Young Life ministry gears up to celebrate 20 years of helping local kids

By Melissa Koontz

Transcript Features Editor

As he prepares for the 20th reunion/anniversary of Young Life in Norman, a non-profit organization that reaches out to non-churched kids and strives to earn the right to share Christ's story with them, area director Scott Hennigan is trying to build a family tree of all those who have been touched by the local mission.

Ultimately, however, he knows the feat is impossible. In Norman and Moore, this year alone, about 75 Young Life leaders know the names of more than 600 high school and middle school students ? teens and young adults whom the leaders are working to lead toward a life of worship, of answers.

And no one can know the impact each of those students might have on another's life. Add that up, and the branches alone would reach for miles.

Hennigan said although his mission of putting down on paper the impact Young Life has had on this community might not be feasible, the task's magnitude represents the ministry's importance.

"It's very non-religious, very real," Hennigan said regarding the endeavor that's attracted the attention of more than 793,000 kids throughout the country. "You can't fake kids out. We are not a church. We are a catalyst for kids who are joining church somewhere. We're just kids and Christ and Christ and kids.

"That's not what we're about, that's all we're about."

More than 250 former leaders, kids and committee members are expected to attend the 20-year anniversary and reunion in Norman Sept. 23-25.

The Young Life ministry operates in more than 4,164 schools and other outreach locations in the United States and around the world. It depends on the help of more than 25,000 volunteers.

"It's an opportunity to reunite with those involved with Norman Young Life," ? past club members, camp attendees, leaders ? "everyone who helped make it was it is today," Hennigan said.

At 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23, there will be a welcome back reception. At noon Sept. 24, there will be a family picnic at Lions Park. Then the reunion/anniversary will culminate with Club 20/20 at Journey Church, during which participants will share the story of how Young Life started in Norman ? a quest started in 1941 in Gainesville, Texas, by seminary student Jim Rayburn.

In 1985, Norman resident and young parent Elaine Burget coaxed her husband, Mark, to bring to Norman the effort of Young Life, which is different from other youth church groups that reach children who already attend church.

"(Rayburn) was concerned with the hundreds if not thousands of high school kids who do not go to church," Mark Burget said. "Then, in the fall of 1985, my wife said to me, 'There needs to be a Young Life group here in Norman.' My initial reaction was, 'Well, yeah, but we can't do it.' Reluctantly, I agreed."

He said Rayburn operated under the philosophy "we earn the right to be heard by accepting the kids for who they were, where they were; to build a relationship with them, and through that share the word of Christ with them."

"It's about making contact with high school and middle school kids on their turf," he said. "As you build a friendship and a relationship with kids, then at some point in time they'll listen to your stories. There's a lot of power in that."

Over the years, Young Life has had quite an impact on the lives of young, non-churched kids in central Oklahoma. Tim Brassfield has been training volunteer leaders for Young Life for 17 years. Like Hennigan and Burget, he got his start as a lost high school student in need of spiritual direction.

"In high school, I had zero spiritual involvement," Brassfield said. "I was very loved by family, almost a family that had no definition in that area. So, my sophomore year in high school I really became involved when my father passed away. And I heard that's where you go to meet girls," he joked.

He said walking into one of the weekly Young Life club meetings was one of the most eye-opening, religious experiences of his life.

"We go in there and they did skits," Brassfield said. "I remember this one skit where they put up a sheet and there's lips sticking through these holes that they cut out and you were supposed to go up and kiss a pair of lips. Then they took the sheet off and they were all guys. They had switched (with the girls) while they were under there."

No, that was no joke. But that's what Young Life does. It breaks down the barriers of misconceptions kids might have about religion and gets them to listen not only to the words, but also to the message.

"(Skits are) used to make kids feel comfortable in that environment. And then we will move into more of a mellow environment and the kids will hear a talk for no more than 15 minutes."

Because as the first founder of Young Life said, "We believe it is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel. It's the greatest story ever told," Hennigan said.

Mark and Elaine Burget continue to play a leading role in the success of the local Young Life, which includes Norman High School, Norman North High School and Moore high schools, and Wyld Life, which includes Norman's middle schools.

As for Hennigan's family tree project, Burget said, "It'll be a staggering task.

"There is no more effective biblically-based ministry, to high school and middle school unchurched kids than Young Life."

Young Life meets Mondays for students at Norman High School and Norman North High School. Middle school students in a group called Wyld Life meet Tuesday nights. Young Life for students in Moore high schools meets Monday nights in Moore. Volunteer Young Life leaders meet Sunday nights.

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