A prominent ecumenical Christian ministry is facing criticism from a group of former staff and volunteers who argue that the nearly 80-year-old organization should open leadership roles to those in same-sex relationships.
Young Life, the Colorado Springs-based parachurch ministry, operates camps and outreach to teens and young adults across more than 100 countries. It is unclear how extensive or organized the LGBT-affirming pressure campaign is. Religion News Service (RNS) reports this week that it took shape in July as a grassroots campaign that has become a “movement” – citing more than 6,700 signatures for a change.org petition seeking for Young Life to repeal its sexual conduct policy.
It is unclear how many of the signatories have a connection with Young Life, which counts approximately 348,000 youth “involved weekly around the world.” The organization has a broad reach to students in middle school, high school and college. Further, special ministries seek to reach teen moms and teens with disabilities. Young Life counts “more than 80,000 staff and volunteers in 104 countries” and notes they minister to more than two million at any given time.
The petition makes several demands regarding claims to intersectional justice, but those regarding sexual identity and expression are the primary focal point. Petition organizers specifically state that Young Life must “Normalize asking for and using correct pronouns” and “Fully affirm queer relationships and queer sexuality.”
“For many former Young Life employees, their break with the organization led to a break with their faith,” RNS reports. Young Life describes its mission as introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.
It is a legitimate question to ask why former staff or volunteers who now disavow the Gospel at the center of Young Life’s mission want to continue in an organization whose primary purpose they have no interest in.
Young Life is not the first Christian ministry or parachurch organization to come under pressure from an organized campaign that seeks to open leadership roles to persons in same-sex relationships. In recent years, InterVarsity and Cru have both been critiqued by former staff and volunteers who separated from the ministries after publicly identifying as gay or lesbian and pursuing noncelibate relationships, or affirming such unions.
In the past, small LGBT interest groups or networks have had a public relations roll-out (in this case, using the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife) and received coverage from RNS. Some have fizzled without further coverage, others have gained broader attention.
Officials in a handful of other Christian institutions, including relief and development organization World Vision USA and Azusa Pacific University, have made initial moves towards opening employment to those in same-sex partnerships, only to step back after stakeholders and donors disagreed.
Hopefully, this campaign will not lead to an Azusa or World Vision scenario in which leadership changes policies, then flips back because of stakeholder outrage.
The RNS article leads with the story of Kent Thomas, a former mountain guide at a Young Life camp in British Columbia. Thomas, a man in a gay relationship, was told by Young Life that he could not continue in his role. Thomas tells RNS that almost six years later, that haunts him.
“I still have dreams about Young Life at least once a week,” said Thomas, now 30. “Sometimes I’m being welcomed as a queer person, sometimes I’m being ostracized as a queer person.”
As my colleague Chelsen Vicari observed with surprise, Thomas is not facing dreams about global pandemics, economic crisis, or bear attacks. Instead, weekly nightmares are about rejection from a student ministry years ago.
Officials within Young Life have sought to respond with a conciliatory tone, while maintaining orthodox Christian teaching.
“We are deeply saddened to know that any individual would walk away from their experience with Young Life feeling hurt or shamed, and wish to apologize for instances where our sins of commission and omission have caused this pain,” read a Young Life statement provided to IRD. “These stories highlight the need to review how we train staff and volunteers to come alongside and love kids who identify as LGBTQ+ — without conditions, judgement or shame.”
In the statement, the parachurch group notes “Young Life welcomes and includes all young people as participants in our programs and activities, regardless of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation or identity, or other factors.”
Young Life has added that “stories now being shared by current and former members of the Young Life family represent a small fraction of the experiences across Young Life” but does not dismiss the claims. The statement shares that on July 17, Young Life announced the creation of a council “to review all of these stories and recommend the appropriate course of action in each case.”
The review council is to include both staff and non-staff.
“The formation of this council is a next step in what we expect will be a long process of review, reflection, repentance and reform,” the statement reads.
The organization also notes that it “has expectations for leadership that are consistent with the tenets of our faith and what we believe is God’s best for us. This includes an understanding that, at our foundation, we are all made in the image of a God who loves us. Young Life aligns with historical Christian theology in believing that sexuality is a gift from God and that God guides us in how to use this gift, including that intimate sexual activity should occur within a marriage covenant between a man and a woman.”