XJ, eXperience Jesus, is Sonlife’s new disciple-making event for high school students in the Chicago, IL area summer of 2024. And while XJ is new, its roots go back over 35 years.
The History of SEMP
When Sonlife began, it was the youth ministry training division of Moody Ministries in Chicago. Within a few years, Sonlife launched a summer conference for high school students to equip them as disciple-makers with training in evangelism and apologetics. This new conference, hosted at Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago, would combine disciple-making training with the practical experience of being sent out on the streets of the city two by two to share the gospel. At weeks’ end, students would write letters to spiritually lost friends back home to initiate gospel conversations with them. These letters were prayed over and put in the mail that very day, so the students knew a conversation would be waiting for them when they returned home. Initially, this week-long event was called SEMP: Summer Evangelism & Missions Project – but the meaning was later adapted to
Students Equipped to Minister to Peers.
I first took students to SEMP at Moody Bible Institute in 1990, and shortly after that the event expanded to cities on the East and West coasts of the US. Before long, SEMP had crossed the border to Toronto, Canada. Several denominations ran their own SEMP events:
- Evangelical Free Church called their’s WOW, Winning Our World
- Christian & Missionary Alliance called their’s OGN, Operation Good News
- Baptist General Conference (now Converge) called their’s SLAM, the Student Leadership And Missions conference
- Sonlife Latin America called their’s UEMS, Unidos Equipando para Ministerio al Semejantes.
Youth Unlimited still runs a SEMP event in Toronto to this day, called REMIX, which is led by Calvin Russell, Sonlife’s Canadian National Director. In 2015, Sonlife partnered with Dare 2 Share Ministries on a SEMP-like event, Lead The Cause, which still takes place in Denver each Summer.
At the first SEMP event in 1986, there were 140 students in attendance. By 2000, there were 15 SEMP events across North and Central America with over 30,000 students in attendance. Rarely a month goes by without me meeting a youth pastor or former student impacted by SEMP.
A few years ago, I was waiting to board a flight home to Orlando, when a man I recognized from somewhere noticed the Sonlife logo on my jacket. “Sonlife, is that the same ministry that used to do SEMP? I went to SEMP as a high school student with my youth group. My name’s Nick… Nick Hall.” I knew I’d recognized Nick from somewhere. He was the youth evangelist and founder of Pulse that I’d heard speak at Winter Jam.
This past summer, I was invited to train on evangelism for a day at Impact 360. Their director was in high school in the 1990’s when he received a letter from a friend who had been at SEMP. That letter led to a spiritual conversation, which led to him putting his faith in Christ. When Jonathan crafted the curriculum for Impact 360’s summer program for high school students, he made sure the students he was training would send out a letter to a spiritually lost friend just like the one he had received all those years ago.
In January 2022, when Sonlife announced we had decided to return to our youth ministry roots and place a primary focus on the next generation once again, we began a conversation on an event for high school students like we did with SEMP years ago. Out of this conversation, XJ was born.
We recognize that this generation of students encounters truth differently than previous generations. Their beliefs are profoundly shaped by their experiences. If something is true, it’s not just true factually, cognitively. It is also true experientially. But is this all that different from how people encountered Christ in the Gospels?
Andrew and John believed Jesus was the Messiah after a lengthy conversation where He likely unpacked the prophecies that pointed to Him being the Messiah (John 1:37-39). This was a factual conversation that engaged their heads with the truth. But we can’t ignore the fact that Andrew and John, along with all of the other apostles, were present when Jesus was baptized (Acts 1:21-22), meaning they had experienced something about Jesus that also shaped their belief.
Jesus had a very logical, factual, truth-based conversation with Nicodemus. But why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night in the first place?
He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”John 3:2
What signs had Nicodemus witnessed?
“Now while He was at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs He was performing and believed in Him.”John 2:23
Nicodemus had an experience with Jesus that caused him to seek Him out to investigate these truth claims more closely.
For the woman caught in adultery, she experienced Jesus’ mercy as He said,
“Let any one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” before He forgave her and said, “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”John 8:3-11
For the leper, he experienced Jesus’ compassion as he was touched by Jesus and heard the words,
“I am willing. Be clean!”Matthew 8:3
For the Apostle Paul, he experienced Jesus on the road to Damascus when he was blinded by a light and heard Jesus speak to him.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”Acts 9:4
Students are Hungry to Experience the Real Jesus
He’s as real today as He was 2000 years ago when He walked the earth. We’ve been created for a relationship with Him that is real and personal. This means Jesus can be experienced, and He wants to make Himself known to us in a personal way.
At XJ, eXperience Jesus, we want students to have an encounter with the Living Christ. We want them to KNOW Jesus more deeply, LOVE Jesus more passionately, and SHARE Jesus more generously!
At XJ, eXperience Jesus, students will be equipped to share the gospel, and they will be sent out on the streets to share the good news with others before they are sent home to share the good news with their friends. But at XJ, we want students to understand that the gospel is more than a message. The gospel is a person. Jesus said, “I am the way!” He IS the gospel. Students are inviting their friends into a saving relationship with Jesus.
As XJ changes the hearts of your students, we believe it will change the culture of your youth ministry, fanning the flames of disciple-making as your students are launched into a life of mission.