From the Background to the Front Lines

It began as most Young Life stories do: an adult, feeling as out of place as the liver and onions on the cafeteria food line, walks into a lunchroom full of teenagers who seem to be oozing “cool” and tries to strike up a casual conversation.

Chris Stricker was 38 years old the first time he stepped into the most familiar unknown in the world of Young Life ministry. Now 45 years old, Stricker is old enough to be the father of most of the high school kids he knows, a fact that, for a while, kept him from getting involved directly with kids in Young Life. But to get the big picture of Stricker and his journey into the lives of teenagers in Tulsa, Okla., it’s necessary to rewind about seven years to an ordinary day, a routine job and a life-changing conversation.

Becoming a kid magnet
In 1999, Stricker, then a certified alarm technician, was installing an alarm in Forrest and Sheri Carpenter’s home when he noticed a box that brought back a flood of memories.

“It was the Young Life box,” he said. “It had the song book, the talk book and cassette tapes that had recordings of club talks on them.” These items were used to help train Young Life leaders. Stricker had actually been a leader back then — for about one year after he graduated from high school — but eventually became involved with youth ministry at church.

He told the Carpenters of his memories of the box, and they immediately invited him to the upcoming Young Life banquet. Stricker didn’t attend but, soon after, was installing another alarm, this time in the home of Lew Erickson, a Young Life committee member.

Again, Stricker saw something in her home related to Young Life and struck up a conversation. After Stricker left, Erickson called Brian Phillips, then the area director of Tulsa’s Midtown Young Life, with his information. There was a message from Phillips waiting on Stricker’s answering machine when he got home.

They met for lunch, and Phillips invited him to an all-city club later that week.

“It seemed like 300 kids were there,” Stricker said. “I hadn’t been to Young Life for 20 years. I felt awkward and stood in the back in a dark corner, observing. When I saw the kids and saw everything that was going on, I started crying. I felt like I was right where I needed to be. But, I didn’t think I could do anything. I thought I was too old and had nothing to offer. But I knew I could do audio-visual stuff. So I went through leader training and started running tech.”

A year passed. Stricker was there every week, running the soundboard, feeling like “the old guy in the background.” But he was also feeling God’s call to step up and do more. Phillips admitted that, at first, he wasn’t sure Stricker was up for the task of being a volunteer leader.

“My first thought was, ‘This guy’s not going to last,’” Phillips said. “But I felt like God was saying, ‘Watch me and I will use this guy.’ He’s ended up being a magnet for kids.”

But it took some time. During their first visit to the Edison High School cafeteria, Stricker stuck with Phillips, using Phillips’ credibility with kids to build his own.

“Frankly, that worked,” Phillips said. “Now, Chris does better contact work than I do. And he’s not going after ‘easy’ kids either. He goes after the right kids — the ones who are hard to reach and are nowhere near being church kids.

“It’s the classic Young Life model. Kids love Chris solely because Chris loves kids. No matter how cool you are or nerdy you are, if you genuinely love kids, they’ll be drawn to you.”

Later that year, Phillips asked Stricker to take over as head leader of Edison. Since then, Midtown Young Life has been the biggest club in town. Stricker has become a part of the life of the school — he’s also been a baccalaureate speaker and given the pep talks to Edison’s basketball team. His most unique role, however, has been as employer. He’s recruited several guys to help with his disc jockey business. And as the facilities manager for a prep school in town, he’s hired his high school friends as the janitorial crew.

On his success as a leader, Stricker said, “I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel; I just believed what Young Life says. I believed if I could get past the uncomfortable times, it would work. I just started going where the kids were.”

From that moment on, Stricker embraced his role. And the philosophy of relational ministry with high school kids has saturated every part of his life. Senior Ryan Eaton can attest to that.

A divine appointment
Stricker remembers with clarity the day he met, then freshman, Ryan Eaton. Ryan was sitting with the baseball team among kids who made it clear they wanted nothing to do with Stricker’s big smile or Taco Bueno burritos he brought to treat the kids each week. But Stricker couldn’t shake God’s nudging.

“I felt like God wanted me to connect with that kid,” Stricker said. “I felt like I was supposed to pursue a relationship with him. All I could do was pray; I had no idea how it would happen. That day, I happened to be handing out flyers for Battle of the Fans, an event I organized to showcase high school bands. So I walked up to his table with the flyers and he said, ‘I’m in a band.’ That was it.”

A “Christian by association” in the past, Ryan said he’s grown spiritually because of his Young Life friend.

“When I met him, I thought he was a really genuine person,” Ryan said. “I started building a relationship with him and that grew outside of Young Life. He’s always offered his home to me as if it were my own. He’s treated me like family.

“Spiritually, he’s helped me understand things and made things a lot clearer. My biggest hurdle has always been why terrible things happen. I guess more than anything he’s helped me to accept things.”

The terrible things of life have served to draw the pair together. Ryan’s mother died when he was in junior high school. When Stricker was 23 years old, his father died and two years ago his mother died.

“That’s definitely common ground for us,” Ryan said. “We ate dinner together the night of Mother’s Day the first year after his mom passed away. We had a good talk about all of that. I consider Chris the closest male to me, next to my dad. I’d be a very confused person if I’d never met Chris.”

Rod Eaton, Ryan’s dad, admits he was skeptical at first about his son’s friendship with Stricker. But now says he is “probably one of the best people I’ve ever known.”

“Chris is an amazing friend. He’s been a real blessing,” Eaton said. “If Ryan and I fight, I call Chris and really lean on his guidance. He’s a friend to both of us, really. I know if anything ever happened to me, Chris would be right there to take up the slack.”

Four years have passed since they met, and their relationship has grown from Young Life leader to employer to lifelong friend. “Chris took me under his wing last year doing DJ stuff, but my main job now is at school,” Ryan explained. “I do AV work, odd jobs, maintenance stuff. But it’s our friendship that keeps my relationship as his employee so good. I know he will always be a good friend of mine and I can’t say that about most people.”

No more “the old guy in the background,” Stricker understands how important it is to connect kids with Christ any way he can. Whether it’s in the school cafeteria, the recording studio in his home or mopping floors in the wee hours of the morning, Stricker has reached out to kids, brought them into his life and shown them the love of Jesus Christ.

“When God calls you, whether you’re 15 or 95, you go,” Stricker said. “And you can’t stop when it’s uncomfortable. Jesus took the form of a servant, and that’s my mentality: I am a servant. His servant.

“I would highly encourage anyone to get involved with Young Life, whether on committee or as a volunteer leader. The harvest is full. There are so many kids, doing what is right in their own eyes. If no one’s there to establish godly boundaries in their lives, we are in trouble. And we can’t use [our] age as an excuse.”