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Growing up Jewish, I have always been intrigued by the practice of other religions – especially Christianity. The dedication and commitment that many of my Christian friends demonstrated puzzled me as I did not share this connection with religion. Despite attending service and spending my mornings in Sunday School every week, I did not feel emotionally connected to Judaism or my religious cohort. So, when I saw the fellowship and pride that united religious youth groups, such as Young Life, I was instantly interested. Prior to interacting with the UNC Young Life cohort, I held the assumption that the value in the organization was founded in faith towards religion and God. I imagined that the meetings were going to parallel the time I spent in Sunday School – studying the Torah, or the bible in this case, and connecting to God. Entering into this research, my goal was twofold: to determine what caused college students to invest time and energy into the Young Life organization and to identify why I lack a similar connection to my faith.


Background Information:


Even in my limited experience, it is fully apparent that religious affiliation can have a wide range of meanings to different individuals. For many, religion offers a sense of comfort in difficult times, an explanation when life is confusing, and a chance to be a part of something larger than oneself. Through the study of 161 youth (kids ages 12-15), Cole-Lewis and others deduce that there is an inverse relationship between religious involvement and susceptibility to depression and suicide. It is interesting to note that rather than pointing to faith in God or connection to religion, the study explains the inverse relationship with a connection to the people within the religious community (Cole-Lewis, 2004). The emphasis on individuals is important as it is the community of like-minded individuals that offer support in adverse experiences.


In the formation of these religious communities, it is understandable that those outside the community – whether by choice or lack of acceptance – feel excluded or attacked. Interviews conducted with sixteen professional educators revealed that religion fosters a negative school climate for marginalized communities. The study concludes that religion is often used as justification for homophobic rhetoric, condemning those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community (Newman, 2017). While this is not always the case, one must not forget to broaden the scope to individuals outside of religious groups when evaluating religion.


With this in mind, many religious organizations place a large emphasis on inclusivity. According to their website, Young Life – a national religious organization for youth – declares that their values include promoting diversity and, “reaching adolescents of every ability and all economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds” (Young Life, 2004, para. 13). The organization started in Colorado Springs but has spread its mission of, “introducing children to Jesus Christ” into hundreds of schools and universities across the nation. The local Young Life club at UNC-Chapel Hill boasts over thirty active members that dedicate over three hours a week to the Young Life affiliated events. With a few upperclassmen leading the group, this organization consists almost entirely of college students.


Observational Data and Analysis


Observation 1:


Despite being familiar with a few of the members, I instantly felt like an outsider as I observed the Young Life organization for the first time. I felt my nerves begin to calm, however, as conversation and laughter wove me into the group. I was quickly approached by a few members that introduced themselves and invited me to join their conversations. In contrast to my previous assumptions, I felt little to no barrier between myself – a Jewish individual – and the others in the room.


The majority of the hour-long meeting consisted of small games and group sing-alongs. Besides the laugher and smiles generated, these activities served as a natural way to share stories and connect with the other members in the group. A few of the games nudged the members to be vulnerable but it appeared that this vulnerability was converted into trust and a deeper connection with the other members.


The meeting ended with the delivery of a personal anecdote from Sarah Chapman, a current sophomore, that tied into a lesson about inclusivity from the bible. Even as an observer, the experience developed a sense of unity as Sarah trusted us with her deeply personal story. This trust and connection are likely what drives these college students to dedicate their Wednesday afternoons to this organization.


Observation 2:


The wall that initially divided me and the Young Life members continued to dissolve as I observed the group for the second time. For the majority of the meeting, the group was playing a spin-off version of Family Feud. I believe that the beauty in the club lies in the fact that the connection to others is simply a byproduct of having a good time. For example, one of the questions was, “What are Tarzan’s main complaints about his loincloth?” This inherently comedic question prompted all-inclusive laughter across the whole group. While seemingly mundane, these small moments built shared experiences that connect the members of the group. I think that this connection allowed the members to focus on their similarities rather than their differences, ultimately weaving each individual into a highly supportive community.




Early into my research, I noticed that my assumption surrounding Young Life and other religious youth groups was wrong. The Young Life group at UNC is founded on faith in God but grows through faith in each other. It is the community that leads many of the members to dedicate their time and energy to the group. And in return, the group gives its members a sense of belonging. It is this cyclical relationship that makes the Young Life organization such an essential part of many of its members’ lives.


If given the opportunity, I would find it interesting to see if an individual of a marginalized community would experience the same welcome to the group that I experienced. I understand that my identity as a white cisgender male likely impacted my interactions with the group considering that the majority of the club at UNC consists of individuals with similar demographics. My perspective must not be the only lens one takes to analyze this group or religion as a whole.


Not only did this research provide a greater understanding of others, but it allowed me to delve into my connection with religion. It was obvious that the members of the Young Life organization brought a passion and a willingness to be vulnerable that I never brought into my religious interactions. While I do not plan on rekindling my faith, this research emphasized that the results one gets out of a group are entirely dependent on what they are willing to put in.




Cole-Lewis, Y. C., Gipson, P. Y., Opperman, K. J., Arango, A., & King, C. A. (2016). Protective Role of Religious Involvement Against Depression and Suicidal Ideation Among Youth with Interpersonal Problems. Journal of Religion and Health, 55(4), 1172–1188. doi: 10.1007/s10943-016-0194-y.


Newman, P. A., Fantus, S., Woodford, M. R., & Rwigema, M.-J. (2017). “Pray That God Will Change You”: The Religious Social Ecology of Bias-Based Bullying Targeting Sexual and Gender Minority Youth—A Qualitative Study of Service Providers and Educators. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33(5), 523–548. doi: 10.1177/0743558417712013.


Young Life. About Young Life. (2004). Retrieved from

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