It was May, 2009, I was sixteen years old. The pulse in the room was electrifying. Hands were lifted as people sang along to their favorite songs- the ballads caused many to swerve back and forth to the music. Bright, multi-colored lights shined down in an angelic fashion. Like a giant mood ring, the energy changed with a flick of the switch. The guitars were piercing and smooth. The drums were energetic. The singers were jumping and engaging the audience.
But, this wasn’t a rock concert.
This was youth group.
Each week we would hear contemporary worship music, followed by “preaching” that appealed to “topics” youth were interested in (relationship problems, addictions, family issues, dating, sex, etc). There were video games and a snack bar for the teens to enjoy before service. The preaching usually consisted of a few short Bible verses, several jokes/situational humor, and an altar call for those to make a “decision” for Christ.
The two main reasons to go down were
1) To be saved via sinners prayer. Sometimes all of us would bow our heads, close our eyes, and repeat the sinners prayer TOGETHER so that the new converts wouldn’t feel “embarrassed.”
2) “Rededication,” where you can admit if you’ve felt like a “bad” Christian and want to start over. Funny, I thought that was called, “repentance.” Secondly there are no “bad” and “good” Christians. More on that in the next post.
While I don’t doubt the sincerity or the faith of those involved with the church, I sadly have to admit that the methods applied in this youth group failed to make a lasting impact in myself or those around me. This could be all subjective, but, as you’ll see, I do think these methods to lure people to church caused this church to lose its faithfulness to Scripture in the process. One result being, an ill-equipped youth group.
When the speaker motioned to the piano player, you knew the altar call was coming. Over half the room would come down each week to be “saved” or “rededicated.” It was usually the same people (I knew a few of them). They were stuck in a cycle of not “living for God” and random moments where they “felt” Him, deciding to turn back again. It was no wonder why my two closest friends in high school later become atheists. The Christianity they were experiencing was more about excitement than knowing the Bible. Jesus was mentioned, but He seemed like the cheerleader rather than the coach. So, why bring this up now? All of these memories came flooding back when I came across this article on Buzzfeed, written by Jessica Misener.
Here’s a sample of the article:
“Some days I wake up in my bedroom in Brooklyn and I just don’t know what to do, in an existential sense. Christianity gave me something to do. A large reason I converted to the faith as a teen was because I felt a weird void in my life, like something was missing that no relationship, amount of money, or enviable career could fill. The Christian message was packaged and sold to me as the only thing that could fill that void. And for six years, I let it.”
This is similar to the kind of Christianity I saw during my time in the Bible-belt. Some people went after this “Christianity” thing because it sounded more exciting than sitting at home during the summer. That’s what our youth pastors told us to say: there’ll be pizza! Video games! You might even win some prizes? None of which are bad, but certainly shouldn’t be the message we preach to the lost, let alone use as a lure to get them into church. The guys would even tell their friends there would be girls there! Jesus would “show up” afterwards.
Youth group was a fun getaway spot. So many went after “God” to fill the void and keep their ship afloat. God was the additive to life’s longings, and never the longing itself. If He was the longing, it was probably because He was the last option. This felt-needs (coined by Rick Warren in the “Purpose Driven Church”), seeker-sensitive Christianity never satisfied my needs or my seeking. That’s the great irony about much of contemporized Christianity. Everything seems to be geared towards getting kids into church (local bodies), but not teaching them about the Church (body of Christ). The American Church, instead of answering today’s questions and providing Biblical answers to point to an eternal gospel, has imitated modernity instead of responding to it.
At this time, I sure wasn’t “feeling” anything or learning anything about the Bible at youth group. Comical sermons by charismatic speakers did nothing but entertain my 30 second intention span. The one-verse kind of Christianity never worked well for me. I would read Philippians 4:13, Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11, and John 3:16 but wanted to know what else the Bible was saying. Yet, these would fill the content of the sermons each week. You can only quote them so much before you want to know what else the Bible has to say. But, everyone else felt God! I was missing out, or was I? Ah, the power of emotions.
Here’s the tricky part: there was no way to tell the difference between “God” and a Red Bull. When you let go of your mind to try and experience “the divine,” you’re looking for any hint of a sensation or elevated high. Emotions are reactions, so they are often responses to your beliefs or instincts (or diet/physiology), but should not be your source of authority, especially when it comes to theology. The way you think will affect how you feel.
No one counseled me or became a mentor to me during this period. The ones who were, had gone off to college or to a different church. I was reading the Bible but never felt that other people wanted to talk about it, too. If I could quote a verse other than the ones mentioned above, some would say I was on “another level” which made it sound like I was a special kind of Christian. Weren’t Christians supposed to read their Bibles? There were other believers who were growing strong in their faith, don’t get me wrong. These people are great examples for me to this day. But, sadly they are the minority. What is this Christian thing all about?
The entire time this was happening, I was a Christian, but never felt satisfied in my hunger for the truth. I knew the truth on a basic level (believed in Jesus), but it never seemed like anyone could explain to me the dynamics of what I believed. It was either I did the research or took a whack at writing a blog trying to figure it out. I didn’t know how to read the Bible. Soon afterwards, I discovered teachers who did teach the Bible verse-by-verse, without trying to please people. They provided answers to questions I was hungering for, but they were still human and so not all of their insights were unanimous. What amazed me, excited me, and intrigued me most was how intricately woven together the Bible was! It still amazes me.
Unlike Jessica, I have never experienced an “existential” crisis. There has never been a time in my life where I can remember not believing in God or the Jesus of the Bible. Growing up, I was homeschooled. I was “sheltered” according to society. Perhaps I was, but all of us shelter ourselves from something. Did this “sheltering” blind me to the truth? As a friend recently told me, he is homeschooling his kids, not to shelter them, but because he believes he and his wife can provide a better education. So, before we define faith as subjective, we need to find the right object to which we subject our faith.
I didn’t start reading my Bible until I was twelve. This insatiable hunger I had was to know more about the God I knew I believed in. It was not forced on me; my parents never tried to make me pray the sinners prayer. They took me to church, asked me what I learned, and did the best they could. Any kind of claim to trusting in Jesus was solely my own, not piggy-backing on my parents, but certainly a progression of what they started. Neither of my parents grew up in a genuine Christian home, but was more nominal than anything else.
Now, at 21, the world seems a whole lot bigger and scarier. I’ve encountered my share of the rainbow of Christianity (different people from many backgrounds who call themselves believers), and of the “secular” society that preaches the gospel of uncertainty and all-inclusiveness. Has this rattled my faith and made me renounce Jesus? It’s rattled my faith, but only to point out if it was real to begin with…wait a second…what is faith? I’ll get to that. Let me just lay it out on the table: there are answers; blind faith is a misleading statement.
Faith is an invisible trust, but that doesn’t make the object of that faith invisible (like an imaginary friend). It’s certainly not irrational. As Francis Schaeffer writes in, “The God Who is There,” there is no such thing as a leap of faith. Reason is the first step, not the last. Faith is to trust, reason is to examine trustworthiness. Francis Turretin wrote that faith is above reason, but not contrary to it.
According to Jessica Mineser, she felt similarly when she started attending Yale. She wanted to learn more about Christianity, but felt like the magic trick had been exposed once she studied the Bible up close. The Greek and Hebrew languages opened her up to the Bible only to reveal “a deeply human book.” How right she is! The difference is that I encountered similar objections to the Bible, but went a different direction than she did.
In reading her article, I could relate on many different levels. The feelings of “worship”, the evangelistic school opportunities, the missions trips, all seem to scream, “this is what if means to be a Christian,” but that’s not what it means to be a Christian. They may be things Christians do, but they are not what defines them.
As I read her story, several things stood out. Perhaps it’s because we’ve read different books, or attend(ed) different schools. But, having read the Bible and studied it (with the resources available for a non-seminarian), I can say that she has missed the mark on understanding real Christianity. This led her down a road that had her conclude that she was a Christian, when what she really had was a false idea of one. No wonder this never satisfied her soul. I’d like to present the opposite case: why I am a born again Christian.
So, as you read the next post, I pray it will open your mind and heart to what being a Christian is all about.