The Ultimate Goal

Shortly after relocating to Darien, Conn., with Young Life staff, I began to realize this was a place like no other. This picturesque, affluent suburb of New York City is a community of high-achieving, fast-paced professionals with a small-town feel. Young Life has been in this town for more than 40 years, and I expected to find widespread brand awareness and a sustaining community of supporters. Instead, I’m learning how to adapt the tools of Young Life to develop Gospel-centered ministry which serves the needs of people within this fragmented culture.

According to a recent edition of the high school principal’s newsletter, “Our students are expected to excel academically, in competitions, on standardized tests, at getting into excellent colleges and in nearly all that they do. This is not a typical public high school atmosphere.” The $85 million high school campus boasts countless championship banners in its gymnasium and trophy cases, and an athletic department that fields 58 athletic teams, on which 70 percent of the high school student body participates. In many ways, the high school is the focal point of this community; furthermore, high-achieving, over-scheduled student athletes define the high school atmosphere. Consequently, Young Life has had difficulty creating long-lasting impact among the kids who influence the campus culture.

An Open Door

During my first fall semester on staff here, as I was learning the “lay of the land,” I visited the high school seeking a volunteer coaching position with the hockey team. After briefly discussing my previous playing and officiating experience with the athletic director and coaching staff, they introduced me to the team as a new assistant coach! It was comforting to feel as though I had prayerfully discovered an open door and was walking into the community behind God, following His lead.

The opportunity to volunteer as a hockey coach has fostered many new friendships with student athletes and established my credibility among both the student body and families throughout the community. Coaching is a door as well as a window into the town; to establish a presence and earn the right to be heard, as well as the opportunity to identify the needs, obstacles and opportunities to building unconditional friendships with kids and growing a healthy Young Life area.

Teenagers in this culture are sometimes over-programmed and under-served. They can be conditioned to strive for excellence in an intensely competitive environment. Under immense pressure to perform and achieve expectations, some students can feel as though they are valued for their accomplishments.

Learning to Speak Their Language

I began to wonder: How do you relationally impact kids who have no time? In starting a new ministry, can or should Young Life club compete with existing schedules? Instead, I communicated the ideals of a Young Life club into their schedules and was able to accomplish the goals of club in the language these kids so passionately speak: leadership and success.

One Friday night in November 2007, I hosted 21 boys from the varsity and junior varsity hockey teams for a “Team Dinner.” The boys enjoyed gourmet hors d’oeuvres, pasta and a variety of desserts around the conference room table in our Young Life office. Amidst the poster-sized pictures of Young Life summer camp and club activities which hang on the walls, I then facilitated a conversation themed “Building Strong Teams: Leadership that Outlasts Itself.”

The discussion began organically when Jay, a senior captain, initiated the question, “So what’s one characteristic that you think a true leader must have?” One at a time, each player had the opportunity to respond, the consensus being that a leader makes everyone around them better, considers others more important than themselves and values those under their influence. The discussion eventually led to topics ranging from “stresses” such as SATs and early-admission applications, to the difficulty of living up to expectations placed upon them by their parents. Several of the freshmen remained quiet at first, but I found opportunities to welcome and encourage their voices, often not their experience during their “rookie” season.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and both the players and parents spoke highly of the venue and content. Mike, a co-captain, reflected, “Thanks for doing all this for us, Coach. I didn’t know what to expect — you said it would be good, but it was great. Let’s do it again.” Jay’s father, who I see often at his local restaurant said, “I greatly support what you’re doing with these boys. Thank you for investing in my sons.”

Continuing the Conversation

I praise God for faithfully bringing kids to the table. Since that dinner, my time with players outside of the ice rink has increased both in quantity and quality. We now get together both at my house and local sports grilles to eat and watch games together. I’ve also been able to utilize other venues which serve to expose them to the Gospel message and lead them spiritually. For example, this past season I took several players to hear Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy speak about diversity and personal character.

As I continue to pursue in-roads into the community, I seek creative venues for contact work and discipleship. I’ve delivered summer camp invitations to each player along with a vision for how a cabin of players and their friends could change their lives, their friendships with each other, and greatly impact their personal and team success next season. The motivation of this ministry continues to be Christ, and we’re adapting methods to reflect and serve this unique culture. Let us seek to reach kids where they are, in the language they speak in order to break down barriers which prevent them from meeting Jesus.

These young men see themselves as athletes, friends and students. They will surely become executives, attorneys, investors, coaches, teachers, husbands and fathers. I pray they choose their identity in Christ; created with a purpose, unconditionally loved, forgiven and set free.