Disbelieve it or not…

Street Level

Ever since I came to peace (I think I can call it peace) with shedding my Christian skin (or fleece, perhaps?) I have found it to be increasingly difficult to converse with those whose faith is still on solid ground. Some good friends have pointed out that my critiques have been offensive lately. I can believe it. People get offended, especially when it comes to issues they feel strongly about. I have always attempted to clarify that my statements are not personal attacks, but simply my own thoughts and experience with the subject matter.

Well, that doesn’t work.

For example, I recently pointed out how I think it’s dishonest if Christians mock and immediately dismiss miracle accounts of other religious traditions as being clearly absurd, but are offended if someone mocks the miracles of Jesus or Christian supernaturalism in general (as if some magic is more scientific than other magic). While I think this is a clear double standard, my critique comes across to many as an attack on Christianity. I am not making a claim as to the accuracy of said accounts (even though I’m sure someone could probably guess where I stand). The issue gets bogged down in the details, when I only meant to bring out the one seemingly obvious piece of intellectual dishonesty.

Oh, I guess calling something “intellectually dishonest” also sounds offensive. Hmm. There’s no getting around this, is there.

Over the past week I’ve been seriously questioning my motives, my approach. For so long I’ve wondered why a mere discussion of the underlying philosophies inherent to spirituality, belief, and disbelief was so incendiary to those I engaged. If someone believes in God, and they claim to exercise a rational faith, then why would they willingly choose to suspend critical thinking on certain topics? Why even “study” the Bible or theology if the cop-out becomes “God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts”? Why even claim a God whose evidence of intelligent design can seemingly be “plainly seen” but then become offended when skeptics wish to honestly discuss said evidence?

What offends me, personally, is the idea that skeptics are merely angry with God, as if we can’t come to conclusions about the implications of theistic beliefs without a broken, immature, or damaged spirit. Perhaps the “damage” was inflicted systematically over decades, and the “healing” resembles an immature “hissy-fit” when encountered by Christians. I’ll be the first to admit that anger is often involved whenever someone feels misled for a large portion of their lives. But to imply that a disbelief in God is a flaw in the individuals’ character… yeah, that’s offensive. Many of us battled with trying to believe in this worldview for years, often shedding many tears in the process… crying out with unheard prayers… and then with the pseudo “rejection” we also get a side “You were always the problem.”

We just never “got” it. And evidently we never wanted to “get” it. So, thanks for that.

All that being said, I think I now understand the nature of my offense. See, I have let go of the “faith” aspect and have transitioned to a purely intellectual interaction with the material. For example, since the existence of miracles is of no consequence to me anymore, a full critique of miracles has no possibility of offending me. But speaking of such things with someone who builds their own eternal foundation around the historical accuracy of a resurrected Jesus… Yeah, that could ruffle some feathers I guess.

But in all seriousness, I don’t have an agenda to remove someone’s faith. However, I do think there is something to be said about someone being honest about their beliefs. If you claim to believe in a good God who loves everyone unconditionally, yet you have absolutely zero problem with an eternal lake of fire set aside for his enemies, and also have zero interest in entertaining the “non-eternal lake of fire” theologies that are totally consistent with Christianity, then yeah… I think you want to have your loving-God-cake and eat him too, most likely to hide some prejudices you have against those of different faith traditions.

But I could be wrong.

And hey, if I am wrong, tell me why I’m wrong. I don’t want to simply prove my points. My friends can tell you that my points have changed, drastically and constantly. I want to be compelled to consider different points of view. I guess that’s where I’ve landed. I’m currently on the line between spirituality and secularism, hoping that there is more to the story than just the endless barking of internet message boards. Give me a reason to believe in something, to become passionate about something. I’d love for you to prove me wrong.

Disbelieve it or not.

 

Confessions of an Ex-Youth Pastor

This coming June 15th, I will have been out of ministry for three full years. This seems unreal to me. What seems even more strange is that this coming Fall will mark ten years since I enrolled in my ministry undergrad program. I can’t help but look back on the past decade and wonder if it was a mistake. “Was it worth the heartache?” I ask myself that question daily. From a vocational standpoint, the answer is crystal clear; I failed. I was unable and unwilling to continue in my line of work. Simply put, I was fired twice, and I did not wish to try for a third assignment.

Now, here comes the trickiest part in writing such a blog post. I am not here to wallow in the sweet, dirty aroma of martyrdom. I am not here to “bash” the churches and staff members who ever so gently placed me underneath the proverbial bus. I am no rockstar because I have suffered at the hands of church committees. I now understand that being on a church committee is its own punishment, so I wish them a smooth journey through their dark and stormy sea. I also understand that my differences of opinion and my failures to satisfy my job expectations are not marks of superiority. I will now and forever admit that being a youth pastor is not what God, Buddha, Vishnu, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants for my life. I will respect their wishes.

However, I am not ready to call it all a wash. I learned some very valuable life lessons that I’d like to pass on to the rest of you. If you sense a bit of sarcasm, don’t worry; it’s just what happens when oxygen flows past my vocal chords.

1. THE YOUTH REALLY ARE WORTH IT ALL

We all like each other so much!

I will begin by stating that if I ever had any regrets about tossing my hat into Youth ministry, the Youth were never one of them. I mean, I was 24 when I graduated from college and took my first position in Warner Robins, GA. (I won’t name the church, but it rhymes with “binity phunited smithodist”). I was practically still a kid myself. I immediately fell in love with the Youth, being reminded constantly of my own teen years with every conversation I had with them. I honestly wasn’t the most outgoing youth pastor, but I soon bonded to them with my own brand of dry humor, mind-stretching questions (like was it a sin to kill Jesus, or did Jesus have fleas?), and random mass-texting trivia games with no correct answers.

When you’re that in-love with a group of youth, you immediately become vulnerable to claims that you’re “too buddy-buddy” and not “adult” enough. There is no getting around this conundrum. There’s just not. If you don’t relate enough to the youth, watch out for parents holding secret meetings with your boss. If you relate too well with the youth, you may not be taking your job “seriously” enough. But you know what? All the bullshit was worth it, because I had an awesome time with those kids. I’ll always remember those life-changing conversations where I really knew I had helped someone get through a dark time. One girl even said I saved her life. What’s more rewarding than that?

 

2. YOU’RE A CRIMINAL UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT.

Did you send a mass text to my daughter?!

Let me begin by saying I don’t make light of the very real presence of sexual abuse in Christianity. I’m simply saying that when you are a male, given the task of overseeing a large group of middle and high schoolers, people are going to think/say a lot of things. Try relating to the half of the group that’s female. You’re expected to delegate that wing of your relational ministry through as many female volunteers as possible. Any texts, phone calls, or conversations happening on the far side of the youth room will set off red flags everywhere. And hey… I get it. We all want safety for our kids. But I’ll always think it’s odd that churches hire the “morally upright” and then assume their calling was actually just their excuse to flirt with teenage girls.

If those parents only knew how many of their own kids were doin’ the dance with no pants. Oh man. They’d leave the Youth pastor alone and start investing in chastity belts.

 

3. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE WHOLE “JESUS” THING.

John, I won’t ask you again. Where did you hide the kick-ball?!

I once made the mistake of thinking Church was about Jesus. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Brett, you’re getting petty. You’re just upset that you had a bad experience.” But what I mean is… Church is a business. If you haven’t sat through a finance meeting, try it out. It’ll clear up any doubts you may have. It is a numbers game. Managing metrics. Income. Payroll. Attendance. It’s about money.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s ONLY about money. It’s also about power grabs and politics. Are there good things too? Of course! But at the end of the day, just don’t be naive. I’ve been in a staff meeting where we opened with prayer, listened to the Pastor lie about why a staff member “chose” to step down, and looked across the table at that very staff member fight back tears knowing they were being removed against their will. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I knew a brilliant (and blind) associate pastor voted out of his position while he was in the same room. Jesus had nothing to do with that. I was voted out of my position while I was gone on a mission trip. Jesus wasn’t even in the same hemisphere for that one.

I say this to make a point, not to indict anyone. Businesses do what they feel they have to do. But when you are in the “Jesus Business” …your idealism will take a big hit. Your rose-colored glasses must come off, or the shrapnel will hit you when you least expect it. Don’t blame Jesus. When the coast is clear, grab on to him and jump the prison wall. You’ll finally be able to get some real work down once you get out.

Seriously, all joking aside, don’t take things personally. Assholes are everywhere. Sometimes they just live in parsonages.

 

4. EVERYONE THINKS YOUR IDEAS ARE STUPID

I blame the crowd for encouraging this one.

This one shouldn’t be too shocking. I bet you can name five people you work with right now who have stupid ideas. I’d also bet five is a conservative figure. But when you’re a Youth pastor, your grand visions for the future of the program? Crap. All of them. And hey, maybe they are crap. I’m not going to pretend I had it all figured out. I made my share of dumb moves (e.g. Saturday night youth service. Omg. Even Jesus shook his head at that one). But when you’re 24 years old, and the church has filled your position five times in the past six years, no one is honestly expecting you to have any new, ground-breaking ideas.

I still want to try LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE. Maybe in my next life.

5. THE ENTIRE PREMISE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IS FLAWED

Stop me if I’m wrong, but I have always been told Youth ministry exists to…

“Foster and develop the students’ spiritual identities for the purpose of incorporating them into the life of the church”
(i.e. Let’s grow us some tithing church members)

From a business standpoint, there is nothing illogical about this approach. Obviously they need a long-term plan for sustained growth. And don’t misunderstand, I honestly believe they have the best of intentions and hope the Youth do find a healthy spiritual life, whether in their church or another somewhere out there after college. But you see… there’s a problem. If this is the point of Youth ministry, it’s failing. Big time.

If you do some research you’ll find a lot of figures and studies on the topic, but basically 70% of graduating teens leave the church, and maybe half of that 70% return sometime later in life. This is common across the board. It doesn’t matter if the church sets aside millions of dollars for its youth program. It doesn’t matter if normal Wednesday night attendance breaks 50, 500, or 5000 kids. Only 3 out of 10 youth 18-22 will stay in church, any church.

You see, it has nothing to do with the size of the program, or how well we relate to their interests, or how many community outreach programs we coordinate. When kids are done with youth group, they leave. And the reason why isn’t all that bad! They leave for all sorts of reasons, but a major reason is that they simply feel their life is beginning a new chapter. They’ve graduated. They did the Youth group thing, maybe they loved it (maybe they didn’t), but now it’s time to move on to other things. They may look back on their days in church with fondness. Their choice to leave has little to do with the trips to Malaysia, Third Day concerts, or lock-ins featuring LATE-NIGHT ALIEN LASER TAG PRISON ESCAPE.

The point of youth ministry is that those kids need to be cared for while they ARE in church. Now. It has nothing to do with creating church members. Oh, and if you want some stats on general decline of religion in America, click here (if you dare).

~

In closing: You may look up there^ and see the ramblings of a guy who still cares very much about the youth of Christianity. You might see a bitter, disenfranchised soul who wants to take cheap shots when he can. You might think I’m even being too easy on the Church. When I strike these keys on my laptop I honestly think to myself “Wow, if so-and-so from x-council ever finds what I’m typing, they’ll feel quite vindicated for their decision to vote me out.” My extensive usage of the phrase “bullshit” is enough to confirm their suspicions I was never Christ-like enough.

But at the end of the day, I guess I am thankful I was put on this path filled with the best and worst examples of Jesus’ legacy. I am thankful I didn’t waste any more time in Christianity than I did. I mean, there’s some fabulous believers out there who need to keep fighting the good fight. So, keep it up! But I had to break up with Jesus, or at least the Jesus I was sold so long ago. I still see him on the street, in my friends’ faces, in children’s laughter, in Life of Pi (great movie, people. Just buy the Blu-Ray), lots of places.

I wouldn’t recommend my old job to anyone in good conscience, but if you’re ever looking for a wild 18 month ride, give youthspecialties.com a spin. I hear those churches are always hiring.

…Kinda like Wal-Mart.