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Young Life Under Pressure to Change Sexual Conduct Policy

A social media campaign started by two gay former Young Life staffers is putting pressure on the youth ministry to change its position on sexuality.

Kent Thomas and Christina Hofmann — two former Young Life staffers who are now openly gay — first shared their stories in July on social media.  Thomas used the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife, and others latched on to the idea.  #DoBetterYoungLife has since become a social media campaign advocating for Young Life to change its sexual conduct policy for leaders, and to embrace LGBTQ relationships. This hashtag movement now has hundreds of stories via social media.

Young Life, founded in 1941, is one of the largest evangelical ministries in the country.  Headquartered in Colorado Springs, it has chapters at nearly 9,000 schools in all 50 states, plus 90 countries.  2018 revenue topped $400-million.

It doesn’t make staff policies public, but its sexual conduct policy (a copy obtained by James Madison University’s student paper can be seen here) confines sexual activity to that within heterosexual marriage—just like virtually every evangelical church or ministry.

But Young Life’s critics point to the organization’s long-held commitment to welcoming everyone. Until recently, its slogan was “every kid, everywhere, for eternity.” (The new slogan is “you were made for this.”)  Young Life has long been a place where kids who might never darken the door of a church could feel welcome.

Indeed, a big part of Young Life’s model is to “go where the kids are,” often forming chapters in public schools and on secular campuses, “introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ,” embracing them with community that hopefully leads to discipleship. Everyone is welcome, regardless of station, religion, race, or sexual orientation.

But, like most Christian organizations, those in leadership must commit to different standards.  Young Life has historically been clear about these standards.

An online petition asking Young Life to repeal its sexual conduct policy has garnered more than 6,700 signatures, though it’s a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of young people who have been touched by Young Life in its almost 80 years of ministry.

In a statement sent to Religion News Service via email July 17, Young Life’s president, Newt Crenshaw, said Young Life was creating a council that would review the stories of current and former Young Life members who have “experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.”

The statement also said Young Life is “always reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure that our behavior reflects the Kingdom of God.”

In an internal letter dated several days earlier, Young Life’s vice president of communications Terry Swenson acknowledged to the organization’s leadership “the discomfort and sadness we feel to hear stories of those who have been hurt in their Young Life experience” but that they “are not reviewing our policy or theology.”

Josh Wester with the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission wrote in defense of Young Life.  He acknowledged that Young Life is in a “complicated and multifaceted situation” and that the #dobetteryounglife stories are often marked by pain and sincerity.

“At the same time, there is no real question about what Young Life should do, at least in terms of the substance of its policy. Young Life’s views on sexuality are, after all, not really Young Life’s views on sexuality,” Wester said. “For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well. And these things are not ancillary to the Christian life, but central to what it means to faithfully follow Christ. For Young Life, and for any Christian organization, obedience to Scripture and fidelity to the Christian tradition requires that they maintain their prohibition on any kind of sexual activity beyond the bounds of heterosexual marriage.”

Kathryn Post from Religion News contributed to this story.

Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.