Young Life Goes to College

When Christine Curry began her studies at Howard University, she knew nothing about Young Life; what she did know was that she wanted to be a doctor.

Today as a junior, she plans her class schedule around her calling as a Young Life leader as she charts a course toward a ministry career. The spark for Curry’s transformation? Howard’s Young Life College outreach.

“The biggest thing I would say is that through the ministry of Young Life I have discovered how to not only be loved, but to love others, and to share my life,” Curry said.

Curry and many others like her have grown deeper in their faith through Young Life College. Through Director Kymira Callaway’s tireless efforts to make friends at Howard and create growth opportunities for the students there, Young Life has established a unique footprint at Howard, one of the nation’s premiere historically black universities.

Howard is just one of 28 universities that have seen a new Young Life presence in the last two years — a dedicated Young Life initiative just for college students. With a full-time director and a growth plan aimed at embracing seven new campuses every year, Young Life College is one of the biggest things on campus.

To some degree, Young Life has always ministered to the university population, especially in the recruitment, training and discipleship of leaders. But any staff member who has seen an excited new Christian falter when they enter college has tasted the need for something that also helps college kids navigate the unique challenges before them with their faith intact. Young Life College exists both as a spiritual lifeline for students who are making pivotal choices and as a pipeline to ministry for those who are already committed to Christ; moreover, the ministry seeks to reach students with previous Young Life experience and those new to the mission.

Veteran staffers catch campus vision

“If there was a theme, it would be the theme of forming a community that cares for these students as they begin to find ways to give their lives away,” said Mike Gaffney, the director for Young Life College. “Part of the mentality would be that we’re raising up leaders for the kingdom, period.”

Campuses like Washington State and Texas A&M have had staff and leaders engaging in collegiate ministry for years, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the idea began to bubble up on a missionwide scale, Gaffney said. Through his role in the college ministry at the University of Washington, Gaffney had worked alongside Young Life for years, and Young Life President Denny Rydberg thought he had the right mix of gifts and experience to oversee the effort.

“In some ways, Young Life College is trying to intentionalize that which is already happening,” said Gaffney, who signed on full time with Young Life in 2007.

One of the programs Gaffney has been able to guide into existence is in San Diego, where John Byard is seeking ways to reach the 55,000 students who are living and studying at colleges in that city. Byard’s primary focus is San Diego State University (SDSU), but he also has student involvement from the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene.

A 14-year veteran of Young Life staff in Arizona, Byard was initially skeptical when he heard about Young Life College in Phoenix. But he got involved with the Arizona State ministry in his role as metro director, eventually spending half of his time on Young Life College. When he learned that Young Life was looking for someone in San Diego, it seemed like a natural next step in his developing passion for college ministry.

At San Diego State, Byard has found a “hurting campus that desperately needs Christ and doesn’t know it,” and he has focused on planning campus events to get to know some students and training his team of 20 leaders. He and his wife, Jen, have started hosting dinner for students at their home each week, and in early February they started weekly clubs on site at SDSU.

“There’s so much diversity at San Diego State that I think we’re going to be able to capture a lot of different people,” said leader Sam Steele, who envisions up to 500 students eventually attending club each week. “I think God has really blessed it.”

Like John Byard, Kenny Nollan had a field staff background — he was an area director and a regional director — and while serving in Ann Arbor, Mich., he realized he was drawn to university ministry. The University of Michigan ministry just started in November 2008, and already Nollan has a handful of small groups and 40 students signed up for a spring mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

Today’s generation of collegians gets a bad rap at times, but Nollan has been refreshed by the friends he has made on the Michigan campus. He said, “It’s been great to get back into the college world: the openness and freedom of thought that people have at that age, and the revolutionary mindset that they can change the world.”

Launching students into ministry

Young Life College might still be in its infancy as an official entity, but some universities have ministries that have been vibrant for years. Tracey Beal, a Young Life leader in the Phoenix high school club her children attended, began to develop a heart for the students who met Christ through Young Life but then lost their spiritual clarity in college.

An active Young Life College program was already operating at the main campus of Arizona State University in Tempe when Beal was recruited six years ago to launch the ministry at ASU West in Phoenix. At ASU West — a university of 10,000 students — Beal and her leaders see 100 students attend small groups each week and send mission work teams to Lima, Peru, each spring.

“I think it’s creating a community for them to really discover God,” Beal said. “They’re coming to know Jesus and really making that their own, and they’re at an incredibly key time in their life to really discover their role. It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done, because we get to impact them at so many life-changing levels.”

One member of the ASU West club worked with kids with disabilities in Peru on one of the spring mission trips, then came back home fired up about Young Life’s ministry to kids with disabilities, called Capernaum. That vision led her to start a new Young Life Capernaum club in northwest Phoenix and to recruit many of her Young Life College friends to become leaders. Every leader in Young Life College has a similar story — about students who grow through the ministry and are eagerly sent out as high school or college Young Life leaders, summer staff or servants in other ministries.

Gaffney walks each new Young Life College area through a four-year plan for each student that moves them from a large-group focus to small groups to mission outreach opportunities, with the caveat that no student fits the mold precisely. For every former club kid who is just looking for the next level of Young Life, there is a student like Christine Curry who doesn’t initially recognize the Young Life name, but is searching for an outlet for discipleship and service.

Vince Hunter is now an intern for Northeast DC Young Life, but like Curry he was unacquainted with Young Life when he first encountered it as an undergraduate at Howard. He had the opportunity to be part of the work crew at the 2008 All Staff Conference in Orlando and at camp, and the people he met on those trips inspired him to commit his life to unreached kids.

“It seemed like I couldn’t find a place where people were authentic and actually living out their faith,” Hunter said. “I was really, really lacking that, and Young Life College to me just really embodied it. I found people who are really real and really getting involved in the Word of God.”