I’m a 22-year-old recent college grad, and within the last year and a half I have spiraled into an anxiety-ridden battle with the evangelical church and my faith.
When I was in high school I maintained my “Christian girl youth leader” appearance by devoting myself to leading on Wednesday nights, participating in my Bible study, and singing on the youth worship team.
A little over a year ago, I learned that my youth pastor, who had a strong influence on my faith during my teen years—a man that I respected and admired—was a manipulator and a predator. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I was shaken by this news. I’ve since gone back and thought through the teachings that I learned from this person and from so many other adult leaders who pretended they had it all together with wisdom to spare, like I did.
Sort of like Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games, I found myself thinking back to ultra-spiritual personal moments and wondering, ‘Real or not real?’ The cynicism and angst that I suppressed all throughout my teen years has finally caught up to me.
I’ve discovered that it’s incredibly lonely to struggle with this as a young woman in her early 20’s. Some friends that I made through a campus ministry in college have become skeptical of my cynicism, and I feel like I have been silently shunned by leaders in the ministry. I have backed away from Bible studies and churches, because I was sick of having bullshit discussions about how we can better ourselves when no one actually felt like they could open up and be known or ask difficult questions.
The lack of vulnerability empathy I have found is disturbing. I no longer feel a sense of community when I go to a Bible study, and I cringe when I go to a church and we are told to greet the people around us. I can’t help but look at the fresh haircuts and khaki pants and wonder what kind of effed up stuff is going on behind the perfect image. So I quit. I am sick of pretending to belong to a group of people who don’t want to be known or know me—the imperfect, fucked up versions of us. I struggle to love the cynical parts of me because they are so isolating.
I am so young, and I feel harsh—like I have been hardened toward the subculture I used to navigate. I think I will lose my mind if one more person says that my faith suffered because I followed my youth pastor, not God. I’m weary from being shot down for so long. I fear that this loneliness won’t end.
When I was 14, I fell in love with a boy who was in love with Teen Mania Ministries.
You’re a decade younger than me, so it’s possible you don’t know what Teen Mania was…but when I was growing up, it was one of the largest Christian youth organizations in the U.S.
When I met Chris, I was a freshman in high school and he was a senior. He was fresh off of a month-long drama-based evangelistic mission with Teen Mania in Australia, where he’d shaved his head with a Bic razor and fallen deeply and irrefutably in love with both Jesus…and the extreme kind of faith that Teen Mania so adamantly promoted.
That fall, after all of our summer tans had faded and disappeared, Chris still glowed. Teen Mania had given him a passion for God and for “the Lost” that was irresistible to me at age 14, on the brink of my own spiritual and sexual awakening.
That year, I ended up in a caravan of cars heading downtown with Chris and a bunch of our friends to ignite my own faith at the Chicago Acquire the Fire. I stood among throngs of other high school students in a giant auditorium, and around us cold sparks splayed and the messages of Ron Luce boomed into our hearts, imploring us to be on fire for God, extreme for Jesus. The worship music pumped loudly around us, and the lights flashed behind my eyelids, and I was hooked too. I didn’t know what mania was, but I wanted it.
The following summer, I went on my own Teen Mania mission trip – an exhausting, lonely evangelistic trip of my own to the Dominican Republic, where I played a mime in our Gospel drama and felt acutely aware of my inadequacies as a Christian. Meanwhile, Chris headed off to Teen Mania’s year-long internship program, “The Honor Academy,” where he participated in militaristic drills meant to strip away his spiritual weaknesses.
When he came home, he was all sharpness and angles – a passion for God honed into a weapon that he eventually turned on me, criticizing my Bible-reading habits (too infrequent), my clothing (too immodest), and my sense of humor (too sarcastic). I don’t think he meant to manipulate me. I think that his own faith had been shaped and sharpened by the manipulations of others, and he was just doing what he was taught. He withheld love and affection when I wasn’t living up to his spiritual expectations; he made me smaller and smaller until eventually I disappeared.
When he broke off our off-again, on-again relationship for good because “God told him to,” it was a kind of fatal wound. It spread like an infection, contaminating my once-vibrant faith, leaving me bitter and angry and hardened in ways I couldn’t understand.
By my mid-twenties, I was where you are now – cynical and angry and anxious and lonely. I was battling with demons I couldn’t name but seemed to gather in the churches my husband and I attended, until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and fled altogether.
When I finally began going to therapy to unravel the knot of my faith and my marriage and my life, my therapist strongly suggested a book about cults.
I thought she was being a little dramatic. There was no doubt in my mind that my faith story was more than a little screwed up, but a cult? Certainly that word belonged to the Kool-Aid drinkers: the Branch Davidians, the Mansons, the Heaven’s Gate Away Team, gone to catch the Hale-Bop Comet.
But of course, like many words I thought I understood then, cult turned out to be much more complex than I imagined.
It turned out that the beliefs of a group didn’t have to be batty to make it a cult. It was possible for any organization or ministry or individual person to wield their beliefs and their power in a way that was manipulative, abusive, and damaging – cultic. And this is what Teen Mania, and eventually, the boy I loved, had done.
I don’t think either meant to, but each had established a kind of spiritual dominance which was maintained through the constant heaping of fear and guilt: fear that straying from this particular way of faith would result in an unremarkable life that would be disappointing, somehow, to God; guilt that what I was doing was never really enough.
So much of my faith journey has been about understanding this: I was part of a web of cultic relationships, and my teenage spiritual formation was formed by that manipulative kind of fear as much if not more than it was formed by the truth of God’s unending love.
And Samantha, I want you to know that you are not to blame for following your youth leader, just as I am not to blame for getting involved with Teen Mania, with Chris, with those wildly performance-driven mission. At 14, 15, 16, you don’t have the capacity to understand that the people who proclaim to love and serve God don’t always get it right. That sometimes they fail in the most spectacularly devastating ways…and take you down with them.
Real or not real? You quote this line from Mockingjay – the third book in The Hunger Games series – in your letter, and it applies perfectly to people like us, doesn’t it?
In the book, Peeta Mellark has been captured by the Capital and brainwashed with fictional memories in which his friend and true love, Katniss, is made to appear as his enemy. When he is reunited with her, he recounts those memories frequently, asking her to tell him whether each one is real or not real?
Did this really happen this way? He is asking. Or was it all in my head? When Peeta realizes his memories have been tampered with, he begins to question everything. His experience is no longer a barometer for reality; he has to tear the whole thing down start over with this simple question. Real or not real?
It’s painful to realize you have been lied to, isn’t it? That someone you trusted was untrustworthy; that the foundations you built so much of your life upon were cheap and faulty and paper-thin?
And yet, dear Samantha, I have to tell you: it is also a gift.
The truth is, every single person gets a mixed bag of messages; half-truths mixed with lies mixed with truth. No matter how genuinely good their family or their youth group or their church or their friends are. No matter how theologically sound their upbringing might have been. Everyone ends up with a bunch of lies mixed in, whether they know it or not. What makes us lucky, you and me, is we know it.
Because you know now that your youth pastor was flawed in some really fundamental and terrifying ways, you are forced to ask that question. Real or not real? Because I learned Teen Mania used their power and influence in a really icky manner, I have been forced to reassess what they told me.
Knowledge can be a painful kind of shattering, but it’s also true what they say – knowledge is power. You and I? We know we have to ask the question. Real or not real? And because of that, we get the opportunity to pursue a healthier faith, a more whole and honest faith.
I don’t think the people at your church, the ones in the khakis with the judgy, infuriating smiles, are trying to be fake or mean or unhelpful. It’s that so many of them have not yet been shipwrecked in the way you have. And without experiencing that kind of devastation, it never occurs to you to ask real or not real? It never occurs to you to reassess.
Try to give them grace, if you can Samantha. They haven’t seen the mask ripped off the face of someone they thought they trusted, and before that happens, it never occurs to you that it could be a mask. It never occurs to you that those fear and guilt driven “truths” you have been living with are nothing but a mirage.
Samantha, you have been given the gift of seeing this early, which means you have time to struggle and grapple and rebuild your faith from the ground up instead of spending a couple of decades trying to muster up to something that was never real to begin with. The curtain between reality and those “bullshit discussions about how we can better ourselves” has been pulled back for you in a way that it hasn’t for everyone.
You know you were given some shitty answers and bad theology and manipulative teaching, so you won’t waste decades of your life thinking you’ve got it all figured out. You have the chance to rebuild. To sit, pissed off in front of Jesus and ask the best kind of question: Real or not real? You will be listening for the answer.
You are lucky. So lucky. Not to have experienced the pain…but that this pain has brought you to a fundamental shift in perspective. You have seen that the Great Oz is really just a cowardly little man, pulling a bunch of strings. And this understanding will lead you home…if you let it.
Teen Mania filed for bankruptcy recently and then closed its doors. For a while, there was even a warrant out for Ron Luce’s arrest, as he had defaulted on loans and failed to pay bills. I watched it all from a distance, not surprised…but sad for reasons I can’t really articulate.
I learned, for example, that Acquire the Fire conferences were set up purposefully to make you feel God. That mood lighting; those cold sparks, shooting up from the stage; the percussion blasts punctuating the message and that you could feel in you whole body – those were very intentional choices made by the Teen Mania staff.
There were pyrotechnics and bright lights and a medium that changed as constantly as ocean waves, one after another. There was no time between the drama and the worship and the message to think critically. The whole thing was designed so you would be carried by the waves of emotion, the waves of artificial light.
Real or not real?
And of course the answer is both.
God was there. Real.
God was there because we were passionate and on fire, because we raised our hands in worship, because we signed up for missions trips and wept for the lost and felt it all deep in our beating hearts. Not real.
I have been sorting this out for nearly a decade now, and I can’t tell you the freedom that sorting has brought to my life. Learning to ask this question has changed how I interact with my faith and the people who speak into it. Real or not real? I will have to keep asking it all of my life, I think – of the thoughts that fly into my head, of the sermons I hear in the pulpit, of the things people say in the church pews, of the bumper stickers I read on the backs of minivans.
Real or not real? And that question is not a failure on my part…or on yours. It is the right question. It is formational, holy work. It is the work of finding Christ, who does not float above reality but makes his home in its gritty brokenness.
This is the work of drawing near to the God who is Truth, who is Love, who is always working to make things new.
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