Welcome to Smalltown U.S.A.

Nearly every Friday night that Jeff Wylie drives by his local grocery store in Paducah, Ky., the same group of teenagers is hanging out in the parking lot. Usually, they stay until someone chases them away.

And even though Wylie doesn’t know their names, he hopes that, one day, there will be a group of Young Life leaders who are friends with these kids, as well as the hundreds of others at Paducah area high schools.

That’s why this past summer Wylie joined with a team of Young Life staff to begin laying the groundwork for a Young Life club in Paducah. Paducah was one of three communities selected as a potential Young Life area as part of Young Life’s Small Town Pioneer Jumpstarts project. The project aims to build a foundation for a Young Life club in a small town that has never had one before by bringing a group of four Young Life staff to live in that town for about a week.

Young Life, which is active in more than 500 small towns, defines a small town as a one-high school town that is not considered a suburb and has a population of fewer than 25,000. According to the United States Census Bureau, there are 17,623 small towns in the United States.

Young Life has also identified 50 towns around the country as “beachheads,” which are usually larger than small towns, but they have the potential to serve as jumping off points to establish Young Life in other small towns nearby. With this in mind, Paducah, Ky.; Rolla, Mo.; and Lebanon, Va., were selected as jumpstarts.

Community connections
The idea for the jumpstarts came from the mission’s experience at starting Young Life in small towns, said Don Stuber, the mission director of Young Life’s small town ministry. “It’s difficult for an ‘outsider’ to come into a small town and get something going,” he said. “You need to have an ‘insider’ from the town say, ‘We invite Young Life to be here.’”

A different group of staff was assigned to each of the three towns for about week to make contact with members of the community and find residents who would want to establish a Young Life ministry there. 

And just as staff and leaders in Young Life do “contact work” by going where kids are: the school lunchroom, hangouts and football games — the jumpstart teams paired off and followed the same approach. In Rolla, Mo., for example, the Young Life team talked to just about anyone, including an employee at the Chamber of Commerce, a student from a small college nearby, as well as pastors from local churches. The team had also made about 50 phone calls before arriving in Rolla, all to make contact with people and talk to them about Young Life.

In Lebanon, Va., the beginnings of Young Life have been brewing for several years, but during the two-week jumpstart there, the team talked with a variety of people, met with the committee and a brand-new crew of volunteer leaders, and just recently, have identified a staff person for the town. Committee members and leaders also hosted a climbing wall at the county fair, giving new leaders and committee their first contact work experience with kids.
Local legwork
In Paducah, the team did the same preliminary work — making about 100 phone calls before arriving in town. Their main contact in Paducah was Jeff Wylie, a former Young Life staff person who — ever since moving to Paducah 15 years ago with his family — has prayed for Young Life to become a part of the community.

“Paducah is small enough that there is not a whole lot for teenagers to do,” Wylie said. “I know Young Life is a fun way to introduce them to Christ, and I know that Christ is what they need.”

For about a week in August, the team visited pastors, youth pastors, school administrators, bankers, parents and anyone else interested in hearing about Young Life. They explained Young Life over cups of coffee, in front of church congregations and Sunday school classes and at the dinner tables in the homes of the people who hosted them during their stay.

“The greatest thing that happened was that we were given the opportunity to tell the story of Young Life,” said Scott Spence, area director in New Castle, Ind. “Telling the story is what got people to listen. It was simple, but it was a really neat time.”
Voice of support
To Matt Harrison, regional director of the Kentucky Region, their time in Paducah was also a time to sense the community’s receptivity to Young Life ministry. “This was a chance to explore whether or not God is doing something here to start Young Life,” Harrison said. “We’ll only have Young Life if there are people in the community who will prayerfully support it and oversee it.”

Pat Cummings, a regional director in southwestern Virginia, participated in the jumpstart project in Lebanon. In order for Young Life to take root in a small town, there also needs to be someone living in the community who is “willing to be the connection between Young Life and the community,” Cummings said. “They need to be willing to make Young Life work no matter what it takes.”

In most small towns, a crucial endorsement comes from people from a variety of local churches. It’s important to bring different denominations together and explain the purpose of Young Life, Wylie said. “We’re trying to inform as many people as possible that Christian youth can use Young Life as a tool with their friends,” Wylie said.

Toward the end of the week in Paducah, the team held an informational meeting for the community, which was attended by a number of people they had met earlier in the week, as well as some new faces.

“The informational meeting at the church was really the key,” Harrison said. “We left there with people who said, ‘We support this. We’ll pray for this. We’ll tell other people about this. We left there with people who want to recruit others.”
Camp and beyond
Wylie said the team’s visit to Paducah was essential to the beginnings of Young Life ministry there. He said he hopes that within the next year they can bring together a core group of adults for a committee, and maybe take a few local kids to camp next summer. “There’s no better way to get people involved with Young Life than to get them to see a camp experience,” Wylie said.

The new Young Life community in Lebanon is seeing that happen. In October, about 18 high school kids went to fall weekend camp at Rockbridge Alum Springs, a Young Life camp in Virginia. Almost 30 kids showed up for the first Campaigners. Club had not even started yet.

In each of the three towns, the jumpstart projects ignited what Young Life hopes will be the beginning of showing kids the rich, full life that comes with a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Kids in small towns often have the goal of getting out of their town for good,” Wylie said. "They feel like, ‘I have got to go somewhere to be somebody.’ Young Life wants to show them something different. We know that, with Christ, they are somebody.”