Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Reason #5: “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.”
After being frustrated with the lack of challenging content for my age group, realizing how clueless I was about other religions and their beliefs, and opening my eyes as to the overly-simplistic nature of sexuality I had been presented with, I began feeling discontent. Each one of these things would have been excusable on their own, but with them all together I began to get a feel of the nature of what I had grown up with. There were rumblings in my bones that I couldn’t ignore anymore.
The one thing that finally sent me throttling to the face of disillusionment was when my mother wasn’t allowed to work in the youth group. After going on a youth retreat as a chaperone, she wanted to take the next step and be a regular youth leader. When she spoke to the pastor about this, they said she couldn’t work with the youth without her husband. My father is not a social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination, and my mom is, so it was a little bit crazy to expect my dad to come along to something that she was very clearly suited for and he wasn’t.
My mom decided that maybe they would change their minds once they saw her working with the kids so she decided just to start showing up. The second week she came to youth group they had someone standing outside of the door to the youth group guarding to prohibit her from coming in.
I understand why they would put the couples-only stipulation on youth workers: they want the couples to show kids how to have healthy romantic relationships and be able to go to either adult for advice if need be. I would have been fine with married leaders principle had they followed it. Less than a month after my mother was literally barred from the room, the single son of the events manager of the church showed back and they let him start working immediately with the kids, and he was one of seven other single individuals working in the youth group during this time (most of which were kids of the pastors or deacons).
How could they do this to her? They punished her because my father isn’t social-inclined? How could they preach Sunday after Sunday about how they needed people to get into ministry and then physically block her from even entering the room? If someone has the desire and the ability wouldn’t you be tripping over yourself to get them? I want to give the staff the benefit of the doubt that maybe something else was going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about, but it appeared as blatant favoritism.
By the time I hit sophomore year of high school I was so desperately craving content I could wrestle with and people who could really get into my head that I made the mistake of opening my mouth. All I wanted was more. I could have bowed out quietly (like smarter people after me did), but I thought that if I started voicing some of my opinions to the right people that they could help me find what I was looking for or find ways to improve what was going on. But instead of seeing my questions and feelings as a desire for something more, it was taken as a personal attack on the staff and the church.
It didn’t take long before friends and leaders were each asking me what was wrong, and after I told them each one of them clobbered me. Some lectured me, some got offended, and some chose to yell right over me. I was reminded a few times that “Pastor John is not Billy Graham.” I wasn’t expecting Billy Graham. When someone talks for twenty full minutes about how he is going to step on some toes, how he didn’t want to offend anyone, but that he needed to share the truth, I just want there to be something more substantial than telling me to do my devotions.
My doubt was perceived as a threat. Even though I was at church every time the doors were open, was actively involved in ministry, worked with the elementary kids in AWANA, was on the worship team, and was very active in Sunday School, the moment I started asking questions and challenging the status quo I was voted off the island. I did everything right by them. I followed all of the rules and expectations put in front of me but once I questioned things I became a black sheep.
I remember telling the whole story to one of my best friends while working on desserts for the giant Christmas dinner we put on every year. The kitchen refrigerators were already full so we opened all the windows in the children’s classrooms and then shut the doors to create make-shift refrigerators. We were filling crepes when I told him what was going on and that I was considering trying out a different youth group. I remember shivering and the dull smell of confectionary sugar filling my nostrils as he told me how I couldn’t do that because I would be “divorcing the church” and that I would practically be breaking a blood contract with the body if I left.
Later, Mr. Darren, one of the leaders, set aside some time to talk to me to see what was wrong. He had been hearing things but wanted to hear the whole story from me. I felt particularly close to Mr. Darren and his wife; aside from having the mother of all crushes on their son, I spent a lot of time with them at church and outside of church. I would go over to their house occasionally and they always made a point to talk to me when they saw me. They even called me their niece on a couple of occasions. They made me feel loved and important.
I skipped out on the last few minutes of youth group one night sat in the small church library across the table from Mr. Darren. He said he could sense something was off about me over the last couple of weeks and wanted to know what was happening. I had kept this information from him mostly because I needed time to figure it out and I didn’t want him and his wife to be disappointed in me. But since he took the time out to ask me, I took it as a sign that he cared and I could be honest with him, so I shared my story.
He proceeded to tell me that he had been in youth ministry for twenty years and that this was as good as it got. Pastor John was the best he had ever seen and I wasn’t going to find anyone better. He told me that my role in the church was changing and that from here on out I would never get anything from church. I would need to start spending all my time making sure other people got “fed” at church.
In a sense he had a point. I can’t expect to be spoon-fed or fuel my entire spiritual journey on sermons but I was still devastated. Name after name flew by of leaders I had offended and friend after friend crossed me off their lists. I thought Darren and his wife would be the ones who, even if they couldn’t relate, would still love on me and help me through. But instead I was told to just buck up, be content and to stop expecting things. (This was accidentally the last time we ever spoke, which makes me even sadder.)
I was crushed. I guess more than anything I felt hung out to dry. For years my superiors told me not to just be spoon-fed by the stuff I hear on Sundays but to desire to know more and take learning into my own hands. So, when I tell them that I’m hungry and I want something more, I’m abandoned? If you are going to talk about sparks be prepared for the fire if it catches.
I was left alone. The leaders weren’t there for me when I needed them the most. Even if they thought I was just being a bratty teenager, nothing was worse there than them crushing the eager spirit that I thought they wanted to see in me. The message was loud and clear: they wanted fair weather youth, and my questions and I were no longer welcome.
Peter Rollins talks about how important doubt is in a religious setting in his book “How (Not) to Speak of God”:
“For instance, take the example of two people getting married with the firm conviction that the union will last as long as they both live. In this state of obvious delusion no real decision needs to be made. The future is believed to be so certain that the decision to marry requires no decision at all. Yet if two people understand that their relationship will face various hardships, that the future is uncertain and that there are no guarantees, then, far from preventing a decision, this is the very point when a real decision needs to be made. The vows of marriage are not so much affirmations of what one believes will take place but rather the promises that one will work towards ensuring that it will indeed happen. […] A love that requires contracts and absolute assurance in order to act is no love at all.”
In the aftermath, there were four people who didn’t toss me out like a dead fashion trend. One was a leader who listened to me and said that he could relate to me a little and then showed me some note-taking tips that helped him extract more meaning out of sermons. The other three were friends who treated me no differently after admitting to my doubt. These are the friends I have carried with me for the last decade and who, even if we grow apart, I will always feel grateful for. They each in their own words said “You’re not crazy. I don’t feel the exact same way, but you’re definitely not crazy.”
The fifth and final installment will be about how the church is over-protective.