The Gospel According to Young Life

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 7, 2008

Young Life–a well known force in the world of youth ministry–recently published its “Non-Negotiables of Gospel Proclamation” in an attempt to squelch evangelistic approaches that don’t line up with the conventional evangelical approach to evangelism. Here’s a snippet from a recent Christianity Today article:

The Non-Negotiables statement came out after a paper circulated last summer by Jeff McSwain. The former YL area director for Raleigh and Chapel Hill, McSwain was the highest-ranking staff member fired. In his paper, McSwain criticized YL’s traditional approach to evangelism, which he said emphasizes kids’ separation from God. His paper, “Jesus Is the Gospel,” said such gospel presentations can be more Unitarian than Trinitarian, because they draw a sharp contrast between the holy God and the incarnated Son who “actually became sin.”

“I can go into the realm of the most lost, furthest-out kids, knowing something that is true about them before they do,” he wrote in the paper. “They are lost children of God; people can’t be lost unless they have a home!”

YL’s eight-page Non-Negotiables statement requires a sequence for gospel presentations that closely resembles Campus Crusade for Christ’s Four Spiritual Laws. Talks must begin with the person of Jesus Christ, “the overarching theme of all our talks.” From there, evangelists should explain the reality and consequences of sin before presenting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Talks end with an invitation to believe and become a disciple of Jesus.

In the wake of the statement, McSwain, along with 9 other staff from the Raleigh-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina, have been fired or resigned. I think this is a portent of things to come. We’ve seen moves like this before, but as other approaches to evangelism (especially those that embrace or emphasize the role of embodiment) gain traction among evangelicals, this scenario will be replayed in increasing frequency.

I think Young Life is making a mistake. Evangelicals are too quick to dismiss other approaches to evangelism (often being driven by a fear of liberalism). We have failed to realize how our understanding of the Gospel has been shaped by 2000 years of history. In other words, we don’t really let the Gospels and Epistles shape our Gospel. Instead, we look back to the Gospels through the lens of a selected Pauline reading through the lens of Augustine’s understanding of sin through the lens of the Reformer’s beef with Catholicism through the lens of American revivalism through the lens of late consumer capitalist individualism. And when someone comes in and challenges any link in that fragile chain, they are cast out.

How is the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach inadequate?

What sort of standards should organizations like Young Life set for evangelism?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They are expecting their first child in April.

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15 Responses to “The Gospel According to Young Life”

  1. mountainguy on January 7th, 2008 2:08 pm

    well, I wouldn’t say that “Four Spiritual Laws” is inadequate. I think is a naive and easy, but at the same time adequate and orthodox way to bring the salvation message of Jesus. The problem is that the most of the time people keeps in this: “We’re saved, so we don’t have any trouble with still supporting Bush-conservative politics”. But, when is just about receiving the salvation through Jesus, I’d say that four laws are good (In fact, that’s the way I understood Jesus message).

    Saludos desde Colombia.

  2. Jeremy Dowsett on January 7th, 2008 9:04 pm


    Your long list of “lenses” here is dead-on. I’m still chuckling.

  3. Richard Daley on January 7th, 2008 9:56 pm

    With regards to the second question. I tend to be idealistic about these things, but I think an organization and their staff hiring and development processes should be such that if you said to the staff, go and minister to these people, that without any further instruction/regulation, the staff would minister in a way that is spiritually and ethically consistent with the organization even without being methodologically consistent.

    Therefore, in my ideal world, there wouldn’t be standards for evangelism so much as standards for evangelists.

  4. Jason Stauffacher on January 8th, 2008 12:31 am

    Mark-people are never up for change. They accuse Billy Graham of that even to this day. He dared to put a tent up and start preaching in the middle of a hot July summer with no money. The e-life that Web 2.0 and Google has afforded us is very good and bad. We are in a modern, almost George Jetson likeness. We run and run and run. There is no time for tent revivals, and in some middle-white American homes, that just would not fly Bible bangers and choirs. My point is that we need to contextualize the Gospel. Chic tracks are out, and a new wave of Christianity is upon us. Is it a New Wave 2.0 for Christ? Maybe. The burbs, the inner city both need to understand we are in new times, and we need to accept our differences and love each other. I find that we are, at times, like rats in a caged maze. We are used in going after the cheese with a certain path, and we have gone for that Gospel cheese for decades in that certain manner. George Jetson, Web 2.0 and the fact of being in 2008, that Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Law (as he wrote the first version of the 4 Laws ) and he is gone now. We have a new breed of adult, a new breed of child. Google, Web 2.0, rushed life does not change the Gospel, it changes the world around us in how we present the Gospel of the Jewish King. And sometimes it hurts in the trying.

  5. Jason Stauffacher on January 8th, 2008 12:54 am

    One more odd thought that relates to this discussion:

    Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    Profound. We see evangelism through one set of rose-coloured glasses. We do.

  6. Something Is Wrong at Young Life « on January 8th, 2008 5:43 am

    […] Rick Lawrence weighs in HERE; his comment section, I think, shows just how shortsighted and shallow is the theological understanding by many around the area of soteriology. Mark van Steenwyk in the fray HERE. […]

  7. JVD on January 8th, 2008 9:22 am

    Thanks Mark

  8. toddh on January 9th, 2008 1:07 am

    I like how in the article YL makes the old “methods change - message stays the same” distinction. Good ol’ modernity, you can’t beat it, abstracting the message from the methods.

  9. joe troyer on January 9th, 2008 7:03 am

    I have read a handful of articles and the “Non-Negotiables”. I want to weigh in, but I am not quite ready yet. For now though, it definately seemsto beg the question, “What is the Gospel?”

  10. joe troyer on January 9th, 2008 10:30 pm

    I think YL is an example of what is happening in the larger church. I wonder if the fear of the “old guard” is that they feel it slipping away. We used to take modernity as gospel. That’s why YL probably never had this struggle. they were always the innovators and pioneers within modernity anyways.

    Now in a new postmodern, postchristian age feels a part of their identity is at risk. When in reality, maybe it is time to re-evaluate and give an ear to some of these other voices. But the struggle seems to be in seperating the gospel from modernism and tradition.

  11. ysmarko on January 10th, 2008 1:38 pm

    […] mark van steenwyk’s excellent summary and reflection […]

  12. Vince Miller on January 11th, 2008 4:41 am

    Unfortunately today, I am not proud to be a former YL staff. The funny thing is that YL taught me to the core about incarnational ministry. I have always thought they failed to work this all the way out. But that is neither her nor there, because they actually set me on the path.

    The unfortunate thing about some of this YL controversy is it sounds so anti-YL. I actually think this will create a chasm for numerous younger staff that may to be too large to hurdle for some, with obvious changes to come.

    I think Modernity continues to create the rules regulating the “in’s and out’s” of Christendom. I believe they have always had trouble living in the tension and since the rise of reason we have wanted to reason (only) a comfort level with our God and resultantly our churches and organizations. We reproduce “safe” feelings for our staff, donors, and students. This is first in our theology in many ways, and an unsafe God, beyond the comprehension of our mind is not.

    Today I am sad for this.

  13. Luke Harding on January 13th, 2008 7:41 pm

    Four ways the 4 laws are inadequate:

    1 - they are individualistic and seemingly ignore or intentionally leave out the Church dynamic.
    2. -they do not present Jesus as the Messiah of Israel; only as a fix-it to a universal problem. In this type of presentation, Jesus could have been Hawaiian and it would seem to make little difference.
    3. -they exclude from the outset of one’s spiritual journey a covenantal or infant-baptist approach to salvation
    4. -they present salvation as merely God’s plan for restoring broken lives, rather than God’s plan for restoring a broken world.

  14. Maria Kirby on January 13th, 2008 7:49 pm

    Instead of the four spiritual laws I’d like to see the two greatest commandments.

    Evangelism is giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, visiting the sick and those who are in prison…
    Unfortunately, that would require work, saving, and giving to those who couldn’t give back, going to places that aren’t safe, putting up with persons who need a lot of forgiving.

  15. Andrea U on January 14th, 2008 8:51 am

    I totally agree with you Maria. Isn’t this what Jesus taught? I do not understand why we have to constantly make our interpretations or understandings into acronyms, bullet points and theories.

    As Christ followers should we not take the whole of the Gospel and from our own holistic, prayerful and contemplative understanding reach others from that place. Being a listener, a lover, all those things Jesus was. And I know he was many other things, but I am speaking simply about his relationships with nonbelievers. Wouldn’t we do this if we were that interested? Is it easier to try to stick to “laws?” The reason Jesus himself came was because he knew we could not stick to laws. I know this has been said before but I just had to fervently nod in agreement. “And the greatest of these is love…”

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