I can remember sitting in a staff meeting in my early years of vocational ministry when the discussion of the “best time” to connect young-married’s (yep, the whole group is one category) to the church became the topic of the day. The clear call, by all good research and intel was that after the birth of their first child, couples often seek to return to the church to raise their children. Thus, you see entire ministries built from the roots of Baptism and baby dedication classes. Small groups on parenting are launched to receive these wandering young people, who are finding their way back from the wild days of college and early independence. Books have been written, studies have been commissioned and many dollars have spent launching these efforts.
But what about the kids that come along with these wayward young hooligans? Many of them are thrust into nurseries and pre-schools with those that they will one day come to know as their youth group compadres. In the early days of their lives, as their parents long for an hour of free babysitting and a cup of coffee, kids are entrusted to the church world, for better and for worse.
My early years of church life were magical. The wonder of the step stool behind the big pulpit, the flowing choir robes and the secret communion closet were enough to intrigue me and keep me, not only engaged, but fascinated by God and Jesus and the many things that my parents did in the name of church. For me, church meant time with my best friends, the good possibility of a Happy Meal or a Shipley’s donut and an almost certain late bedtime. These things were glorious and holy.
But something shifted the first time that I realized that the man in the black robe was fallible and that church people lied. I remember being asked to sit on a church committee in my early teens and I watched an argument over the church budget. I can still recall the first time that I was listening to a stewardship (aka give your money) sermon and I felt icky. There was something that didn’t sit right in my gut, but because I trusted the person who lead the campaign that year – he was my Sunday school teacher, after all – I thought that I needed to just be more faithful.
There is a strange thing that happens when the grooves of ‘belief’ and ‘right’ and ‘sure’ and ‘godly’ are etched in our childhood impressions of church. Often they are connected to people. Be it the pastor that you loved or the VBS song that you can still sing from memory, we deeply tie our understanding of faith and God with these memories. For many of us, that creates a warm and nurturing first contact with the Divine. But as we age and we see more, we can find ourselves in a deep well of conflict as we discover that things are not always as they appear. The one who taught you about God is not god-like. The idol that you created to defend your faith was just that. The non-negotiable teaching that could never be questioned because it “just was” is suddenly not. And then what?
Some in the church world call this deconstruction – a season of breaking down the things that you have believed so that you can open yourself to the things that you now know to be true. But the more concerning aspect of this entire conversation is not deconstruction or reconstruction. It is not even the marketing that goes into reshaping parents into loving the church again so that they will bring their kids to the programs. For me it is the group of young adults that will not ever darken the doors of a religious institution again because of the experiences, and in some cases, trauma of their childhood in the church. The ones that were manipiatued and spiritually abused. The ones that cannot ask questions. The ones that when they reached an age that they couldn’t make sense of their doubts, were pushed away as heretics and cynics and unworthy.
There is one group of friends that I cannot speak for, but I need to speak to. To my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters: I love you. Jesus loves you. You are whole and holy. Of all of the childhood messages that have destroyed and shamed and held an entire people group hostage, the words that you heard and felt in the pews and the youth groups of your childhood are by far some of the most painful. For every time that you heard that you are not enough, that you are unworthy or that you are uninvited, I want to say I’m sorry. For my part in leading the church to that place and refusing to walk with you and out of spaces that could not love you – all of you – I want you to know that I recognize that I have been part of some of the most damaging childhood messages that you could have ever received. I know that an apology is insufficient, but I’m hoping that my love and friendship is enough to remind you that there is not one entity or person on this earth that has the ability to define your worth. Not me, and sure as hell not the voices of hate in the Church today.
May this be a chance for all of us to call all of the messages that we have be given as children into question. Looking at something with an honest and harsh light does not negate it. Rather, I am more convinced that ever, that a good old household purging only helps you recognize what really matters, and what you want to box up and move with you into your next house.