Young Life shifts ministry model amid challenges

Caleb Marll, News Editor

This tumultuous year has changed how many evangelical organizations do ministry, and Young Life is no exception. The nationwide organization, which maintains an active presence on Westmont’s campus both through outreach and through recruitment, has shifted its model so as to continue reaching students in the area while adhering to local guidelines. 

Though Young Life has been prevented from doing many of the large, festive gatherings associated with its name, the organization has taken advantage of new methods over the course of the last several months. Rob Crawford, the Central California Regional Director for the program, said, “Our staff and leaders have been so creative in reaching out to kids –– whether by Zoom, Instagram clubs, simply texting, care packages delivered to their homes … the list goes on and on.” 

It’s like a funnel: one by one, they get to choose to come to the feet of Jesus.”

— ABI BRADSHAW

Abi Bradshaw, a second-year Westmont student who serves on Young Life student staff, shared her experiences with ministry during quarantine. She works with Young Life Capernaum, which serves students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Last spring, their group shifted to a virtual club format, which included Zoom meetings and phone calls. As the fall semester began, her team decided to continue meeting virtually with students twice a month.

One of the biggest challenges has been face-to-face contact with students, especially in Capernaum. “It’s really important that we reach out to our friends with disabilities,” she said. “But a lot of them don’t have the access to leave their house [and] meet us somewhere … it’s also a lot more unsafe in a pandemic for a lot of our friends.” Despite this, the leaders are being intentional with these important relationships. Bradshaw mentioned that “each leader commits to having one [in-person] ‘one-on-one’ a month with a student, which is a really special time.”

Crawford echoed that sentiment. “Our model has been thrown out the window for this season,” he said. “We have not been able to go where kids are, hold large group gatherings or take kids to a life-changing week of camp … we are currently focused on small groups of kids with whom we are already in relationship.”

As local and regional restrictions have begun to ease, many Young Life groups have transitioned to acceptable in-person activities, such as pick-up basketball games. Often, students who are already connected will bring new friends to the program. Bradshaw emphasized that while the organization’s ministry model has changed, the intentionality with reaching students has not. “The heart of Young Life has always been reaching individual kids,” she said. “It’s like a funnel: one by one, they get to choose to come to the feet of Jesus.”

There are no easy answers, but we hope that by listening first we can actually do better at caring for every individual who is involved with us.”

— ROB CRAWFORD

Young Life has also been forced to adapt at the collegiate level. The organization used to host three separate leader trainings at Westmont, Santa Barbara City College and UCSB each week. Due to campus visitor restrictions, those events have merged into one larger, outdoor, socially-distant gathering called ‘SB Sundays.’ The new format allows for great outreach opportunities accessible to all college students, not just student leaders. “It does look more like Club,” said Bradshaw. “We do [a] raffle, we do games, and at the end we have small group times.” She emphasized that students have loved the new format and the opportunities for community it provides. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only challenge that Young Life has had to adapt to in the last several months. Crawford acknowledged racial injustice and the nationwide unrest that has resulted: “I am grateful to work for an organization that is committed to making space for all people … We have not arrived, in terms of our staff representing the kids we serve, but we have a president, board and staff committed to that change. We have hosted leadership town halls at every level of our organization to have open and honest conversations about where we have been, [where we] are currently, and where we are going in the future.”

An additional challenge that has emerged in 2020 is the “Do Better Young Life” movement, which pushes back against Young Life’s sexual orientation policy. As of July, Young Life has created a council to review stories from the movement.

Crawford said that “there are no easy answers, but we hope that by listening first we can actually do better at caring for every individual who is involved with us.”

Bradshaw added her perspective: “Of course we need to do better; we’re imperfect.” She also emphasized that Do Better Young Life is not trying to ‘cancel’ Young Life. “They’re just trying to encourage us as fellow Christians, and that’s something I really respect.”