Our young adult class met every week after the service, usually over some hastily ordered food. It was a great class, which formed into a wonderful group of people, friends who looked after each other–a tribe, if you will.
One of the things that came out the most in our discussions was the conversion experience. I think everyone in the class had one that went something like this:
The child grew up in a Christian home, and attended a Lutheran church. As a teenager, her best friend was the Baptist Preacher’s kid. One summer the two friends went to camp together, where every night there was a strong plea that the youth ask Jesus into their hearts. And so, on one of the last nights, our friend did it. She went up to the altar, prayed with a camp counselor, and asked Jesus into her heart.
Having grown up a Baptist, this didn’t sound like such a traumatic experience to me. I asked Jesus into my heart, like, a thousand times. I repeated that prayer at every summer camp, just in case.
But the girl (a hard-wired deep thinker) felt terrible about it. She thought she had turned her back on her faith, that she had, in her “conversion experience,” proclaimed to everyone that the church she grew up in was not an actually a Christian church. It seemed like, in that moment, she publicly disrespected her mother’s deeply held faith. She felt manipulated and used.
And all those feelings were palpable, ten years later, as she told the story.
She went home and after many tears, she confessed to her mother, who handled it beautifully. Her mom–a wise and wonderful woman–said, “You know what honey? It’s fine. An extra religious experience isn’t going to hurt anybody.”
But judging from the reactions around the room, and the stories that poured out that Sunday afternoon, they did hurt. Everyone had a Jesus Camp story, where they felt vulnerable, young, and exploited. Each person felt like he or she had been a notch on some preacher’s belt at one time or another.
In that room, there were accounts of best friends parting ways over the validity of women pastors. There were painful memories of uncomfortable family reunions and relationships due to relentless conversion attempts. There were stories of embarrassed teenagers, going along with the crowd, and not realizing what they were actually doing until the middle of the prayer.
I tried to explain the other side a bit. I told them that the preacher had a deeply held belief that the youth before him were going to hell. He would say or use anything in his power to keep that from happening. That explanation really didn’t help things much.
So, I just sat there, shaking my head, thinking, No wonder so much of our generation has rejected the church. The narratives were all heartbreaking and hilarious, but there was no denying it, we all had wounds.