Leaning on the Past as We Work towards the Future

October 4th, 2009

Kevin was the first kid I met at the middle school where we were starting a new WyldLife club (Young Life's ministry to middle schoolers). He caught my attention during the seventh grade basketball game. First of all, he seemed leery of me—an adult sitting in the student section—and I quickly found out why. The principal soon came and scolded Kevin for something he had recently done. It was apparent to me that Kevin was considered a troublemaker.

The second thing that caught my eye was his shirt, which had an arrow pointing down and stated in large block letters “Objects in pants are larger than they appear.” I first wondered what kind of parents let their sixth grader wear a shirt like that to school. But then I thought, “This is a kid I want to hang out with!”

In 1938, over sixty five years ago, youth pastor Jim Rayburn walked across the street from his church in Gainesville, Texas, in order to reach the kids who didn't come to church. He and his pastor, Clyde Kennedy, worked out a plan whereby Jim would work with disinterested kids instead of those who already attended their church. As Jim's son recounts in his biography, “Armed with a soft spot in his heart for kids, and a burning love affair with God, Jim headed for the local high school. Little did anyone suspect how far-reaching his efforts would be.” This was the beginning of Young Life, which now annually impacts over one million kids.

Over the next few years Rayburn established some distinct principles for reaching out to disinterested and uncommitted kids: prayer; “Walk in wisdom towards those who are without;” believe “It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel;” “Earn the right to be heard;” “Teach, don't preach;” “Go;” and trust that our best work with kids is yet to be done. The question that comes to mind as I think about reaching kids like Kevin is whether or not these same principles will help us be effective today.

Principle #1—Prayer

Obviously prayer is a principle that's as effective today as it was in 1938. In fact, in today's world, prayer is even more important. Jim Rayburn was a man of prayer. In his biography it's recounted over and over again how Jim placed an emphasis on prayer and even took his staff away to solitary places to pray all night and even for a number of days at a time. In his journal in November 1944 he wrote, “This has been truly one of the great days of my life. Shortly after going to bed last night, about 1:00 a.m., I became very restless. Soon got up, read the Word and prayed. The Lord met me in such a strange and warm way as I bared my heart before him until 5:00 a.m. Then up at 6:30 and out to pray with the men. Came right back here where I spent the whole morning and most of afternoon in prayer and study.” What could we accomplish if we did this today?

Principle #2—Walk in Wisdom towards Those Who Are Without

Where I live, we have a guy who I'm sure has good intentions in spreading the gospel. He goes to local colleges and universities, stands in a highly visible place, and preaches (rails, really) that people must repent or they'll go straight to hell. The message certainly gets out, but most (if not all) people—even the Christians on campus—are repulsed by this method of evangelism. I think he's sending people who don't know Christ even farther away from him. Jim Rayburn encouraged his young staff in the forties to “walk in wisdom towards those who are without” (Colossians 4:5 DARBY). Without what? John Miller, in Back To The Basics of Young Life writes, “…without Christ. Therefore, they are without everything that matters. They are without hope, peace, forgiveness, direction, identity, purpose, understanding as to who they are, where they come from or, most of all, where they are going.”

Walking in wisdom towards Kevin, now a seventh grader routinely in trouble, can be tricky. The world of a 33-year-old balding Christian youth worker is literally decades different from his. To bring the Gospel to Kevin in a meaningful and appropriate way will take time, consistency, wisdom, and God's perfect direction, along with boldness to follow through when God says to move ahead in the relationship. In his journal in 1941, Jim admonished himself, saying, “Christian fella, you have a great God-given responsibility toward the ones outside God's family, walk in wisdom towards them—behave wisely—this involves so much—remember they are in the dark—their understanding is nil—their senses are dulled—they cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God. To behave wisely towards them will involve being understanding and friendly, avoiding ugliness or criticism—always being gentle and tactful.” This is exactly what kids like Kevin need today.

Principle #3—It's a Sin to Bore a Kid with the Gospel

One night Kevin unexpectedly showed up at our new WyldLife club. I hadn't gotten to the point where I was comfortable enough to ask him to join us, but his friends had heard about it and decided to come. I'm sure he had no idea what he was getting into, but I'm also sure that he had a good time. Club is a safe place for kids where the adult leaders treat the kids like kings and queens. We play games, laugh a lot, sing a couple of songs that kids might have heard on the radio on the way over, and share the great news of God's love in terms they can understand. Jim once said, “When you talk to kids about the sovereign of all that is, the One who made you and everything else, the One who became one of us, the One who died for us, and the One who is alive for us today—Don't You Dare Bore Anyone With That!” He went on to say, “If you can't do this, then you need to get better acquainted with the One you are talking about.”

Principle #4—Earn the Right to Be Heard

Consistent, continual, and intentional contact work is the basis for all we do in Young Life. This is the natural result of principle number two. Adults can have friendships with kids. Teachers and administrators sometimes refute this, but it's true; kids and adults can become friends. These relationships develop over time and are the result of a consistent personal presence in the lives of kids. The outcome is trust. There are two distinct parts. First, the adult must “earn the right” and secondly, “be heard.” Sometimes in Young Life we earn the right but are never heard. Sometimes youth ministries never earn the right, but make sure they're heard anyway. We need to find a healthy balance. Jesus commanded his followers to love each other (John 15:12-17). My hope is that I'll know Christ so intimately that his love will overflow through me into the lives of kids like Kevin. Therefore, it'll be easy for me to tell Kevin of Christ's love, because he will have felt it already.

Principle #5—Teach, Don't Preach

Many kids today only know bits and pieces about God's redemptive story. Irrelevance, confusion, apathy, and fear are some of the reactions they have to thoughts about God. As John Miller says, “Therefore, [we] are to be in the posture of teaching…as we provide information that will begin to fill in the gaps and connect up their ideas of God.” Have you ever been with a kid as he understood God's grace for the first time? It's amazing to see the understanding happen. This doesn't come through telling them a moral code or proper use of language or system of right and wrong. It comes through the Spirit of God moving in a kid's life, most often having an adult friend who walks alongside and teaches her about Jesus. My hope is that I'll someday be able to walk Kevin down this road from confusion and fear to beauty and wonder.

Principle #6—Go

A pastor once wrote, “We are no longer fishers of men but keepers of aquariums.” One of the most important words that Jesus told us was, “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Jim Rayburn said to “go where they are; seek them. We are God's seekers; people who look for those in hiding. We go to their turf as He came to ours. In Young Life we call this contact work and it is so clearly scriptural, so wonderfully Christlike.” I would've never met Kevin in the first place if I hadn't gone first to where he was. It isn't easy. There are always excuses we can make and reasons we can come up with why we shouldn't go. But, God still tells us to go. Colossians 1:27 reads, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of his mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Amazingly, God has chosen to place the hope of Glory within us. We don't completely understand it. It truly is a mystery. But Christ literally goes to kids when we physically go to where they are: at the lunch room, in detention, at practice, in the halls before school, or any of the thousands of places where kids are.

Principle #7—Our Best Work with Kids Is Yet to Be Done

There are so many difficult circumstances that can bring us down and cause us to feel negatively about ministry to kids. The bombardment of reasons to quit can seem to come from all sides: parents, teachers, administrators, pastors, leaders, donors, and even kids. We can feel alone, frustrated, tired, and scared. Jim Rayburn and his young staff in the 1940s felt all of these, too. Still, they decided that they'd been called to the forgotten kids and that God would allow them to do their ministry better and better each year. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 2: 3-5, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” God can take the struggles we have in working with kids like Kevin and use them to bring these very kids to Jesus. If our attitude is one of thankfulness to God for the joys and the struggles, then surely our best work with kids is yet to be done.

I wonder what it would look like if Jim Rayburn were alive and working with kids today in my town. How would he interact with Kevin? How would Kevin respond to him? I think he would read Kevin's shirt, hear about his broken family life and troubles in school and say, “Now that is a kid I want to hang out with.” He would use his decades-old principles and allow Christ to work through him in order that they would meet Jesus in an authentic and life-changing way.


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