Jim Rayburn founded Young Life in 1941, the same year the word teenager first appeared in print. Rayburn’s vision for evangelizing this newly defined demographic ran against the conventional wisdom of the day, which attempted to entice young people with billboards—“Young people, come to church”—and tent revivals. Instead, Rayburn’s method was based on the incarnational and relational model of Christ himself. Don’t wait for kids to come to us, Rayburn would say, go where they are, into their world, onto their turf. He knew that when adult lovers of Christ went out of their way to build friendships with teens, good things would happen. As widespread as this concept is today, for the post-war generation, Rayburn’s approach to youth ministry was refreshingly unique.
In the almost seventy years since, Young Life has continued to go the extra mile in reaching youth wherever they may be found. Thousands of staff and volunteers have gone out to accept kids as they are: to love them unconditionally, forgive them before they ask, and embrace them at their worst.
It was easy for Rayburn to draw comparisons between the way Young Life leaders were being “as Christ” unto teenagers and the way Christ was with biblical characters like Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the leper, the woman caught in adultery, and others. That’s why Rayburn encouraged Young Life leaders to base their weekly “club” meeting messages to teenagers on these gospel accounts. The result was a beautiful co-inherence between what was done by Young Life leaders with kids between club meetings and what was spoken from Scripture by those same leaders at the meetings.
The word club carries some connotation of exclusiveness, but part of the magic of Young Life, which continues to this day, is the leaders’ attitude that every person at a given high school belongs to the Young Life club. Teens deeply appreciate the chance to belong, a safe place where they will not be judged. Again, this reflects Christ’s attitude toward sinners in the gospels. However, as great as this sense of practical belonging is, one of the issues that Young Life has wrestled with since its inception is the question of how much theological belonging to give unreached teenagers.
A Controversy over Belonging
In November of 2007, I was dismissed by Young Life for what was termed “theological differences.” Since 2001, I had been preaching the gospel with an emphasis on theological belonging, the idea that humanity belongs to Jesus Christ by virtue of creation and redemption. Rather than splitting Christ as Creator from Christ as Redeemer, I was keen to preserve the gospel symmetry proclaimed by Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the Christ who created and reconciled all things (Col. 1:16, 20). This is the gospel “that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23). This is the gospel that declares that every person is included not only in the first Adam but also in the second (Rom. 5:18).
My point was that preaching this kind of a Christ-centered message actually brings congruence between our incarnational work and our proclamation message. In other words, we habitually embrace kids at their worst because that is the way God is! We do not show love and grace to kids so that we can eventually introduce them to a different “god” (i.e., a god who is angry and withdrawn). This was the thesis of my paper “Jesus is the Gospel,” which I submitted to the Young Life Senior Leadership with their permission in August of 2007. But giving this type of theological belonging to kids was farther than Young Life leadership was willing to go.
When the Senior Leadership produced the Non-Negotiables of Young Life Proclamation that November, it was their attempt to unpack a popular Evangelical slogan: “Preach like Wesley and believe like Calvin.” As gospel proclaimers, neither Arminians nor five-point Calvinists give belonging—again, I mean creation-redemption belonging—away on the front end. For Arminians, no one belongs until he or she makes an individual decision to believe in Christ. Five-pointers believe in prior belonging, but they can’t proclaim this to everyone, because they believe that only a minority of the human race is chosen. Instead, they have to become functional Arminians when preaching the gospel. Once people respond, five-pointers can then find out who the chosen are.1
Note the conflicting elements at play in this kind of evangelism: five-pointers team with Arminians in teaching people that they are unforgiven sinners separated from God by sin, only to later teach converts that they were actually forgiven and reconciled to God two thousand years ago by the finished work of Jesus Christ. Arminians, on the other hand, exalt the importance of a person freely choosing Christ, only to later sound like five-pointers in adopting the language of predestination. Hence, watered-down five-pointers and Arminians alike can tell the story of the man who freely chooses between two doors; after he walks through one of the doors, the man looks back to see a sign over the door that reads, “You were predestined to take this door.”
All compromises aside, in regards to theological starting points in evangelism, our choices in the evangelical world appear to be either that no one belongs or that a small subgroup belongs. Yet neither of these options seems consistent with Christ’s or Young Life’s generous example of practical belonging. Is there another option? What if there exists a sound biblical proclamation approach that better matches Young Life’s Jesus-like practice?
A Third Way for Evangelicals?
Enter Karl Barth, whose scriptural interpretation includes the best of the Arminian and five-point Calvinist programs. Like Arminians, Barthians believe that Jesus loves everyone he created and that he died for everyone on the cross. Like five-pointers, Barthians believe that the atoning work of Christ actually accomplished reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption for everyone for whom Christ died.
By combining the universal scope of the Arminians with the finished-work effectiveness of the Calvinists, Barth draws the ire of both groups. In spite of being very strange bedfellows, Arminians and five-pointers maintain something of a united front against the common enemy of Barth. Yet ironically, when they leap from opposite sides of the bed to attack Barth, they only expose the glaring contrasts between themselves.
Arminians strongly resist any notion that would limit God’s utmost expression of love, the cross, to a few. They decry as farcical any attempt by five-pointers to say Jesus loves everyone but did not die for everyone. On the other hand, five-pointers cannot fathom how Arminians seemingly ignore key passages of Scripture that speak of Christ’s saving work in the past tense. For five-pointers, any outlook that relegates reconciliation and redemption to the status of a hypothetical possibility, that is, effectual only upon a person’s decision of faith, is simply another form of relativism (e.g., “It’s not true for me until I believe it”).
These underlying cracks in the Arminian–Calvinist alliance were obvious in the Non-Negotiables of Young Life Proclamation. Because of the tensions regarding scope and effectiveness, a theologically consistent document could not be written. The Arminian–Calvinist quandary is simply not one of those both-ands from Scripture like the one we have with the divinity–humanity of Christ.
The Arminian-Calvinist entanglement will never be solved, but does it need to be solved as far as Young Life is concerned? I think not.
We’ve noted how Arminius and Calvin themselves would be unable sign off on every line of the Non-Negotiable document. Alternatively, however, the Young Life statement of faith is deftly layered in such a way as to welcome not only Arminians and five-pointers, but also Barthians. Because the statement does not dictate a methodological starting point for proclamation, both an exclusion-before-inclusion and an inclusion-before-exclusion interpretation can be made. In fact, much to the chagrin of some, Young Life’s current statement of faith was largely composed by Barthians who foresaw how important it would be for Arminians, five-pointers, and Barthians to get along under the big tent of evangelical ecumenism.2
Karl Barth in the evangelical camp? Instead of dismissing Barth, it would behoove evangelicals to consider the possibility that Barth’s theology is the most evangelical of all. In contradistinction to other Calvinist approaches, here we find a herald of the gospel who refuses to be ensnarled in any compromise regarding starting points. With a dynamic theology of the Holy Spirit to go along with his robust theology of the cross, Barth knifes through the Gordian Knot of Arminianism and five–point Calvinism and encourages evangelists to consider a third way, a way of making bold and inclusive claims upon the life of every hearer. That’s why I have continued to submit that Barth’s proclamation approach, as anticipated by the church fathers Irenaeus and Athanasius and followed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and James and T. F. Torrance, provides a worthy hand of theological belonging for Young Life’s glove of practical belonging.
Barth, in his rigorous Christological consistency, avoids the duplicity of preaching like Wesley and believing like Calvin, but then the question inevitably arises: is a Barthian starting point that gives theological belonging to all people a recipe for universalism?
Universal Belonging without Being a Universalist
In 1957 at the Young Life Staff Conference Rayburn taught on 2 Corinthians 5:19, which explains “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Said Rayburn:
Reconciliation. Every single person in the whole wide world is now reconciled to God. [. . .] It’s been true for nearly two thousand years. I wonder what they [high school kids] would do if they knew it [. . .]. God has reconciled us, all of us, it’s already done.3
Universalism? No, but definitely universal belonging. I italicized that last phrase, I wonder what they would do if they knew it, because the inflective anticipation in Rayburn’s voice on the recording of this talk is unavoidable. He is talking about how Young Life was founded “out of theology”; he relates how these great truths regarding the reconciliation and redemption of all people “rang the bell” in his heart and he became increasingly zealous to get the good news to his thirsty young friends. This reminds me of Paul’s passion for people to come to a knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:3-6), or what the Bible elsewhere calls repentance (metanoia), a radical change of mind that transforms our lives.
Like Rayburn and the Apostle Paul, Barth’s proclamation of the gospel began at the starting point of theological belonging for all. His heavy emphasis on the objective truth of our salvation was often misunderstood as universalism, yet anyone aware of Barth’s emphasis on freedom would recognize his intolerance for replacing one determinist scheme (five-point Calvinism) with another (universalism). Barth draws clear distinctions between objective truth and our subjective viewpoints of that objective truth. For instance, we cannot undo the objective truth of what Christ has done, but we might deny the reality of it all the way to hell (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1). In the words of Barth, “To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance.”4 Although we do not create objective truth by our subjective decisions, we may freely participate in objective truth. This happens by the Holy Spirit, appropriately named the Spirit of Truth. With Spirit-filled anticipation, Paul, Rayburn, and Barth all urged their hearers to repent and believe the good news.
While perhaps disagreeing with Barth on the nuances of the subjective, Rayburn at the very least refused to arbitrate the truth; in other words, he refused to allow the objective truth to be frittered away in order to make room for subjective response. One of Rayburn’s favorite stories to communicate the objective truth of redemption and belonging to kids was that of the toy boat. In Rayburn’s story, a boy carefully crafts his toy sailboat and then tests it on the waters of the nearby lake, only to watch it float away from him and over the edge of a dam, all in spite of his passionate plea: “Come back, little boat, please come back!” His heart aches for his lost boat, until one day he sees it in the local pawnshop. The boy spends every last cent he has to buy it back, and upon leaving the store he exclaims, “Now, little boat, you’re twice mine. I made you and I bought you back!” For Rayburn, the good news of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection was that we are all twice God’s.
Rayburn’s story is reminiscent of a famous Barth anecdote. When Barth was asked, after all that he had written about the gospel, to summarize it as succinctly as possible, he responded with the familiar, simple words to the song “Jesus Loves Me.” We teach our children these words—“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong”—are we to tell kids that when they get to be a certain age this is no longer the case? Are we to tell them they belong to Jesus if . . .? Is belonging with an if really belonging at all?
The Essence of Young Life
My dad, Mal McSwain, was with Young Life until 2008; he first met Rayburn in 1951 and knew him well. In 1957, my dad led Young Life at Monrovia High School in Monrovia, California, during his seminary training at Fuller. Recently I had lunch with one of his “club kids” from those days. Don Samuels, now 68, was a student at Monrovia and came to faith through Dad’s Young Life ministry.
Don and his wife Jeannie asked me to summarize the issues that led to my exit from Young Life. I said that it all comes down to belonging. I believe everyone belongs to God; he is the Lord and Savior of all people (Phil. 2:10, 11; 1 Tim. 4:10). It’s because we belong to God that sin is so bad, because sin is rebellion against the one who loves us the most, and refusing to live in right relationship with the one we belong to has destructive consequences.
I said that I believe there is good biblical basis for believing that everyone starts out with that kind of belonging, and that that was the issue. Young Life would not let me go that far. Don and Jeannie looked at me incredulously.
“Really?” they said. “That’s strange, because that’s the way your dad always treated us.”
I realized then that the manner in which my dad had treated Don as an un-churched teenager had spoken more loudly to Don than anything else. My dad didn’t reach out to Don and his friends as a means to getting them to hear the gospel. The way dad treated Don was the gospel. It was my dad’s embracing of Don at his worst, just like Jesus with the leper, that made the greatest impact.
That was fifty years ago.
This past summer my parents were invited to a high school cluster reunion for the Monrovia high school classes of 1957 through 1961. They were the guests of honor at a reception just for them. Don and more than one hundred former Monrovia students were there to thank my dad and tell him how God had used his faithful friendship and ongoing communication for the last fifty years to alter the trajectory of their lives.
Sometime before the reunion, Don wrote to my dad:
Mal, I want to thank you for reaching out to a lost fourteen year old in Monrovia in 1958 and telling him about God’s love. You not only told me of that love, but by your example and caring and faithfulness over the years, you have shown me that love. I have always struggled with feeling worthy of God’s love [. . . .] but because of the love I have experienced from you, I have always had a hook, or an anchor, to hold on to—an anchor that has kept me in touch with God’s love.
Surely this describes the essence of Young Life.
And it wasn’t just the all-along-belonging that my dad had given Don and his peers or the attitude of Jesus to sinners that Dad shared from the Scriptures at club: there was another dynamic at play that appears to be almost forgotten in Young Life today. It was the theological belonging that was contained in the lyrics of what was called the “song service.” Those who have bowed to the conventional wisdom that we should not put Christian worship words in unbelievers’ mouths would have found themselves undone at Don Samuels’s Monrovia club.
One song was belted out with gusto by Don and his unbelieving friends almost every week: “Now I Belong to Jesus.”
Jesus my Lord will love me forever,
From Him no power of evil can sever.
He gave His life to ransom my soul,
Now I belong to him.5
B-Pack vs. A Game
In the 1950s, Young Life adopted the tool of Rayburn’s Navigators friend Daws Trotman to train Young Life staff in scripture memory: the Topical Memory System (TMS). This wonderful instrument, sixty easy-carry cards organized into five topics (A, B, C, D, E), has aided many of us over the years in our walks with Christ. I would contend, however, that the twelve-card “B-Pack” of the TMS has hindered Young Life in its ability to move toward a biblical congruence of proclamation and practice. Entitled The Gospel, the “B-Pack” begins with verses that describe humanity as separated sinners without theological belonging; it eventually moves to the verses entitled “Must Receive Christ,” where a person may become a child of God. If you were to survey Young Life staff persons by asking, “What is the gospel?” you would see just how influential the B-Pack has been.
In the 1957 speech that suggested universal belonging, Rayburn declared the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that overwhelmed the oft-resorted-to starting point of sinners being separated from God. Citing Romans 3:24—and not just the part before the comma (Rom. 3:23)—Rayburn declared a robust redemption for all. He finished with the crescendo: “Redemption is something that has happened. Everyone’s redeemed!” As the verses say, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and have been justified by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).
Like Barth, Rayburn endeavored to clearly articulate God’s hatred and intolerance of sin. But the consuming fire of God’s “No” against sin was always couched inside God’s larger and eternal “Yes” to humankind in Christ. To give sin “starting-point power” was to give it a footing deeper than the depths plumbed by the Savior at Calvary, or at the very least, to pretend the cross had not yet occurred (this might be resorted to for the sake of sequential simplicity or to build up the dramatic pressure, or both). Since Rayburn’s time, however, it has become increasingly unusual for the cross to be mentioned before day five of a seven-day Young Life summer camp week. Even this past summer, volunteers at one camp were instructed to change the subject if the cross came up in small group debriefing times after the “sin-talk,” the rationale being that moving to the cross too quickly could keep kids from dealing properly with their sinfulness and the gravity of their need.
To be fair, the Young Life “Progression,” the traditional name of the camp talk sequence, is not collapsible into the bare-bones formula of the B-Pack. Following Rayburn’s legacy, camp speakers have always begun camp series with “Who is God?” and “Person of Christ” talks that speak of God’s creation of all people in love and the unconditional acceptance exhibited by Christ in his encounters with sinners in the gospels. These talks positively reinforce the sense of practical belonging that kids have felt from their Young Life experience. However, in spite of telling kids they are created and loved by God, theological belonging of the kind I am advocating (by redemption and not just creation) is not given. The words of the introductory talks often seem incidental, little more than padding on the steel structure of the B-Pack frame. The camp speaker will soon lead the crowd of teens to the severe starting point of their precarious theological standing before God.
In Rayburn’s last stint as a camp speaker, he eschewed the Progression method, saying to staff that he felt led to employ a give-the-full-gospel-every-night approach. Rayburn knew that the redemptive stories of Jesus contained all of the elements of the gospel—grace, sin, death, and resurrection—and he was a master at helping us to see our need inside the loving embrace of the Savior. Only a revisionist historian could make Rayburn into a pure-bred Barthian, but even if Rayburn assigned the B-Pack for staff, it was always the person and finished work of Jesus Christ, modeled in practice, that was Rayburn’s A-game.
A Triumph for Uniformity
When addressing my local Young Life Committee in the weeks leading up to my dismissal, representative members of the Senior Leadership of Young Life shared that “Jeff’s gospel” would not be tolerated any longer in the mission.6 In turn, one of the more theologically savvy members of the committee suggested that what Young Life was insisting upon was a turn-or-burn proclamation theology. The Young Life executives were aghast. Young Life leaders pride themselves on thinking that this description is exactly what Young Life isn’t. Most staffers know the beauty of relational evangelism (epitomized in 1 Thess. 2:8) as opposed to what Rayburn criticized as the “hit and run” variety. Staffers understandably don’t recognize “turn or burn” as an apt description of Young Life proclamation because of the mission’s prominent contextual theme of practical belonging. Indeed, when it comes to practical belonging, the committee member was dead wrong. But when it comes to theological belonging, he was spot on.
Unfortunately, when it comes to proclamation theology, Young Life, like so many other evangelical organizations, has decided to make hell the starting point—effectually, grace is the exception to that rule once an individual decision of faith has been made. This point was brought home by a woman in that same committee meeting. She was incensed that Young Life would advocate a theology in its Non-Negotiables of Young Life Proclamation paper that relegated her cognitively disabled son to hell because he could not be expected to make the required decision of faith.
Young Life stood by their non-negotiables. However, after the dismissal of our entire staff, including our Director of Special Needs Ministry, Young Life did eventually issue a companion paper that allowed the gospel to be proclaimed differently to the cognitively disabled.
Most people are surprised to hear that when I was originally presented with the Non-Negotiable paper, I received it enthusiastically. From my perspective, it did not drastically change the ideological landscape of Young Life. In fact, largely because of its admonition against “leaving kids hanging” after the sin talk, I thought of it as an advancement for Young Life proclamation. I explained to my divisional vice president that I agreed with all of the major bulleted points in the overview and that I believed it was an imperfect attempt to try to articulate some of the Arminian-Calvinist tensions in an ecumenical organization.
Then the vice president pointed to a strong Arminian statement in the document, “What about this on page six?”
I said, “Well, I don’t agree with that, but you’re not going to ask every staff person to sign off on every detail of the paper are you?” He said he didn’t know but that he’d get back to me.
The day after what my wife and I considered a positive meeting, I received a devastating phone call from the same vice president, the nub of which was as follows: “You and all Young Life staff will have to sign off on every point of this paper. This is like wedding vows; you don’t just agree with some of them. We know you are a man of integrity and that you will not be able to sign off on the document without retracting the things you have written and said.”
In three papers I had written since 2001, I had urged Young Life to consider a biblical congruence between its proclamation and practice. Because of the organization’s incarnational approach, my thought was that nobody had a better head start on this possibility than Young Life. It was an exciting time in the mission as I detected movement toward that end. It was not until November of 2007 that I realized my opponents within Young Life had their own way of describing this movement I had detected. They called it “drift.”
Several times prior to 2007, I was formally questioned by Young Life leadership about the difference in my approach, but I supplied written biblical support for it, and on each occasion, I passed muster. In the meantime, I didn’t interrupt my staff trainees from learning the B-Pack, and I continued to allow my team leaders to use the Progression in area clubs if they thought it was best. I was content to lead with my own convictions locally while including all types of volunteers, whatever their theological starting point, as long as it was within the Young Life statement of faith. Within our eighty-person volunteer corps, we were experiencing the joy of unity with diversity—in my opinion far preferable, albeit messier, than uniformity.
In the end, by ousting a Barthian evangelical for theological differences, the leaders of Young Life made it clear that they were more concerned about staying aligned with a talk sequence and theological starting point of sinful separation than they were about continuing to allow a biblical theology of belonging that matched Young Life’s trademark practical belonging given to kids.
Now a new trademark is emerging in Young Life. It is the insistence of a corporate branding on the proclamation approach. One vice president explained it this way to a local donor in 2007, “It’s like Jeff opened up a McDonald’s franchise and started making his hamburgers differently. We just can’t have that.”
But the vice president’s comment suggests an obvious rejoinder: are the hamburgers good? To that question, our local Committee chimed in with a resounding “Yes!” The gospel was being preached and kids were coming to faith. Yet in spite of the ringing endorsement given to our ministry product by the local supporters and local Committee of Young Life Durham/Chapel Hill, the Senior Leadership of Young Life decided that we were doing it wrong.
Back to Barmen
Our recently departed friend, Fuller theologian Ray Anderson, once remarked, “I have long thought that Young Life discovered a praxis theology of evangelism without really working through the basic foundations for it.” In nudging Young Life toward working out a biblical foundation for ministry that matched its praxis, Anderson was not insinuating that Young Life needs to start with its unique practical approach and try to shoe-horn biblical texts into it. That would be operating backward; instead, we must always start with the Word of God, never with a natural or existential base.
If, as Barth insisted in the Barmen Declaration, “Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we have to hear and to trust and obey,” then in submission to the Word we must ask hard questions about the underpinnings of Young Life’s practice and its proclamation. If Jesus Christ is the basis for both, then it should not surprise us if we find the two converging with one another. And instead of being apologetic about matching a biblical theological belonging to a ministry style of practical belonging, evangelical Barthians can stand firm on Scripture, working together as co-laborers in the gospel with Arminians and five-pointers while at the same time asking them to clarify their own share of perplexing ideas on the scope and effectiveness of Jesus Christ and him crucified.
I love the mission of Young Life. For forty-five years, I was part of the Young Life family, born the son of staff, participating as a teenager, serving as a volunteer, and then working on staff for fourteen years. I know so many gifted and passionate staff friends all over the world going hard after kids and loving them well, showing them beautiful pictures of Jesus through their words and lives. It is because Young Life is so uniquely strong in regards to its incarnational and relational approach that the contrast with its mandated proclamation theology is so grievous.
How long will Young Life continue to thrive in the contradiction of a belong-in-order-to-believe practice and a believe-in-order-to-belong proclamation? Will the mission ever return to its founder’s unabashed belief that we are all “twice God’s?” Will Arminians, five-pointers, and Barthians again find ways to work together under Young Life’s ecumenical and evangelical statement of faith? Or will there continue to be a sign posted on the Young Life clubhouse door that reads, “No Barthians Allowed”? Only time will tell.7
1. I recognize that these generalizations may be unsatisfactory to some readers. There are many shades of Arminianism and Calvinism, not to mention hybrid versions. When speaking of the Calvinists at Young Life, I felt that it was important to specify the five-pointers, as they are the Calvinists who believe in limited atonement.
2. Most influencial in this regard was Dr. Paul K. Jewett who held the Chair of Systematic Theology at Fuller and was the longtime Dean of the Young Life Institute. This last major revamping of the Young Life statement occurred between 1972 and 1974, during the presidency of Bill Starr. Future president Bob Mitchell was also involved as the national Training Director.
3. Italics mine.
4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3 (Edinburgh, UK: T and T Clark, 1961), 477.
5. Song number 35 from the oldest Young Life song booklet in the Mal McSwain collection. Words and music by Norman J. Clayton, b. 1903.
6. Every one of the thirty-two members of my local committee eventually resigned.
7. As an epilogue of sorts: in December 2007, the former Young Life committee helped me to create Reality Ministries, a new vehicle for ministry based in Durham, North Carolina, and I proceeded to hire seven of the former Young Life staff to assist me in this work. Reality Ministries is about helping adolescents live into the loving presence and life-changing reality of Jesus Christ. We continue to proclaim that there is one gospel for every type of person and that the healthiest evangelism begins with giving all-along-belonging that is practical and theological to our friends. We want every student to know the deepest reality of life, that in the Kingdom of God there are no margins and that everyone is at the center of God’s love. Our hope is that they will know that Jesus Christ is the most inclusive (John 12:32) and exclusive (John 14:6) person there is and that, most importantly, they will personally know him (John 17:3).