Coming Full Circle

Editor’s Note: What follows is the last in a six-part series looking at the ministry of Young Life College at campuses across the United States and abroad.

When Sergio Castellón was growing up in Esteli, Nicaragua, it was hard to picture life beyond his neighborhood. Like many of his peers, his dreams of the future were often hampered by the day-to-day economic realities he faced.

But as a teenager, Castellón encountered Young Life — better known in Nicaragua as Vida Joven —  and was introduced to Jesus. Thanks to leaders like Jim Hornsby, who helped start Young Life in Nicaragua, Castellón grew in his faith and became a Vida Joven leader in his neighborhood. 

“One of the greatest gifts Jesus gave me during my time in Esteli was discipleship,” Castellón said. “Jim and others like him saw something in me, they believed it was possible, and they mentored it into reality.”

Castellón is part of a vast spiritual family tree planted by Hornsby, and his wife Sarah, who brought Young Life to Nicaragua in 1988. Now retired from Young Life, the Hornsbys left a legacy of ministry that includes a leadership team of 34 national staff, more than 200 volunteer leaders and 36 clubs nationwide. Annually, Vida Joven Nicaragua impacts more than 7,000 kids and hosts more than 2,000 at La Finca, the Young Life camp there.

Castellón’s relationship with Hornsby nurtured a passion for ministry in his neighborhood, and then on his college campus, where he saw a great need for the Gospel. “If there isn’t someone to give you vision and direction, I found you will lose yourself in college,” said Castellón. “I believed God could use the same principles of Vida Joven that I learned in the neighborhood to reach university students.”

In step with students, universities and the Gospel

Through the pioneering efforts of leaders like Castellón, Vida Joven Universitaria got its start in Nicaragua seven years ago in the city of León — providentially, about the same time as Young Life College efforts in the States began taking root. One of the principal concepts Castellón and others used in developing the vision was to take and create opportunities to walk alongside students and faculty on campus — a radical idea for the average Nicaraguan leader accustomed to ministry in the neighborhood, not on a campus.

“We try to serve the university and connect with its campus life in any way we can,” said Ashley Butler, a coordinator with Vida Joven Universitaria, who along with her husband, Pratt, is an area director in the city of Managua. Initiatives like participating in campus festivals and service projects, connecting with academic departments to tutor, serving as guest speakers in classes, and offering camps, seminars, and special extracurricular course series have allowed Vida Joven to step onto local Nicaraguan campuses. Meeting students and faculty where they are has opened doors for many to know Jesus on these same campuses.

One such student, Maria, participated in a leadership seminar series offered by Vida Joven on her campus in León. Reflecting on her experience, she said, “All of the teachers and class leaders were very engaging and made me really excited not just about the subject, but about Vida Joven too. Later, many of these same class leaders invited me to a camp and helped introduce me to Jesus. I started going to our local college club and Bible study, and eventually became a leader myself. Since joining Vida Joven, I feel my life has really become integrated. What I am on campus is what I am throughout my life — a follower of Jesus.”

Another student, Gilbert, was drawn to the friendships he saw between Vida Joven students and leaders on his campus in Managua. “From the time I entered club,” said Gilbert, “I felt I wasn’t alone anymore. One of the things that impacted me was the way the group and leaders ‘lived together.’ It was community.” Seeing this type of community and relationship, Gilbert continued going back to club, and then to camp, where his relationship with Jesus began.

Discipling and multiplying

As Gilbert grew in his faith, he eventually became a leader himself and currently is a team leader for Vida Joven Universitaria in Managua. “I’ve had the opportunity to do things I’d never done before,” he said, “To love other students like Jesus, serve, pray, and grow in my relationship with God. One of my greatest privileges has been as a discipler. Seeing others accept Jesus and grow in their faith is the best!”

This discipleship emphasis is the foundation for   Vida Joven Universitaria in Nicaragua. “Discipleship ties our ministry together and allows it to extend out,” Castellón said.

Over the past seven years, university ministry has experienced exciting momentum and growth as it aims to develop kingdom-minded leaders. Through this discipleship model, eight ministries have developed in four cities around Nicaragua — León, Managua, Esteli and Matagalpa — while enhancing the rest of Vida Joven’s national ministry to adolescents.

“We want each of our college student leaders to believe in a single vision — to follow Jesus and share Him with others. It is an integral, lifelong pursuit. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, whatever their future, we hope that it will be their passion, what they communicate to others, and what they will be a part of,” said Sabony Rizo, one of the first kids to meet Jesus through Vida Joven 23 years ago, who is now a campus coordinator and area director in Managua. 

“One of the interesting things about the Vida Joven ministry is its ‘full-circle’ philosophy,” said Pratt Butler. “For us, it doesn’t matter if a kid comes from the street, neighborhood, high school or university campus. We love to introduce them to Jesus and help them grow in their faith with a kingdom-minded attitude.”

As Vida Joven Universitaria Nicaragua grows, they hope to see even more of these Jesus-following student leaders discipling others, starting Vida Joven in a local neighborhood or city, or becoming professionals and supporting the mission of Young Life, making eternal impacts for Jesus wherever they go.

Key Components of a Vibrant Young Life College Ministry:

Given these categories often overlap and can be accomplished simultaneously, the following  programmatic elements have proven to be effective   within Young Life College:

  • A strategic plan to connect with Young Life kids before they arrive on campus and during the first few weeks of classes through tools such as Alumni and Friends, Rush Week, barbecues, etc.
  • A weekly gathering that’s friendly and welcoming to non-believers as well as encouraging and challenging  to believers.
  • Large and small community groups that help students learn what healthy, Christ-centered community can be and integrate their faith into everyday life through Bible study, prayer, sharing and encouragement.
  • Mentor relationships between students and adults that connect students to the wider body of Christ.
  • Opportunities for shared adventure, including mission trips, Young Life Expeditions, social justice work in the local community, work week, Beyond or other adventure camps, road trips, overnights, etc.
  • A regular practice of launching students as disciples out into their spheres of influence to make an impact and participate in God’s mission in the world. This includes inviting students to serve as leaders in various Young Life ministries, churches, local non-profits, etc., as well as in their career, family, neighborhood and community.