Young Life: Friends & FaithMay 17, 2019
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Daniel Vasta
It looked like chaos one April evening at Teen Outback as a roomful of high school students and a handful of adults ran around under black light trying to shoot each other with Nerf guns. That controlled chaos was intentional and part of the “party with a purpose” that describes Young Life, and the group gathered for the second-to-last, countywide Club meeting of the school year.
Young Life is a relationship-based ministry that depends on adult leaders building friendships with high school students, and sharing the Gospel with the students organically as they get to know each other and talk about their lives. To build those relationships, the leaders get to know students through attending school events like sports games, and interacting with the students one-on-one and in small groups, as well as at larger Young Life events like the countywide Club and the bi-weekly Bible study group called Campaigners.
“I just try to use my experience to guide them through high school, because it’s a tough time,” said Alie White, a Jasper Young Life leader.
Alie got involved in Young Life as a student at Jasper High School in 2002. During high school, she formed a strong relationship with her leader, Stacy Lindauer. White remembers Lindauer’s mentorship being instrumental for her high school experience, and the two are still friends today.
After high school, Alie attended Indiana University, where she got involved with Bloomington’s Young Life group. When she moved back to Dubois County in 2011, White got involved locally, serving on Young Life staff for a few years before transitioning back into the leader role. This year, she’s particularly close with a group of juniors, and she regularly meets them for breakfast, has them over to her home and hires them to babysit her kids.
Alie’s relationship with her group of juniors shows Young Life’s core. Spiritual growth is the goal, but the ministry depends on building relationships.
“The faith side is to introduce them to Jesus,” Alie said. “A lot [of students] go to church, but you’re there to answer any questions and show them what it’s like to live a life dedicated to Jesus. It’s to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
And if the students don’t show an interest in Jesus, that’s OK, Alie said. She’s there for them anyway. The unconditional acceptance can make a huge difference. Alie recently heard from a student she had in her Young Life group in 2013. The student wrote that she’s recently accepted Jesus, and the relationship she had with Alie in high school was part of the reason.
Not all of the students wait until they’ve graduated high school to follow Jesus. Jasper High School senior Laurel Hubster has attended church all her life, but she credits Young Life with showing her what it’s like to have a deep faith that’s part of everyday life.
“I was raised Catholic, but I didn’t like going to church,” Laurel said.
She first got involved with Young Life as a sixth-grader at Jasper Middle School when she joined the WyldLife. High school Young Life students lead WyldLife for their middle school peers, and Laurel decided in eighth grade that she’d like to be a WyldLife leader herself. She reached that goal her junior year.
“WyldLife specifically has taught me to be a good leader,” she said.
JHS senior Hagan Patton also grew his faith through Young Life. Like Laurel, he got involved with WyldLife in middle school and now leads WyldLife for younger students. He still remembers his WyldLife leaders, Noah Bawel and Luke Hochgesang, to name a couple, and credits them with keeping him involved with Young Life in high school and helping him grow his faith.
“It was cool as a middle schooler to see these high schoolers take an interest in my life,” Hagan said.
When he got into high school, he decided to become a WyldLife leader as a way to give back. A big part of Young Life and WyldLife is forming a community that helps teens figure out middle school and high school, Hagan said. He wanted to be part of that.
“Everybody is so compassionate toward each other,” he said.
As a leader, Hagan always encourages his students to attend WyldLife and Young Life camps. For him, those trips were life-changing. Aside from being a lot of fun and a good bonding experience, Hagan said, the camps helped deepen his faith more and guided some major decisions. Most recently, attending a camp led him to dedicate his life to following Jesus.
“I chose to be all in for God and just have an impact on the world by following Jesus,” he said.
Although faith is one aspect of Young Life, leaders strike a balance between sharing faith and giving the students they’re leading fun activities with adults they can trust to be there for them regardless.
Alie described the balance as “winning the right to be heard and share your faith.”
That balance is part of the reason countywide events like Club and Campaigners are designed for people who have never heard of Jesus. At Club events, leaders plan games and fun activities, like the black light Nerf war, to give the students a chance to relax and have fun. It’s not until the end of the night that faith is brought into the mix with a short message.
Campaigners, too, isn’t as focused on the Bible as a typical Bible study. At a recent Campaigners meeting at Young Life leader Kevin Messmer’s house in Jasper, the group discussed forgiveness by first watching a TEDx talk. After that, the group split into boys and girls to discuss forgiveness more deeply, and Bible verses weren’t brought up until that small group discussion was well underway.
Focusing on building relationships rather than immediately sharing the Bible is intentional and part of how leaders show their students that they will be there for them regardless of their faith choices. That trust is important. Students often share serious and sometimes traumatic experiences with their leaders.
In the girls’ group during the Campaigners’ meeting about forgiveness, some of the girls brought up traumatic experiences and how hard it’s been for them to forgive those.
Alie said it’s typical for conversations to go there at Campaigners.
“Usually they’ve already had those conversations one-on-one with their leaders, so it’s easier for them to open up in a group setting because they’ve already started healing,” Alie said. “That’s the thing that’s really neat about Campaigners. It’s a tight-knit group.”
At the core of that tight-knit group are the Young Life leaders and the relationships they’ve built with their students.
Right now, Young Life is looking for more adults to step up and be leaders for the group. The ministry is in the midst of a plan to get Young Life groups in all four county high schools, but is struggling to find leaders.
“That’s one of our biggest prayers right now, getting more leaders,” said Courtney Foye, area director for Dubois County Young Life.
Jasper has a thriving Young Life community that is 20 years strong, and the group established a presence at Southridge High School a couple of years ago, led by Terry Fogle, the Young Life staff member who oversees Southridge leaders. But students at Forest Park and Northeast Dubois who want to be involved in Young Life must travel to Jasper or Huntingburg. Courtney and Terry know of a couple of groups from both Forest Park and Northeast Dubois that regularly make the trip.
“I think that’s a really clear example of how the ministry is growing,” Terry said.
Right now, Courtney and Terry are most focused on establishing a group at Forest Park, and are looking for adults to step up to form the committee that will oversee that group. Once a committee is in place, leaders will be recruited.
“There needs to be a group of adults taking ownership of that group,” Courtney said.
Of course, the Jasper and Southridge groups can always use more leaders, too. Becoming a leader means becoming part of a community that gives leaders back as much as they put in.
“These kids — these students — they can teach me as much as I can teach them,” Alie said. “They’re my friends, no matter what.”
At the end of a Campaigners meeting this week, the students and leaders displayed their friendship as they said goodbye to Jasper leader Jon Gallagher. Jon is getting ready to move out of the area. As a farewell, all 30 people in attendance laid their hands on him and prayed for him and his future, and thanked God for his participation in Young Life and the impact he’s made on each of their lives.
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