An Open Invitation

The pursuit of lost kids is at the very heart of Young Life. But as one North Carolina friendship proves, lives can also be indelibly changed when a leader builds a relationship with a kid who already knows Christ.

Lisa Gardner was new to Charlotte, N.C., having recently moved there when her husband, Steve, became the director for the Carolinas Region. In the sea of strange faces at Myers Park High School, where she was a volunteer leader, Gardner spotted one junior girl whom she knew from church — Emily Brafford.

In just a short encounter at church the week before, Emily had made an impression on Gardner. She watched the teenager interact with people after the service, and even though the new tagline had yet to be introduced, she was convinced that Emily was made for Young Life.

“I just kind of watched her and I was like, ‘She knows everybody at this church,’” Gardner said. “She was hugging on the older ladies, loving on the little kids, everybody.”

When the two ran into each other at Myers Park, Gardner naturally invited Emily to club. But Emily had tried Young Life before, when she was a freshman, and she didn’t feel like she fit in there. She liked Gardner, but with every invitation, she came up with an excuse.

“She tried for a good two years to get me to go, and I wasn’t having it,” Emily said. But even as she received one rejection after another, Gardner felt compelled to persevere: “I was like, ‘I will invite you to everything. You can come to nothing or everything, that’s fine.’”

Emily graduated from Myers Park in 2008, and she had never returned to a Young Life event. But the high school’s group was going to Rockbridge (in Virginia) for the first week of the summer, and Gardner made Emily an offer she couldn’t refuse. She offered to get Emily a scholarship if she would come to camp as a junior leader. “I told her, ‘All you have to do is love on them like you love on people at church, and if they ask you about Jesus, you tell them what He’s done in your life’,” Gardner said.

Reluctantly, Emily packed a bag and went to Rockbridge after graduation — two days late. Still, she proved the age-old Young Life sentiment is grounded in truth. It was, she said, the best week of her life.

Just days after she got back to Charlotte, Emily was calling the girls from her cabin to go to dinner and Campaigners. That fall when she enrolled at High Point University, she jumped into the Young Life College ministry there, and now she pours into fellow students as a leader. And the pivotal point in her ministry was the day she finally decided to try Young Life, she said.

”I just felt like the Lord was speaking to me, saying, ‘You need to love people because I love them. I put people in your life for a reason,’” Emily said. “Being a Christian is more than just believing. You have to live it out and have an actual relationship with Jesus.”

For Gardner, her enduring friendship with Emily is an important reminder that, in Young Life, the pursuit is often as much about finding disciple-makers as it is about making disciples.

“I feel like there are people out there who are doing Young Life anyway with their life,” she said. “And we need to give them an opportunity to do that within this ministry.”