Slowly Scaling Walls

When Ryan Sandefur was growing up, Christianity seemed pretty straightforward, and irrelevant. "To me, faith was doing good things so I didn't go to hell," Ryan said.

But halfway through high school, Ryan and his friends started going to Young Life club, and discovered there is more to Jesus than he'd ever imagined. Dave Martin, now a regional director in Europe, was his Young Life leader, and invited Ryan to be in a discipleship group. "Over the next two years, I really grew in my faith," Ryan said.

As a college student, Ryan visited Martin, who had moved to Germany to do Young Life. "I just fell in love with Germany," Ryan said. "I knew when I graduated I wanted to do Young Life there."

Almost four years ago, Ryan and his wife, Emily, moved to Munich, Germany's third-largest city, to start Young Life College at Munich University. They were committed to learning German and to understanding their new culture, which tends to be very secular and skeptical of evangelicals in particular. In Germany, there is a state-supported church
and also independent "free" churches, but only 2 to 5 percent of the population would describe themselves as Christ followers (and only 1 percent of the country's university students would).

But the Sandefurs also found that Germans have a different approach to meeting new people and developing friendships. Finding other German Christians who understand the need to go where non-believing German students are to build bridges of friendship and faith has proven to be one of their most significant challenges.

"In America, we've got pretty low ‘outer walls,'" Emily said. "We tell everything to a stranger. But we have high inner walls — we don't like people to know who we really are. In Germany, people have higher ‘outer walls,'" Emily said. "Even telling someone your name can seem too personal to them. It can take a really long time before someone can let you in. But once they do, you'll find they are incredibly deep, caring and loyal, and often open to spiritual things."

That's why the Sandefurs and their growing team of German Young Life College volunteer leaders are hopeful that persistence in building meaningful relationships will make an eternal difference to Munich University students.

Seeking out students

"With our team, we've been focusing on contact work," Emily said. "We spend a lot of time finding students." Because the university doesn't really have the kind of traditional campus life characteristic of an American university, it's hard to find a group of students congregating in a coffee shop or in a campus quad.

So, in addition to building friendships with other students right where they are — in dorms and in their classes, for example — the Sandefurs and the Young Life College leaders are always on the lookout for where to meet students. Thankfully, because clubs and organizations for the students aren't officially connected to the university, anyone can join them — and that has been a huge blessing. Ryan is a member of the rock-climbing club, and some of the students he's befriended will be joining him on a backpacking trip later this year. He's hopeful that lots of casual conversations will pave the way to more spiritual ones on the trip.

 "We want to become a part of students' worlds and, along the way, single out ones we can go deeper with," Ryan said.

Below the surface

And even though it's considered a little odd — or even counter-cultural — to show intentionality in getting to know someone, students like Heikö Knoerzer are receptive.

Almost three years ago, Ryan was with kids from Germany at Wilderness Ranch and Frontier Ranch, Young Life camps in Colorado. Heikö was a camper on the trip, and had an incredible week, but he did not begin a relationship with Jesus Christ. It seems that God is still working on Heikö, largely through Ryan, and the rest of the Young Life College leaders.

"Heikö realizes that there's more ‘meat' to life than people are willing to talk about," Ryan said. "But he's drawn to all of us because we talk about those things."

So does Martina Vogt, one of the Young Life College leaders, who met the Sandefurs at church. "Both of them were very open with us from the beginning, interested in us and welcomed us," she said. "The fact that they asked us so many questions about our own lives attracted our attention."

Earlier this year, the Sandefurs were attending a party, and a university student asked if he could practice his English with them to prepare for an oral exam the next day. He passed — but wanted to keep meeting. The word spread, and now the Sandefurs and a group of students meet at a restaurant each week for what they call the English Stammtisch – practicing English, but experiencing friendship.

And every time the Sandefurs host a party to celebrate an American holiday (Emily says German students love exclusively American celebrations), she can count on many of the friends from the dinner group to be there.

"God has given us an insane love for the German people," Ryan said. "We want to communicate the Gospel with clarity and completeness to them. For some students, it may take three to four years before we can talk about any of this with them."

So they've learned to be patient with the process of friendship and, in the meantime, continue to meet more students, train leaders, build a local committee and look forward to starting their first club. Even though ministry progress can seem slow at times, Emily said they're "continually blown away by the small steps."

And every step — an intentional conversation, a meal shared, a backpacking trip or a Fourth of July party in a Munich apartment — is helping students like Heikö and leaders like Martina discover that there is more to friendship, faith and Jesus Christ than they could ever imagine.

Key Components of a  Vibrant Young Life College Ministry:

Community Ownership:
Relationships with adults in the community are established and maintained for the purpose of prayer support, fundraising and stewardship of ministry.

Trained Leaders:
Adult and student leaders are recruited and trained to develop and lead a college ministry that is unique to their campus yet consistent with the mission and values of Young Life.

Relationally Driven:
Staff and leaders are engaging in contact work by pursuing students in their environments — especially those with Young Life experience and their friends — (re)introducing them to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.

Effective Fundraising:
A creative approach to fundraising that includes but is not limited to the traditional Young Life strategies.

Intentionally connect to Local, Regional and Missionwide Young Life work:
Building relationships with existing Young Life staff and ministries is essential to creating a cohesive vision and viable minsitry/fund-raising plan, as well as maximizing opportunities to launch students back into the mission of Young Life and beyond.