Jim Rayburn was the founder of Young Life. Eleven months before he died, in January of1970, the entire
Young Life staff gathered in California for a staff conference. Jim was
to be one of the featured speakers. Including spouses, there were almost
five hundred in attendance – a far cry from the little group of five men who
gathered for the first staff meeting in a Nacogdoches, Texas, at a church in the
fall of 1941.
Everyone at the conference knew that Rayburn was in poor health and
that this would almost certainly be his last time to speak to a staff
In “From Bondage to Liberty: Dance, Children, Dance,” Jim’s son recounts, “Hours before his message, Jim seemed on the edge of dying. His body wracked by pain, nausea, and radiation sickness, there seemed no way he could speak. We, in the family, were most concerned with the consequences if he went ahead. But there were things he wanted desperately to say, and at 8:00am Jim stood before ‘his people.’ He was greeted with a standing ovation. I’m sure that tears flowed from many
faces, as they did from mine.”
Below is the message Jim shared that day. You can download a PDF of it here.
As all the old-timers have heard, I’ve always felt a little twinge or something when I was introduced as the founder of this outfit. I am the founder of this outfit – don’t get me wrong! But the reason for my embarrassment is that I
always felt like a fella who founded something should at least know he was
founding something. I didn’t have the slightest idea I was founding something. I know this – I woke up too late in life and it wasn’t so late either – most of you are about that far along. But I woke up too late in life, coming out of my fine Christian home, and living in a town where there were churches on every corner – four on some – and YMCA and Boy Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls … I like that. And I woke up with my bride one day in a town where there was a school full of people who didn’t have the foggiest chance to know the truth about Jesus Christ. They didn’t have a chance; there wasn’t anybody there that knew enough about Him to tell them. And, furthermore, they weren’t interested in listening to anyone who sounded like someone who might be going to get around to talking about Jesus Christ.
So I had a two-fold job on my hands. The first crack of the bat – right out of engineering school and graduate school in geology – I was suddenly plunked down in northern New Mexico by the Presbyterian Board of National Missions and I was the bishop of all out-of-doors. One place where we Presbyterians always had it over the Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, and so forth, is you got to work up to bishop there. But with us we’re all bishops – it’s just automatic. You get to be a bishop right now. That’s the only way I’d have ever gotten to be one.
So I had a two-fold job – I hadn’t ever thought about it before – but all of a sudden it came slammin’ home to me that people were bad off. They were way out in left field: they didn’t have a chance – not for a good life, not for God’s kind of life, not for the life He meant for ‘em – unless they personally knew Jesus Christ. So I’d have to get busy and talk to them about Him. The second thing was I had to get ‘em willing to listen.
I imagine that I’ve set some world records in my time. For example, I suppose I’m the only man extant – and I’m just barely extant – who has been the only football coach in an entire county. Yes, I was it. I coached all the teams in the county. There were sixteen fellas in high school in Chama, New Mexico, when I was there. The only way I could possibly have football for the boys was to divide them into two eight-man teams. And I had to coach them both. Some of the hardest parts of my early days was running back and forth across that field… when the ball changed hands. Well, there you have it – the plan – that’s what I was supposed to talk about this morning. It says so right here on your program – The Bi Dream. I hadn’t dreamed any big dream ‘til I got there – and I didn’t even know I was dreaming any big dreams then.
I was half-smart in engineering and long about two-thirds smart in mineralogy, but I was a dummy when it came to Christianity. I knew one thing, though – I knew that Jesus Christ was important. And I knew that anyone that didn’t have a chance to know Him deserved a chance – and
that’s what Young Life is all about – and don’t you forget it! I believe that we ought to be involved up to our eyebrows in many of the great social issues of our time, but not for one minute will I ever believe that we ought to be involved in anything that takes away the least bit from The Big Dream: that everyone has the right to know Jesus Christ, to know the facts concerning Him, which are a glorious array of facts concerning the greatest life that was ever lived, which are an unbelievable array of facts concerning God.
This is what God is like. He’s like this man that was born in Bethlehem, that grew up as a carpenter, that trod the dusty roads of a …little country that we call Israel today, but He was God. He was all of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe that could possibly be jam-packed into a human being. And He had to work in that way because He’d have scared the bejabbers out of us if He’d have come any other way. [Laughter] We wouldn’t have understood Him and we would have run from Him. But
people didn’t run from Him. They ran towards Him. And the lady that
– well, she wasn’t much of a lady ‘til up to that minute – a woman who had her life fouled up just about every way there is to foul up a life – spent a few
minutes with Him – and went rushing back to town. She’d have probably
made the women’s Olympic team if she’d have lived in our day. And the
reason she was in such a hurry was that, she said, “Come out here and meet this one I met out here at the well. All I did was to go out there and get some water and I’ve come back with a heart bursting with such glorious,
marvelous truth that you gotta come and see for yourselves.”
The Big Dream was a pretty little dream in Chama, New Mexico, and in Tierra Amarilla and in Cebolla and in Payson and Doc Cabezas, and those places that Maxine and I rambled in the early years. But it got big because there was such a big idea behind it. One we never thought of: everyone has a right to know the truth about Jesus Christ. They have a right to know who He is. They have a right to know what He’s done. They have a right to know how they relate to that. They have a right to know Him personally. Furthermore, they have a right to make their own choice of Him. And if you got in here accidentally without realizing that that’s what Young Life’s all about, then you oughta get squared away or you oughta hunt the nearest telephone booth and ask for the bus schedule. That’s not just what Young Life’s all about; that’s all that Young Life’s all about – Jesus Christ.
Most of you – I don’t know if I can say most of you to this crowd or not, I haven’t seen you for quite a while; and so, since we grow so
fast and you’ve grown a lot faster since you got rid of me, why it might not be most of you – but an awful lot of you know that I’ve believed
that the greatest job in the world today, by far and away the greatest job in
the world today, is just to thumb the pages of this New Testament, which was written to make Jesus Christ known, and to do it in the presence of a group of people who are listening, who know you care about them, and no beans about it, people that you’ve taken the time and the trouble to prove to that you really care that they’re people – and that all you are is people, that you may have one great glorious advantage over them. But you didn’t earn it and you don’t have any more right to it than they do. And that’s a personal
relationship with Jesus Christ.
The very spring of our actions is Jesus Christ. We look at it like this: if one died for all men, then in a sense, they all died, and his purpose in dying for them is that their lives should now be no longer lived for
themselves but for him who died and was raised to life for them. This means
that our knowledge of men can no longer be based on their outward lives
(indeed, even though we knew Christ as a man, we do not know him like that any longer)…The past is finished and gone, everything has become fresh and new.
2 Corinthians 5:14-21 – J. B. Phillips translation
Man alive! If there was ever a generation in human history that needed to hear that, it’s now.
Everything’s become fresh and new. All this is God’s doing –
God’s doing, not ours.
For he has reconciled us to himself through Christ; and he has made us agents of the reconciliation. God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself – not counting their sins against them – and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. We are now Christ’s ambassador, as though God were appealing direct to you through us –
As His personal representatives, we say –
“Make your peace with God.” For God caused Christ, who Himself knew nothing of sin, actually to be sin for our sakes so that in Christ we might be made good with the goodness of God.
Young Life’s an outfit which was grounded deep down in personal relationship to Jesus Christ and in the belief that not one of us is any good, that every bit of goodness that there is in us was given to us as a gift from God. He made us. If we’re good, He made us good. If we’re good, we got good by getting up close and embracing Jesus Christ, there is no other way to goodness.
The Big Dream we started in the deserts, in the mining camps, in the out-of-the-way places in our own country. Then we moved on to the big cities. And we found out another thing that we should’ve known before. It was right there to look at. There was no reason why we hadn’t seen it except we hadn’t been looking. But the kids uptown and the kids downtown and the kids out in the country and the kids in the penthouse and the kids in the ghetto, people growing up every place in the world were up against it, absolutely up against it, because there wasn’t anybody telling them about Jesus Christ.
So The Big Dream stated another way is this: It’s a group of people – I hope it’s all of you people and a lot more – bound together in the single–minded purpose that there’s no price too high to pay to see to it that young people have a chance to know the Savior. It’s a part of their God-given heritage: but not since apostolic days has it ever been realized.
One of the saddest things to me as I grow older – you notice I said “older.” I didn’t say “old” cause you put a pair of slats on your feet about six feet long and head ‘em downhill and I’ll beat you down! One of the saddest things, as I grow older, is not the fact that I’ve got cancer, and one of these days I might keel over and die. That’s really not a very sad prospect because you may not have cancer, but one of these days you may keel over and die! And I’d be willing to lay odds that some of you will beat me. Well, one of the saddest things is that more people don’t care. We’re going fast and sometimes I look at the reports in the board meetings and it seems like were just bustin’ out all over, but were not. We’re not even keeping pace with the population explosion. We ought to do at least that well. Not with the explosion, but have a little explosion of our own. We ought to be able to get so many kids wide open to listening to us talk about Jesus Christ that there’d have to be more and greater changes than we’ve already seen in the twenty-five or thirty years of our brief history.
But things’ll have to happen in our hearts and in a lot of hearts. A woman gave a pretty fat chunk of money to Young Life a little while back – to Young Life’s outreach across the seas. And I happened to have been talking to her about Latin America. I’ve rambled across the face of this world now, ‘round the whole thing, up and down, over and across and around every continent, in fifty-six different countries. I’ve lived in homes in the African bush. I’ve lived with Muslim families, Islam families in the interior of Pakistan, and with Hindu families away up in the boondocks of India and with the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia and the Japanese in … I’ve forgotten where. But on this occasion, I happened to be talking about the Latin American kids. This woman handed me her check. It had a lot of numbers on it and the decimal point was quite a ways over. It was an impressive check. But as she handed it to me she said, “Jim, I am not the least bit interested in Latin America.”
I went one day to visit a multimillionaire fella who got rich selling peanuts. You’ve all eaten some of his product, Tom’s Peanuts. You know on all the counters whenever you’re ready to leave the restaurant, there are little sacks of Tom’s Peanuts. Well, I was talking to Tom. [Laughter] You know what he asked me? One of the more intelligent questions he asked me was, “Where is Peru?” I sent him an atlas the next day with twenty-nine covers off of Tom’s Peanuts included.
Why most of you sweet chicks and noble fellas, you think South America’s south of here, don’t you? You just try going south of here, you’ll wind up in the deep, dark, stormy Pacific – several thousand miles from shore, ‘cause South America’s east. And, if you’re heading for there – and I am heading for there, I been heading for there for long time, and now I’ve got my young son and his nice little ol’ Brazilian wife down there, you’ll recognize her cause she talks kinda funny. She’s around here. We got a whole bunch of people down there – young folks like we used to have in Chama and later in Dallas and like a lot of you here in San Francisco and on the Peninsula and Chicago and Philadelphia and Dallas and Minneapolis and all. We got a whole bunch of guys who are waiting for us to come and, by the way, since we’ve talked the idea up so much, they’re wondering how come it’s taking you so long?
But, anyway, from all across this wide world, from every place in this great country, from the town you work in, and the towns around it, you know the story. There are people saying – not saying, there are people needing – to hear about Jesus Christ. And they’re not about to hear about Him unless you figure out a way to get to them. They’re in every class and every color and every ethnic group and every segment of our society. There’s no one part that’s worse off than another part. Everyone needs Jesus Christ.
I hope a few days from now when this conference is over, that you people will get up with new determination and go back to The Big Dream and make it come true in millions of lives. Young people have a right to
know Jesus Christ. We’re not gonna wait and hope somebody else gets
around to taking Him. We’re going ourselves. We’re going harder and
faster and finer than we ever went before. I wish it would be said of us
– especially of you young people – what the folks of Thessolonica said when
Paul and his cronies headed for their hometown: “What are we going to do? The guys who upset the world are coming here now.”
Well, look around you: we Christians aren’t exactly upsetting the world. We’re not setting things on fire. Nobody’s yelling for the fire department because our rapport and our message and our determination is too hot.
That’s The Big Dream. Let’s make it come true. ||
Read the full speech in the The Diaries of Jim Rayburn by Kit Sublett.