Something Is Wrong at Young Life

Something Is Wrong at Young Life January 8, 2008

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.]

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  • A clarification regarding the misquote on “wallowing” in sin—taken from the text of the document:

    “We should never presume that it is our
    job to make kids feel convicted or allow kids to “wallow” in their sin as if wallowing will bring
    more conviction. That is manipulation. God, through the Holy Spirit, can and will convict in His
    timing, allowing kids to respond to His love and justice simultaneously.”

    I am not nor have I ever been affiliated with Young Life.

  • Chris Smith

    Right on. Right on. You got it, Tony. I can’t tell you how frustrated, angry, and disheartened I am by this YL blunder. Word too is that the Rydberg has the Board in the palm of his hand: a dangerous way to run a national organization, if so. Without a change in leadership and direction, I can no longer support YL. My dollars and moral support are now going to Reality Ministries: PO Box 2261, Chapel Hill, NC 27515; (under construction).

  • Ivy

    Tony –
    I read the Christian Century article this morning and thought exactly what you said — only you said it much better then I thought it. I’ve been reading the Andrew Root book and am quite impressed with it.


  • Tony… good post.

    I was on YL staff for 5 years before becoming a pastor and church planter. I’m posting a series of analysis and critique of YL’s paper over on my blog.

    I think your analysis is right on. And a sad statement for an organization like YL.

  • BTW, as an ironic side note… one of the books I was assigned to read when I was a YL intern (in their training program) ten years ago was Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy”. I remember having a great conversation in the group about the problem of “sin management” and the implications on our proclamation.

    It seems that YL has changed in ten years… maybe we all would have been fired for reading the book now.


  • Dan

    The non-linear development of a Christian’s faith is normalized in my own experience. In my own conversion experience I accepted the love and grace of God expressed in Jesus first. Only then, in the following years, did I come to fully understand my own sin. It was in light of Christ’s expression of love that I gradually came to an understanding of my own need for grace…a process which still continues today.

  • Dan

    On another note, I do think they’re explanation is a bit helpful for their defense. They do try to state their intention is to present both sin and grace hand in hand and not to have people manipulated into “wallowing” in their own sin. But it still clearly communicates that their understanding is that sin must be accepted first, then Christ can be accepted, a line which may be true for a certain few, but is certainly not true for everyone.

  • I remember looking at the recognition of depravity and then comign to salvation tactic as that…a tactic. It is the Campus Crusade simple steps to salvation method. Denigrate your personhood and then build you up with a particularistic notion of what redemption means.

    What I continue to find dis-heartening about this approach is its individualistic approach. Christ dies for “make” as opposed to Christ died for “everyone” and I am part of that world. With the trend towards a more global consciousness among young evangelicals and youth in general, I wonder if this strategy will not just alienate evangelicalism further by creating a decidedly sectarian understanding of the division between the saved and the lost.

    I remember my wife and I attending a function at an Assemblies of God years ago. We had both been active in the PCUSA, missions, and ministry of the church for a long time at that point in our young college experiences. The music portion got everyone’s blood pumped up into a frenzy. Then it slowed down to a predictably less joyous tone focusing on how unworthy we all are. Then the sermon which focused almost entirely on how broken the world followed by an altar call.

    It always strikes me as amazing at how much this focuses on human depravity and spends so much less time on the radical nature of God’s love which is far more prevalent in the Gospels and elsewhere. It’s like everyone read Romans 7 and the beginning of 8 and stopped reading anything else.

  • carla jo

    This is such a sad example of what happens when people/organizations fear a loss of control. On the surface, the motivation sounds noble–consistency and clarity across the ministry. But as those of us who spent most of ’07 reading Acts know, that’s not how the gospel takes hold. Instead, it touches people in the context of who and where they are. A universal approach to evangelism and missions is antithetical to everything Paul teaches through his words and his ministry. I have tremendous respect for Jeff and co’s willingness to stand up under this and find other ways to keep loving and serving teenagers.

  • But it still clearly communicates that their understanding is that sin must be accepted first, then Christ can be accepted

    I don’t know, Dan. This *may* be reading a bit more into the statement than is there. They do require that “the reality and consequences of sin” be “explained before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ” in YL presentations. But that needn’t be b/c they think that sin must be accepted before Christ can be accepted.

    Tony certainly seems to me right that “People come to faith in Christ in myriad ways.” It’s just not the case that everybody experiences, or even accepts, Christ first as a savior at all. But even those for whom Christ comes first as a savior, it’s not always precisely *sin* that they first experience him as saving them from. For many (to take just one alternative), it’s just a deep sense that something is horribly wrong, and Jesus first arrives in their lives as an answer to (savior from) that vague, but for all that, dreadful, problem. And, especially in light of what I’ve just said, I agree that it’s a bad mistake to tie Young Lifers’ hands (not to mention the Spirit!) on these matters of presentation.

    But even though I strongly disagree with this document, I seek to be fair to it. For all it says, the producers of this document may well recognize that some will accept Christ before realizing their sinful condition. They just think that the reality of sin should be presented first. They think they know what the problem is, and *may* just think it makes good sense to present the diagnosis of the problem first, for it makes it easier to clearly explain how Christ’s sacrifice solves that problem. This may help some who hear the presentation, even if others will accept Christ before realizing the exact nature of the problem Christ’s sacrifice solves. Or so their thinking may go, for all I can see.

  • wow. that’s surprising. especially coming from YL. but i agree with you. a storm is coming. the more and more these evangelicals get backed into a corner (what they feel like anyway) they are only going to stay quiet so long. then they’re going to snap and start firing and going off. i just hope nobody gets burned at the stake this time.

    or water boarded.

  • This kind of stuff YL is doing makes my left eye twitch – a sign that my PTSD is about ready to kick it up a notch.

    One person sees Christ once the fog lifts, but another walks with Christ until the fog lifts. Another walks with Christ and that damn fog won’t burn off. Another person lives in and near fog always, joining others in the fog living foggy lives while BEING a safe place (CHRIST) for each other, even though they don’t know where they are.

    Is there just the one story of sin and God? Oh please, let the answer be NO.

  • I guess different people can read different things into the document and that stuff is all fine and good to discuss but the thing that bothers me is the fact that YL felt that they had to come out with such a document to begin with.

    I get the sense that YL has really lost sight of its goal of connecting kids to local churches and is now much more concerned with building YL. This document just shows me that YL is looking for ways to build its “brand” through consistency in a certain vein of theological thought.

    (Full disclosure, I am a former YL staffer, now a youth pastor in a local church.)

  • Thank you Tony.

    We saw the writing on the wall two years ago in youth ministry and knew that it was going to get ugly soon.

    Maybe this kind of public dust up will help others to walk through this with much less fear.

    I think most of this comes down to funding. Those in leadership know that the deep pockets reside in the conservative, reformed, vocal, older majority – not in the newer, emerging voices and they are afraid if they don’t tow some artificial orthodox line giving will go down.

    Radio orthodoxy has sewn the seeds of fear deeply into the evangelical church and until clearer heads prevail this will only escalate.

  • Thanks Tony,
    At least they are finally saying what they have been doing all these years, emotionally and spiritually abusing young people into relationship with Christ born of fear and depression rather than joy and freedom.

    Sad for YL and sad for those trying to do the good work God has called them to under the hand of a man doing his best to defend an institution rather than the Word.


  • Tony Arens

    I believe that a statement of non-negotiables is an important step, however the process of deriving them needs to be inclusive and iterative. People being fired because they disagree? That’s harsh.

    Are there non-negotiables for emergent? This is a sincere question. Do we not need a foundation?

  • anniebullock

    I wonder….it’s occurred to me that adopting this stance of endless negotiation and renegotiation is really the privilege of those who’ve been given a solid foundation already. I’ve often thought that about these conversation about a new orthodoxy: radical reimagination is the province of folk who’ve inherited something solid and sound. One of the reasons traditional orthodoxy appeals to me is because it is solid and sound and growing, there was nothing for me to rely on…not in my family, not in a spiritual upbringing that was a hodgepodge of this and that and my mom’s wandering from here to here.

    To draw an analogy, my parents divorces didn’t affect them the way they did me. both of them come from intact families. They hunger for something new, for a reimagination of their own lives and family systems. My stance is a reaction to that. I’m after stability and consistency, precisely because I don’t come from the kind of foundation they inherited.

    That’s pure analogy, so don’t take it too literally.

    The point is, I wonder how much sense it makes to resist building a solid foundation of teaching in favor of bringing a whole new generation into a morass or more charitably a system of gestures that only make sense if you’re already intimately familiar with the language.

    I don’t know that I’ve seen or heard anyone who is part of emergent take account of that. I hear talk of moving beyond what we were given. What about those for whom there are no givens? Wouldn’t it make some kind of sense to start building with the cornerstone?

  • Tony,

    To be honest Augustine may have wrote his “Confessions” after his conversion, but he was telling the story of how he was converted. Augustine suffered under his lust prior to his conversion to Christianity. He may not have known the full weight of God’s view of his sin, but he knew the pain and evil of sin as much as he could understand. Sin has to be understood if anyone is to see there need of Christ. Christ is meaningless to someone who is not lost in their sins. Jesus thought the same thing when He told the Pharisees that it wasn’t the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. Unless a person understands they are terminally ill, they will never seek and desire the only “Doctor” that can cure their soul. You always first diagnose the disease before you get the medicine…

    P.S. What do we think the Spirit’s job is? He is the one who opens our eyes to sin, and reveals to us our need of the Savior to the glory of the Father.

    Your Servant in Christ,
    Mike Gore

  • See, I don’t think the language of “non-negotiables” in terms of the process that has been outlined is all that helpful. This takes it from effective guidelines to a set of absolute principles. Beyond the theological issues this seems to be administratively harsh. I really think that thre is something needed not unlike academic freedom in an evangelical institution where there are specific doctrinal stances to which you need to adhere in order to maintain your contract, but there is freedom to act accodring to your training and expertise and teaching philosophy within those boundaries. Non-negotiables is therefore taking a determinitive line rather than a line that conditions behaviors within the organization.

    If you have a highly trained and qualified staff, then the idea of non-negotiables is harmful to the organization. Now if your staff is not well-trained and has very low professional experience, then a non-negotiable is needed, but only at certain levels.

    So this is an organizational problem and could be a staff training problem as much as it is a theological issue since the theology is informing and directing the policy.

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  • Jon S.

    Perhaps i’m not understanding why Young Life is in the wrong. I’m a youth pastor for 10yrs and have a gifting/passion in evangelism, i engage in relational evangelism and have relationships with all of our neighbors. The core values that Young Life have outlined don’t seem to be outragous. Paul in Romans 7 states that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. For apart from law, sin is dead. Paul would not have known what sin is unless he compared himself to God’s holy standard. I understand that some believe that most/if not all teens understand that they are sinners however, i’m not sure, actually i’m convinced that most don’t understand how horrible their sin is thus they never truly appreciate the cross as much as they should. To minimize sin is a tragedy. Paul says “in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. In other words, the more we understand how God views sin and how much we are wicked, expressed in Romans 3, the more we will appreciate the cross. It seems that sin and the law have no place in presenting the gospel today because we must earn the right to be heard. I share my faith, verbally, on a regular bases and almost everyone is thankful for the conversation. I had a conversation over Christmas with my sisters boyfriend who has his PHD and studies asteroids, we spoke about Christ, the cross, sin and the law and he told me on his own that he appreciated how i spoke with him and thank me. If someone has cancer and they don’t know it, it would be shameful to withhold telling them. I don’t believe that most teens understand that they have “sin” or cancer in this case therefore they have no appreciate or need for the cross.

    I’m surprised at how many people disagree with Young Life on this statement who are in youth ministry. Perhaps i’m missing something,

  • Mike Brown

    YL’s beef with McSwain wasn’t in methodology (YL doesn’t jump up and down and demand that you beat a kid over the head with his sin before presenting Christ as savior), but theology.

    McSwain was communicating something along the lines of the idea that kids are *already* reconciled to God and that they need to realize it and live in light of that fact.

    That view may or may not be acceptable as orthodox, but YL does not accept it.

    To present the issue as a case of YL dictating methodology and demanding that kids be demeaned and broken by negative messages is an unfair characterization, which seems to indicate that the person making that insinuation was probably looking for a reason to blame YL.

    Disclosure: I’m a former YL staff-person and volunteer of 10 years. I’ve got some criticisms of YL (as all do, Rydberg included, I’m sure), but this is not one of them. I think that it was altogether appropriate for YL to decide that this was outside the realm of what they would accept in terms of theological presentation of the gospel.

  • Tony Jones

    Mike, have you read Jeff’s paper? That’s not what he says.

    And it’s not so easy to parse method and message. To do so is yet another false, modern antithesis. They are, instead, part and parcel of one another.

  • You wrote, “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 stew in that depravity (preferably overnight).”

    And I can’t seem to find that… can you tell me what paragraph that’s in?


  • Mike Brown

    raquel –

    you can’t find that because that is patently false and nothing but a caricature. Young Life does like to present the gospel in a somewhat logical sequence, but the person of Jesus and his grace are spoken of from the very start. As a leader, I have had kids place their trust in Jesus after coming to just one or two clubs, where all that has been discussed is Jesus’ care and compassion for people, or kids who have come to camp and have come to trust Jesus based almost entirely on the way that they were loved by their friends, and making the connection that their friends love them because Jesus loves them. Young Life does have a unique presentation of the gospel, but the statement that you quoted is very, very far from reality.

    i have read Jeff’s paper and some other things that he has written. I don’t believe that that concept was in his thesis paper, but in something that he said more in passing.

    It is also worth noting that there have been some other staff people who have left staff for similar reasons (disagreements about the nature of the gospel).

  • Kirk

    Tony, I’m confused how you can call Barth and Torrance’s soteriology “perfectly orthodox”. Neo-orthodoxy may fall within what you find as acceptable, but you would have to redefine the word “orthodox” to fit Barth into it, negating the meaningfulness of “neo-orthodox.”

    But this is about the gospel, and how heartwarming it is to see the leadership of Young Life stand up for it. It’s a theological difference, plain and simple. You can argue that YL is overstating the importance of the difference, but you cannot deny the reality of that difference. I think YL is absolutely correct to identify how significant a difference it is, and despite all of my concerns about YL, this is good news for the Good News of the gospel.

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  • Mike: “Something he said more in passing”? Seriously? You’re going to condemn a guy’s theology because of something he said in passing? Well, then, I’m in *real* trouble. And it seems that you inviting kids into a relationship with Jesus before explicating their sins is outside the non-negotiables of YL.

    Raquel: The suggestion that kids be allowed to be troubled by their sinfulness overnight was explicitly stated in an earlier version of the non-negotiables document, but was redacted from the final, published account (subsequent to public criticism). I have a copy of this earlier version, but it is not public.

    Kirk: Historically speaking, Torrance and Barth (and I) are well within the bounds of orthodoxy. To claim otherwise is to have a very, very narrow understanding of the history of doctrine.

  • Mike Brown

    Tony – I never condemned the guy’s theology. I was hopefully trying to bring a little bit more information to bear on the situation. I have an opinion, but that is just an opinion and has little or no bearing on this discussion.

    I’m not even taking a position on his theology, here. I’m just saying that YL is well-within its rights to dismiss him, as his theology is significantly different than YL’s theology.

    For the record, though, how would condemning someone’s theology for something said in passing (which I didn’t do) be any different from condemning an organization for something that they included in a draft statement and later removed (which you did)? It seems like you’re giving one party the benefit of the doubt, but not the other party.

    And your comment about YL’s non-negotiables statement preventing someone from inviting kids into a relationship w/ Jesus before explicating their sins makes me wonder if perhaps you haven’t yet completely understood YL’s position. Perhaps they are not clear enough in their statement, but that conclusion is not their intent.

    YL was concerned that Jeff’s understanding of kids’ position before God prior to actual repentance. Jeff emphasises the reconciliation of kids to God through Jesus before actual repentance has occurred. YL doesn’t like that understanding. Can YL not make any distinctions at all? Where should they draw the line? Should they allow universalists? Should they allow people who have a purely social-gospel understaning of the work of Christ? What rights do they have as an organization to maintain a particular theological standard?

    In this situation, we have two groups of people who both love Jesus and both love kids and desire to introduce kids to Jesus. Both parties are passionate about the gospel. The two parties, though, disagree about the nature of the gospel, and are both within their rights to maintain their positions. I don’t think that there is ill intent on either side; to project that is to be intellectually dishonest in favor of one’s pre-determined preferences regarding the proper understanding of the gospel.

  • Tony,

    I guess that I just don’t understand the frustration that you are feeling in regards to what happened. The democracy worked as it should have: the public didn’t agree, the statement was retracted. That’s good, right?

    It feels like you feel you’re in a battle. What would you write in the YL “non-negotiables?”

  • Chris

    Let me start off by saying how sad this whole thing is. It’s just sad.

    The worst part is the discord between everyone on the blogosphere, when Jeff has refused to even discuss it in public.

    Here’s the deal. Young Life has always been concerned about the up front presentation of the gospel. For a ministry that promotes next generation leadership with so many young college-aged (and even high school aged for Wyld Life) leaders, it is important for the sake of integrity for Young Life to express how they want the gospel presented to groups of kids. It just so happens that Jeff’s paper raised some eyebrows and made leadership think that it might be a good idea to exrpess in written form how the gospel should be presented up front in a club or camp setting.

    I will say I’m also disappointed that you misquoted the document in regards to “stewing” over night, when the opposite is true. In fact, this document actually loosened up the presentation of sin to say that we should not let them wallow in it, but instead should present the love of Jesus Christ during sin talks. That had not previously been the case, at least in writing.

    The love of Jesus is true, but so is our sin. Every kid will respond to the gospel in a different way and that’s why the paper specifically says we are not to manipulate kids. I would argue that the YL paper actually makes the gospel appeal to more kids, because the entire truth of the gospel is presented. A kid might be drawn to the love of Jesus in the presentation of Jesus healing a leper, while another kid might be drawn to the idea that his sin has separated him from God and Jesus can restore the relationship. Jeff’s message doesn’t address that truth, and that’s why I believe Young Life had an issue with it.

  • Jon Schlenker


    McSwain was communicating something along the lines of the idea that kids are *already* reconciled to God and that they need to realize it and live in light of that fact.

    Young life does not agree with this, nor does Scripture for that matter.

    Tony, being a man of much influence, I curious to know how would you explain the gospel to a teen today. In other words, how does someone get saved? What would you “say” to them or “do?”

    Also, what role, if any does the law play in salvation?
    What’s your interpretation of Galatians 3:24: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

  • Ben Dubow has been doing some great analysis over on his blog (thanks Tony for the Link). he is offering some great context for the situation…

    His last two posts were particularly good:

    Young Life #4: “Lex orandi, lex credenda”:

    Young Life #5: The Power of the Wrong BHAG:

    Check them out.


  • kj

    Tony, I agree with you completely on this issue. Not sure I agree with using “Elite” three times as description of YL leadership. People in leadership aren’t always the ‘elite’ are they?

  • Something may be wrong at Young Life- But this certainly is not it!

  • lm

    Tony, I find it disheartening that as people come to your site trusting to find fairness and accuracy, you have continued to support the statement that Young Life encourages that teenagers are left to wallow in their sin (preferably overnight), citing earlier documents. Young Life did publish ONE document. I have to assume that it had many drafts, many readers, many prayers, and many changes. But, ONE was published. As far as wallowing in sin, the published statement reads:

    “We should never presume that it is our
    job to make kids feel convicted or allow kids to “wallow” in their sin as if wallowing will bring
    more conviction. That is manipulation. God, through the Holy Spirit, can and will convict in His
    timing, allowing kids to respond to His love and justice simultaneously.
    Leaving our audience feeling hopeless is also unnecessary and inaccurate. We should always
    communicate that God is more powerful than our sin and that His loving provision is the death
    and triumphal resurrection of Jesus Christ. We should never end our proclamation about sin by
    trying to leave kids feeling hopeless and then force them to go hours before they hear the hope of
    the Good News.”

    THIS is what Young Life has asked its staff to suscribe to.
    Also, in reading the comments, it is also saddening to read so many assumptions– on the status of the YL leadership board, so many things about a dear man, Jeff McSwain. Neither Jeff nor Young Life is dragging the other’s name through the dirt, why should anyone else?

  • matthewwilcoxen

    Wait a minute, Tony. I thought that “orthodoxy doesn’t exist.”

    So, how can something be “orthodox”? Isn’t orthodoxy defined by the community? Well, why do you have beef if YL’s community says that McSwain is throwing balls out of the strike zone?

  • Matt Doan

    I feel comfortable about YL
    mandating this particular evangelism
    strategy if only because it is a strategy
    that has effectively been implemented
    for many centuries. Check out this quote
    from the 3rd century:

    “From what are people being saved?
    Not from visible warfare or barbarians but something
    far greater: from their own sins, a work that had never
    been possible to anyone before.”

    -John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 4.7

    ps – While we debate this topic in the blogworld on cushy couches and large screened laptops, hundreds of students this very month are coming to a very real faith in Christ at Young Life Winter camps thoughout the US using the YL evangelism method. Have you or I attempted to share the great story of Jesus to anyone this week using any form we prefer? Convicting question for me.

  • Im & Matt make some good points. Having thought about it over night, I’m convinced it would be more productive to stop focusing on what divided and start focusing on the fact that kids are being touched with the love of Christ through both Young Life and now through Reality Ministries.

    We should remember that the church is made up of many members. Maybe it just so happened an elbow realized it was actually a knee.

    My God bless the ministry of Young Life & Reality Ministries and all those who poor their lives into youth ministry – most of whom are too busy spending time with kids to get involved in this unnecessary debate – I know I should be.

  • Amen

    I still would like Tony to retract the false statements he made about YL- it was disengenuous to say they told staffers to allow kids to wallow in their sin

    And there s still nothing wrong with this statement that they wrote! In fact, it is a great guideline! It gives people freedom to be creative within a parameter ( a lot like God does in giving us free will within his sovereignty)

  • I have two comments. First, it is kind of funny to me that growing up fundamentalist and attending a fundamentalist Bible college and seminary, that I might see Young Life as too conservative! That’s really a hoot since we spent a good part of our Christian Ed courses talking about how liberal and scary Young Life, Youth for Christ and everybody else was. Anyway…

    Having left the fundamentalist camp a long time ago (and leading a couple of YFC Campus Life clubs–don’t tell anyone, I don’t want to lose my diploma), I am interested in reading McSwain’s paper just to further my own understanding of the issues involved in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no interest in entering into the YL fray. I wonder if there is any way to see what McSwain wrote, or to at least get pointed in the right direction?

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  • JC

    I agree with Pastorboy – Tony, you absolutely should apologize. You didn’t just take a line out of context. You made a totally false and inflamatory statment. As “Im” correctly points out, the document makes exactly the OPPOSITE statement! YL’s leadership was concerned to correct things on every side of the issue. Several of Jeff’s concerns were intentionally affirmed as statements written into the document, a fact he has acknowledged and publicly appreciated. That “wallowing in sin” thing was one of them. Jeff provided a valid and helpful critique, it was duly noted, and written into a mission-wide paper. Jeff has been taken seriously. But his affinity for Universal Atonement is simply a place that YL will not go. That’s YL’s perogative, is it not?

    Earlier version? Redaction? Come on. I am in a position to see each and every version of the document. The best I can say for your contention is that you are seriously mistaken. If you have some Rosetta Stone, please send it along. Perhaps you will find it at Do you expect your readers really believe that an earlier version contained a statement that was the POLAR OPPOSITE of the final version? Please!

    Finally, readers, don’t be misled by Torrancian Trinitarian Universalism’s proclivity to co-opt Reformed and Evangelical language. Universal Atonement has “forgiven and redeemed” people in “hell”. How “forgiven” or “redeemed” are you if you are in hell? Being in hell doesn’t sound like redemption to me. Clearly, this theology requires a massive re-definition of terms. What must “hell” be like if “forgiven” people are in it? Torrance maintains that it would be unjust of God to punish forgiven people (duh). So “hell” becomes just a place of your own choosing while you figure out that you have not really actualized your humanity. (Sounds Gnostic, does it not?) For Torrance, hell is a place where you eat oatmeal for eternity rather than ice cream. Torrance rejects the notion of any positive punishment by God (a logical conclusion, I must say). In doing so, he redefines the traditional notions of hell. And he obviously ignores a multitude of Scripture that talks about wrath and punishment for those who do not know Christ. In John 3 we are told, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Hmm… how inconvenient for Prof. Torrance. That is, unless you wish to redefine “wrath” as simply eating oatmeal.

    Trinitarian Universalism absolutely plays better to a post-modern audience than orthodox theology. A kinder, gentler gospel. But is that really the issue? Heck, full-blown Universalism is a nicer sentiment as well. Would it make you happier if YL had landed on that square instead of a historical proclamation?

  • Tony,

    You wrote, “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.” It appears you have misread The Confessions. Augustine was severely convicted over his sin BEFORE he came to faith in Christ; as is the pattern in the bible as well – “repent and believe” (Acts) and “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2.24-25).

    Augustine wrote in The Confessions, Book Eight, Chapter XII,

    28.“The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

    29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

    So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

    30. Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began–now with a tranquil countenance–to tell it all to Alypius.”

    So clearly, Augustine was convicted of his “iniquities” before “there was infused in [his] heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away” (a.k.a. conversion).

    This is the first blog I have read of yours. I do hope that an error like this isn’t typical. But it was such a huge error I thought it best to address it.

    Blessings (Ro 8.32),
    – Sean

  • Phil

    Tony, this is the first time I have commented on a blog, your books, Pray and Divine Intervention (read, think, pray) have been important in my faith Journey, and we are even friends on Facebook… practically related. I got to admit I am a little surprised at how mean spirited the tone of your post is.
    The truth is Tony, you have no idea what is wrong with Young Life, if anything. The truth is that neither Jeff nor those crazy “elites” high atop Young Life mountain desire this issue, or the mission of Young Life to be a battleground in the war of who is the smartest and most theologically (I almost typed elite) cool.
    I have been a Young Life Area Director for about ten years, I began my journey with Christ at Young Life camp when I was 15, I repented somewhere along the way.
    I am a McLaren lovin, long hair havin’, peace wantin’, social justice demandin’, Fuller attendin’ new kind of Christian who agrees “everything must change”; I have no major problems with the proclamation paper, and I even feel Young Life has faith in my ingenuity. I, like Jeff, was glad that Young Life reminded the staff to always included hope when discussing sin.
    To be honest, there are a couple of issues within Young Life that, had you wrote on them, I would have piled on… I have no aspirations of becoming elite… but on this one I think we are working through it, if you look at the history of Young Life we always do. We are always a young organization by design, we are mostly twenty somethings with new-fangled ideas and unnecessary facial hair and piercings; we are still those “scary” people that Richard Jones described in his post above.
    You seem to be a good guy Tony but this post read like Young Life bullied you in 5th grade and now is your big chance to get back; you even make some false statements and misleading generalizations to prove your point.
    At the end of the day, this is a bigger deal online than in real life for 99.98% of Young Life. We are all praying for God to heal the drama around this and to lead the mission of Young Life.
    Once we pray, we do what I am going to do. I am going to shut my computer and go to a high school basketball game, because that’s what we do, we don’t write books or speak at conferences (not that there is anything wrong with that), we don’t spend a ton of time on curriculum or worship bands (though that is a fine calling) we go to where kids are and invest in their lives; we like to stay in the field and experience what others are discussing.
    You may not agree and that is fine. I am still going to buy your books and come hear you if you are speaking nearby; I think you are a little off on this one but I would never let this one questionable post you wrote frame the entire sotry of your ministry… it sucks when people do that.

  • Phil

    not “sotry”, I meant “story”…

  • steve

    i read a draft document written by one of the senior YL VP’s that did in fact state the “essential” nature of leaving students to consider their sin apart from the hope of Christ for a period of time. JC in fact knows that actual YL practice at camps has been, in most cases, to do just that for years. From the early 80’s at least (when my YL involvement began) until recent years, it was not unusual to sit at leader’s meetings on the night of the ‘sin’ talk and be told, “tonight we want your kids to go to bed convinced theirs no hope for them in the world…” YL has been moving away from this for some time, thankfully. Jeff’s writing, as well as that of others, pushed the document to formally disavow this method of proclamation, but it is dishonest to claim it has no history in YL. At the same time, Tony is inaccurate to claim that the document states such. In fact, it is a first time formal distancing from what has been common YL practice for years.

    Having read a considerable amount of Barth and Torrance in both my MDiv and Dmin studies, I would not characterize their theology as Trinitarian Universalism. They certainly have a Trinitarian emphasis, as they should. It would be accurate to say they have a more inclusive view of salvation than some, but neither were universalists, Trinitarian or otherwise.

    I have NO idea what JC’s comment about ‘hell being where you only get oatmeal instead of ice cream’ means. I assume it is an attempt at witticism intended to say that they don’t really see hell as being real. Again, having read them both at some length, I have not encountered anything that would support this.

    personally, having interacted with the document quite a bit (it was written largely in response to the writing and speaking ministry of some of my closest friends, and to some small extent mine) I think there is a good bit to be thankful for in it AND real causes for concern.

    I profoundly admire Christian Smith’s sociological writing and have been very appreciative to have had some personal interaction with him but feel that both he and folks like JC have commented on the document and the events surrounding it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In Chris Smith’s case, I DO think he attributes more villany to the document and those who wrote it than is warranted. In JC’s case, having heard him say the same things in public, I believe he does a disservice to his brothers in Christ and in ministry (both those in YL and folks like Barth and Torrance). In both cases, it is easier to knock down straw men than interact with the actual person. Knowing each of the individuals about whom this document was written, I believe they are resoundingly orthodox and deeply committed to the saving work of Christ in the cross and resurrection. Their expressions of that may not fit every narrow theological grid and their methodology has been refreshingly new within YL, but outside of traditional Christian faith and doctrine they (we) are not.

  • Disappointed

    I would ask you to retract your statement.

    Young Life introduces the hope of Jesus Christ at the very first club or event a kid ever attends. In EVERY single club or meeting, the hope of Jesus Christ is spoken of. Never, ever is the idea of sin or that of “wallowing in your sin” ever spoken of first and foremost. YL actually encourages leaders to not leave kids hopeless in sin. It is important for all to understand the depths of sin but never EVER does Young Life leave kids hopeless. That is EXACTLY what Young Life does NOT do. For goodness sakes they are going to where kids are and BRINGING them hope. The very last thing they do is make kids “wallow.”

    I would suggest you attend a YL club, meet a YL leader, or attend a YL camp to see how hard leaders and staff pray for those kids and how much they love Christ and do everything to bring kids hope (not a life or day of wallowing!)

    Also, Young Life has not made their all staff sign this paper. There has been a disagreement with one man’s teaching and 7 younger staff voluntarily left with McSwain.

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  • Nick

    I think its ridiculous that YL requires its leaders to present the gospel in a particular way, especially one that seems to over-stress our sinfulness and makes God out to be an angry God (in some circles – so angry that he could only appease his wrath by killing his own son). Ministers should emphasize the love of God first and foremost. But YL is a giant, hierarchical organization and what comes down from the top goes. They can do what they want because they are in chage. But I don’t think God intended ministry to be orgnized this way. There should be much more freedom for individial leaders to express God and their theology they way they want to. I hope YL leaders here and abroad firmly oppose this theological downturn. This just reflects what goes on in countless churches: a few powerful individuals control the specifics of theology that hundreds of leaders below them are allowed to teach. No wonder the YL in Durham resigned – many more will surely follow if the authoritarian attitude of top leadership at YL continues.

  • Ryan

    The first comment to this post corrected your assertion that “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).” yet you have not corrected your post.

    In fact the document states: “We should never end our proclamation about sin by trying to leave kids feeling hopeless and then force them to go hours before they hear the hope of
    the Good News.”

    How incredibly disingenuous of you. It’s been four weeks since you were corrected. At best it seems your reading comprehension is faulty. At worst…

  • Ryan, there are plenty of other comments in this string that report that’s exactly what YL does on many occasions. And I’ve also made clear that the staff in question were fired based on an earlier version of the document that has since been “cleaned up.”

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  • RBH

    Not all of YL staff agree with the non-negotionables in the ministry of YL. The beauty of this ministry is that we have always been a grass roots group of folks from many different denominational backgrounds with one common belief and view: Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, sacrificed on the cross for our behalf, opening our eyes to the unconditional love the Father has for us, inviting us to participate in a relationship with Him. The non-negotionables was created with the hope of bringing unity to a ministry that in my opinion already had it. I just want you to hear from a YL staff person that we are still going to do YL the way we always have, and this paper has no relevance to us other than we pray for our brothers and sisters in NC, as they are no different from any of us. Lord bring healing!

  • Nick wrote:
    “especially one that seems to over-stress our sinfulness and makes God out to be an angry God (in some circles – so angry that he could only appease his wrath by killing his own son). ”

    Nick, I am on Young Life staff and people on this forum are taking this completely out of context. During the year, Young Life is broken up into semesters. Each semester there may anywhere between 12-14 Young Life clubs which means we will give anywhere from 12-14 messages each semester. Out of these messages there is only 1 that is designated as the sin talk. There is one other designated to the cross, God’s answer to Sin. Without Sin or the Cross how can we call ourselves Christians?!

    From day one we talk about God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. That He is a visible expression of an invisible God. What disturbs me most about your post was “in some circles – so angry that he could only appease his wrath by killing his own son.” This statement is completely false in relation to what the Gospel teaches and what Young Life’s stance is. We teach that God is both completely Just and completely loving. In the bible, “For the wages of Sin is death” shows that for our Sin we are doomed to eternal separation from God. God loves us so much that he sent his only son to die in our place. God isn’t taking his wrath out on Jesus!!! God and Jesus were in perfect relationship. He sent Jesus to die because the debt of Sin had to be paid and required a perfect sacrifice. What amazing love on God’s part!! What amazing love on Jesus’ part….that he died so that we may have life! This is the message of the Gospel and this is the stance of Young Life.

    Students experience Jesus and accept Him as their Savior throughout the year. Never do I say, “You know what…wait until after the sin message to make up our mind.” That’s proposterous!!! Who am I to stop the Spirit from working.

    I pray that the truth is revealed and that the ministry of Young Life isnot hurt in any way. We are messengers if the gospel. We love kids, and we definitely see a need for God in our schools and in their lives. Anyone who thinks we are doing otherwise is missing the picture.


    • CapnCrumbles436

      I dont agree with the criticisms of the author AT ALL. I have a problem with the organization for several other reasons. For instance it took all three of my siblings away from involvement in our local church. All have yet to be born of the Spirit despite their years of musical chairs, pies in the face, other silly games, sleep overs camps, etc. Read the lyrics for Sia-Chandelier, Ludacris- All I do is Win, and Dj Unk- Walk it Out. These are some of the songs the local chapter played at my folks home tonight and its what youre likely to hear week to week. I would much rather them be in church or better yet reading the Word.

  • Ryan


    Does the emergent circle struggle with it’s own “existence”? (if I can call it that). Existence requires uniform, right? — or at least matching tee shirts. Otherwise how will people ever feel comfortable with one another, not knowing if they’re really on the same team? How will people feel “safe”? 🙂

    I talked to you at MidAmerica (Post Modern Youth Ministry last fall) about my church that was splitting from it’s mainline denomination due to our opinion that the denomination was departing from traditional theological standards. You told me (and the audience) that denomination IS the problem, and I suppose that an organization such as Young Life is no different to you (non-negotiables is the word that you seemed to have a problem with). BUT, I wanted to let you know that because of our conversation I think I’m headed out of a local church ministry INTO Young Life. So thanks. It’s going to give me greater opportunity to spend time with students to live out faith in Jesus with them, regardless of the YL structure that I’ll operate in. I’m sure that this isn’t exactly what you had in mind, but I feel like it’s probably the lesser of your two evils. I guess I could go it alone without YL or any other organization, but as you told me… “I can’t tell you not to be pastors, because if you do what I do — there’s no guaranteed paycheck for you.”

    Also, I hope that the square-rim glasses, button down cowboy, jeans and dress shoes wearing crowd never band together to form style regulations. You might have to start wearing contacts.

    By the way, how’s Solomon’s Porch?


    “It’s way I dress. Yeah, it’s a stichk. I know. I get it.” -Tony Jones

  • ckhughes

    After reading this all I can say is , why so much criticism for a human attempt at working for the Lord? God does not need us! He works in the lives of people with or without us. I do not feel the need to argue over theology or put down an entire ministry.

    Something is wrong at Young Life.. well duh it is run by imperfect humans, what did you expect? I am a Young Life leader in an area near Chapel Hill. I’ve seen the hurt caused by both sides of this disagreement. But you know what, I don’t think it matters. God has showed up in Chapel Hill through YL and the other ministry started by Mr. McSwain. Young Life is simply a tool we can use to reach high school kids but that’s ALL. Extend grace to everyone and live out of love!

    • CapnCrumbles436

      There are major problems with the organization that need to be addressed. The classic defensive reaction “No one is perfect.”….
      We ought to strive to be Christ-like and the ministry ought to strive for complete biblical compliance and be willing to accept criticism, so long as it has merit.
      I was involved with leadership in a local chapter for 1year and my parents have held meetings in their home for several years. Ive witnessed a number of highly disturbing trends over that time including:
      -Young Spiritually immature leaders
      -Wide spread abuse of volunteers
      -Denial of capable and able volunteers
      -Impenetrable cliques
      -Competing with local churches rather than cooperating
      -Compromising of biblical principle through outreach
      -The use of secular and offensive music in meetings
      -Very little substance in general club meetings
      There is no doubt that there is some good being done through the organization, but I have also seen many many come out the other side with nothing to show for it.

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  • This is not too surprising, really, para-churches grow and power corrupts, even in the church. Religiosity breeds narrowing Gospel view. YL also has a myriad of problems that they refuse to address, including not connecting kids back into churches (as is one of their stated purposes), ‘introducing’ kids to Christ that are already quite culturally and denominationally aware of Him (pew snatching), stress on numbers, underpaying and abusing staff, turning staff meant for evangelizing into staff that do fundraising, and having very shallow to non-existant spiritual growth plans beyond the ‘introduction to Christ’ for their paid and volunteer leaders.

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  • matt

    at 16, I went to my first YL Club. It was fun, my friends were there, and I didn’t really know what to expect. We sang songs that I enjoyed. We laughed, we smiled, perhaps some dancing, and some funny skits. I remember thinking “wow, these are some really cool people to hang out with.” At the end of the meeting, they talked about God and a man named Jesus. Could I have heard that in church? Yes. Would I go to church at the point? No, absolutely not. Didn’t have a good experience with church and neither did my family. God used YL to change my view of Him and His church. I had a YL leader that loved on me, taught me the word, taught me what it was to worship. Now these are all on basic levels…I mean I JUST wrapped my mind around Jesus. My YL leader took me to church. I got involved with the youth group, but still attended YL (not as my church subsitution but I had fellowship going on there with students/friends I see everyday.) That was 10 years ago. I now work at a church as a worship pastor. YL had a HUGE role in that. God worked through YL, the staff, and the leaders who loved on me. Is YL perfect? no. Is your church perfect? no. We should be able to admit that. Just because we “strive to be like Christ” does not automatically mean we are perfect. If you said you’re perfect, I probably wouldn’t believe anything you said. I’m not goint to try and say that YL is better than any ministry, but the truth is…God works through YL. Church is also a great place to grow and have fellowship. YL definitely set the foundation of my faith. You can argue about YL and what you think about it, but the numbers don’t lie. Maybe some leaders are still growing and “immature” …can we not do ministry unless we are super qualified? Can’t God still use them? How about pray for lives to change through YL and that people would come to the Lord. That should be our focus. To know Him and make Him known. YL does should the church…as should other ministries. Thats just my life and experience. Whatever it’s worth.

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