. But giving this type of theological belonging to kids was farther than Young Life leadership was willing to go.