High school youth group years were my spiritual glory years. A worship service every Sunday morning followed by Sunday School for teenagers and the fairly frequent service later that evening. Youth for Christ on Monday night, youth group on Wednesday night and a social gathering of some kind on Friday or Saturday before starting the schedule over again the next Sunday. And all with the same Christian kids.
We spoke the same language, shared the same concerns, felt convicted by the same movie ratings and music labels, and accumulated all of the same retreat memories. Those were what I consider the common years because our religion was the only religion which meant it was very big to the tight-knit handful of us who held it. Those were also the idealistic years. How could I have known I couldn’t take them with me?
The religious world we live in today seems to be threatening this sort of insulated experience. Strangers from distant lands have moved in next door and they don’t go to your church or mine. The dress of our kids’ classmates reflects foreign traditions, and the December holiday season has become as hard to maneuver in Kindergarten as it has in Kmart. Spending life in the pack is becoming a challenge. Yet, my youth group religion began to shrink before I noticed all of this global mix.
After transferring from a Christian college (where friends from youth group attended), I landed at a state university. My earliest teacher there quickly reminded me that this wasn’t youth group anymore. He used his sociology pulpit three days a week to methodically dismantle the Christian faith. I’m not sure what motivated him, but he drew tears more than once from my fellow classmates, now because of another lost argument for the faith, now due to hurt from a personal attack. I swore I’d never take him on. I had been the standard hand-raising Bible boy in youth group, but not here. He said things I’d never heard, let alone considered, so I monitored what to say and what not to say around him. In the process, I shrunk a piece of my religion.
I moved on from there to teach in the public schools. I tried my best to love troubled city students, but I left much of the old youth group boldness behind so that I wouldn’t get fired. I shrunk another piece of my religion.
To this day, every group I work with has a different set of expectations. Every host has recommendations for how I should connect spiritually with the audience under their care. I must consider the affiliation of the church or college where I visit and then find a balance between doing what I want and doing what they want.
Not all shrinking is bad
Part of this is a running from religious conflict – such as I did with the professor – and part of it is simply making room. I’m back in Sunday School these days and realizing, perhaps ironically, that folks in our class aren’t all the same. Sure, they are birds that flock together but opinions differ as much in my class as the four seasons here in Pennsylvania. Was that the case in our Sunday School as teens?
Maybe I was deluded to think we were all on the same page back then. It’s quite possible, now that I think about it, that I may have subconsciously ignored our differences in order to experience a bit of religious stability. Maybe. Regardless, I’m convinced that my religion has shrunk and I’m okay with that.
The world is and always has been bigger than my immediate surroundings. I need a firm place to stand, sure, and a supportive like-minded community in my immediate vicinity. I also, however, need to be able to communicate with the increasingly varied population and perspectives next door, including those of our kids' peers. Otherwise I’m left inviting everyone to come to me
, which is sort of self-centered and isn’t exactly the kind of hospitality implied in the Great Commission. In other words, while it’s vital that I stand firm, I need to do so in a way that makes room.
Shrinking before my professor was more survival than hospitality, but I eventually learned to care for folks like him. This is where the strawberry plant photograph comes into focus for me. I used to stand high above, looking across the world with spiritual arrogance. Now I’m more like the miniaturized Szalinki kids
who gained a dose of humility and some fear and trembling. Hospitality takes this position and I’m learning it slowly.
I hope this doesn't come across as a suggestion to leave your religious tradition or church. Nor am I interested in flat lining all religions as though they were equal. I recognize that our high calling is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Since those neighbors aren’t like my youth group pals (My youth group pals weren’t even like my youth group pals!), I have quite a bit of room making to do.
Being a quarter of an inch tall – at least religiously – helps.
Photo by Amy (Click here to appreciate the full size detail). Used with permission. Post written by Sam Van Eman.
I came across two articles this week on a similar topic, and I think they'll make you think: Gordon's Born Again...and Again...and Again...
, and Joshua's A Rorschach Test