a ’round the table about the young life evangelism ruckus

you’ve likely seen or read somewhere by now that normally non-controversial young life has been in the midst of quite a maelstrom of theological controversy lately. the issue surrounds an internal paper declaring young life’s theological imperatives, when it comes to evangelism. in particular, young life staff are being asked to sign this document. most of the document follows uncontroversially along traditional evangelical theological lines. but there’s a particular point of contention. the paper expects that all young life staff explain sin and separation from god before talking about grace and the cross. it’s the expected order of things that’s the troubling point.

to make things dicier, a crew of young life staff in north carolina objected to that point, and the area director wrote (and circulated, though it doesn’t currently seem to be available) a paper explaining why. he and his entire staff were fired from young life. ok, so that’s some serious “turning up the heat”!

i’ve had a handful of people email me about this, including some who have attached the various documents. and i’ve been meaning to blog about it, but haven’t had the time to give it the theological reflection it deserves. so, in the mean time, i’ll at least get up a collection of links to the various other articles and posts i’ve seen, which, really, cover the entire debacle better than i could here:

a pdf of the young life non-negotiables document (my understanding is that this is a later, softened, version — though i’m not 100% sure on that point)

a follow-up on young life’s website

the christianity today article

the christian century article

rick lawrence’s article about this at the group site, including a list of the six “non-negotiables”

mark van steenwyk’s excellent summary and reflection

a multi-part post by ben dubow: part 1, part 2, part 3

good commentary and links by tony jones, and an important follow-up clarifier

a fairly neutral (even supportive) post at beggars all blog

20 thoughts on “a ’round the table about the young life evangelism ruckus”

  1. Thanks Marko. I think YL is an example of what is happening in the larger church. I wonder if the fear of the “old guard” is that they feel it slipping away. We used to take modernity as gospel. That’s why YL probably never had this struggle.
    Now in a new postmodern, postchristian age feels a part of their identity is at risk. When in reality, maybe it is time to re-evaluate and give an ear to some of these other voices. I like what Tony Jones said in the comment section of his blog:

    ” 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.”

  2. I dont know any of the YL staff that are involved, but I think they are so gutsy for speaking what they beleive to be true – even if it means losing their jobs.

  3. But why cannot YL have a set of non-negotiables? What they’ve outlined looks like standard evangelical beliefs. Or is that the problem in some corners?

    Sure, folks are gutsy to speak what they believe to be true, and that would also apply to YL.

  4. The main Tony Jones/Blog world
    objection to the YL “manifesto”
    seems to be the insistence that
    sin be introduced to students before Christ’s
    work on the cross and God’s love is talked about.
    I am curious Marko…In the 6 non-negotiables of Young Life’s statement where would you want sin and separation of God to be mentioned?

  5. Matt & Oregonian, I didn’t read all the attachments, but my assumption is that the main discrepancy is the mandate that salvation MUST be explained in an insisted order. I would venture to say that those that object wouldn’t have a problem with people using the prescribed order but feel that this shouldn’t be mandated. Especially since I would guess that many prefer to focus on the love & grace of Christ first. Taken to the extreme on each end of this debate, I would assume the fear is fire and brimstone preaching on one end of the spectrum and God is love but there is no hell liberalism on the other end. Does this resonate as the crux of the issue to anyone? I mean, am I on base with understanding this??

  6. Oregonian,

    I think the YL workers are trying to be consistent. They (as far as I understand) base a lot of what they do with kids on an incarnational model (as many do), and want to live out that model when it comes down to evangelism. I think what they are saying is that a gospel message should be approached FIRST from an incarnational stand point (Jesus came to be with us, to walk with us, to love us) and THEN bring in sin. Instead of saying “you are such a sinner that Jesus had to come die for you.” Do you hear the difference? I applaud them because they are fighting for the ability to be incarnational with the kids.

  7. As Winnie the Pooh says: “Oh Bother!”

    You can’t have one with out the other. Maybe YL wants it that way because, it (sin) does not get mentioned. It’s great to be evangelistic, but fluff and stuff Christianity is not the whole story or the right way.

  8. Dan,

    I dont think either group is saying you need one, and not the other. they’re both saying you need both. The workers are saying that it just makes more sense to talk about incarnation first, since they are a ministry that tries to live incarnationally in front of kids. The debate (as far as I understand it) is about the freedom to not HAVE to start with sin, even though sin is still an important aspect.

  9. May want to check your facts, Marko. Not exactly accurate presentation. No YL staff was asked to sign the paper. The Durham staffer’s paper has been circulating for years, long before the YL manifesto. The staff was not fired because they wrote a paper in response.
    I am interested to read your comments, but please, I would beg that you do more research. Read the nonnegotiables. Talk to someone in leadership at YL, and please talk to one of the Durham folks–or even read the paper.

  10. fair enough, td — i did not do much fact checking on this, which is why i didn’t pontificate much at all, just listed a series of links. my facts could very well be way off. i have, however, read all the links i posted (which includes the current version of “the non-negotiables”), as well as an earlier version, and a couple of the counter-papers that others have written (but i haven’t found online, so i couldn’t link to them — like the one co-authored by noted sociologist and author, christian smith).

  11. Jennifer, yes I do hear the difference. The first non-negotiable that YL states is, “We proclaim the Person of Jesus Christ in every message.” To me, that most certainly includes his love for us. How could it not?

    I worked for a number of years in the other major high school non-denominational org, Campus Life, so I understand the relational aspect. Way back then, I know that we often felt that YL was short on content in their school year club meetings (might have just been in our own region) and tended to wait until the BIG summer camps to really present Jesus. I’ve not kept up with YL in the years since then, but I don’t fault them for attempting to ensure that their staff is on the same page with what they’re calling non-negotiables.

    Marko, wasn’t Denny R good friends with Yaconelli? I’m thinking waaayyy back when.

  12. oregonian — denny r was more than a close friend of yac’s back in the day; he was a part-owner of YS at one point, early on!

  13. yes, Marko, that’s it! Ahh, the memories come back . . . So what was the name of the books that they put out then? I’m thinking crowdbreaker kind of resources. I know we used them in Campus Life.

  14. I have been in evangelistic youth ministry for years. Personally, I’m tired of teens that are super-confident of God’s Grace, who have no idea of the cross or repentance or faith or the rest.

    New Years eve this year, I got another taste of it, as I was told that “God will forgive me” by a teen whose entire household was preparing for a huge drunken binge all night (her boyfriend was already drunk, and it was only 7 pm or so!). But that’s ok, I’ll see her Sunday?? No concept of faith, or trust, or repentance, or new life, or regeneration, or…….

    I’m not fond of absolutes, or of making rules where Christ made none. But I have been in the trenches long enough to know that we have raised an entire generation on super-high self-esteem (pride), self-determination to the point of rebellion, and grace that’s so cheap that even the old theological “cheap grace” is harder to gain!

    Grace isn’t cheap anymore, it’s assumed. No one needs to gain it since it’s already there. Cheap would mean it had at least a LITTLE cost. Now it has NO cost at all.

    At least the old cheap grace position asked you to believe in the cross as payment for your sin before you were saved. That’s at least SOMETHING.

    If Young Life, in desperation, decides to make a hard and fast rule in order to steer their ship in the proper direction, so be it. Again, I’m not a fan of rules like this. But I can’t blame them for trying to stem the tide a little.

    Talking about the cross before the sin that put Him there is basically a guarantee that the cross will not be properly understood, and YL is trying to correct that. I can accept that, warts and all.

  15. I agree with you, J. I believe it’s the book of Jude which says that some have used the grace of God as a license to sin…

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