The church youth group was not something that I was very keen on at first, but I did make a profit from it.
When I was about twelve, I would sometimes go along to the youth group socials: bouncy castles, giant Jenga, mocktails; what’s not to like? At points the leaders asked if I would like to go along to the mid-week groups. I gave it some thought, but I wasn’t that enthusiastic. I was comfortable enough at the Sunday morning sessions, but I knew that there would be a lot of people that I hadn’t met at the other groups, and new people terrified me. My parents were keen for me to join, however, and they provided a monetary incentive: five pounds each week for the first two weeks. I went along and claimed my reward. It turns out I actually had a great time and knew a few people from Sunday mornings, so I kept going along and the whole trajectory of my life began to change. I also used the proceeds to buy AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and suggested that we play it during the worship time, so clearly I had some way to go.
But was that journey for the best? Or was it leading me down a path which would result in anxiety, confusion and inner turmoil? The answer to both of those questions is yes.
Since my deconstruction journey began in full, towards the end of my time as a church youth pastor, I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering whether what I was doing was right. After all, these were impressionable young minds; was I not just setting them off on a course that was likely to become the same shipwreck that I experienced? I’m aware that many atheists would consider Christian youth work to be an unacceptable form of indoctrination, and while there is some truth in that, I’m not sure it’s so black and white. In order to get to the heart of whether or not recruiting teenagers into the church is a harmful enterprise, I should begin by exploring my own experience within the belly of the beast.
The fact is, the church youth group was an oasis for me.
I was not a super confident kid in school, and although I had a couple of friendship circles I enjoyed floating around in, I spent a great deal of my school life trying to slip into the background and hope that no one would notice me. For the most part, it worked. School was not the kind of place where you wanted to be different or stand out, and survival often meant suppressing those parts of you which would draw attention. Some people may be reading this and finding that they can’t relate at all. They are the lucky ones, or in some cases, the ones who made the rest of us a little less lucky.
The things I loved about youth group never really revolved around God, it was always people.
This wasn’t the case at church. Rather than having over a thousand teenagers crammed into in a complex of classrooms, there would be around twenty to thirty of us in a hall. Everyone knew each other, and generally we all got on. Things weren’t perfect, of course, and as soon as you gather more than two people together, cliques are inevitable. But it still felt like a safe place. Those parts of me which I suppressed at school could be given full rein at last, which was a shame for the others in the group, because I could be a really irritating child. Some things don’t change.
Nevertheless, I found my groove, and the mid-week church youth groups became the highlight of my week, even if I was no longer being paid to attend. I formed friendships with people who I still count among my closest friends today; I got involved in the youth band, learned a few instruments, and was able to regularly perform before an audience; and I also became a more confident pubic speaker, leading sessions in the younger youth group and delivering talks in the wider church. The positive impact of these groups remains imprinted on me, and some of my fondest memories are from those years.
It’s no wonder I lapped up the God stuff.
Looking back, I realize that the things I loved about youth group never really revolved around God, it was always people. In fact, God confused everything a little bit. The adults who led the group seemed to have a hotline to God; they knew what he was like, what he wanted for people, and what he was saying to us. I had great respect for the leaders, so I never saw any need to doubt their claims or conclusions. But while God was a clear reality for them, he remained an enigma to me. This was never more evident than at the New Wine and Soul Survivor Summer camps.
At these gatherings, thousands of Christians would pack into giant tents twice each day to sing along to the latest soft-rock songs and hear a Bible-based TED talk, packed with anecdotes of where God had been active in the speaker’s life. The strangest things happened towards the end, though. After the more structured part of the session, we would do what was known as ‘waiting on the Spirit.’ This basically involved standing, sitting, or kneeling in some kind of reverent position while there was either silence or some worship music in the background. Then stuff would happen. After a few minutes you’d hear someone begin to laugh – or more accurately, cackle – across the other side of the tent. Then another. And then someone would start crying. And another person who had been prayed for would fall over. And someone nearby you might start shaking. The first couple of times this happened, it would freak me out, but after a while you just get used to it; that’s what happened at these meetings.
All of these bizarre goings-on would be explained by the leaders as the manifestations of the Spirit; it’s what happens when God meets with people. After a while of witnessing this all take place, the question then became: why is this not happening to me? Does God not want to meet with me? The leaders would then clarify that God met with different people in different ways, and for some it may be experienced as an inner stillness. That always seemed like a bit of a cop out to me, and I found it interesting that those who seemed to manifest the Spirit more dramatically were those who were generally more prone to emotional outbursts anyway.
In some ways, I’m not sure I would have wanted to burst into tears or violently cackle in front of my friends, and yet it would have been nice to have some kind of a sign that God cared about me. And such manifestations, no matter how odd, were generally regarded as a badge of honour among the youth group.
For the most part, this kind of craziness was limited to the Summer festivals – or perhaps a little during our church weekends away – but it never really happened during our standard mid-week groups, no matter how much you sensed that the leaders wanted to cultivate a room of hyenas.
On reflection, while I don’t personally have a deep grasp of psychology, it’s evident that what I once considered the movement of God could be better explained as hyped-up and emotionally-vulnerable teenagers. Why did I think it was God? Well, that’s what we were taught, of course. It’s how our trusted leaders explained it to us, and it’s what all of my friends believed; what reason did I have to doubt it?
And that’s where the danger lies.
If you’ve found a safe-haven, somewhere you consider home, with people that care greatly for you, then you’re going to believe what they tell you. No matter how ridiculous it is.
This isn’t limited to the interpretation of ecstatic phenomena in giant tents; it’s true of a number of matters of faith. Human beings are broken at their core, and all of their actions will come to nothing without God? Oh… okay. The suffering in this world has its origin in the rebellion of angelic creatures before the creation of the world? Makes sense I guess. God solved all of our problems by coming to earth as a human and getting himself killed by Romans? If you say so. Things haven’t been put right yet, but they’ll get better if I invite my friends to come along to the youth group? Let’s do it!
What I once considered the movement of God could be better explained as hyped-up and emotionally-vulnerable teenagers.
When people hear the word ‘indoctrination’ it may conjure up images of someone sat in front of a TV screen with their eyes forced open, made to watch violent, flashing images intended to radicalize the viewer. But it’s not necessarily as dramatic as that. At its core, it’s simply being taught to accept certain beliefs about the world uncritically, i.e. without taking the appropriate time to evaluate whether or not they may be true. For the most part, this was my experience at church. It’s not that we were brainwashed, or violently forced into accepting any creeds or statements of belief, but I was being taught strange things about the world by people I trusted. That was enough.
As a teenager, your brain is still undergoing heavy development, and the things that you take in may stick with you for life – for better or for worse. This continues for a few years after you leave school too, and only slows down substantially in your mid-twenties. When you go to university, you’re exposed to a whole load of new ideas, and they might not always fit in so neatly with what you learned in youth group. This is why there’s such a great emphasis on linking teenagers up with churches when they move away from home; if they don’t keep hearing the Gospel truth from people they trust, they might be led astray by worldly ideas!
Now, I should point out at this stage that the church youth group is not the only place where people might be taught ideas that they aren’t given much of a chance to critically evaluate. In fact, many of the things we learn are thrown at us from a young age; even just living in the West will mean that we’re brought up into a number of cultural assumptions about ethics, society, and the way the world works. It’s unavoidable. The problem is that by the time we are able to analyze these parts of our worldview, they will have become so embedded within us that it’s virtually impossible to step back and approach them objectively. There’s a certain point at which we must surrender to the particular pair of glasses which are glued to our face. We can look in a mirror or try to feel around them to understand what we’re looking through, but we can never take them off.
The difference between inevitable developmental information and Christian doctrine is the level of harm it can cause.
Being taught Christian beliefs is not the same as learning to look both ways before crossing the street, not accepting lifts from strangers, or keeping your hands away from an open flame. Christianity – or at least, the form that I grew up in – teaches you that humans are sinful and depraved, that we should mistrust our thoughts and inclinations, that we have to submit every part of our lives to a being that we can’t understand, and that if we don’t do so, we’re in danger of going somewhere pretty unpleasant when we die. These things might not be preached in such language from the pulpit each Sunday – usually it’s disguised in far nicer clothing – but it was nonetheless at the heart of the worldview in which I was raised.
In time, everything you look at in the world is filtered through these lenses, and it’s not all that pretty.
But here’s the thing, I can understand perfectly well why parents or church leaders would want to teach the children in their care about such matters from a young age – they believe it’s true! For Christians, Jesus is not just an abstract idea, but the centre of their reality. They believe that entering into a relationship with Jesus is the best thing that can happen to you, and if that’s the case, why would they want to deprive their children of it for the first eighteen years of their life? It would be like dressing them in rags for their childhood years when there was a whole wardrobe of designer clothes waiting to be raided.
Even more than that, if Christian parents or youth leaders truly believed that those who don’t believe in Jesus would end up in hell, then failure to bring their children and teenagers up in the faith would be the cruelest form of neglect imaginable.
Of course, from my perspective, it’s bringing people up in such a worldview which seems the truly misguided act, but as long as our way of seeing the world differs, it’s an issue on which we can only agree to disagree.
And this is why it’s complicated.
Anyone in a position of leadership over children or young people has an immense responsibility that should not be taken lightly; you have the power to shape the entire course of someone’s life.
We all want what’s best for the next generation, but we have very different pictures of what that looks like. During my year working as a youth pastor, difficulties arose not because I suddenly cared more about the youth in my care than I had done before, but because what I believed changed. I could no longer cling to the idea that what I was teaching was beneficial. In fact, I became greatly concerned that the Christian ideas that came out of my mouth would cause harm in the long run. In the end, I stepped back from actively teaching, and I ended up leaving my position early, because even being a Christian in the eyes of those around me was a role which caused me distress.
But nothing ultimately changed. And the wonderful, dedicated people that I worked with that year continue on in the earnest belief that they are inspiring hope and love in the next generation, and that they are inviting teenagers into a story which will encourage them to flourish.
Maybe they’re right.
At the very least, they’re providing a place where people can be more truly themselves than home or school permits. If they’re lucky, the youth will enjoy the great benefits of the group and filter out anything unwelcome.
There’s no easy or obvious conclusion to these thoughts, and rarely in life are situations entirely clear. Am I comfortable that young people are being taught a way of life which caused great anguish for myself and numerous others? No. Do I think, therefore, that these groups should be disbanded? Not really. Do I believe that I know what’s best for the next generation? Certainly not.
If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that anyone in a position of leadership over children or young people has an immense responsibility that should not be taken lightly; you have the power to shape the entire course of someone’s life. Once the weight of this hits you, it should force you to ask the simple question: am I right? The answer won’t necessarily be as simple as you first thought, and if you’re like me, it could change everything.