Joel "Bubba" Murphy had the tough-guy image down. With his shaved head, bulging muscles and countless tattoos, he was the guy no one dared to approach. Whenever there was a fight worth hearing about, his name was brought up. Every Crescenta Valley High School student knew who he was, but never took the chance to get to know him.
This all changed when Young Life leader Scott Sund, '97, and his colleagues stepped into the La Crescenta, Calif., scene. They got to know Murphy by going to his football practices and games.
"The Young Life leaders saw past what everyone else did. It meant a lot for someone I didn't even know to care so much about me," Murphy says.
Bubba's dad walked out on him when he was two years old, and it seemed as though no other adults wanted to give him the time of day.
None of that mattered to Sund or to the rest of the Young Life leaders.
"We just cared for him. We knew that behind his 'Bubba' image, there was a guy named Joel who just wanted to be heard and loved," Sund says.
The love the Young Life leaders exhibited ended up making Murphy want to give his life to Jesus Christ.
Murphy's story is just one of thousands across the country. Young Life reports clubs in more than 3,700 schools reaching nearly 681,000 students each year. The ministry has 3,171 staff members and many more trained volunteers.
Young Life founder Jim Rayburn would stand outside of high schools with tears on his face and an aching heart for the students who hadn't heard the gospel. Rayburn began his dream of reaching these students by creating a club called Young Life, where students would come to sing songs, play games and hear the gospel.
Sam Adams, '52, was one of the first students to attend the club meetings. He came because Rayburn had done things to stand out that no one else in ministry did, particularly showing up for football games.
"Jim was always on the practice field. We knew he wasn't a parent, so his coming really stood out," Adams says.
All the work Rayburn put in paid off when Adams and a few friends accepted the Christian faith. Rayburn knew that a Christian college was what these young men needed, so he told them they needed to go to Whitworth.
"I can't remember how that conversation went," Adams says. "But he told me I was going to go to Whitworth and play football. Next thing I knew, I was at Whitworth living in a room with two guys from Dallas."
With Young Life having such an impact in Adams' life, he hoped to give a little bit back to the ministry. Adams found himself busy with school and sports, but he still found time for ministry.
"We went to the football games on Friday nights to get to know the athletes. Friday was a fairly light day for us at Whitworth, so it worked out well," Adams says.
Whitworth President Frank Warren consistently checked up on Adams and the "boys from Texas" to see how they were doing and to provide encouragement.
"Dr. Warren was such a class act. Most of us were pretty rough characters, and he was great with us," Adams says.
Warren's words of affirmation and encouragement helped keep the young men motivated and moving in the right direction.
Young Life Now
When Aaron McMurray stepped in as Inland Northwest regional director, Young Life only had clubs at five Spokane area high schools.
The Young Life programs in these areas are now four times that size. There are four full-time area directors in Spokane and Spokane Valley and more than 20 schools with clubs, says McMurray.
McMurray's success in this region has been partly due to the 10 years he has spent leading Young Life in Spokane.
"That's my job description: to provide spiritual leadership and vision for the region," McMurray says.
Fund-raising has proven to be a challenge for McMurray. With the rapid growth and expansion of the ministry, some are resistant to the changes Young Life has faced, McMurray says.
"Young Life is too organized now. All the paperwork and business stuff is taking away from what Young Life is all about: reaching kids," Adams says.
McMurray knows that Young Life is more professional now than it has ever been, but he believes that this professionalism is necessary due to the expansion of the ministry. The business aspect of Young Life has changed, but the heart of the mission has not, says McMurray. Young Life will always be about building authentic relationships with students.
Young Life began more than a half-century ago focusing its ministry toward popular students at suburban high schools, McMurray says. Today, Young Life has expanded its ministry focus to mi
ddle-school students, pregnant teens, disabled teens and urban communities.
Youth culture has made dramatic shifts over the past 60 years, as well. High schools don't have much of a top-down, popular-to-unpopular caste system anymore, says Kara Powell, an assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and the executive director of the seminary's Center for Youth and Family Ministry. Students are less concerned about getting in with the football players and more concerned about themselves and about staying true to their group of friends.
Adolescents have changed the way they see adults, Powell says, because youth frequently feel abandoned by their families, church, teachers and other adults.
"Parents don't always make their kids their number-one priority. They outsource parenting to others and assume that others will give their kids the nurture and care the kids need," Powell says.
Abandonment has taken away a lot of the trust that students once had for adults, according to Powell; therefore, students have attached closely to a small group of friends. Powell says these groups can serve as a substitute for a student's family. The emergence of these groups or clusters is one reason that the high-school caste system simply doesn't exist anymore.
Young Life has had to rethink its strategy to reach students, says Kent McDonald, Young Life Inland Northwest regional trainer. In the past, Young Life aimed toward reaching the most popular students so that everyone else would want to get involved.
"We can't do that anymore," McDonald says. "Students from one cluster might not care if we get a student from another cluster."
McDonald trains his leaders to reach students in individual clusters.
With culture and strategy having shifted dramatically in the past 60 years, Young Life looks different now than it did before. The ministry has had great success with these changes and has attracted financial assistance from a number of sources, says Bill Starr, Spokane's area director from 1953 to 1956.
"Things are different, and if the people at Young Life continue to love kids and seek after Christ the way they do now, they will always be successful," Starr says.