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A space for struggle, an answer of hope: The kind of culture churches really need

At 16, I led our church’s youth group worship team on guitar and vocals. We played most of the same songs that were performed during the Sunday service, but I gave them new arrangements to better appeal to the 20 or so youth that sat on the floor of the church’s gym each Sunday when they came to play capture the flag, sing worship songs, listen to a short talk and try to satisfy some inarticulate sense of adolescent yearning through half-hearted flirting, athletic prowess and alternating spiritual posturing and guilt.

I put “As The Deer” to the tune of Bush’s “Glycerine” and “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” to “When I Come Around” by Green Day. I don’t recall if any of my peers recognized the inspirations behind these arrangements, but I do remember feeling self-satisfied at my creativity and hoping that others recognized my coolness. I think I also used these “secular” songs because, through them, I could summon up enough emotional commitment to feel like I was actually worshiping God, like I meant something close to what I was singing. The traditional arrangement to “As the Deer” didn’t make me feel anything at all, but “Glycerine” was close to my heart.

I had spent many angst-filled afternoons with Sixteen Stone, finding my own experience of life— the sense of alienation and yearning and failure—truthfully told through this song. So, when I put the lyrics to “As the Deer” on this song, a kind of transference of meaning happened. That earnest, heartfelt desperation I felt when listening to “Glycerine” translated into what felt to me like an earnest, heartfelt desire for God’s presence. But more than anything, I thought that when I sang the song, my friends and the youth group leaders would believe I had an earnest, heartfelt desire for God. In the end, I suspect that’s what mattered to me most—that I reach some observable state of spiritual passion that counted for something. It was a nice way to feel okay for a few minutes, usually.

Space for struggle

I cannot remember a single sermon from the church I grew up in. But I do remember a few warnings about the dangers of popular culture, like the time the assistant pastor warned parents not to let their children listen to the band Live since they chose the name because it was “Evil” spelled backward (The logic of this argument would bother me later in life. If anything, doesn’t that name suggest that they are the opposite of evil?). Or when a concerned father spoke to the youth group about a new show on MTV called Undressed, which chronicled the experiences of young adults right before they had sex.

I already spent most of my time trying not to think about sex, or thinking about how I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what that meant about me and how I could get rid of that terrible guilt and anxiety in my gut. The last thing I needed was someone’s dad to drop by the youth group to tell us that the “world” was obsessed with sex. I was obsessed with sex, love, attractiveness, affection, existential justification or belonging—or any of the million other concepts that get wrapped up into that word when you are 16. And I needed an answer for it all.

During one youth group meeting, the leader brought in a wooden cross he had built out of two 4×4 posts. This cross would hold our sins, he told us. Just as Christ bore our sins on the cross, this cross would be a physical reminder that we are called to put our sins to death, to nail them to Christ’s cross. We were each asked to write down one sin that we wanted to turn over to God. I stared down at my small piece of paper and agonized. “Lust. Lust is your sin. Lust is the thing you can’t shake. You can’t stop lusting. Write lust.”

I wrote “greed.” What if someone peeked, I thought. What if they saw that I lusted and then thought I was a creep. And anyway, I am greedy sometimes. And I bet none of them are honest enough to write “greed” even though they all want nice cars and clothes and everything.

The next Sunday, the youth pastor brought the cross out on the stage and showed the congregation how the entire youth group had turned over their sins to God, physically and spiritually nailing them to the cross, which he intended to keep as a reminder of their commitment. “Great,” I thought, “I guess I don’t have to worry about being greedy anymore.” Meanwhile, I still struggled with a longing to be known and told I was good enough, so that I could believe that I mattered.

Space for grace

I never remember being taught about grace at church, either. Instead, I always felt two things:

  1. The need to be more on fire for the Lord.
  2. The need to stop sinning.

I was a spectacular failure at both, so the best thing I could do was try to cobble together some image of purity and passion any way I knew how. So, I played “As the Deer” to the tune of “Gylcerine” and mostly just felt bad about it all.

I looked forward to youth group all week, but there was always some anxiety about it, too. The stakes of what went on there were high, especially because I was homeschooled. I wanted something meaningful to happen—not spiritually meaningful, but existentially, something that validated me as an individual and set me apart from everyone else. So, I tried to signal who I was and why I mattered to my peers, even if those signals were contradictory or sometimes a lie. For example, one day, standing in front of the sanctuary waiting for youth group to start, a girl asked me why I always seemed to be wearing black. I was in my black corduroy pants and a dark green t-shirt, accessorized with a wallet chain and necklace with large chrome beads. I couldn’t bear to tell her that I was depressed or that I wanted to look edgy, even if that was the truth.

“It’s because of abortion,” I said. “I wear black as a way to mourn all the babies killed because of abortion.”

“Oh, neat,” she replied unconvincingly.

It was about the most ridiculous and self-righteous lie imaginable under the circumstances, but it didn’t really feel like a lie at the time. It was more like a deflection, or a selfish attempt to reconcile my desire to appear spiritual; my cultivation of an edgy, grunge image; and my experience of depression and loneliness.

After everyone had gone home one Sunday night, I confessed to the youth group leader that I was depressed almost all the time. “What kind of music are you listening to?” he asked, knowing full well that I enjoyed listening the secular Alternative Rock station. “You know,” he said, “sometimes demons can attach themselves to physical objects. And I wonder if that nonchristian music has some demons in it that are weighing down your spirit. Our pastor studied demonology and knows all about this kind of thing.”

I remember feeling that he wasn’t really listening to what I was saying, and I felt more than a little defensive about my favorite music. Sure, Nirvana wasn’t “Christian,” but at least Kurt Cobain really knew what this feeling of anxiety and self-loathing was like. The leader asked me to just try listening to Christian music for one week and see if it made me feel any better. He sent me home with a stack of his favorite CDs—Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, the Newsboys.

Back in my room, I gave the albums a fair try. I lay on the floor and listened to Audio Adrenaline sing about how God’s house had a “Big, big yard, where we can play football.” Rather than lift my spirit, the music made me feel all the more alone, alienated from Christian culture. Was there something wrong with me? Why did I feel more understood and alive listening to secular music than Christian music? What did this say about my eternal salvation?

Our need for the gospel

In retrospect, I was struggling with two main things:

  1. A secular world that understood my depression, guilt and fears.
  2. A church youth group culture that had almost no answer for these things.

I don’t think I was clinically depressed. I was just a normal 16-year-old kid, experiencing new ranges of emotions and feeling the terrible weight of needing to be somebody, whatever that meant. I wanted someone to fall in love with me and prove that my life mattered, that it had weight and a trajectory to it, instead of feeling like this weightless, redundant teenager. I didn’t need to be told that my music wasn’t Christian enough or that demons were oppressing my spirit.

I needed to be told that God loved me and that whatever “authentic self” I was so desperately trying to piece together and display for all my peers to approve of, I would never really find it and I didn’t need to try to. I needed—and still need—a church that has space for sadness, fears and anxiety, depression and mental illness. I also need a church that doesn’t let me continue to believe the lie that my life is meaningless until I achieve something, or am loved by someone, or I craft some impressive identity.

All along, my identity was hidden in Christ’s finished work on the cross, an act of unmerited love that objectively grounded and sustained my being in the world regardless of how I felt or what I thought about myself.

The funny thing about working to make yourself good enough to be Christian is that you inevitably end up more self-absorbed and less assured of God’s love for you. If we are not careful, our youth groups and churches can easily develop a culture of image-making—Christians striving to define themselves, especially according to some Christian cultural norms, instead of resting in Christ’s definitive work. The gospel frees us from these endeavours and gives us the space to be fully human, with doubts and anxieties and loves, but also with the grace and love which flows from a heart unburdened by identity and committed to others.

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