Denny Rydberg has a vision for Young Life, the organization he leads. He calls it his "BHAG," Big Hairy Audacious Goal. "My principles go back to what the founder of Young Life, Jim Rayburn, said: 'It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel. Win the right to be heard. And go where the kids are.'"
He keenly feels the need. "Things have changed for kids. We didn't have guns when we were kids, and the temptations of sex and drugs are more intense today. You can go on the Internet now and get porn. It's a tougher time, but I'm not an alarmist. There are still great kids out there, and I'm not wringing my hands."
If anyone can carry off the BHAG, it's Denny Rydberg. He's known for his tenacity and ideas, and that reputation has followed Seattle Pacific University's 2000 Alumnus of the Year throughout the course of a stellar career focused on ministry to youth. The graduate of 1967 is well-known for his tenure as a writer and editor for the irreverent Wittenberg Door, but he's also worked as a consultant; a director of operations for the North American release of the "Jesus" film; director of university ministries for University Presbyterian Church in Seattle; and, since 1993, as president of Young Life International.
Young Life, one of the world's largest Christian youth organizations, reaches nearly 700,000 teenagers each year through weekly meetings, summer camps and one-on-one relationships with adult leaders. Non-denominational, it has a presence in 550 communities in the U.S., as well as in Canada and 36 other countries.
Rydberg's driving desire to make the Christian message come alive for youth has melded powerfully with his natural abilities to organize, motivate and build relationships. "Denny is the ideal person for Young Life," says Steve Hayner, president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, former vice president of student life at SPU, and Denny's predecessor at University Presbyterian Church. "He has all the qualities: a real heart for young people, leadership, and he's a superb fund-raiser."
"Denny has a key role in our culture," says Seattle Pacific President Philip Eaton. "He's engaging today's teens with the gospel at a time when negative influences have a strong pull on them. It is very fitting for SPU to honor someone at the beginning of a new century who is devoting himself to the future of our young people."
Rydberg is amazed at how all the twists and turns in his life and career have come together in Young Life. "The gifts I've been given, the gifts I've developed, are utilized here," he says. "When I came to Young Life, I was asked, 'Are you into growth or excellence in ministry?' and I said, 'I'm into both.'"
It's always been that way with Denny Rydberg.
The son of a junior high school principal, Rydberg grew up in Anacortes, Washington -- a place, ironically, where Young Life had not yet reached. He came to Seattle Pacific College and quickly fell into a disciplined and full routine. Naturally athletic, Rydberg captained the tennis team and played freshman basketball and intramurals. In his junior year, he began commuting two times a week to Tacoma to work as a youth director at First Presbyterian Church, and he was a residence life coordinator on campus.
On top of that, he wrote for SPC's student newspaper, The Falcon, where he sometimes practiced a satiric style that later flowered in The Wittenberg Door. He and college friend Mel Gimmaka wrote "The Fugitives," a column in The Falcon that one time encouraged students to participate in "all-school prank day."
Gimmaka recalls one of their more "successful" pranks. "In chapel, we started announcements, then did a prank countdown -- 10, nine, eight.... On the count of one, three guys with briefcases released three- to four-pound rats into the aisles. We got into trouble for those kinds of things."
Bob Thompson was Rydberg's roommate and a man with whom Rydberg has been swapping audiotapes, instead of letters, for 30 years. "Here's a story that's Denny in a nutshell," he says. "In those days, Vietnam was raging and every male was making plans for what would happen after the college deferment ended."
Rydberg decided to enlist in the Air Force. "Denny read that in the Air Force you have to wake up from a dead sleep totally alert, instantly," remembers Thompson. "So he'd take an alarm clock and hide it. Then when it went off in the morning, he'd have to wake up and start processing immediately -- find it, then shut it off.
"Sometimes he wouldn't find it for a while. He'd be digging through all this stuff with the alarm going off. It drove me crazy. But that's Denny -- always thinking ahead, efficient and optimistic."
In his four years at Seattle Pacific, Rydberg was determined to get the most from his college experience. He only missed chapel twice, once for a tennis match and once because he was too sick to get there. He grew close to some of his professors, including Professor of Chemistry Wes Lingren and Associate Professor of English Fan Mayhall Gates. "They were all more than dispensers of information. They had a love for Christ, for their subject and for the students.
"SPC was unique," he remembers. "It provided lots of opportunities for leadership where I could hone my skills and explore my gifts."
Leaving Seattle Pacific with a degree in psychology, Rydberg was like a lot of post-college young men in the Vietnam era. He took several odd jobs that summer, waiting to go into the military. By a stroke of fate, the Air Force lost his papers and he was released to pursue his career, which eventually took him to California as director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church, San Diego. "I didn't have much experience, but when you're young, you think you can tackle anything. I had a lot of enthusiasm," he says.
There he met Mike Yackonelli and Wayne Rice, originators of Youth Specialties, an organization that creates materials, programs and conferences for church youth workers. Rydberg began working part-time with them, eventually accepting a full-time position, which included writing for their creation, The Wittenberg Door.
In a 1978 article, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described The Wittenberg Door as "an outrageous gadfly magazine to unsettle the pious." The Los Angeles Times called it the "Mad Magazine of Christendom."
Rydberg says it served a great purpose for the era. "The Wittenberg Door was pushing churches to reform, and we did it with humor and satire." It also allowed him access to some big names: "I did interviews with people like Billy Graham, Bob Schuller, Bill Bright, Harvey Cox, Francis Schaffer."
One of his favorites was a conversation with Fred Rogers of TV's "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." "He was a great guy, an ordained Presbyterian minister. When I was interviewing him, he got a call from the Today Show, and he told them he couldn't talk now because he was talking to his 'new friends.' I got to meet some phenomenal people."
After a time, however, a creeping sense of cynicism wore on Rydberg. "I realized I had more flaws than the people I was writing about."
Then he faced one of the greatest sorrows of his life. Ten years of marriage ended in divorce. "I was devastated. What divorce does is make you realize that you failed."
In the midst of the upheaval, he found himself changing. "God's goodness touched me. Divorce humbles you because you lose everything. I did."
He credits "an old counselor" with helping him rebuild his life and purpose. "He told me that your life isn't over when you fail. You still have great friends. You don't lose your talent." And the experience taught him something about compassion.
After leaving Youth Specialties, Rydberg worked as a consultant, a freelance writer, and promoter with Warner Brothers in the American release of the famous "Jesus" film, which has been used as an evangelical tool all over the world.
"My principles go back to what the founder of Young Life, Jim Rayburn, said, ‘It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel. Win the right to be heard. And go where the kids are.'"
Denny Rydberg President, Young Life International
He also became reacquainted with Marilyn Henderson, then the national women's coordinator for Campus Crusade for Christ. In fact, they had met 15 years earlier on the SPC campus when she was a freshman. The two dated for six months, but went their separate ways.
"When I met Denny again, I could see he had changed," she says. "He was always a caring person, but there was a depth of humility in him that only comes from difficult times."
Rydberg and Henderson married in 1980 and have two children: Jeremy Rydberg, 18, and Jonathon Rydberg, 15. They join two children from Rydberg's first marriage: 25-year-old Heather Rydberg New, and 23-year-old Joshua Rydberg.
In 1984, Rydberg became director of university ministries at Seattle's University Presbyterian Church, a position he shared with his wife. Earl Palmer, now senior pastor at UPC, says Rydberg built on Steve Hayner's success, especially in the Tuesday night gathering for college students called "The Inn."
"It was outstanding," says Palmer. "Sometimes a thousand students came to the Inn. Denny is a people person and a strategist. He has an uncanny ability to size up a situation and see what's going on. At the heart of him is the warm confidence of an optimist which comes from the gospel."
For nine years, the Rydbergs were happily settled, beginning to see the fruits of their labor. "Denny married more than 40 couples there, and they were having children," says Marilyn Rydberg. "Our own families live in the Northwest, and we were surrounded by friends."
In 1993, when Young Life offered Rydberg the presidency of the mammoth organization, the Rydbergs were understandably cautious. After much soul-searching and prayer, however, they accepted the position and moved their family to Young Life headquarters in Colorado Springs.
Rydberg hasn't looked back. He leads a staff of 2,600, an increase of 48 percent in the last few years. Young Life is now present in 2,500 high schools, up from 1,600 four years ago, and has 21,000 volunteers in 36 countries. The organization's budget has gone from $68 million to $145 million.
Rydberg says he hasn't had to make major changes in the overall philosophy of Young Life. "It's always been relational. You build a ministry on relationships, not programs."
One young man who knows how well Rydberg does that is his son, Jeremy. "My dad's funny, kind and loving. He rarely yells. I've never heard him swear."
Jeremy calls his father tender but strong. "I've only seen him cry once. It was when Grandma died when I was little."
A memory from Jeremy's toddler days is of a very protective Denny Rydberg. "When Dad mowed the lawn he wanted me near him so he put me in a backpack and hauled me around. I always ended up covered with grass," Jeremy says. "Then when my little brother was born, he put him in the backpack too, and we both got covered with grass."
Marilyn Rydberg agrees that her husband is a nurturing guy who does household chores in spite of his grueling work week. "There's a lot of mom in him. We get up with the boys at 6:00 a.m., and he'll make breakfast.
"We aren't living with the president of Young Life here," she adds. "We're living with Denny Rydberg, a very remarkable man."