Net Gains

As Joe Belinko prepared for Century High School’s 2014 lacrosse season, he found himself at a ministry crossroads. The head coach for the junior varsity lacrosse team and the area director for Carroll County (Maryland) Young Life had seen the number of kids attending club decline in recent years; the previous summer only 11 had gone to camp. Almost 60 years old, Belinko had been on Young Life staff in Carroll County since 1980; at times he’d wondered if he could still relate to high school kids or if the Lord was calling him to move away from the ministry.

Belinko and his leaders had agreed to suspend club for a while, so in the early months of that year, through games and practices with the team, he connected with the players and invited them to an annual area-wide Young Life event called Midnight Madness. He also continued to pray about what the Lord was doing with Century Young Life. The answer would be delivered in dramatic fashion as the lacrosse season concluded.

At season’s end, he and his wife, Karen, who has also been involved with the Century club for decades, hosted the team party, and Belinko saw an opportunity to take those coach-athlete friendships a step further. As the party was winding down Belinko grabbed his son Camden (a new leader at the school) and another volunteer leader for an impromptu prayer meeting in his basement.

The party, he had realized, presented a unique opportunity, one that might not come around again. After the prayer, he asked the guys and their parents if they would gather to watch a short video. He played the Lake Champion promo, explained the details and cost of the summer trip, and went back to socializing and eating with the team. “I talked to them about going to camp,” he said. “I told them, ‘I know it sounds kind of hokey, but I guarantee that you guys will have a great time.’”

Belinko had already developed plenty of credibility with the boys and their parents through an undefeated lacrosse season, and within days of the party and its spontaneous camp commercial he had deposits and registration from nine boys. By the time they departed for New York, 14 members of the team were on board and heading for an unforgettable week at Lake Champion. “The whole thing really was just God working, orchestrating things, answering prayer,” he said.

Camping Does Its Job

Because the group had so little exposure to Young Life before they went to camp, they were wide-eyed during the first few days. Belinko saw them slowly start to warm up to him and Lake Champion as they leaned into the gospel message. He knew their hearts were changing midweek when, after the county fair, his group sprinted to the club room so they could claim the front row during club.

“Camping does its job,” Belinko said. “During the course of that week, God was changing their hearts. Twelve of them made commitments at camp, and then after we got home a 13th, Jake Leitner, called me and said he was ready to give his life to Christ.”

That unlikely camp group — and the eternal repercussions of their week in New York — would have been sufficient as an inspirational story, but God had big plans for those transformed lacrosse players when they returned to Century High School. That fall, buoyed by the boys’ excitement and the effect they were having on friends and classmates, Century had Young Life club with more than 60 people in attendance at the Belinkos’ farm, a sprawling property with space they renovated just to host Young Life groups.

And as Belinko and his other leaders discipled the young men who were serious about growing in their faith, they saw a ripple effect as the boys prayed for friends, brought them to Young Life and talked up the summer camp experience. “Those guys changed the whole trajectory of Young Life at the school,” Belinko said. “They just became fearless.”

Witness to a Culture Change

One lacrosse player who was changed by Christ and became an ambassador at the school was Zach Keepers, a sophomore when he made the decision to attend Lake Champion with his teammates. As he grew in his faith and saw others at his high school make decisions to follow the Lord, he became bolder — seeking out the kids who seemed to be the furthest from Christ and inviting them to Young Life.

As Century’s club continued to grow, so did interest in the area’s next summer trip to Saranac. That summer 63 kids traveled to upstate New York for camp, more than tripling the number from the previous year. Many of those lacrosse players, including Keepers and Leitner, were part of the trip and found themselves in the midst of a spiritual awakening that was transforming their friends.

“It’s not just about the numbers, but all of the numbers are stories,” Keepers said. “At Saranac I was able to see so many people make a commitment. That was so incredible to see people who were struggling with so much stuff back home make a decision I knew was going to change their lives. I was witness to a culture change at my high school.”

Ready to Lead

Back at school in the fall of 2015, the movement continued to grow, fueled by the influence of young men and women who were serious about following Christ. Kids were coming to club and bringing friends, studying the Bible at Campaigners and even showing up for 6 a.m. discipleship meetings at Bob Evans. And that fall at the Belinkos’ farm, 175 students from Century High showed up at a Young Life club.

Buoyed by the momentum and the prospect of introducing so many new friends to Christ at camp, Belinko started to dream big. He met Christ in 1973 as a camper at Silver Cliff in Buena Vista, Colorado, and because that place was so significant to his journey he’d always wanted to take a group of Carroll County kids to Frontier Ranch. It was a trip that covered 1,800 miles each way and required more of a time and financial commitment than the previous trips to East Coast camps, but Belinko and his team felt the Lord was prompting them to step out.

They kicked off the Colorado trip registration with a Young Life Christmas party, and within two days about 100 kids had signed up and paid a deposit. Belinko planned a Western tour of sorts, complete with white-water rafting and other special attractions along the way, and when the buses pulled away that summer 110 kids and leaders were onboard. “That just speaks to the power God has and the way He works in Young Life at Century,” Keepers said.

The group was so large that Belinko didn’t have enough leaders, so he recruited eight recent Century High graduates to come along as junior leaders. Several, including Keepers, were his original junior varsity lacrosse players who had sat in his basement three years earlier with almost no knowledge of Young Life or the way the Lord would soon use it to shape their lives.

Not Finished Yet

After such an ambitious trip in 2016, Belinko is happy to be selling a Lake Champion week for this summer, and 56 kids have already signed up to go. He’s gratified by the contact with college freshmen like Keepers, who is training to be a Young Life leader at the University of Maryland, and others from the lacrosse team pursuing leadership training at High Point University and the University of Wisconsin. As the Belinkos watch the Lord continue to work at Century and use this core group of guys to spread the gospel in places far beyond Carroll County, Maryland, they continue to do the work of the area spurred on with a clear message from God. They’re certain He used that extraordinary four-year period to remind them to trust and persevere.

“After wondering if He was calling me out of ministry with Young Life, I realized God wasn’t finished with me yet,” he said. “It’s a thrill. It’s exciting to be part of it. The thrill is just to see these kids go on in their faith.”