All of the Above

Tullahoma — "a town as unique as its name" — is located between Nashville and Chattanooga. Tilting to the rural side, the town has a population of 17,000, an Air Force base, men and women who work hard to make a living, and kids who need Jesus. And before Aug. 1, 2009, the day Scott and Jennifer Smith moved to town with their family, there was no Young Life.

Paul McCown rolled in with his mom two weeks later. He had grown up everywhere, ping-ponging across America with his mom. Paul remembered, "It was a week before school started; I didn't know anyone … and not a thing about God."

Nine months later, he was baptized. A life changed forever. How? God, right? Yes, but that's who not how. Answering the how is not as straightforward. However, it's the how that transports us into the mysterious ways of God and sends us straight to the heart of Young Life.

A. a phone call

Nine years ago, Scott Smith, now the Tri-Lakes, Tenn., area director, was at a crossroads professionally. "I was seeking lots of advice … One piece that will always ring in my mind was a question a pastor asked me: 'What does God break your heart over?' It was the easiest question I ever answered. My wife and I instantly said: 'Teenagers.'"

Through that process, the Smiths began pursuing the possibility of serving with Young Life. But the time was not right in Tullahoma, where they lived at the time. Where they ended up instead was Craig, Colo., and then Tulsa, Okla. "Meanwhile, we continued to pray for Tullahoma. There were 7,000 kids from seventh- to 12th-grade and no Young Life."

About that time, Rebecca Van Horn and her family moved to town. She had a Young Life background, and, as a mother of five, a vested interest. After a number of inquiries, she phoned Smith and asked how to get the ball rolling. "I encouraged her to pray," said Smith. "She did. Only a handful of people showed up in August 2008. But they kept meeting and praying. In May 2009, they had their first Young Life banquet. It was quite a night. The country club was bursting at the seams." Aug. 1, Smith and his family moved back to Tullahoma. Two weeks before Paul McCown.

B. a frisbee

"When I was in Tulsa, Lisa Witcher, the principal at Union Intermediate High School, who had been a Young Life leader in Stillwater, Okla., told me: 'The way kids meet Jesus is by you sitting across the table, listening to their stories and showing them you truly care.' I never forgot that," said Smith. Now, entering Tullahoma High School for the first time, he put the lesson to practice.

"I was eating my lunch minding my own business, when this guy goes up to my table and sits down," remembered Paul. "I was walking home the next day, and I saw him in the parking lot with a frisbee."

"We ended up throwing the frisbee for an hour," said Smith. "Paul was very open about his story. He hasn't had the easiest life. I invited him to come to SharpTop Cove with us."

"I told him I got like 20 bucks," said Paul. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. I'll help you raise it.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Trust me.'"

"At camp, the speaker walks up and starts talking," Paul said. Usually, in situations like this Paul goes to sleep. But this time he told himself, "'I guess I'll take a chance and listen.' That's what I did. I kept on listening and listening. He wasn't one of those long preachers. And one night we left club all quiet. They turned out the lights, and I went outside. I decided, 'I should start believing. Why wait?'"

C. a credit card

The day Tullahoma High School had its first Young Life club it rained. "I mean, it poured. It was a downpour all day," said Smith. "But I was so jazzed. And kids came anyway. They showed up 30 minutes before club began and they kept coming until the end. Paul and his buddy came in just in time for the cookies."

"We had truck problems," Paul said. In fact, that night, both he and his friend were struggling with their vehicles. "I had to keep jumping him, and I had my hazards on so then I needed a jump too. Next thing I know, my truck runs out of gas."

Jim Zidan, pastor of Christ Community Church and a member of the Tri-Lakes Young Life committee, had volunteered to help park cars that night. "The house had a long driveway, and after club was over I noticed headlights way down at the end." So he and Charlie Bair, another volunteer, went to check on them.

Zidan recalled, "The one car was dead. The other was stuck in the mud. After both cars were running, Zidan and Bair followed the boys in another car to make sure they arrived safely. Five hundred yards later, the car went dead again. "There we were, the four of us, on this dark country road covered in mud getting pelted by this cold, driving rain."

With the truck finally running, Zidan followed Paul to the gas station. At the pump, Paul began rummaging in his pockets for money. Zidan stopped him, pulled out his church's credit card and said, "Fill it up." Tears filled Paul's eyes.

"He asked me if I had a church home," said Paul. "I said no. He handed me his card. I looked down. Turns out he was the pastor! The next weekend I showed up with my girlfriend. He and his wife took us to lunch. On Mother's Day, I got baptized."

D. all the above and more

This is Paul's take on how it happened: "When I think about it, God was pursuing me way before I realized it. At camp, POOF, He showed up. I took His hand during that 15 minutes. But I'm looking back at everything and I'm beginning to see He was always there. I can't really say much more than that."