Youth Group Nostalgia Can Be Bittersweet

As I’ve heard more stories from folks my age about their church experiences, I realize how fortunate I was as a kid.
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As someone who grew up in the Church and faithfully attended youth group in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Wade Bearden’s recent Christ and Pop Culture piece on church nostalgia was a joy to read. (And, in full disclaimer, to edit.) Rather than a snarky, BuzzFeed-y listicle on how lame youth groups were, Bearden’s article is a gentle reminder that waxing nostalgic about youthful churchgoing can be a good thing.

At this point in my life, nostalgia has become indispensable to my formation as a spiritual disciple. Nostalgia reminds me of my religious progress but it also reveals the cynicism I’ve accumulated along the way. As a child, I was just crazy enough to believe God, even with the impossible. While Peter and the disciples later became more devoted to Christ, I’ve become quicker to not trust the words of Jesus even though I’m convinced of His existence and work in the world. I’ve become too buffered, believing my human mind can comprehend the vastness of the universe. Death, and life for that matter, hardens my skin like a laborer who’s spent years toiling in the hot sun.

As I’ve heard more stories from folks my age about their church experiences, I realize how fortunate I was as a kid. My childhood church was a pretty conservative — fundamentalist, even — evangelical church. And while a word like “fundamentalist” has unfortunately become synonymous with abusive, manipulative environments, I never experienced anything close to what I’d consider abuse or manipulation.

Do I still agree with everything that I was taught in that church? Of course not. But I don’t disparage my church for that; that’s just a normal part of growing up and owning your faith. I suspect that my children, as they grow up, will disagree with some of the things they heard in our church, and so it goes.

The same’s true for my youth group. I loved and respected our youth group leaders who, truth be told, were often more immature than we were. Some of my fondest high school memories are of the various retreats and activities that we did, from mission trips to Tijuana to fall retreats in the middle of nowhere to going out for pizza after Wednesday night meetings. I can only speak to my experiences, but while I may now cringe at some of the things I learned — for example, to look on anything deemed “secular” (e.g., rock n’ roll) with suspicion — I’m still very grateful for the moral and spiritual framework that it provided.

I don’t know what happened to many of the kids in my youth group. Sadly, but not surprisingly, we all lost contact with each other once we’d graduated and left for college. I’ve reconnected with a few who are still holding to the faith, active in a church, and so on. However, I have no doubt that others have abandoned the faith, perhaps due to experiences or teachings that they heard as a high schooler that they now consider wrong, even evil — possibly even the same experiences and teachings that I’m thankful for.

Again, so it goes. How does a high school student know how their lives will turn out? This thought weighs especially heavy now that I’m a parent. Of course, I want to raise up my children in the education of the Lord and teach them the importance of church involvement and membership (especially in light of current social trends). But, at some point, they’ll have their own sense of church nostalgia whereby they reflect on their youth group experiences, and what will their memories be? As I wrote in my review of Jesus Camp:

[H]ow would we train our children without indoctrinating them, without compelling them to think with the stark, black-and-white distinctions that have been so much a part of American Christianity, and which I myself have had to wrestle with time and again. How do we impart values and yet reinforce the idea that ultimately, the choice is theirs. Is that the desirable method? Is it even possible?

Every parent, even those who aren’t religious, have probably asked themselves similar questions. I certainly don’t have the answers but I know it’s something that’s probably only realized in hindsight (for better or worse). But this is my hope and prayer, that when it comes time to move beyond the faith of their parents and into a faith of their own, my children will wax nostalgic, take the good with the bad, and still cling — however tentatively or tightly — to Christ and His Gospel.

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