A Bond Restored

"My parents had the first divorce in the church I grew up in and nobody there knew what to do with it." For then 12-year-old Ross Strader, that response sent him spiraling downward.

Growing up in Abilene, Texas, Strader came to a child’s faith through the little Bible church. The oldest of five kids saw his “picture-perfect family” fall to pieces when his dad left in the middle of the night. He didn’t see or hear from him again for years.

The inability of his church to care for him in this fragile time left him confused and angry. “It was just weird,” he said. “So, very early on I fell out of love with the church. I figured, ‘This is not the place for me,’ and never had any intention to go back. I don’t know that I left Jesus; I still felt affection toward Him. But that’s where I was.”

Soon he was working to support the family, becoming, in essence, the man of the house. “My mom hadn’t graduated high school, and so we went from having a great family life straight to poverty.” Meanwhile, he continued to wrestle with what life had dealt him and his family. “The divorce informed and defined who I was,” Strader said. “And who I was, was rebellious.”

A Dramatic Hold of My Heart
At this point, Jud Jones, the Young Life area director at Abilene Cooper High School, made it a point to pursue the freshman. By this time, Jones said, “Ross was the classic cocky, party guy, trying to prove himself all the time.” That of course didn’t deter Jones.

“Jud was there,” Strader said. “He loved me and somehow always found money for me to go on Young Life trips.”

On one such Wilderness camping excursion in Colorado, Strader said, “walls began to break down” for Strader. “Moving into my senior year, the Gospel had a dramatic hold of my heart again. It didn’t translate to church, but I spent a lot of time in my Campaigner group and with my Young Life leaders.”

“The new Ross began to get serious about Jesus,” Jones said. “By his senior year he was talking with me and praying about how to reach his friends.”

After graduation, Chuck Rodgers, the new area director in Abilene, picked up with Strader where Jones left off. Rodgers mentored the college student, who went on Young Life student staff his junior year. In a few years, Strader met Leslie, whom he married in 1995.

Soon they moved to Sand Springs, Oklahoma, where Strader served as the Young Life area director. It didn’t take long before the young married couple with a newborn realized their desperate need for the church. “The Lord was gracious — although He’d been doing it for years — this was the place where it became most tangible He was wooing me back. I hadn’t been a member of a church for 15 years; I thought Young Life was all I needed. I was wrong.

“For the next two years we found ourselves in a church that loved Young Life. A great turmoil began to stir inside of me. ‘Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do next?’”

Sensing God’s call, Strader enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary where God brought restoration and reconciliation. “At seminary I went back to the church I had grown up in and served in an internship there. The community embraced me and it was a real healing time for us. I knew then God was calling me to pastor.”

An All-Out, Honest, Full Pursuit
In 2006 Strader became the head pastor at Bethel Bible Church in Tyler, Texas. While Gainesville is the actual birthplace of Young Life, Tyler now holds the position as the longest active area in Young Life — a fact not lost on Strader. “Young Life in Tyler is very healthy. It’s beautiful when you see it in action. And just as Young Life wooed me back into the church, I brought Young Life with me.”

Strader trains his church staff the same as he once trained Young Life leaders. “I share with them, ‘It’s a sin to bore people with the Gospel.’ ‘We have to earn the right to be heard.’ ‘Let’s make memories with people.’ ‘Let’s introduce people to Jesus in the context of relationships.’”

Both Rodgers and Jones believe this is where Strader shines. “Ross just gets relationships,” Rodgers said. “He’s beloved by people.” Jones added, “One reason he’s a great pastor is because he loves people well. Ross is an incredible husband and father, who’s deeply in love with Jesus.”

This love is evidenced in how he models what he first learned back in high school. “Young Life was never ‘come to us’; it was ‘go out and get ‘em.’ That has forever marked me in ministry. Here at Bethel it’s been an all-out, honest, full pursuit of Jesus, but hopefully in a wildly attractive way. We want to do this with excellence and make Jesus look as beautiful as He is, with the joy of our lives.”

Bethel now has multiple campuses, including a location in downtown Tyler. The church bought and renovated an old building, with the upper floors serving as church space and the first floor providing an inviting place for the public to come and connect over coffee and pie. “We spare no expense to make this the best place in Tyler,” Strader said. “People come in for various reasons: concerts, art shows, real estate meetings and everything you can imagine. Half the people who walk in don’t know it’s part of a church. We’ve trained our baristas like Young Life leaders with the vision to create the best space to do contact work with them.”

Strader continues to play a critical role in connecting Bethel with Tyler Young Life. “When I was in town,” Jones said, “I visited Ross’s church and was blown away by how he balances pastoring with supporting Young Life. At one point he was the interim Young Life committee chair — how rare is that! On top of that, Bethel has a great relationship with Young Life in Sierra Leone.”

Strader recognizes the complementary ways in which Young Life and the local church can serve one another. Young Life is part of the church, he said, “and yet, Young Life leaders can go places church leaders cannot. Young Life helps extend the reach of churches in a community. It’s a catalyst that may impact people for a few years, while the local church can be the mechanism God uses to help people walk in Christ all the rest of their days.”

Rodgers put it another way, “What the local church offers, Young Life can’t. What Young Life offers, the local church probably shouldn’t. Ross has married the two so well.”

It’s been three decades since Strader encountered the ministry God would use to direct him back to the church. “I’m 45 and for the past 30 years I’ve seen God’s grace in this thread of Young Life. From this awkward, insecure high school freshman to where God has led me now, Young Life has been there every step of the way.

“This story is not about me; God has been so gracious. Jud and Chuck will tell you I’m the most unlikely kid to get to do what I’m doing. There’ve been a million stories like this over Young Life’s first 75 years and I pray there’ll be a million more!”

Ross Strader is one of thousands of alumni still intimately involved with Young Life. To visit the Alumni and Friends website, join, update your information and reconnect with your Young Life friends, go to alum.yl.org​.