How Young Life Was Born

August 24, 2011

On This Day in Young Life History: A Guest Post from Kit Sublett

August 24, 1956, saw the summer coming to a close at Frontier Ranch. The final days of camp were a gathering of college students, known as “Leadership Seminar.” The speaker was Young Life’s founder, Jim Rayburn. The collegians had arrived the previous day, a Thursday, and would stay until Sunday.

The college kids weren’t the only visitors to Frontier that August. Also spending a few days there was the recently-widowed Lila Trotman, whose husband Dawson had been one of Rayburn’s best friends. Dawson Trotman was the founder of The Navigators and he had passed away earlier that summer. Along with Billy Graham, Rayburn had been one of the speakers at his memorial service. Mrs. Trotman had already been at Frontier for more than a week by the time the college kids arrived for “Seminar.”

The Rayburn family, as always, was staying in The Lookout. It was Jim’s favorite place, and if you’ve had the privilege of visiting it, you can see why. Lila Trotman was almost certainly staying there as well, since that’s where all important visitors to the ranch stayed in those days. The adult guest lodge would not be built until the 1980s, and Trail West was still several years away from coming into reality.

Jim addressed the college kids every night in the Kiva. The Kachina, where club is held now, would not be built for four more years (and later redesigned and doubled in size in 1993).

On Friday, August 24, Jim’s journal gives precious few details about his message, but does provide some hints. It says, “I spoke on Mark 2 ‘them without’ for 35 minutes and quit without going to the rest of the material.”

Christ’s compassion for “them without” was one of Rayburn’s guiding Scriptural principles. Using the old King James translation (which he did not prefer, but it was the standard in those days), Rayburn loved to camp out on several passages that talked about those who were outside the Christian faith—or “them without” as the KJV says (Colossians 4:5 is the most prominent example).

Perhaps he spoke about the paralytic, a favorite passage of Jim’s to speak on. He called the young man “a fortunate fellow” because his friends cared enough about him to bring him to the feet of Jesus. It was a message that Jim borrowed from his own evangelist father, and it’s been a Young Life staple ever since.

More likely, though, he focused on Levi, in verses 13 to 17. Though the passage does not use the phrase, “them without,” it does talk about the theme of caring for those outside the faith. Verse 16 was a favorite of Jim’s to describe Young Life. “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (English Standard Version)

Years ago I had the privilege to meet with one of the early staff men, Murray Smoot. Murray has since gone on to be with the Lord after many years of faithful service to Christ, first in Young Life when he was at Dallas Theological Seminary with Rayburn, and then for decades as a Presbyterian pastor.

Murray told me a story that I have treasured ever since. Even though it took place fifteen years earlier than this Leadership Seminar at Frontier Ranch, I have a feeling that this later meeting echoed what Murray had heard Rayburn say in 1941.

At the time Murray told me this story, he was in his eighties. But he talked about that meeting as if it had happened just the other day, not fifty-seven years earlier, so vivid was his memory of it. The meeting was in Stearns Hall on the campus of Dallas Seminary. Jim had gathered Murray and the other DTS men who were leading Miracle Book Clubs under his supervision in order to break away from the Miracle Book Club (there was no Young Life yet).

“You want to know where Young Life started?” Smoot asked me. “I’ll tell you where Young Life started.”

With passion, he recalled that day in 1941. “We were down in the basement of Dallas Seminary. I still can see it. And there was one window there, and we said, ‘Look, let’s just take everything that’s ever been done with high school kids, Hi-Y, or BYPU, or Methodist, or Christian Endeavor, anything that’s ever been done with high school kids. Let’s just toss it out the window.’ I mean literally, that’s what we said. I still can remember it.

“‘Let’s just toss it out the window. And let’s start at Ground Zero.’ And Ground Zero has got to be this verse that Jim brought to us. Luke 15:1: ‘Then drew near to him all the publicans and sinners to hear him. And the scribes and pharisees murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and’—ugh!—‘eats with them.’

“That’s when we got the idea. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll just hang around with kids. We’re just gonna [hang] around with kids and win an opportunity to share the gospel with them. That is the birth of Young Life right there.”

I feel confident that the message Jim shared with his fellow Young Life pioneers in 1941 was the same message that he shared to the college kids of 1956.

Jim’s journal entry fifty-five years ago today continues, “Gave intro. about our beginning ‘in the dark’—experimentation.” I’ll bet you that he encouraged those young leaders at Frontier Ranch to continue that experimentation. Rayburn did not believe that Young Life should ever become formulaic. He always said, “The best Young Life work has yet to be done.”

Jim almost certainly pointed out that the publicans and sinners “drew near” to hear Jesus. Rayburn was always speaking of the importance of “gaining a sympathetic hearing” for the gospel; that once people knew we cared, they would be open to listening to the facts about Jesus. And that was the key to Young Life: getting kids open to hearing about Jesus.

I hope that you are following strong in the footsteps of folks like Jim Rayburn and Murray Smoot; that you’re continuing to experiment with ways to “win an opportunity to share the gospel” with high school kids. Those college kids Rayburn addressed are now in their late seventies. They picked up the torch and faithfully carried it to impact the generations that came after them. You do the same! May God bless you in your ministry this year, as you go and “eat with publicans and sinners.”

Kit Sublett was on Young Life staff in Houston for twenty years. He is the editor of “The Diaries of Jim Rayburn,” which is available and in bulk at

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