Music on a Mission

If the Young Life mission had a soundtrack, it would feature electric and acoustic guitars, folksy tones and synthesized effects. Fans of virtually any musical genre could stake a claim somewhere in this fictional collection — the greatest hits of artists who have, at some point, called Young Life home.

But as enjoyable as it would be to spend an hour listening to such an eclectic compilation, the true richness of the experience would be found in the stories underlying the tunes. Many of the Christian musicians associated with Young Life found Christ through the ministry, and all have had the opportunity to be part of God’s redeeming work through their time spent playing music at Young Life properties.

“I don’t think there’s a chance that I’d even be in music at all without Young Life,” said Ryan Long, a singer and songwriter from Chattanooga, Tenn., who has spent a month or more serving at Young Life properties nearly every summer since 1997.

Long had attended Young Life club in high school and served as a volunteer leader and then as a staff intern, but he was a closet musician until his friend and area director, David Haskins, asked him to play for an assignment at Southwind in 1997. He was reluctant, to say the least.

“At that point, I had played at church a couple of times, for 20 people max,” Long said. “I didn’t really like being up front, even at Young Life club. I told him no, but he kept bugging me about it. I really didn’t think I would like it. But after the end of three weeks, I realized I would have been an idiot to say God wasn’t using me.”

Musicians head to camp
When Young Life’s early staff members forged the values of Young Life camping decades ago, they established leadership roles like the speaker and program directors that still operate today. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that a regular musician, or “special music” person, became part of the camp landscape.

A musician’s assignment at summer camp generally includes playing guitar at club, performing a song each night at club that complements the speaker’s message and presenting a concert during the week. They also participate in a role play for campers or fill a program role as one of the characters up front. For musicians like Mitch Dane, who was one of the pioneers of the Young Life music scene when he started playing at properties in 1985, the program role allows campers to see a different side of an artist.

“The cool thing about [being in a program role] is that it takes you away from being any kind of star or idol,” Dane said. “It puts you up there being goofy.”

Sharing music and conversation
Certainly, the high-profile part of each musician’s job at camp is singing in club or dressing up as a silly character. But the heart of the matter comes during afternoon free time, or maybe just before the cabin bell, when a camper approaches the artist wanting to talk about the testimony they heard the musician share one night or ask questions about the speaker’s message.

“It’s really amazing, the way that music connects with young adults,” said Dane, who still plays at a Young Life property every summer and works as a music producer the rest of the year in Nashville. “Whenever I’m at a camp I’m invisible at first, but after I sing one song or share my story, I’m their friend. And they invite me to sit down. It starts out with talk about a song lyric or my guitar, and then I’ll ask them, ‘What do you think about what the speaker is talking about?’

“They feel very free to talk about it. It’s surreal. That doesn’t happen in real life.”

Brandon Heath became a Christian as a camper at Malibu and has provided special music at properties in the western United States since the late 1990s. Over the years he has observed that a few campers always arrive at camp carrying their guitar, and they spend many of their free hours playing in a corner of the property.

Heath has made those young musicians his mission. He seeks them out, sits with them to jam a while and usually proposes that they collaborate with him on writing a song. Then, when he performs his concert at the end of the week, he calls those campers up on the stage and they sing their new song together.

“What I’ve found is, if I’m willing to get on stage and share my life, kids can relate,” said Heath, who usually talks with kids about the pain associated with his parents’ divorce when he was young. “The most amazing thing to me is how vulnerable kids are.”

Camp transformations
For artists like Ed Cash, the chance to combine musical gifts with God’s work was redemptive and transformational. Cash’s early forays into playing music for money brought him to places and people that pulled him far away from the Christian faith he had been raised around, he said, and ultimately he ended up in a drug rehabilitation facility.

Cash was learning to seek God’s plan for his life and to stay sober when he reconnected with Young Life and first encountered Dane, who was playing at Windy Gap. Suddenly, it was like the door to Cash’s calling swung wide open. “After seeing Mitch’s heart, I just fell in love with the idea [of playing music for God and kids],” said Cash, who found himself at Frontier the next summer playing music and working as the town runner.

Derek Webb is another artist whose career path was marked by the hand of God through Young Life, but his defining moment came when he was still in high school and his area director, Kit Sublett, invited him to help play for the weekly club meetings. For Webb, who felt shy and out of place when he wasn’t holding a guitar, it helped guarantee his faithful attendance at club, when his instinct otherwise would have been to come once or twice and then fade away. “That was huge,” said Webb, who helped found the band Caedmon’s Call just out of high school and now has a solo career. “Playing guitar was the one thing I wasn’t awkward at.”

Webb had the chance to go to Frontier Ranch on work crew after graduation, but then Caedmon’s Call started with a wave of popularity, and he was unable to return to summer camp for six years. When he finally found himself with a free summer month, he promptly called Frontier to see if he could work there. He didn’t want to do special music, he said, he just wanted to take solace from the spotlight. He ended up working as a cook, playing music only a couple of times when the staff asked him to do special concerts for the work crew.

“I felt like it would be really good for me to go and find somewhere that I could serve, and not have anybody pay attention to me for a while,” said Webb, who returned to Frontier recently as a staff spouse when his wife, Sandra McCracken, provided the special music.

Music throughout the mission
Summer camps have provided a dynamic environment for dozens of artists to minister and receive blessings, but properties are not the only place in Young Life that have a niche for musicians. Matt Odmark was involved with Young Life as a teenager in Rochester, N.Y., and he wonders if he might have applied for Young Life staff if a new band, Jars of Clay, had not come into his life in college.

Now Odmark has several Young Life connections. His wife, Kristin, is on part-time staff in Nashville, where she focuses on caring for volunteer leaders. Odmark partners with her when the band’s touring schedule allows. Jars of Clay also provided special music and worship leadership at Young Life’s All Staff Conference in Orlando, an experience that felt to Odmark like a high-profile thank you card to the mission from him and fellow band members Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell and Steve Mason.

“We had an amazing experience,” Odmark said of the staff conference. “Young Life is a huge part of my story. My family was my first introduction to Christ, but I often like to say that it was in Young Life that I learned the dance of Christianity.”

Another artist whose wife is on the Young Life staff is Christopher Williams, an acoustic singer and songwriter who was involved with Young Life as a club kid and a volunteer leader. Like Heath, Williams had a life-altering experience at Malibu Club, when he worked on summer staff in 1993 and took a leap of faith, from music as a hobby to pursuing life as a full-time musician.

Now Williams, whose wife, Suzanne, is the Southern Divisional Capernaum coordinator, has become an integral player in a series of fund-raising concerts for Capernaum. Along with artists like Odmark, Jonah Werner, Allen Levi and Sara Groves, Williams played in four concerts in Dallas, Maryland and Virginia in December 2006 to raise money for Young Life’s outreach to teens with disabilities.

Supportive community
Those concerts reveal a glimpse of one more aspect of Young Life musicianship that has benefited many artists over the past two decades: the network of Young Life musicians who play together, produce for each other and often give each other’s career a boost.

Bebo Norman, who started playing at Young Life camps in the ’90s and went on to a successful solo career, was an inspiration to Long in his decision to play at Young Life camps, and he helped convince Cash to try his hand in Nashville. Dane has produced records for Werner, Williams, Billy Cerveny and Justin Rosolino, and he hosts a weekly bonfire for young artists connected to Young Life to hang out, play music, connect and encourage each other.

Heath, who met Norman at Malibu and later wrote the title track and another song on Norman’s album, “Try,” said that ties like these are just a reminder that Young Life is like a family. And like any good family, each member makes the others stronger. These artists know that they have been privileged enough to speak truth to kids and further the mission, but they are quick to acknowledge Young Life as the source of countless personal and professional blessings.

“What’s been so cool about Young Life is the support system,” Heath said. “Young Life showed me Christ, but it also has shown me community. It’s relationships through Young Life that have encouraged me in using the gifts that God has given me.”