Eight members of Young Life’s teaching staff in Durham, North Carolina, were terminated or resigned at the end of November after they declined to abide by a new set of “non-negotiable” guidelines for proclaiming the gospel message to teenagers. In the wake of what detractors are calling the Durham Massacre, broader questions about what it means to evangelize a generation of postmodern teenagers have been dragged out of the closet.

In essence, the eight Durham teaching staffers of Young Life—the 66-year-old organization founded by Jim Rayburn and known for popularizing an “incarnational” approach to ministry—fundamentally disagreed with what they perceived as a shift in the ministry’s gospel-sharing strategy from a “rescue first, then repent” approach to a “repent first, then rescue” emphasis.

Young Life’s eight-page internal document, titled “Non-Negotiables of Young Life’s Gospel Proclamation,” essentially outlines what the organization’s leadership calls “key elements of what we will present and what our audiences can expect when they are involved with Young Life.” According to Terry Swenson, VP of Communications for Young Life, the document was crafted by the ministry’s senior leadership (led by President Denny Rydberg) and pruned by the organization’s regional directors and a handful of “friends.” Swenson says it was intended to be used as an internal training document, though detractors point out that the tone and emphasis of the Proclamation make it seem like a litmus test for continued employment by the organization. For example, the document ends with the quasi-ominous promise that “we will hold them [staffers and volunteers] accountable for the content and clarity of our proclamation.”
The “six imperatives” fleshed out in the document include:

  1. We proclaim the person of Jesus Christ in every message.
  2. We proclaim the reality of sin and its consequences—that apart from divine grace, we are estranged from God by our disobedience and incapable of a right relationship with God.
  3. We proclaim the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the ultimate proof of God’s love and the only solution to our problem of sin.
  4. We proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  5. We proclaim the risen Christ’s offer of salvation by inviting our middle school, high school, and college friends to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.
  6. We proclaim God’s call to discipleship by encouraging all who respond to grow in their faith.

The bulk of the document is not in dispute—the vortex of the controversy is most closely connected to #2. In particular, members of Young Life’s Durham staff objected to the Proclamation’s emphasis on what they call separation theology—that evangelism requires kids to understand and respond to their own depravity before they can receive the salvation won by Jesus. The language used to flesh out that “essential element” of the Proclamation includes: “The condition of humankind in the sight of God [means] that sin is a present reality which renders unbelievers estranged from God and totally incapable of living an abundant, eternal life.” In short, the document’s detractors believe it’s wrong for Young Life to assert that God’s grace is “not effective until the teen repents.”

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In a 21-page document that seemed to spark the creation of the Non-Negotiables Proclamation, Jeff McSwain, area director for Young Life in North Carolina, listed 25 ways the so-called separation model of evangelism runs counter to Young Life’s historic mission and the biblical truth that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The separation model, argues McSwain, essentially communicates to kids that Jesus’ work of salvation is incomplete until they accomplish a heartfelt work of repentance. Instead, he says, the truth is that Jesus has already won our salvation, whether or not we receive it through repentance. Repentance, in essence, is what happens after we’re received by the father of the Prodigal Son. In a summary statement at the end of his response, McSwain writes: “Isn’t Young Life modeled after Jesus Christ as particularly illustrated in his relationships with the down and out? Don’t we believe that the fierce love of God is a better catalyst than condemnation and fear?”

Because McSwain and his supporters could not accept what they saw as rigid, fundamentalist parameters around this chicken-or-egg theological dilemma, they were seen as incongruous to the organization’s central mission and representative of a troubling drift toward a de-emphasis on sinful separation in our relationship with God.

According to Swenson, Rydberg led his leadership team to craft the Proclamation because “there has been a felt need for putting on paper what we’ve done for many years—that sense of need has evolved over many years. But I’m not aware of a single event or person [that precipitated the document].”

Swenson disputed the idea that the document will be used as a “litmus test” for employment with Young Life, and asserted that the “Durham Eight” are the only ones among the organization’s 3,000 paid and 27,000 unpaid staffers to publicly object to the Proclamation’s assertions. He called the terminations an “agreement to disagree,” even though the dismissed staffers did not express a desire to leave the organization because of the controversy.

Swenson adds: “We want to be consistent in message but we don’t want staff to stop experimenting in the way they proclaim the gospel. Young Life continues to proclaim the gospel and talk about sin in an overwhelming context of love and forgiveness. We accept kids where they are as they are. When they come to camp or club, the process always begins with God’s love for them and the person of Christ.”

But Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, lead researcher for The National Study of Youth and Religion, and an ardent supporter of the Durham Eight, has taken Young Life leadership to task for essentially creating a problem where none existed. Speaking on behalf of those critical of the Proclamation, Smith says: “…most statements in the non-negotiable document are sound and sensible…and we believe that those who wrote it meant well. But we believe that, if there are real grounds for thinking that some teachings in some Young Life settings are thin or fuzzy, there are more effective ways to deal with those concerns than instituting a one-size-fits-all, non-negotiable set of requirements.”

The Upshot: After diving into the arguments on both sides of this controversy, I’m struck by…

  • how unnecessarily formulaic and draconian Young Life’s “Non-Negotiables” document seems,
  • how the resulting terminations are distracting to the organization’s mission and signal a yellow flag about its ongoing ability to lead in the spirit of its founder, Jim Rayburn,
  • and by the detractors’ theological hair-splitting response to the document.
    In every sense, this disagreement should never have escalated to mass terminations and superheated finger-pointing. And the response to the Proclamation was likely too alarmist and too quick to assume bad motives on the part of Young Life’s leadership. All in all, the whole mess has diabolic fingerprints all over it. Here’s hoping Young Life’s leadership, staffers, and supporters quickly move past this overblown distraction.

Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 20 years.

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