Young Life reaches youth in incarnational ministry
By Erin Endres
Young Life started in Spokane at Whitworth University in 1948 after Jim Rayburn, a Presbyterian youth minister in Gainesville, Texas, founded it in 1941 to draw youth into churches.
Kent McDonald, professor of practical theology and regional trainer for Young Life (YL), now leads the Whitworth's partnership with Young Life. He and his wife, Linda, who both grew up in Seattle, have been involved with it for many years.
From Jim's emphasis on making the Word flesh, Kent said that YL leaders make an impact through "an incarnational ministry in which loving adults enter the world of teenagers."
Jim, a friend of Whitworth president Frank Warren, thought the Presbyterian university was a appropriate place to train young leaders in his new organization. In 1948, he relocated five young men from a Texas high school discipleship group to Whitworth.
The partnership has ebbed and flowed since then.
Kent began youth ministry in high school and discovered YL in 1977 as a freshman at Seattle Pacific University. He saw a sign, "Interested in serving in Young Life," and thought "Wow, I should give my life away and do something crazy."
He earned a master of divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass., and a doctor of ministry at Carey Theological Seminary in Vancouver, B.C.
Before Whitworth, Kent was in youth ministry in Bellevue, Wash., and Portland, Ore. In 1994, he and his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya.
His doctoral dissertation, "Nairobi Youth: Challenges toward the New Millennium," led him to start Young Life in Africa. He was there until 2000, when he joined the Whitworth faculty.
Kent decided to reactivate YL at Whitworth. He is regional director of YL's Mountain West Region, which extends from Wenatchee to Wyoming.
He teaches Christian leadership and youth ministry, and trains college students preparing for ministry.
"Before we ask youth to come into our world, we go to their world. We call it 'earning the right to be heard'—one of Jim's lines," he said.
Kent has modified that mantra.
"Young Life's incarnational approach models the life of Jesus who put skin on, moved into the neighborhood and entered our world. I like 'earn the right to be heard' because it means that we spend time with youth and get to know them. I also like, 'earn the right to listen,'" he said. "It feels less like an agenda to hear me talk and more like a friendship with no strings."
The YL mission introduces teens to Jesus and helps them grow in faith. Adult leaders and volunteers spend time with youth in their world.
At summer camps, students and their leaders "get away to experience God in another way," Kent said.
Most area youth attend Malibu Club in British Columbia, and Washington Family Ranch in Antelope, Ore.
"These camps allow youth to have fun, adventure, laughter, and serious talks about life and God," he said.
The Mountain West Region has more than 40 full-time, 25 part-time staff, and hundreds of volunteers who know about 38,000 teens in the region. They serve about 10,000 in clubs—what YL calls youth groups—or camps and discipleship.
Whitworth has 70 students who serve 25 Spokane Metro YL clubs in high schools and middle schools.
"YL clubs are non-Christian meetings which present Jesus. When volunteers are trained, they enter a team of adults and college students who are praying and have a vision for their school. The goal is expressed in the prayer, 'Lord, let us find and build relationships with some students in this school,'" he said.
A club's ministry focuses on one school.
"We pray for the school, visit kids at lunch, volunteer as coaches, help at track meets, and tutor and mentor youth. All is in the hope of building relationships and earning the right to listen," Kent said.
Along with clubs, the region has two ministries: 1) Capernaum—named for the town where Jesus did his first miracle—works with special needs students who are physically or mentally impaired, and 2) Young Lives works with teen parents, aged 14 to 21.
Whitworth graduate Shauna Edwards started Young Lives in 2008. Kent's wife, Linda, joined her in 2009.
Monthly meetings and life skills nights include child care and meals so the parents can play games, do crafts and hear a YL talk. Mothers receive clothing, diapers, wipes and other items donated for their children.
Linda left Young Lives to work at Lumen High School, 718 W. Riverside Ave., which Shauna founded in 2020. The school caters to parents aged 14 to 21. Grants from the Washington Charter Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fund it. The school has an early learning center.
The idea is for the school to fill the gap for teen parents who drop out because they have nowhere to take their children. Alternative schools often are not taken seriously and are less rigorous academically. Lumen takes teen parents seriously, understands and programs around their needs, and is rigorous academically, Linda said.
In working with youth during the pandemic, Kent and Linda have encountered teens' depression and loneliness. Teen suicide has risen, becoming the second leading cause of death among teens, Kent said.
"It's tough for youth. More than ever, we want to have relationships with them and help them navigate challenges of being teens in today's perplexing world," Kent said.
He described younger generations as "connected but alone," seeing isolation as a challenge.
"We have not been able to be with youth on their turf. That's hard. How do we meet youth when the pandemic makes access to them at school, sports and other activities impossible?" he asked. "It's hard to be incarnational when we cannot meet in person."
Technology has been a silver lining as Zoom allows Whitworth students who established relationships with youth to have clubs online with activities and laughter while discipling kids they know who want to learn more about God.
"Zoom meetings have been hard, but we've done well," Kent commented.
One Whitworth student held a Bob Ross-themed painting club, collecting supplies so everyone could paint the same mountain scene over Zoom. After painting, they talked about God's imprint on their lives.
Linda said opening Lumen, where she is executive assistant/office manager, was challenging during a pandemic. She helped set up weekly student food deliveries, provided computers and internet hotspots.
The school's capacity is 120 students, but only 43 are enrolled because of COVID. The school is in-person two days a week, but hopes to move to four days in the fourth quarter.
Kent, who considers himself multi-denominational, defines youth ministry as "creating a safe place where kids can hear other kids' stories, feel safe enough to tell their story and eventually hear the story (of God)."
Working for Young Life has been a blessing for him given the Northwest has historically been considered the most unchurched area in the U.S.
"To reach young people in a 'post-modern,' 'post-Christian' world is challenging," he said, "but we are making headway. Now our biggest task is researching this generation called 'Gen-Z' and understanding how they are different from the previous generation, 'millennials.'
"We are part of God's church, but have a unique role, like Catholic orders. We serve as a mission arm to reach young people," he said.
"Churches are vital. Our goal is to reach youth who would never go to a church and we hope they become part of a local congregation to continue growing in faith," Kent said. "It starts with leaders meeting kids, sharing Jesus' love and taking them to the church we attend."
For information, call 777-3241 or visit mountainwest.younglife.org or lumenhighschool.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2021