Following a November statement outlining the "Non-Negotiables of Young Life's Gospel Proclamation," Young Life (YL) has fired or accepted resignations from all 10 staff members in the Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina.
In a letter to staff that accompanied the Non-Negotiables, YL president Denny Rydberg said senior leadership was concerned that the mission "not drift from our biblical and historical roots." YL, an evangelistic ministry that mostly targets high school students, works in all 50 states and in more than 50 countries. It has more than 3,000 staff members and 27,000 volunteers.
"We're an oral history organization, and one of the remarkable things about Young Life is how consistent our proclamation and personality around the country and really around the world is," said Terry Swenson, YL vice president of communications. "As we grow, the need for a way to talk with one another about this important issue has come up. And the paper really is an attempt to guide and train and help folks prepare as they proclaim the gospel."
The Non-Negotiables statement came out after a paper circulated last summer by Jeff McSwain. The former YL area director for Durham and Chapel Hill, McSwain was the highest-ranking staff member fired. In his paper, McSwain took issue with YL "sin talks," where leaders explain that "God is holy and pure and we are impure." He said talks that include statements such as, "We've broken the law and someone needs to pay," can sound more Unitarian than Trinitarian by drawing a sharp contrast between the holy God and incarnated Son who "actually became sin." McSwain, one of YL's most experienced area directors, pointed to YL's trademark contact strategy of incarnational friendship and said ensuing messages of separation introduce "serious confusion into the hearts of the kids who we love."
"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, become a disciple of Jesus, and publicly proclaim one's faith.
When composing the Non-Negotiables document, YL leaders were evidently concerned to differentiate between style and substance. "We affirm Young Life's style is relational and incarnational," the statement reads. "This means that our proclamation of the gospel will most always proceed from the context of relationships with adolescents." The statement welcomes creativity in methodology but bolds the line, "However, while our methodology may change, our message does not."
McSwain, 45, earned a master's degree in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He declined to speak with Christianity Today, but several supporters have jumped to his defense, including Douglas Campbell, a New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, and Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame. Campbell and Smith attend the same Presbyterian church as McSwain.
Campbell told CT that McSwain's thinking is influenced by the late Scottish theologian James B. Torrance. Others have noted McSwain's reliance on Karl Barth. As Reformed theologians, both Torrance and Barth sought to redefine traditional Calvinism, arguing that God has a covenant, marriage-like relationship with the world he has created, not a contract relationship that demands obedience prior to acceptance.