At 18, still a teen, I was not the bell of the ball nor one of the popular kids by any means. In fact I didn’t attend my junior or senior proms. Not by choice mind you, but simply because I was never asked out after we moved from South Carolina to California during my junior year. I like to think the cultural differences of a small private school in a rural town versus a sprawling public school in the state’s capital set me up for social awkwardness. In fact I just wasn’t a cool kid. Decked out in Laura Ashley jumpers with hot rolled Southern hair I was the farthest thing from California Girls. Luckily I made friends in my honors classes, became a vegetarian, learned about heavy metal music, went on a summer trip to the USSR, joined the high school news station staff, attended one party that was broken up by police helicopters, discovered the joy of “fro-yo” and joined a youth group with other college-bound (but not so popular) Jesus lovin’ kids.
Backsliding Teen ? It’s OK!
Looking back on two years of that youth group experience I can recall indoor volleyball, gathering to watch a Super Bowl, eating out together a lot, writing to service members from our town, singing along with the teen group kids painfully learning how to play the guitar, attending a Stephen Curtis Chapman concert, attending weekly Bible studies at our youth pastor’s home, silly spats among the girls and wearing a t-shirt over my bathing suit anytime there was a pool gathering. There were a lot of snacking opportunities at every event. We liked to eat and we loved Jesus. Just hear us sing about Him! But what did we know about Him? What was my take away for a real relationship with Christ once I left the group?
To be fair I was raised in a religious home, not a salvation based He died for our sins kind of home, but there was weekly communion, CCD, first communion, holy days and confessions. My Mother was searching for her own truth while I was growing up so her walk was brand new as was mine when I finally participated in an altar call to say the prayer of salvation. Then I participated in about 11 more altar calls just to be certain that I was covered and had gotten it right!
We didn’t read the Bible at home beyond hearing it read to us by the priest at church. In fact my first Bible was a student Bible from my parents when I turned 17 because I was the only kid in youth group without a Bible! I knew there was a God and that He sort of rewarded us for our good behavior, so if you were a good girl you got good stuff. If you were a bad girl you couldn’t wear a white dress on your wedding day. Pretty much sums up my understanding of how this believer thing worked until I got into a non-denominational youth group and heard about Jesus dying for our sins.
I heard much more about grace, redemption, faith – even that Christ was there at Creation which was news to me. There were hip Christian artists to listen to instead of just what my Mother played in the car. Regardless, Sandy Patty and Lynol Harris will always hold a soft spot in my heart. The praise Jesus music stirred something in my soul and I knew I wanted to be more than just a good girl in a white dress one day. Our youth pastor was a big kid in Teva’s and we adored his focused attention on each of us and his enthusiasm for loving Jesus. I had never memorized scripture before so being at a Bible study was nerve wracking as I didn’t know how to find the books in the Bible. When we went to Berkley or even up to Tahoe for youth conferences and prayed in a corporate setting I was sure that I did want to follow Jesus. Whatever that meant.
Looking back I see the whitewash job youth group did for me – lots of happy feeling moments and looking good on the outside. So then I set off for a Christian college. Wow did I ever look like a good Bible study girl! I joined a sorority (I’m a group kind of gal if you couldn’t tell) where lots of other good girls belonged too. A lot of us didn’t drink, but we liked going to the parties and getting dressed up or just hanging out together in the chapter room. I don’t recall ever thinking I should go to church beyond attending FCA gatherings on Wednesday nights. And yes, that’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And no, I was the farthest thing from an athlete in my Sam and Libby flats and big hair bows rocking the Freshman 15 that was quickly becoming the Freshman 40.
So during my freshman year I got a phone call that our beloved youth pastor had not only left his sweet young wife, but that he had left the church citing that he just wasn’t sure he believed in God. What the what??!! A vivid memory comes to mind of me sitting in my dorm room stunned that Sonny had so drastically disappointed us youth group kids. Leaving his wife was not only a foreign concept to me but to question the existence of God whom he taught us about, prayed with us to and talked about for the last two years of my life was a slap in the face. I felt lied to and was so disappointed in him which led to disappointment in God.
And I carried that hurt, that anger, that distrust with me for many years and allowed it to shape how I saw God. I didn’t have the deep faith roots to understand that if you follow a human you will be disappointed. Always. Even the best youth pastor will disappoint because we are all sinful people prone to disappoint and let down.
With perfection we have no need for Christ, but I was so immature in my walk that I associated my youth pastor’s failure with my spiritual success. His fall was just grander due to the higher pedestal I had placed him on. Looking back I can see how I must have crushed God’s heart and in a way set myself on a course to be wary of anything associated with church.
And this is why I say I’m OK with my teen turning his or her back on God to dig down deep on their own to see what THEY believe.
Not what they think we the parents want to hear, or what their youth pastor has preached. In the gap between fact and faith, how far will they allow God to carry them? Where he or she has to answer the thought provoking questions with “I just don’t know that answer on this side of heaven” is there peace in that? Is their walk strong enough to still step in time with God’s plan for their life or will they wander off on their own path? I certainly pray that the truth they feel in their spirit is enough to encourage them through any times of questioning or even dark moments, sad situations or lonely seasons. It pains me when I hear wonderful Christian parents talk about their church raised kids now proclaimed atheists. Yet where I know that I can’t control their future, I can pour into their present stories about Christ’s love along with lessons on worth in His eyes and about the grace He extends to all of us.
In the years while they are under my roof I can ask those tough questions on car rides about what do they believe. And I can follow up their answers with genuine interest encouraging them to provide their own reasons. Not just repeat our parental beliefs or church teachings. As much as I think a robotic little kid doing my bidding would make my life – and stress level – much easier, I know that robots sent out into the world only break down and rust up.
Let’s commit to the uncomfortable questions and faith gaps being restored while these precious little people are under our roof. While the cost to question or doubt is not as high now compared to when they are off in the world surrounded by those scoffing at Christ and His “antiquated” teachings. Where the Holy Spirit woos them back to God be it taught that it’s OK to question or dig deep or wonder, because I can only imagine that a genuine faith created in the heat of a searching heart pleases our Lord so much more than a verse memorizing good girl doing it all for a white dress and a public pat on the back.