Young Life Lite

Before there was club or a pie tin filled with shaving cream — before there were leaders in white vinyl jumpsuits and wigs — even before there was an organization called Young Life, there was laughter. And in 1940, at Jim Rayburn’s tent meetings in Dallas, Texas, there was laughter, much of it erupting from Rayburn himself. Bob Mitchell, Young Life’s third president serving from 1977 to 1986, attended those first meetings led by Young Life’s founder and he remembers Rayburn’s humor as something that attracted him to the man and his message.

“It was a very serious time,” Mitchell recalled. “The country was entering a world war. Humor wasn’t part of the church — not part of the deal. Rayburn introduced something quite unusual. As a 13-year-old kid, that attracted me to Jim.” And so Mitchell and his friends sat transfixed, nearly afraid to laugh, as Rayburn described the wedding at Cana. “Do you know how you make wine?” Rayburn asked the crowd of a thousand. “Of course, none of us had a clue,” said Mitchell. And Rayburn went on to explain how Jesus turned brackish, Texas well-water into the finest wine people had ever tasted — without a vine, a vineyard, a press or even a grape. Rayburn used humor and absurdity in biblical accounts to introduce kids to the wonder of Jesus Christ.

Rayburn also loved a good joke, and his humor, unlike the situational humor familiar in Young Life today, derived from them. He loved his jokes so much he’d make himself laugh in the telling of them. Mitchell recalls people around Rayburn in fits of laughter, not because his joke was so funny, but because they loved watching him laugh at his own story. To this day, Mitchell’s not sure if Rayburn ever knew how much they laughed over Rayburn enjoying his own humor.

But the humor that characterizes Young Life isn’t only because of Rayburn. “Scripture is full of humor,” Mitchell asserted. “Though Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, He wasn’t grim or grumpy. You know why we know that? Because kids wanted to be around Him.”

For more than 70 years of ministry, Young Life has loved a good joke or a skit, because humor breaks through the defenses that hide kids’ hearts. Humor in Young Life is regarded as a powerful tool commanding respect. Humor can heal or harm. Cutting, cynical humor has no place in the mission. At its best, Young Life humor is never at the expense of the kids we seek to serve, but at the expense of ourselves.

What explains the willingness of grown men and women to wear lederhosen and wool knee-highs or platform boots and spandex? Really, what self-respecting adult does that? Only someone so certain of his God-given dignity that he would risk the derision of kids just to share a few moments of hilarity with them. And sometimes leaders crack themselves up in the process. But it’s more likely they crack themselves open, laughing at their own foolishness with the hope that even one kid would glimpse the freedom of Christ’s love, and experience the laughter that theologian Karl Barth described, “as the closest thing to the grace of God.”