Probing America’s Premiere Youth Ministry

Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life

MAKING JESUS ATTRACTIVE: THE MINISTRY AND MESSAGE OF YOUNG LIFE
GRETCHEN SCHOON TANIS
PICKWICK PUBLICATIONS, 2016
178 PAGES
$23

A friend who is a senior ministry leader with Young Life tells the story of the reaction he received at a high school reunion from a former classmate after they swapped details of what they were up to now. “You work for Young Life?” the classmate asked. “Hey, I liked marching band, but I’m not still in it.” The classmate’s point was clear: “Move on.” Fair enough. But for many of us, formative experiences, and the organizations behind those formative experiences, still hold enormous power.

Schoon Tanis has dug deep, providing insight into both the personal and larger cultural forces that led Jim Rayburn into founding Young Life in 1941.

I spent 29 years on Young Life’s staff, captivated by the possibility of experiencing over and over the life-changing and life-shaping dynamics of a week at Frontier Ranch in Colorado in 1973. Gretchen Schoon Tanis had similar Young Life experiences as an adolescent and young adult. Now a pastor and teacher, she has returned to Young Life with a scholar’s eye and done an incredible amount of research into the history, theology and culture of this unique Christian youth ministry. I don’t know of another book quite like her Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life.

Young Life celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016, and Schoon Tanis has dug deep, providing insight into both the personal and larger cultural forces that led Jim Rayburn into founding the organization in 1941. Rayburn was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary at the time, and, more than that, a devotee of the seminary’s founder and president, Lewis Sperry Chafer. But Rayburn never fully embraced either the fundamentalism or dispensationalism that were hallmarks of the school. (One cannot imagine Young Life growing to the extent it has if it were bound by those notions.) Rayburn was a dynamic, charismatic personality and major force in American youth evangelism in the mid-20th century. He pioneered relational youth ministry, incarnational evangelism, resort-oriented youth camping, conversational preaching, the use of great humor as a tool for ministry and many other methods one thinks of automatically as staples of youth ministry. It would be a mistake to understate the influence he and Young Life had on the church and its understanding of youth ministry. Schoon Tanis appropriately devotes much of her book to giving Rayburn his due.

UNFORTUNATE SQUABBLE

Unfortunately, in 2007, in the midst of Schoon Tanis’s research, Young Life went through a nasty internal squabble centered on proclamation methods and theology. The principals in the melee are no longer with Young Life, and the fight becomes increasingly irrelevant with every passing year. But this was what was going on when Schoon Tanis was researching the book, so space is given to dissecting a “Non-negotiables” paper on proclamation that had major flaws. Schoon Tanis rightly points out those flaws. My sense is that the collective leadership of Young Life sees the events of 2007 as a regrettable blip on the radar screen these days. I also suspect that Schoon Tanis didn’t set out to focus on this issue, but there it was all around her while doing her research, so what could she do?

A more substantive criticism of the book I would raise is a lack of fully appreciating and articulating the breadth of how Young Life’s ministry has changed during the past two decades. While Schoon Tanis focuses on Young Life’s impressive growth and raises legitimate concerns about the values driving this growth, there is not enough mention of Young Life’s diversification in several major areas: First, the leadership recognized that the experience of adolescence has lengthened dramatically, and Young Life rather seamlessly expanded its focus from high school ministry to middle school, high school and college ministry. This is a huge shift for a parachurch ministry the size of Young Life to make. Second, recognition of those usually overlooked and on the margins of adolescent experience were embraced with the development of specific ministries targeting teen mothers and young people with physical and developmental disabilities. No one else does as much as Young Life on these fronts. Third, Young Life has been intentional about outreach with kids in urban population centers for more than 50 years and is today the largest urban youth ministry in the world. Finally, Young Life’s ministry has translated remarkably well into various places around the world, some likely and others unlikely. Young Life thrives in places as diverse as Tanzania and the former Soviet Union.

Although I wish Schoon Tanis had spent more time on these unusual and remarkable developments, I also recognize I bring an insider’s eye to the book that very few will. Hers is a noteworthy accomplishment and adds to a small but necessary body of literature that takes the development of youth ministry seriously.

Jeff Munroe is vice president of operations and advancement at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.