Today an international, evangelical Protestant organization whose mission is evangelizing high school students, Young Life was founded by a former Presbyterian minister turned youth evangelist named Jim Rayburn (1909–1970). Like similar organizations, the story of Young Life is the story of an evangelist who devised a new strategy for reaching potential converts, whose strategy in turn became the basis for a large organization that has outlived not only its founder but also the novelty of its founder's strategy (compare, e.g., Dwight L. Moody, Charles Finney, earlier evangelists). While Young Life is by no means faltering, as its 1,837 full-time staff and 9,430 volunteers in 1997 demonstrate, it has lost the innovative edge it once had and has grown consumed with its own preservation. Thus current staff spend much energy maintaining their aging programs and raising funds, with little time left for youth evangelization.
Jim Rayburn was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1938 when the senior minister supervising his field placement challenged him to view the local, unchurched high school students as his ministry focus. After a failed attempt to reach these students through an after-school book club, Rayburn devised a strategy that combined socializing with high school students at popular sites such as sports games, pep rallies, or soda fountains, with an evening meeting at a student's home that featured up-tempo songs, comedy skits, silly contests, and a very brief gospel sermon. This successful strategy, which offered to a newly emerging American teen culture a midweek outing with their friends and a lively seminary student, spawned similar groups across the region and later across the country. Rayburn's approach, subsequently labeled "relationship evangelism," emphasized the building of relationships first between Young Life leaders and high school students, and evangelizing later. Rayburn often said that Young Life leaders must "earn the right to be heard," and that earning that right must involve fun, for it was "a sin to bore a kid."
Upon graduation, Rayburn rejected positions at several churches, and in the tradition of American voluntarism founded the "Young Life Campaign" in 1942—a nonprofit organization whose mission was nationwide implementation of Rayburn's youth evangelism strategies. In 1946 Rayburn instigated the purchase of Young Life's first camp, against the Young Life board of trustees' recommendation, and made camping an additional component in his strategy for evangelization. Today Young Life is best known among evangelical organizations for its camping program, as its methods of relationship evangelism have long been co-opted by churches and other evangelical organizations. Its midweek evening meetings, now called clubs, convene in suburban communities across the United States, though their Rayburn-era format strikes observers as increasingly anachronistic. While a small proportion of Young Life staff work in cities, their programs are generally small and succeed by ignoring Young Life's dominant programming and collaborating extensively with other community organizations and local churches. Absent another Jim Rayburn at the helm, Young Life shall likely continue exactly as it has out of sheer organizational persistence, irrespective of its relevance to future generations of American youth.
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Timothy T. Clydesdale