I have some fairly fond memories of youth group. As a teenager I was a believer and I didn't see the overt sexism, homophobia, and manipulation that surrounded me. To me, youth group was where my friends were. It was where I got to "minister" to other youth. We went on trips places and had fun. There were conferences, lock-ins, camping trips, concerts. There was always a religious spin at some point, but 90% of it was just supposed to be entertainment. Everything was fine until about sixteen when I started to push back a little. Remember that means there was a good four or five years there where I was fully drinking the Kool-aid.
At sixteen, I convinced the adults to let me lead a small group. They agreed but on the condition that an adult was present. No problem. About 15 other teens signed up and were excited to join. I planned on using a book called "Mature Christians are Boring People and Other Myths About Mature Christianity" as my template for a 6 week study. It was by Ron Luce, the leader of Teen Mania ministries, who I would come to loathe only a few short years later. His book though, suggested that mature Christianity was about obedience, doing what God tells you to do, which means that teenagers can be more mature as a Christian than adults. As you can imagine, the adults did not like this. How DARE I suggest that a teenager could be a more mature Christian than an adult? But here's the thing, I had become a Christian at the age of four. I had already read the entire Bible through once and was on my second reading in chronological order. I had been in Sunday schools, children's church, Bible studies, since I was four. Nevermind that I was a disciplined, responsible teenager who had started my own babysitting business. (It was a legit business. I even paid taxes. I was hugely successful.) So in my mind and even looking back now, I was certainly more mature than many of the adults in our congregation. Now, that maturity really had nothing to do with my Christianity, but somehow I equated the two. I was also very angry when my small group was disbanded after two weeks. I saw it as the adults feeling threatened. I still believe that. My parents know it.
I ended up leaving my parent's church and youth group after going to a Audio Audrenaline concert at seventeen. We went with two leaders and half dozen youth. For some reason, one of the leaders brought her ten-year-old daughter who hated the concert and the noise. More on that in a bit. It was there that I bumped into a guy I knew, a guy who would quickly become my best friend for the next nineteen years. (we're almost on twenty) He had blue hair that he would put into spikes and our youth leader with the kid, we'll call her B, did NOT like that. I got a very stern talking to about associating with "people like that". Let me point at that at this point I had shaved off most of my hair, was wearing huge Jinko jeans, had double piercing in each ear, and solidly considered myself a skater chick. This guy with the blue hair was my type of friend and I was justifiably upset with B. We get our seats and B leaves with her daughter because daughter doesn't like the noise. The other leader, O, is now left to watch over her 12-17 year-old charges. One boy K (aged 12), asks if he can move up front with the semi-mosh pit that is mostly people jumping up and down. She says okay and off he goes. Half hour later, I have the worst headache even though I am still quite enjoying the concert. B returns from her bathroom trip to announce that we are leaving. Her daughter doesn't like the music. The concert is not anywhere close to over. She looks around. "Where's K?" And this is when things went downhill. O pretends like she doesn't know where he is. I mention he is up front, confused as to why O (the adult) is lying. One of the kids is sent to fetch him. He returns, smiling, obviously having a good time. B is visibly angry. "Didn't I tell you not to go up front? How dare you disobey me. We're leaving." A few of us protest. But the concert isn't over. She marches us all outside where she proceeds to berate K, who has now begun to cry. At first, I was so angry that I had to walk away. Then I came marching back and went OFF. I've literally only done something like this maybe four times in my entire life to someone not in my own family. "How dare he? How dare YOU? O said he could go up front. She lied to you. He asked and she said yes. That's why he went. He went because he was allowed to. How DARE you berate him in public like this. How DARE you make him out to be the liar. And how DARE you make us leave. You are here to chaperone us on a trip WE wanted to go on. Not your ten-year-old. Us, the actual teenagers in the youth group. I love this band. I want to stay and listen. The problem in this situation is YOU." Folks, that was a very quiet hour and a half ride home. That kid thanked me for standing up for him. B never chaperoned another youth event again. I left to find another church a few weeks later.
My new youth group was at a Vineyard church. They had a pool table, something considered evil by my previous church. They had couches in the youth room. They were still obsessed with sex and my body being a sin factory, but they were not nearly as stringent and the youth pastor was awesome. Eventually that went downhill though when the youth pastors son began having serious behavioral issues and the church assumed that the parents must be crappy parents to have a kid with such problems. So they made him step down to "get his house in order". The new youth pastor within two weeks got rid of the pool table and the couches. He replaced them with tables and chairs so we could have "serious" Bible studies. Attendance went from 50 youth the 15 in about a month. It sucked.
I stayed at that church though and just started attending another youth group. Of course, now I was an adult so it was more like volunteering. This church was serious about youth group. They went all out. The music, the food, the activities. It was organized, it was fun, and kids from churches all over the city attended. Attendance at one point was over 150 kids at one point. There were more kids in the youth group than adults who attended the church. It was there that I really began to see the manipulation tactics. The teenagers who rededicated their lives to the Lord every other week. The push to have new converts. I did surface level things like setting up and prepping for games, so I never saw the underbelly of this church. That is until my good friend A came out as a lesbian. A had a rough life. Her mother was a drug addict, mentally ill, and abusive. A's life has been a series of bad decisions made by an immature mother. At one point A lived with us for six months because things got so bad. A was like a little sister to me. Now, even at that time I believed being gay was a sin, but I witnessed firsthand the shameful way that some Christians can act in regards to it. At first, they tried to "counsel" her. When she didn't relent they shunned her. Completely. They had a big meeting and told everyone in the church, adults and youth, that if they saw A on the street they were to walk the other way without saying a word to her. That this was love because she refused to repent. No one could be friends with her. I left, although I was hoping this would all blow over after a few weeks. It didn't. For months my friends who went to that church wouldn't come over if A was over, wouldn't attend parties if A was invited, and wouldn't acknowledge her if they ended up in the same room together. It was cruel. After a few months I marched myself over to the church and went OFF on that pastor. The gist of the conversation was how dare you hurt this person that I love. She left your church. Why can't that be enough. How am I supposed to love an minister to someone when she is continually hurt by the very people who once claimed to love her? Here's something truly horrific for you...it's been just over fifteen years since this happened and people STILL do this to her. I am not joking. If she comes back into town to visit family and bumps into people from that church who are still drinking the Kool-aid, those people still don't acknowledge her existence. A few people later apologized, but for the most part, it was just treated like something that was necessary to the situation.
I was done with youth group by then. Even though I kept going to church, I refused to help or be a part of any youth group. I could see the damage that was being caused by the adults in charge and since my opinions/thoughts were so unpopular, I knew I would just be a squeaky wheel who would eventually be discarded. Although there were certainly many fun aspects of youth group, I am now super cautious concerning them. There is a reason our kid is going to a Unitarian church and not a Baptist or Evangelical church. I don't want anyone filling my kid's head with homophobia or teaching him to be embarrassed about his body. Or worse, teaching him that the purpose of a woman is to be his helpmate and sexual object. I don't care how many fun games they play, I worry that my kid will end up in a youth group that teaches their kids to shun people they don't like or agree with. And although Christianity is certainly on the downswing, I know that youth group is where many people get sucked into the cult of Christianity and this makes me sad. Indoctrinate them while they are young.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.