Confessions of a Former Youth Minister

Maybe We Were Closer to the Truth Then Than I Am Now. Closer to the Place Where God Resides.

David Zahl / 1.14.21

At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty. When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.

This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I’d started out with. If I’d hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I’d never had to overcome — a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties — I wouldn’t have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.

These are the words of Mary Karr, reflecting on the difficulty of writing a memoir back in 2006. It’s a bold confession to make in the pages of a national newspaper.

Those were the days of Elijah

She’s coming clean about a near-universal tendency: revising the past to fit the present. Memory, it turns out, often serves as handmaiden to self-justification. Put more simply, we all have stories we tell about ourselves, and we shoehorn our past into those narratives, sometimes clumsily. This is seldom a conscious process, more a matter of omission than invention.

It’s one thing to observe this in others, or in (large) groups of others, and another to experience it in yourself.

Recently someone handed me a guitar and asked me to play a song. My repulsion was so visceral that it took everyone in the room aback, myself most of all.

Although music remains a passion, I hadn’t picked up a guitar in almost fifteen years. Not since leaving youth ministry to start Mockingbird, back in 2007. In the intervening years, something about that instrument had gotten tangled up in my subconscious with feelings of embarrassment and regret.

It doesn’t make sense. I still hold many of the same convictions I held then. I treasure the relationships that formed during that time. I don’t resent the organization in question, as so many former youth ministers do (ask around). Quite the opposite.

But the 41-year-old version of me nonetheless cringes when he thinks about 20-something Dave singing his heart out in front of a bunch of teenagers while most of his peers were in grad school. I listen to the songs I recorded, and instead of having compassion for that guy (and the broken heart he was clearly nursing), I want to erase the tape.

The vulnerability, the earnestness, the insecurity, the mediocrity, the exposure, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. My past self looms as judgment over my present self.

Cue last week and the news of a beloved former student’s tragic death. All of a sudden I’m going through piles of photos from events and camps, most of them candids, images I hadn’t perused since they were taken. And the overwhelming impression is one of joy. We had so much fun.

More than that, we became a family. The vulnerability that the context demanded encouraged, both musical and otherwise, was a vital part of that.

The Gospel we heard about from up front freed people up to let it all hang out, and the fruit was pretty spectacular. If the memorial service we held the other day is any indication, that fruit is still blossoming, and in all sorts of unexpected ways.

All this to say, the photos contradicted the narrative I had in my head, which was far more self-serving (albeit in the direction of flagellation).

I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, I can’t think of another adolescent experience more prone to revision than youth group. Perhaps because it’s such an easy target. It’s one of the reasons I found Electric Jesus so remarkable — the folks motivated to make films or write books about youth group life are, let’s face it, usually grinding an ax. To watch one that’s saturated with affection rather than condescension felt borderline miraculous. Moreover, it felt recognizable.

The Interwebs, to say nothing of Religion Departments at research universities, are full of people grappling with what on earth was going on at the para-church summer camp they attended in 8th grade. I suspect that the memories they’re working from aren’t any less distorted than my own. Usually that distortion is born out of some real hurt, but still. Lord knows there are social rewards aplenty waiting for those willing to write youth group off as emotional manipulation, or indoctrination, or groupthink, or bait-and-switch, or intellectual immaturity.

Certainly there are instances where those words apply, and I don’t want to dismiss the very real baggage that many people carry. But baggage, even when it’s, er, justified, has a way of swallowing up memory and holding a person hostage. Perhaps the real immaturity is holding a grudge against a well-meaning but overbearing youth leader you ran into when you were 15 (and they were 19!), and allowing that to shape your entire view of God and/or religion going forward.

I remember hearing someone say that you haven’t really dealt with your past until you can own the good as well as the bad. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to one’s youthful experiences with religion.

It could just be that I was fortunate enough to be a part of a youth ministry that held God’s grace at the center. (The benefit of “evangelistic” summer camps is that you can usually be guaranteed of hearing the basic Gospel message). But on a purely perfunctory level, youth ministries are places where teenagers sit around exploring life’s biggest questions, talking about things like death and salvation and forgiveness and romance and sin and all sorts of stuff they can’t talk about in other settings. It’s a place where you get a sense of something larger than yourself.

What’s more, you get to be a kid, which means you get to play and be silly, long after it’s deemed appropriate to do so.

The resulting depth of relationships cannot be contrived. This is why so many of those friendships last — not as a result of shared trauma but actual Spirit-driven intimacy (or both — ha!). As we all know, the proclamation that God both knows and loves you has a unique way of fostering true “community,” which is to say, embodied love. There’s nothing else quite like it.

So maybe it’s no coincidence that the kids in those photos looked so free. For a week or two, they got a break from the endless competition of American adolescence and tasted an echo of heaven, however imperfect, in which their crippling self-consciousness melted away and grace reigned supreme.

Maybe we were closer to the truth then than I am now. Closer to the place, as Karr tells us, where God resides.

That the self-consciousness returned does not diminish the potency of the experience. The important thing is that the narrative we have of ourselves was punctured once and can be punctured again.

The past may loom as a judgment over the present, but if those youth ministers were onto anything, well, that judgment may not be the one we expect. It may be one of forgiveness.

If that doesn’t make you want to sing, I don’t know what will. Just please, spare me the guitars.