Friends and I shared some pretty big belly laughs over this Buzzfeed post about being a youth group kid. While some of the content doesn’t apply to me (I never had a purity ring, never attended a True Love Waits rally, and never owned a Stephen Curtis Chapman album), and I was too old for a few of the others (MySpace was college, not high school), the full list feels pretty accurate.

From about 13-18, my social life could be reduced to three main groups. First and foremost, there were the missions trips I took with Teen Mania every summer. Second was my youth group, which filled my time with good Christian fun and socialization while I waited for the summer. A far distant third was my group of school friends. They were great folks, but how could I have time spend with them when all of my free time was spent fundraising for missions trips, going on missions trips, or participating in youth group activities?

My youth group was a Oneighty franchise, which means that it had anywhere from 50 to 500 people in it, depending on the year. We had a youth building full of video games and restaurant booths and a cafe that served hot dogs and walking tacos. We even had our own group of volunteer security workers.

When I read through the Buzzfeed list, I am mostly entertained, but also a little nostalgic and a little cringe-y. I also find myself thinking about the pros and cons of youth group involvement, at least as it pertains to my experience in a non-abusive but troubled youth group.

Pros

1) Youth group gave me a healthy, positive social circle filled with mostly good people. A few of them were jerks, a few turned into jerks later in life, and a handful turned into super awesome people, but for the most part, it was a decent group of folks to hang out with.

Socializing at a party in the early days of our group, around 1998.

Socializing at a party in the early days of our group, around 1998.

2) We had fun. No doubt about that. Retreats were filled with games that kept us laughing for hours. We shared inside jokes and special experiences, and we did enjoy each others’ company to the point that we wanted to hang out together multiple nights out of the week.

Middle school students I helped out with as a senior.

Middle school students I helped out with as a senior.

3) It was also generally safe. For the most part, we weren’t drinking or tracking down weed, and very few of our group were having sex with each other. Those of us who were younger were typically under the supervision of adults who cared about us, or older teenagers who weren’t predatory toward us.

4) For many of us, our involvement taught us that faith is not about a casual belief system, but rather something that involves serious emotional involvement. Faith isn’t to be committed to flippantly–it should be deeply held and always under scrutiny.

5) We socialized with adults and learned that some of them can in fact be trusted.

6) We learned to interact with peers beyond our immediate age range. It wasn’t uncommon to see close bonds form between freshmen and seniors, middle schoolers and high schoolers, etc.

Youth group friends at a party at my house around 2000.

Youth group friends at a party at my house around 2000.

7) Youth group involvement gave us something to put on our college applications, especially for those of us who didn’t participate in very much else but managed to get involved in group leadership.

8) We were participants in the weird subculture of mid-90s Christian music and socializing, which means that years later, we can bond with just about any stranger who shares the same background. “YOU used to sing along and cry a little to ‘Goldie’s Last Day,’ too?!”

Cons

1) Legalism and the guilt that came from not following all the rules the right way.

2) Although I am not aware of any predatory relationships between leaders and group members, I do think there were some serious boundary issues between some of the youth and leadership. I’m not talking about sexual boundary problems, but rather relationships that were allowed to become far too intense. Leadership was idolized to the point that crossing them or disagreeing with them could cause intense anxiety, guilt, and doubt.

3) Our in-group mentality led to some intense feelings of superiority, and I don’t doubt that our attempts to “witness” to our peers were hindered by the fact that a ton of us thought we were more spiritually advanced than pretty much everybody.

4) Youth groups, in general, teach some pretty screwed up stuff about sex.

5) Maybe youth groups are not inherently homophobic, but there are few places where it would be worse to be gay than the average church youth ministry.

6) We were pressured to make outrageous commitments that we weren’t ready for. For example, to be involved in church leaderships, which was a really important goal to many of us, we had to sign a commitment that we would never, ever drink alcohol. Ever. This commitment was something we were to make forever, to God and to our church. It was emphasized that if we broke any vow, we would never be able to keep any vow. Think of it this way: the teaching implied (and to some extent explicitly stated) that if we broke this promise, we might never be able to stay true to our marriage vows or commitment to Christ. What an absurd teaching, but it really demonstrates the stakes we felt were involved.

7) The ridiculous subculture of Christian music I mentioned in the pros section? Yeah, that was kind of awesome, if absurd. The problem was that it came at the expense of any real pop cultural awareness. It wasn’t uncommon for us to completely sequester ourselves from “the world” to the point that we missed entire cultural milestones. It damaged our ability to relate to our non-youth group peers and made us, well, kind of weird. And not in a good way.

8) In a large group like mine, it was far too easy for students to have drastically different experiences. Some people had a great time for the duration of their involvement, but others felt routinely excluded from the “in group.” Some youth ended up being taken advantage of by leadership (intentionally and unintentionally), while others could never got noticed no matter how hard they tried. There were so many staff and volunteer leaders that at least a few of them were poorly trained or poorly supervised. All in all, the large youth group format may have felt really safe for me, but I know too many people who talk about their time in our youth group as traumatic and scarring to believe that it was safe for everyone, or even most people.

* * *

I like to think that there is a good way to create a youth group environment where young people can explore questions that are important to developing a healthy approach to spirituality and faith. Teenagers who want to learn about Jesus and Christianity should definitely have a space to do so, and a group of their peers, led by a thoughtful and caring adult seems like a great way for that to happen. I just want to know how to do that without the pitfalls that accompanied my experiences.

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