About the Cover
These two Capernaum leaders from Armenia, Lilit and Naro, share a passion for Jesus and kids with disabilities. They were thrilled to accompany their young friends to Pioneer, Young Life’s camp in Armenia, which reopened this summer after being closed in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Since 1946 Young Life camps have helped countless kids encounter Jesus in a life-changing way. But in the years before we owned these beautiful places, Jim Rayburn took boys into the great outdoors where they made their own adventures. Bob Mitchell (see tribute on page 12) went on many of these trips and shared about these early days:
“Camping was very primitive. Jim would just take a bunch of us off into the East Texas hills and we’d camp out. There must have been a dozen boys. The “program” was really very simple — I look at [today’s] sophisticated programs of Young Life camping — this was as far from that as anything could ever be. We hunted rattlesnakes and armadillos! That’s what we’d do during the day and at night we’d sit around the fire and listen to Jim.”
Since those modest offerings, the mission has purchased beautiful camping properties around the U.S. and the globe, but never in the state where Young Life was born. As Texas kids camped outside of the state summer after summer, many wondered if there would ever be a chance to purchase a camp here. During this time, God’s people prayed, watched and listened. In fact, for years one couple, Dan and Jenni Hord, hiked to the top of a ridge on their family’s ranch that overlooked a camp and prayed specifically that Young Life would one day own that property.
Now, eight decades after Rayburn’s rugged camp trips, the Lord has provided Young Life with a camp in the Lone Star State! Located in Utopia, Texas (about 86 miles northwest of San Antonio), LoneHollow Ranch is an answer to 80+ years of prayers.
LET’S STATE THE NEED
DID YOU KNOW … ?
• Today, one in 10 school-aged children in the U.S. live in Texas.
• By 2040, 50% of the entire U.S. population will live in eight states, one of which is Texas.
• More than 164 languages are spoken in Texas.
To say there’s been a growing need for LoneHollow Ranch is an unbelievable understatement!
For 11 years Young Life operated Camp Buckner in Burnet, Texas (an hour northwest of Austin) as an affiliate property for WyldLife and YoungLives camping. The growth in the middle school and teen mom camping ministry alone made a solid case for the need to provide summer camping closer to home. But as specialty ministries also began to expand all over the state, it became clear there was a deep need for a Texas camp for multiethnic, Capernaum, economically disadvantaged and YoungLives ministries as well. For some Texas kids, a long bus trip to an out-of-state camp was not a realistic option.
The answer? A strategic vision of locating and purchasing a Texas camp to provide a place for kids to call home who would otherwise never experience Young Life camping. And with the growing diversity in Texas, there was a need for leadership development to be ready for tomorrow’s kids. A Texas camp could accelerate this growth and propel the mission to be on the cutting edge of ministry — all of this equating to more kids experiencing Jesus!
So the need was obvious. Where to look was not …
In 2015, after much prayer and discussion, Young Life’s camping leadership organized a search team of staff and key volunteers, asking these men and women to create and implement a search criteria for the new camp.
The team considered both raw land and existing camps, although they preferred an existing camp so ministry could begin immediately. On day one they toured two existing camps as a baseline for their search. LoneHollow Ranch (formerly known as Camp Lonehollow) was one of those camps, and while not for sale, it checked off many of the boxes.
Over the next three years this team of men and women continued to faithfully tour more than 50 camps and ranches.
The search eventually led them back to Camp Lonehollow, a premier adventure camp aimed at enriching lives to create the next generation of leaders. While the property was still not for sale three years later, the search team re-engaged the owner and in the summer of 2018 she agreed to sell. God initiated the perfect intersection between the owner’s and the mission’s timing. It then became a question not of “should we purchase this camp?” but “could we?”
The pivotal moment arose when a team of board members along with mission and camping leadership toured the camp one final time. In a sacred meeting Bob Rowling (Dallas resident and Forward executive committee member) rose up and declared, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the greatest answer to prayer I’ve ever experienced.” To back up his proclamation he offered a generous gift to begin the campaign. LoneHollow Ranch was an answer to decades of prayers, particularly those of Dan and Jenni Hord, for this was the camp they had literally prayed over for many years!
President Newt Crenshaw understands the wonderful opportunity the Lord has given to Young Life. “LoneHollow Ranch will allow us to do MORE camping year round than ever before. The camping will be diverse, reflecting the variety of people in the mission. Just think — middle school, high school, college, YoungLives, Capernaum, leadership and committee weekends as well! What’s more, under-served populations of kids who haven’t come to camp due to financial restrictions or travel considerations, now have a place that will relieve some of these roadblocks.”
That last point is a critical one. In comparing the travel distance to LoneHollow Ranch and other Young Life camps, travel costs will be reduced by as much as $10,000 per camp trip! Therefore, exponentially more kids will have an opportunity to experience the best week of their lives at Young Life camp.
LoneHollow Ranch is located in the southwestern, central part of the state known as the Texas Hill Country. This region offers a picturesque view with distinctive terrain, rolling hills and beautiful bluebonnets. As a bonus, because of the elevation, its temperatures are milder than much of the state.
Billy Suess, Central Texas regional director, summed it up best by saying, “God used the original owners to unknowingly build a Young Life camp.” LoneHollow Ranch sits on more than 3,000 acres surrounded by Texas mountains and native wildlife (yes, even longhorns!). Activities include canoeing, kayaking, sailing, horseback riding, soccer, tennis, sand volleyball and basketball.
Even though LoneHollow Ranch has incredible amenities that declare God’s goodness to lost and disinterested kids, it’s the spirit of the camp (or should we say the Holy Spirit) that sets this place apart. Camp Manager Stacey Noll shares her deepest prayer for the camp as this, “I desire for LoneHollow Ranch to be a place of belonging for all kids — that they may know and experience the love of Christ like never before. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our midst that will make an impact on kids for eternity!”
But the blessings aren’t just limited to what happens at camp.
Studies show having a camp in Texas would allow for growth in weekend camping, staff retreats, discipleship opportunities — particularly for Young Life College students and adult guests. The search team agreed that inviting adults to experience camp in action was a catalyst for fundraising growth and volunteer engagement in the local areas. This has been born out of what’s known as the “halo effect,” where areas within a three-hour radius of camp experience an explosion in their ministries.
This summer 4,000 kids enjoyed the best week of their lives at our new resort-quality camp. When you multiply these numbers as well as the school-year weekend camping attendance, it’s estimated that over the next 50 years, LoneHollow Ranch will host more than 600,000 kids!
Many of these are kids who would otherwise never have an opportunity to go to a camp where they can hear the greatest love story ever told.
That is, until God gave Young Life the gift of LoneHollow Ranch.
For more information, visit: lonehollow.younglife.org.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV
“To Dew or not to Dew?”
That was the question posed last year by Andrew "Drew" Boyd, area director in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A Mountain Dew-votee since the age of 13, Drew devised a campaign entitled NO DEW FOR DREW, where he would abstain from his beloved drink to raise campership funds for kids.
“We’re always trying to find ways to raise money,” Drew said. “We’ve sold everything we can sell, done service projects, you name it. We thought watching someone suffer for a good cause might provide the inspiration to give!”
So was this really suffering? You be the judge. Drew imbibes five Dews a day. He greets the morning with one, enjoys three more throughout the day and at night, yes, bids the world a sleepy “a-Dew.”
“I’m not addicted and don’t do it for the caffeine. I just like it. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t drink iced tea (in the South!) — I just drink Dew.”
And so the 22-year staff veteran landed on these giving levels for the campaign:
(Each level came with various takeaways like bumper stickers, shirts, etc.)
“We set a goal: $3,000 would be great, $5,000 awesome and $10,000 a dream come true.”
He then advertised the idea to his entire Young Life community.
The result? The people had spoken: Andrew Boyd would enjoy no Dew for 100 days! More importantly, the area now had exactly $10,000 set aside for campership.
“The 100 days began on April 1 and ended on July 10, the first day of camp. My first Dew was going to be on the bus ride to camp — how fun is that?”
But abstaining from Dew was nothing compared to the disappointment the area experienced when all national camping was canceled due to COVID-19. After this news it would have been easy to quit the challenge, but Drew finished out the remaining 70 days and put a positive face on the 2020 fundraiser. “The win is we have 25 kids signed up for 2021 summer camp who can use that money.”
These 25 are worth it, Drew said. “We’ve been given such a gift to walk with kids. They’re hurting. Ephesians 2 talks about remembering who we were before the Lord saved us — what it was like to be lost. I ache knowing others are still in that state. It’s such a joy to tell kids about Jesus and invite adults into giving to something that’s eternal.”
These days you can find Drew continuing to love on kids. And in his right hand you’ll probably find that drink he lovingly calls “the nectar of the gods.”
You Dew you, Drew.
"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." – John 10:10
From time to time I hear the question: “Is Young Life more about outreach, or making disciples?”
My simple answer is “Yes!”
Our mission statement is “Introducing young people to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.” In other words, we are all about “wide and deep,” and “deep and wide.” Our aim is to get the broadest hearing possible with as many young people as we can fit into a club room at a camp or at school or in a home, so they can listen to and respond to the good news about Jesus. And then, we happily go one-on-one and in small group Bible studies (Campaigners) as we pour our lives into the teenagers who want to follow Jesus.
Our approach is neither novel, nor based on our own decision. We find our inspiration and get our marching orders from the life and the teaching of our Lord Jesus.
We see both wide and deep in Jesus’ “great commission” to His followers after His resurrection: “Go (WIDE) therefore and make disciples (DEEP) of all nations (WIDE), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe (DEEP) all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV, parentheses and italics mine).
Likewise, we see the same pattern in His instructions just before His ascension in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses (DEEP) in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (WIDE).”
Importantly, Jesus practiced what He preached. If we merely take a jog through Mark’s account of Jesus’ life we will see example after example of “deep and wide” in nearly every chapter.
In Mark 1, Jesus goes around Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God (WIDE), saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee He calls His disciples, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (DEEP).
Further along in chapters one and two, Jesus interacts in a very personal fashion to heal a man with an unclean spirit; He cleanses a man with leprosy; and then heals a paralytic (DEEP) while at a home where there were so many people crammed into the house listening to Jesus teach that the paralytic’s friends had to lower Him through the roof (WIDE). He impacted a whole city as they gathered at Jesus’ door, while on a preaching tour in synagogues throughout Galilee (WIDE).
In Mark 3, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in another personal interaction (DEEP), and then while attracting a great crowd and healing many of them, He had to push out on the lake a ways in a boat so the crowd wouldn’t crush Him (WIDE). In chapter 4, He tells the famous parable of the sower to a very large crowd (WIDE), then He purposefully gets alone with His 12 disciples to delve deeper into the meaning of the parable (DEEP).
You get the picture!
Just like Jesus, we do WIDE and big, and we happily do DEEP and small.
Our experience is that DEEP fuels WIDE by creating transformed followers of Jesus who become His Kingdom workers and want to see others follow Jesus. And, of course, WIDE fuels DEEP by allowing more young people to hear the good news about Jesus and make a decision to begin a life of following Him.
Our DEEP strategies include life-on-life discipleship through tools like the Leadership Tree (birthed in Africa and used widely in our international ministries), Campaigners Bible studies, work crew (high schoolers) and summer staff (college students) who serve at our camps, as well as developing those college and high school students as leaders, so they can reach out to their friends and younger students.
Our WIDE strategies include life-on-life contact work as we walk in friendship with all kinds of kids in places near and far, praying for them by name. We gather together large groups of teenagers for the most fun they will have all week at our club meetings, and invite them to go with us to camp for what many say is the best week of their lives. We’ve even learned how to conduct very large virtual clubs and camps in an online format during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We don’t want to lose our energy, creativity and enthusiasm for remaining really good at reaching large groups of lost kids. We want the next kid, all kinds of kids and every kid in God’s wonderful and wide creation to know deeply what Jesus proclaimed in John 10:10, NIV:
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Therefore, we must follow Jesus’ lead and never fail to go wide and deep — deep and wide!
Corey Tennell pulled up to a Starbucks® in Oklahoma City, not sure what to expect.
He didn’t know Rodney Huffty, the man he was scheduled to meet.
Corey had no idea their stories were as similar as their skin tones were different. As teenagers, both Corey and Rodney were loved into the Kingdom by caring, committed youth pastors. As adults, both had special places in their hearts for students deemed “the furthest out.”
Nor did Corey have a reference point for the ministry Rodney represented.
“I didn’t know a thing about Young Life,” Corey said, “other than people telling me, ‘You’re doing Young Life now. You’re going out after “the furthest” kids.’”
Corey didn’t know it at the time, but that 2008 Starbucks meeting would forever change the trajectory of his life and ministry. In Rodney, he met more than a ministry co-laborer. He gained a lifelong friend, a mentor and an advocate.
The depth of that advocacy wouldn’t be revealed until a full decade later, when Rodney intentionally stepped out of the Greater Oklahoma City metro director position so Corey could take it over.
“I really think Rodney was instilling in me what he thought I could be, the same way Jesus did with His disciples,” Corey said. “I saw his vision of what he was trying to do with me. Looking back on it, I’m like, ‘This dude knew exactly what he was doing.’”
In 2003, Rodney and his wife, Kristen, were deciding between working in the church or returning to overseas mission work.
Young Life wasn’t even an option the couple was considering, but through a providential set of circumstances, the Hufftys ended up as work crew coordinators at Crooked Creek Ranch (a Young Life camp in Colorado) for a month.
It’s where Young Life ministry started to grow on them.
“God totally used Crooked Creek,” said Kristen, currently serving as ministry specialist for Young Life Scotland. “The first thing that changed my mind was when we were there, someone radioed down and said, ‘Such and such group brought 30 extra kids, and we’re already out of beds.’ I was irritated, and people were like, ‘Great! More kids get to hear about Jesus! Let’s figure this out!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, this isn’t so bad.’”
Soon, the Hufftys were on Young Life staff in Greater Oklahoma City. On top of fundraising, doing contact work, running club, growing leaders and discipling Campaigners, they were growing in their desire to make sure Young Life leadership reflected the city’s diversity.
That team grew to include women, a Hawaiian man of Samoan descent and student staffers from diverse racial backgrounds.
“Our region started to have some bigger conversations, looking around at our staff and senior leadership and saying, ‘Hey, it’s a bunch of older white guys here,’” said Rodney, who currently serves as the associate regional director for the UK and Ireland. “We needed to do something to get more women and people of color in area director positions.”
As the Hufftys and others were wrestling through diversity questions, it became clear Corey was a slam dunk hire. He flourished in Young Life’s relational ministry approach.
“I began to root myself in the community,” he said. “I’m able to build relationships, and when kids ask, ‘What’s different about you?’ I can tell them, ‘Here’s why I do it. I want to love you like the Lord loves me.’ That’s why I love Young Life so much. It lets me go where kids are and allows me to be me.”
It soon became apparent Corey was ready to steward more ministry responsibilities.
“The growth over the years was noticeable,” Kristen said. “It was so intentional. He was so mature and ready for something.”
Rodney began challenging Corey to grow his leadership gifts in uncomfortable ways. He would set up meetings with donors, and challenge the naturally introverted leader to be more vocal in meetings.
“He would say, ‘You need to speak up more,’” Corey said. “People would always come up and say, ‘Corey, that was super valuable. Thanks for sharing.’ In those instances, it was an affirmation like, ‘He’s preparing me.’”
Rodney began to slowly onboard Corey into the position over a year’s time, before eventually announcing his departure and Corey’s promotion in 2018. From that point forward, Rodney only helped behind the scenes and refused to consult on decisions he felt would have stunted Corey’s personal growth.
“Our conversations really started to be, ‘If you’re going to be the metro director over the next year or two, how do we help you get there?’” Rodney said. “I wanted to figure out a way to stay in Oklahoma City and be part of this, but not in charge of this.”
Rodney stewards ministry well, but he also delights in holding it with an open hand.
“One of the things I’ve long admired about Rodney,” Kristen said, “is that he gives away things he doesn’t necessarily have to give away.”
Through Rodney’s leadership, Young Life’s ability to diversify leadership in Greater Oklahoma City has impacted the city.
“I think Young Life has been on the forefront of the diversity and inclusion conversation here,” Corey said. “We’re advice-givers on what it looks like to have diverse roles, whether it’s race or gender. We’re ahead of the curve. In Oklahoma City, a CEO will be like, ‘I want to be more diverse in my company.’ He’ll call in one of his most trusted employees, who might be on Young Life committee. He’ll say, ‘Let me show you a team that is doing it right now.’ We get to speak that to our community.”
Under Corey, Greater Oklahoma City Young Life continues to build a diverse ministry team with hopes of reaching every kid for Christ.
“I have two African American staff members who were part of my Young Life group,” Corey said. “They’re now my staff people, and I’m doing the same thing for them. Rodney created this cycle that I’m hoping and praying never ends.”
In the summer of 2019 Claudia met her Savior at Malibu (Young Life’s camp in British Columbia, Canada). When she returned to her hometown of Catalonia, Spain, the excited teenager jumped right in to club and Campaigners, and met faithfully with her Young Life leader, Lidia, through Zoom.
Claudia also participated in work crew training for four months and was accepted at SharpTop Cove for the summer of 2020, but couldn’t go when camps were canceled because of the pandemic. Instead of growing discouraged, she committed to becoming a volunteer leader alongside Lidia in the city of Banyoles. During the school year, she brought kids to our virtual Young Life club and even volunteered to give her first club talk! In the summer she took kids to our alternative summer day camp.
Here, in her own words, is more about her journey:
It’s because of this testimony that Claudia’s parents are visiting church!
What’s more, Claudia is excited to get baptized! We don’t often see this kind of powerful transformation in Spain. This 18-year-old’s commitment to Jesus has been a great encouragement for everybody here.
In Luke 10:2, Jesus tells His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
We thank God for Claudia, who is an answer to so many prayers. She’s a perfect example of the multiplication effect taking place: she’s being discipled by her Young Life leader and God is now using her to bring the love of Jesus to other girls. Praise the Lord!
Growing up I didn’t know what a relationship with God was or how to have one. I discovered the real meaning of this on my trip to Malibu with Young Life Catalonia.
At camp it was very easy to learn about these things because the young people were open to finding out more about God. There we had plenty of time to talk about Him. Our cabin times were very special. This was when I started my relationship with Jesus.
I am thankful to my leaders who helped me understand what it means to follow Jesus. At camp they told us that back in Spain it would be more difficult to continue this relationship with Him. In my case, I tried to do things to strengthen my relationship with Him. I started going to Campaigners with my Young Life leaders and helping at club with other leaders who are also helping me in my walk with God. I also began looking for a church.
In my life before there was only me. Now God is here with me and I know I will have Him forever, and that I can talk and be honest with Him all the time. My life is more beautiful with Jesus.”
Watching Lenon Padilla sing and dance around a parking lot, it’s hard to believe cancer took his life just a few months shy of his 21st birthday. For friends and family, this video of Lenon — posted to his Twitter account less than a year before his cancer diagnosis — is the perfect illustration of his unbridled and contagious joy.
This glimpse of Lenon is a favorite of his mother’s, Charmaine Padilla, who said her son always loved music, and wanted to share his musical gifts with the world. After two sessions on summer staff at Woodleaf (a Young Life camp in California), Young Life became the channel through which those gifts would flow.
“I hadn’t heard of Young Life prior to that summer,” she said, “but it was life changing for Lenon. It led him on the right path. The stories and music he left behind are a soothing balm that help us through our grief.”
Kevin Reid, Young Life College director in Chico, California, saw another part of Lenon in that video: a young friend who was hard to pin down. Kevin met Lenon in 2017. They bonded over their love for music, but Lenon was challenging to connect with otherwise.
“He would text me for a ride to work but ignore my texts to have lunch or hang out,” he said. “He signed up and paid for a fall weekend, but never showed up. It was confusing. He was an enigma. But that’s contact work. There’s no strings, you just put yourself out there.”
Nate Rettinger and Lenon attended high school together; when Nate was a freshman he became a Young Life College peer leader and pursued Lenon who was “looking for community, stability and understanding in all the wrong places. He identified as a Christian, but on the outside it was difficult to see who he was following. I took his late-night calls, gave him advice, made sure he was OK. I just tried to love him.”
In 2019, Kevin was summer staff coordinator for session two at Woodleaf. He took several college students along and was “shocked and elated” when Lenon showed up.
It didn’t take long for camp to make an impact on Lenon.
“He came to me after the first club in tears, talking about how it had clicked for him,” said Nate, who was also at camp. “Being in a roomful of kids, he realized all the hands working to give them the best environment … that moved him. He felt a responsibility to be there for them.
“Pre-club and post-club Lenon were two different people. One was restless, the other focused.”
And with that heart change came a song that would change hearts — “Unconditionally,” a worship song Lenon wrote after club.
I know You love me unconditionally.
I know You love me unconditionally.
And if there’s ever a time I need You,
I know You’ll be by my side,
Because You love me unconditionally.
He debuted it the next night for work crew and summer staff, then led worship for the entire camp staff between sessions; the video has been viewed more than 13,000 times on YouTube.
Kevin said when he wasn’t serving kids and leaders, Lenon’s guitar was in his hands. He wrote several songs during those weeks and even volunteered to stay for session three.
“It was like the lights turned on,” Kevin recalled. “Lenon was happier and more alive than I’d seen him.”
Two weeks after camp ended, Kevin’s phone blew up with the same message: “Something’s wrong with Lenon.”
The timeline of Lenon’s illness was rapid. An early diagnosis of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) in a young person is typically not a death sentence, but Lenon had an adverse reaction to chemotherapy that caused a seizure. He fell and hit his head, and went into a coma. One week later — September 14, 2019, on Kevin’s birthday — Lenon passed away.
“Lenon was so rooted in our Young Life community; when he passed away, we all went into deep mourning,” Nate said. “The scale of it was the incredible part, how many felt the depth of that. Some people say it’s what kept them coming back. It’s easy to be a part of a group to have fun with, but to have people sit beside you and weep was even more attractive to them.”
His mom believes Lenon’s time at camp prepared him to face his illness and called Young Life “the peak of Lenon’s life.”
“It made everything make sense. His faith was strengthened and so was ours,” Charmaine said. “He made us believe if he was able to face cancer with so much strength, how could we not? When he was diagnosed, he wasn’t afraid. He knew God would be with him. Camp prepared him. I’m very thankful Young Life became a part of his life.”
As a tribute, Kevin and several other musicians who’d served on summer staff that summer, came together to record Lenon’s music professionally. They spent this last year finishing verses and melodies. Now, Lenon’s music can be found on Spotify and Apple Music under the band name “Session Two.”
Lenon’s music has been a gift — his songs are sung at club and they are part of worship at Young Life College weekends in northern California.
Kevin admits some of his relationship with Lenon was frustrating. And the shock of his death has yet to lose its sting. But he still believes when you choose to show Jesus’ unconditional love to those in front of you, you can trust God will finish the story.
“As Young Life leaders we can feel ineffective and inadequate,” Kevin said, “but we really never know how God will show up and use tragedy for His glory. Scripture reminds us to plant the seed and let God do the growing. God just asks us to be faithful.
“Lenon would love that his songs have become Young Life songs. We’re still talking about him, and we’re still singing.”
In May the mission said goodbye to our third president, Bob Mitchell, a man synonymous with Young Life. From his first involvement as Jim Rayburn’s club kid, through his four decades of service to Young Life, Mitchell grew up alongside the ministry, and his half-century presence left an indelible mark on the hearts of so many kids and adults.
Few within the mission held as many titles as “Mitch.” One of the first kids Jim Rayburn ever met, Mitch progressed through the ranks within each of these roles: club kid, work crew, summer staff, volunteer leader, committee person, program director, camp speaker, area director, regional director, divisional director and vice president of Training. It seemed only natural, then, he would one day become president of Young Life as well.
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Mitch met Jim Rayburn through his father, Orville, who agreed to financially support the fledgling “Young Life Campaign.” Both Orville and his brother, John, went on to serve on Young Life’s original Board of Directors.
As Mitch listened to Rayburn share the good news in the Dallas tent campaign in 1941, the teenager decided that week to begin a relationship with Jesus.
Soon Rayburn was holding club in the Mitchell home, where kids flocked to hear about Jesus. Mitch took it all in — the messages, the relational approach, the humor, the prayer and the love — and would be identified by these just as his mentor had been.
“Bob Mitchell, to me, was the ultimate Young Life kid,” proclaimed John Miller, author of Back to the Basics, back in 1998. “He became a Christian under Jim Rayburn and that first Dallas club met at his folks’ home in the garage they had fixed up. When I went to Dallas in 1945 to see Jim, I met Bob Mitchell. He was a scrawny little high school kid, but yet if anybody came close to speaking to kids in the style that Jim did, it was Bob Mitchell.”
Mitch followed Rayburn, not just as a club kid, but also throughout college and beyond. In 1950 he came on Young Life staff in Colorado Springs; Rayburn had started Young Life ministry at Colorado Springs High School, the only high school in town at the time. Rayburn asked Mitch to succeed him there and to start Young Life in other parts of the state.
“So, I actually led three Young Life clubs in those years,” Mitch recalled. “One in Colorado Springs on Tuesday night and one in Yuma, a 200-mile drive (and half of that was on dirt roads). I'd go out to Yuma on Mondays and lead, and then on Thursdays I'd go down to Pueblo and lead the Centennial club. I had never thought anything about it. Most everybody had two or three clubs, but I drove hundreds of miles to those schools, hanging around getting to know kids.”
In 1954 Mitch married the love of his life, Claudia, and the next year, Rayburn dispatched the newlyweds to help begin the work in the San Francisco Bay area. From 1955 through 1978, Mitch served in field, regional and training leadership positions. As the mission’s first training director he helped start the Institute of Youth Ministries, an accredited master’s degree program for staff, leaders and the church at large.
The Board of Directors brought Mitch on to direct the entire mission in 1978, 28 years after he came on staff. During Mitch’s eight-year presidency, he sought to expand Young Life’s urban and ethnic ministries, international work, camping programs, church relations and the emerging role of women in leadership.
“There were several challenges placed before us in those years,” Mitch said. “Up until then, for many, many years Young Life was pretty male dominated. So we worked hard in those years in helping people to understand that men and women could be in positions of leadership.
“We also worked hard in the area of church and church relations and defining Young Life as part of the larger picture of the church of Jesus Christ in a broken world. It was in the ’80s too, that international Young Life developed significantly, where we would partner with different agencies and the church around the world.”
Under his watch, terminology also changed. The “Board of Directors” became the “Board of Trustees,” a designation deemed more in line with a nonprofit organization. He also changed the name “headquarters” to “Service Center,” better capturing the mission support provided by the Colorado Springs staff.
Mitch’s proudest accomplishment by far, was encouraging the staff in their own spiritual development:
“The thing most in my heart — and I don't know how much of it was accomplished — was to encourage the staff spiritually. I think we're high activity people. Young Life just has grown with that atmosphere of performance, getting it done, accomplishing and growth, all those beautiful things. But I saw some people, including myself who lost some touch with God in their own personal daily walk with Jesus. I think that was on my heart most of all. How to encourage our busy, wonderful, field staff to have that relationship with God and prayer. And I think we made some good efforts in those years but still my biggest concern for people in ministry is, are they doing that ministry out of a heart that is very full and warm in their relationship with God.”
This desire was not lost on those around him, as recounted in Made for This: The Young Life Story …
“His love for the Scriptures and the Savior they spoke of endeared ‘Mitch’ to the mission. ‘If there was ever a person who epitomized the heart of Young Life, I think it was Mitch,’” said Doug Burleigh, Young Life’s fourth president. ‘We all loved to hear him speak. We have all laughed at his humor. We have all wept as he articulated the heartbeat of Young Life, Christ, and kids.’”
Few in the mission could touch Mitch when it came to telling stories. He often shared classic tales from camping with Rayburn out in East Texas in the ’40s. One night, as the boys were trying to fall asleep on their bedrolls, they couldn’t help but notice Rayburn had an inflatable air mattress …
“Most of us had not seen an air mattress, and certainly we didn’t appreciate the fact that our fearless leader had one, and we did not … Sometime in the middle of the night, while he was asleep, a couple of us crawled quietly over to Jim’s mattress and unscrewed the valve. To this day, I can remember the sound of the escaping air, and the feeling of accomplishment we had in this prank. Ssssssss …
“As the mattress deflated, and Jim was lowered upon the rocks, he did not move, nor did he open his eyes. All he said, quietly, was, ‘Blow it up, boys!’
“And we did!
“But do you know how hard it is to blow up an air mattress with someone lying on it? We took turns blowing. It sounds crazy, but we might have blown for hours if he had told us to do so. That’s how much we thought of this man, who led us to Jesus!”
(From Mitch’s book, Letters to a Young Life Leader, 2012)
Another favorite, this one from the ’50s, involved the assumption he was a communist! As a student at Wheaton College, he would drive in his old ’36 Chevy to the local high school to meet kids …
“‘It had no windows and it was really cold,’ Mitchell said. ‘By the time I'd get to the high school I would just be frozen. So, I'd get out of my old car and go into the high school to do contact work, wearing an overcoat because I was freezing. I'd have the collar turned up and some teacher saw me with my overcoat on and turned me in as a communist and some kind of subversive drug dealer or something. I found myself in the principal's office trying to explain who I was and that I was not a communist!’”
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story, 2015)
Following the Young Life presidency, Mitch became president of the Young Life Foundation. He served in this role until 1990, when he followed the Lord’s leading to join the ministry of World Vision, where he served until 1995. An ordained Presbyterian (USA) minister, he received requests from churches across the nation to come and preach.
For the next several years he remained a much sought-after speaker, especially in Young Life circles, where he continued to encourage staff and volunteers with words similar to the ones he penned in his book, Letters to a Young Life Leader:
“For forty years while on the Young Life staff I would have the privilege of proclaiming this gospel. It was God’s loving and mysterious way of giving to me a most wonderful opportunity to live out those powerful never-to-be-forgotten words of Jim in his final admonition to me. And like followers of Jesus all over the world, this gospel continues to sink ever deeper into my heart and life!
“What is God like? Let the entire world of young people see him! His name is Jesus!
“Don’t ever quit talking about Jesus.”
Editor's Note: Over the next few issues of Relationships, we'll look back at some of our core methods and how we've adapted them over time. As you'll see, many of these stories previously appeared in various books on the mission.
Young Life officially turns 80 on October 16, 2021, and over the years we’ve learned a lot as a mission, with both the Lord and adolescents serving as our teachers. Our commitment to Christ and kids is still as strong as it was in 1941, but our methods continue to evolve so we might “win as many as possible.”
One such method is contact work. Simply stated, this is where caring adults enter the world of kids and build authentic relationships with them; helping us “earn the right to be heard.” While contact work is foundational to this mission, we certainly did not invent the concept. This idea of “going where they are” began with Jesus, who left the comforts of heaven to come to earth and be with us. To put it another way, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).
All over the world Young Life leaders leave their homes, workplaces, dorms, etc., and enter into a “foreign” culture — the world of kids — to let them know we genuinely care.
This was not, however, always the case. In the very beginning of the mission, we embraced the traditional platform ministry, where leaders presented the gospel message in cities like Dallas and Houston, Texas, over the course of several nights. When they finished they would move along to the next place and try and come back to the earlier cities later on. While the response was strong — many teenagers came to Christ through these tent meetings — this approach left little in the way of daily life-on-life relationships and follow-up.
God was about to teach us a better way …
In the early 1940s Add Sewell moved to Tyler, Texas, where he made perhaps one of the greatest “discoveries” in the history of the mission simply by doing what came naturally. He was well aware the work there must run differently than the earlier “appearances” he and his fellow seminarians made in their weekly commutes to Houston. “You can’t have a Young Life club like that,” he said. “We had no contact with kids prior to or after those clubs.” He was well aware that doing ministry in Tyler where he lived, afforded him an opportunity to go deeper with kids simply because of proximity to the high school.
Sewell knew the missing ingredient was time. Club meetings, while filled with energy, could never be the lifeblood of outreach work to kids. They needed adults who cared enough to come alongside them and spend time learning what was important to them. Looking for a better approach with the ministry in Tyler, Sewell started showing up at football practices, where he simply hung out and kicked the football around with the kids. In the process, he developed relationships with kids — just what he saw missing in the weekly trips to Houston.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
In June 1960 three staff — Bill Milliken, Harv Oostdyk and Vinnie De Pasquale — spent all night talking about their vision for kids in New York City. They knew from experience that contact work in the city would be most successful, not at the school, but in the neighborhoods where kids lived. Meeting across the river in Newark, New Jersey, where ministry had already been established, the trio planned to begin a new work immediately …
The next morning, June 18, 1960, as they left Newark, the men could be spotted dribbling a basketball across the George Washington Bridge, in the hopes of meeting New York City kids who wanted to shoot hoops.
From these humble beginnings, the work in New York City was born.
“When Vinnie and I moved to the city,” Milliken said, “we had one gift between us: Like me, Vinnie could have earned a degree in hanging out. But that was exactly what was missing in the lives of those young people. Nobody was out on the streets with them, walking with them, talking with them, shooting hoops … Being there was what it was all about.”
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
Ever since we began ministry overseas, we’ve seen how effective contact work is anywhere in the world. In 1999 it was critical to starting the work in Ethiopia as Chuck Reinhold explains …
I encountered a group of kids trying to make money in a pretty unprofitable venture: shining shoes. Immediately drawn to them, I went outside the gate to play with them day after day. Just like their counterparts in the states, these boys were drawn to me as well. While an interpreter was needed to bypass the barriers of language, the kids had no problem understanding my love for them.
Over time I began leading a Bible study with the boys.
“They were studying the leper Jesus touched and healed,” Linda Reinhold explained. “Chuck asked them if they would have first touched the leper before healing him. He wasn’t ready for their answer. Each one of them had parents who were lepers.
“Suddenly, the conversation got personal and Jesus became real! Not only were their parents lepers, but beggars as well.”
I continued having Bible studies with “the shoeshine boys,” started a soccer team with them and eventually found a way to send them to a boarding school outside the city.
Eight out of the nine boys graduated and went on to university. These former shoe shiners now possessed the skills necessary to obtain full-time jobs.
(From A Life Worth Living, by Chuck Reinhold)
In Young Life, the high school cafeteria comes close to sacred ground. For more than 60 years, it has been a key place of contact between Christ and kids through the flesh and bone of Young Life leaders who drop in for a visit.
On April 20, 1999, however, that sacred ground became a battleground when hundreds of kids hit the cafeteria floor at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Among the faces pressed against the cold concrete that morning was Young Life Area Director Kevin Parker.
Kevin was on campus to grab a friend for lunch when a janitor ran through the room screaming, “Down! Down! Down!” According to Kevin, the next three minutes were “the most intense and fearful” moments of his life. There were gunshots and pipe bombs, and then a mass exit of students and adults from the building. Kevin escaped unharmed. Sadly, fifteen others didn’t. Fourteen students and one teacher lost their lives that day at school.
That night, Kevin and Kerry Parker’s home was flooded with hurting kids. In some respects, it seemed God had been bracing Littleton for this tsunami for years. Young Life was twenty-five years deep in the community and more leaders were connected with kids than ever before.
A common question among the crowd: Where was God that day at Columbine High School?
Not an easy question to answer at such a tragic time. But for kids who came to the Parkers for comfort and consolation, one answer became increasingly clear. Jesus was lying on the cafeteria floor that day as the bullets and bombs exploded. And now Jesus was extending a healing hand through these two faithful friends.
“Young Life leaders will never step into the schools again with the same confidence we once did, but we will continue to be there because our faith compels us to go.” — Kevin Parker
(From Collecting Lost Coins, by Donna Hatasaki)
Leaders have often faced barriers when meeting kids, but none as widespread and formidable as this past year’s pandemic. The physical separation forced leaders to think about contact work in a whole new way — “How can we reach kids when we can’t be with them?”
Quite simply, through creativity. It’s safe to say our staff and volunteers have never spent more time thinking outside the box. Here’s a short list of ways leaders connected with kids in 2020-21: Virtual tutoring, playing tic-tac-toe through kids’ windows, drive-by proms, pizza drop-offs, making masks for kids, delivering diapers and formula to YoungLives moms, and countless more!
It’s encouraging to know that even in the worst of times we can still live out the gospel.
While Young Life’s visible elements (club, camp, etc.) garner the most attention, the behind-the-scenes work of going to kids and patiently building relationships with them is what our ministry is all about. Remove our relational approach and we cease to be Young Life.
Perhaps Wally Howard, one of Young Life’s first five staff, put it best:
“Our message is a person. God made Himself known to us through a person. And He still makes Himself known through people. And that’s what Young Life’s all about.”
Primarily covered in forests and mountains, 6,852 islands make up the East Asian country of Japan. Approximately 126 million people live in “Nippon” or “Nihon” (the Japanese name for Japan, meaning “sun origin”). The vast majority live in urban areas including Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo.
Religions including Shintoism and Buddhism are followed by over 90% of people living in Japan. Historically, Japan has been known as one of the most difficult countries to influence spiritually. However, the Lord has been using Young Life to share the gospel here since 1990 when American Brett Cocreham started ministry in Chiba. Current Country Director Daisuke Ikegami rose in leadership under Brett’s mentoring. In the early 2000s, Newt and Susan Crenshaw helped launch Young Life in the city of Kobe.
Today, still in the midst of a pandemic, Young Life Japan recently held a successful Snow Camp where we introduced students to the gospel message. Foreshadowing what is to come for Japanese adolescents, our leaders are excitedly praying for future camps and ministries. New leadership in East Asia is also looking ahead and building a strong framework by hiring national staff and establishing a legal entity. With this new vision, Daisuke and his team anticipate significant growth and eternal impact in the years ahead.
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