Decades later Youth for Christ still impacting Southland

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — "Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock." With a motto that never goes out of style, Youth for Christ has reached out to kids in Southern California for nearly decades. Now, more than ever, the ministry adjusts its strategy to meet the challenges shaped by the ever-changing landscape of student ministry.

"We see ourselves in Southern California as a youth missions agency," said Al Siebert, executive director of Southern California Youth for Christ. A YFC veteran who oversees ministry in the region that includes Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties,  Siebert joined the staff 40 years ago while a student at Biola University. In those days Campus Life clubs and Saturday night rallies were hallmarks of the YFC ministry. 

The director characterized the work of Southern California Youth for Christ today as an apostolic style work and one that is difficult to finance because it is invisible.

"If we want Christianity to be around in a neighborhood in 20 years, we have to give it away to young people by giving them the job of evangelism," Seibert said. "We are training them (youth) so that they don't need us." 

Under Seibert's direction Southern California YFC operates from its office in Long Beach with a professional staff of 10 and a growing number of volunteers critical to help in implementing its vision: To see every young person on every campus have the opportunity to make an informed decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  

One thing is certain: The ministry of Southern California YFC doesn't happen in an office.

"My office is my car," Seibert said as he explained that his work is about relationships and discipleship evangelism, something that can't happen behind an isolated desk.

"Discipleship is never a program. It is primarily a relationship," the high-energy director said, acknowledging that the concept was driven into him by former YFC President Jay Kesler.


Student Led Ministry
YFC's newest ministry model, Student Led Ministry, is designed to influence the vision, goals and practices of middle and high school students so that they become more like Christ and view those on their campus as Jesus would. Student Led Ministry connects YFC with local churches and other partner organizations and uses adult coaches to encourage students to live out their faith on their campus and in their community.

"Our main campus strategy is student led. It necessitates partnership with the local church. They (campus clubs) aren't owned by anybody," he said, adding that campus ministries must navigate an education climate less friendly to faith-based groups than in decades past.

The core of YFC's Student Led model rests on training students to take the initiative to share Christ and do ministry instead of relying on adult leaders. It necessitates providing kids with access to training in leadership and evangelism and has spawned a number of gatherings like Turn Your Campus, an annual one-day training event that YFC initiated 13 years ago in partnership with local churches.


Urban flair
For the first time, Urban Youth Workers Institute was heavily involved in the training day, held Jan. 26 at Biola University. More than 900 students attended the event, which, in addition to a variety of workshops, featured keynote speaker Ben Stephens, college pastor at the Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles and free verse rap poet, Propaganda. The day concluded with a commissioning service for the student leaders.  

Seibert said that Southern California YFC still has clubs, but they are all different—some are Bible clubs, others are prayer groups and some focus on outreach. A common thread they share is that they are all in urban areas. Yet, regardless of where today's teenagers live, the veteran YFC director said, "Between their ears they are urban." It is, he said, a reality of a culture where rap music tops the charts.


Inspiration and motivation
Mid Cities Area Director, Theresa Willis, praised Turn Your Campus as a winning event for the students she brings and the ones that attend on their own.

"The connection they get really inspires and motivates them," she said. "The speakers have been really good and exceptionally motivating with new and refreshing ideas."

A mother of four, she oversees five high school clubs and one middle school club in the cities of Compton, Lynwood, Paramount and Gardena. Willis started as  a YFC volunteer soon after she graduated from Compton High School in 1978. Thirteen years ago she became a paid staff member and has seen the transition in kids since her days as a volunteer.

"Students are taking more of an active role in their spiritual lives," she said. "They want to reach their peers and they are capable of doing it. We help them."

A group of 15 to 20 volunteers support her efforts with the various mid-city clubs. YFC's long-term relationship with the community is demonstrated in a 52-year-old Bible club at Lynwood Middle School. Started by teacher Blanche Austin, now retired, it came under the direction of Youth for Christ 21 years ago.

As Southern California YFC navigates the turbulent waters of youth culture, its student leaders are focused on the future. Benjamin Holley, a leader in the SWAT (an acronym for Students With a Testimony) club at Dominguez High School, said his involvement in the lunchtime club has forced him to study the Bible so that he can articulate his faith.

"God is real. Heaven and hell are real," he said. "This life is going to be over."

For more information on the Youth for Christ, visit www.yfc.org.