Wednesday, August 12, 2015

#285 - #NAYC2015 (An Ode To Broken Commitments)



Editor's Comment: To ensure credit where credit is due, Glen McGee wrote this post (side note: goosebumps ahead)-


Fresh on the heels of North American Youth Congress 2015 it’s the Stuff Apostolics Like Recap of Events!

Nah, just kiddin. We actually have finally crossed the threshold of being so far removed we have absolutely no idea who sang, preached, screamed, got wifed up or anything else that may have occurred.

I've had a post on my mind for a while now and given that I spent last night looking at the Instagram hashtags from NAYC, and became very, very sad, I thought now was a good time to post it.

Looking through Twitter and Instagram there are countless posts of excitement and zealous emotion for the time spent there. And why wouldn’t there be? When you live in a culture that’s founded on isolation from everything that surrounds you, and you’re constantly reminded that you’re “in the world, not of it,” it’s absolutely intoxicating to completely take over a city. I recall being 18 years old, withdrawn from my school; my only social access was the thirty or so kids in my youth group. I felt like I lived in a bubble. I lived for the large gatherings the UPC fostered. I counted down to camp season like the rest of the country counts down to The Superbowl. Just like the countdowns on Twitter and Instagram for the last month… I only made it to two NAYC’s (2003 and 2005) before my work schedule couldn’t allow it, and by the time I could take off from work I no longer cared, but those two NAYC’s were the epitome of excitement for me.

I can’t describe the feeling of being in an arena with 20,000 people who think, dress and live the exact same way you do, when you’re the weird one back home. At your school you’re the goodie two shoes, the church boy, the Jesus Freak. But here? Here you’re in your element. Here the tables turn. Here the girl walking down the street in pants is the one who’s out of place. Here your bowtie is cool. Here the smell of Aussie hairspray permeates the air like hot garbage in New York City.

But that’s not all. It’s at these functions, the Congress’, the camps, the rallies, where “commitments” are made. Sermons are screamed with a practiced pseudo-sincerity that also acts as a calculated emotional spell being cast on starry-eyed teenagers.

And herein lies the tragedy.

This was me, on the regular.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I sat on my knees with my face buried in the carpet, my hands filled with tears as I BEGGED God for the strength to never give up. I interceded with the fervor of a dying soldier begging not to be left on the battlefield, asking God to never let me become…..

what I eventually became.

I committed with every fiber of my soul to never turn my back, to never walk away, to never stop believing. The fear the preacher had just put into me drove me to scream at the top of my lungs every articulation of commitment I could think of. I listened to the rhetorical idea that “we’re one generation away from losing the anointing,” and I told God I would never be a part of that fallen generation.

During the time when most everyone I knew at school were living normal teenage lives, having their first kiss, going to dances, listening to music and simply having the American Youthful Experience I spent my time at a Pentecostal altar. I, and my youth group, thrust ourselves into the emotional hurricane of guilted commitments prodded by a passionate solicitation for our most sincere devotion. Tearful preachers stood in pulpits Sunday after Sunday, Friday after Friday, telling us of the risks waiting for us every time we “stepped outside those doors,” and we bought right in.

And that’s what happened this past week in Oklahoma City. Thousands of teenagers, with no practical knowledge of this world, had their phobias reinforced. Junior High aged children bawled their eyes out, consumed with the fear of disappointing God. They committed their lives, not just to God, but also to a Pentecostal “Holiness” lifestyle and an Apostolic Identity.

The tragedy of all of this is not where the story ends, but in the regret from where it started. And for 20,000 kids last week, it started in Oklahoma City.

I love my life. I love where I ended up. I have a career I love, that pays me well. I have well rounded experiences, friends that are closer than my own family, and I live in a city that people fantasize about living in.

But I am everything I prayed I’d never become. I’ve broken every commitment I ever made to God. I am a caricature of the worst outcome of all those impassioned sermons. And while I am so happy about that, the happiness has had to evolve. I've been told several times, and agree, that I am in dire need of counseling. I ended up on my feet, but only after doing a triple axle through confusion, anger, bitterness and deep rooted resentment, and I still haven't stuck that landing. 

When I look back on my life and see the path I took to get here I become so, so sad for the child I was, but not the adult I became. My youthful, impressionable mind was held captive by a bleak outlook, based on biased conjecture. Instead of learning, and growing, and being matured through experiences I begged God for stagnation. I was told in dozens of sermons, and I believed, that life in the altar of events like North American Youth Congress was as good as it could ever be and I placed all my chips on that bet. “Progress be damned, life has to stop here.” Progress wasn’t progress; progress was the path to hell. Progress would lead me to a life devoid of purpose. New experiences, friends and ideas were to be feared. But when those inevitable experiences and friends and ideas came along they brought with them perspective. When I encountered something I had once prayed never to encounter the recurring word in my mind was “Really?” Really, this is what’s going to destroy me? Really, the highest I could ever be was at that altar? Really, these people are the bad ones?

With every new epiphany another youthful tear of mine became shed in vain.

Why did I allow my youth to be spent in trembling fear of a normal life? Why do people see a child or teenager, like in the video at the top of this page, with bloodshot eyes, a face covered in tears and snot, nerves and emotions shocked beyond that seen in court rooms and funeral homes, and think “how precious?”

This isn’t precious. This isn’t good. This is sick. The willingness to accept the image of a sobbing, shaking child is predicated on the idea that the child understands what they're doing. But guess what: they don't. The video at the top of this page should cause outrage, but it gets a pass because it's in a church. If anyone walked into a daycare center or a school and saw children that young crying and trembling on the floor they would call Child Protective Services. This is emotional abuse. Children like the ones in the above video filled the seats of that Oklahoma Arena this past week. I posit that there wasn't so much of a "move of God" in that arena as there was emotional manipulation and manufactured distress. These preachers have figured out how to do something very, very dangerous. If a psychologist was granted access to these events and observed the altar calls they, undoubtedly, would tell us we've engaged in amateur mass psychosis. They're "playing" with minds of children and it's not only unhealthy but carries extreme risk. These emotionally loaded situations carry the potential for trauma - real, psychological trauma, and it's treated so haphazardly.

Amidst the hashtagged posts on Instagram I saw videos of kids so young they’ve never had to learn how to burn a CD so wrought with guilt and fear rocking back and forth on the floor of an arena making those same commitments I made and I was on the brink of tears for them, but not tears of joy.

I see kids who will spend the next ten to twenty years locked in an emotional and psychological battle as they slowly have a curtain drawn back to reveal the truth of their situation. I see kids with the claws of manipulation gripping them so tightly they don’t even know who they are outside of their hair and their skirts, who worship people they will either grow to hate or worse, fetishizing these preachers as some kind of god among men. I see pastors sons and daughters holding hands and praying with the belief that they’re supposed to be together, who will grow to resent each other. I know because I watched this happen to almost every teenage friend I had that truly believed God had ordained their pubescent relationship. All the while oblivious chaperones and parents sit with plastic smiles of approval, not understanding the inevitable disillusionment these children are on a road to.

I’m not here to argue with those who never left. I’m speaking as a voice of experience, as a voice of those who have gone down this road. An often said remark by Pentecostals is "I know this is real because I felt it," or "You can't doubt my experience." Well I've had my own experiences and I'd say the same in return. While my feelings of animus may be more extreme than that of my peers, the sentiment exists in all of us to varying degrees. Those still filling Pentecostal pews can certainly agree that after a certain age it seems a disproportionate number of us who grew up in the church leave it. I know this because I sat under numerous sermons on Friday nights warning of the dangers we will face once we’re out of high school. The stories of those who went before us and walked away, only to be met with (presumed) grief filled sermon after sermon which prompted our tearful commitments.

But it wasn’t evil temptation that baited us to some debaucherous lifestyle. We simply matured. We reached the age of introspection and self-awareness. We entered the workforce, college, and other avenues of “real life” where our beliefs were challenged. While pastors and preachers would tell us otherwise, the simple truth is that beliefs that can’t stand up to questions are wrongly held beliefs. There simply isn’t substance to back the beliefs up. This is why instead of being taught answers to questions we were taught not to ask them. We were taught that those who do ask are distractions and tempters, thrown in our paths as “stumbling blocks.” Biblical phrases like “lean not to your own understanding,” were used to justify instructions not to think, just to obey, and that things didn’t have to make sense. We were taught, “God is not logical,” so that when the things that made sense to us contradicted what we committed ourselves to at those altars, we would stick with the ramblings of the mad man in the pulpit rather than our own hearts and minds. Catchy sermon titles and clever wordplay kept these sinister instructions seemingly light hearted, as we walked out of the arena's like the Manchurian Candidate.

Almost every person from the youth groups I grew up in have left their UPC churches. Some have gone to Non-Denominational churches, while others have become Atheists. I don't mean just a few. I could throw a backsliders rally and fill the pews with the hundreds who used to stain the carpet with their tears, yet now raise a glass to making it out. It could be argued that we've all lost the battle to the enemy but if those condemning us could just listen to us with an open mind they'd see that's not the case. We're people, just like them. We think just as much and just as deeply as they do. We're just as scared of hell, if it exists, as they are. No part of us is evil. But if we lay awake at night it's not with a gaping hole in our life as we wonder what it is that's missing. We lay awake thinking how much better life had been had we never been forced to buy into the Pentecostal message. Tears may sometimes stain our pillow, but we're not praising God, we're cursing him for letting people use his name to take advantage of us at the most impressionable point in our lives. We may be screaming, but it's not in tongues. It's the cursing and pounding as we look at our lives and our wasted potential because we were too focused on the youth group and not on our grades or our college education. We're cursing the uneducated, inexperienced, unqualified men who stood in front of innocent, blank slates and filled them with anxiety and unease about a world filled with beauty, but painted to be full of despair. We could have been SO much. We could have accomplished SO much. But we let them rob us of a future that hadn't even been written yet.

The memories of “awesome sermons,” “amazing altar calls,” and “let’s take this revival back home with us” became fleeting memories, dissipating with every passing year. The vehemence of promises to ourselves, to our pastors and to God became distant memories, and their value lost.

Why this pains me so much is because it’s cyclical. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change these kids paths. I would run into every Sunday School classroom, every weekend youth service, every camp and convention and tell each and every one of them that the world is too beautiful and life is too short to waste it on a fabricated story if I thought I could, but I can't. Not only would they kick me out, but at this point in their lives these kids would dismiss me as Satan incarnate, and follow my warnings with more commitments and tears. They are destined for the same path I've travelled. They will pray with the same fervency I once did. They will make the same commitments. They will ask the same questions. They will struggle with the same answers. They will have their characters assassinated by the same men and women who claimed to love them with the love of Christ. They will become bitter and dejected. Some will fall into depression. Some will hold grudges. Some will go a little too far in their rebellion. But all will look back at those sermons, those altars and those tears with regret, to varying degrees.

Because they should have just been allowed to be kids. Their youth was wasted, and they’ll never get it back.


Just like mine was. And that is what brings tears to my eyes again. 


There are high school seniors whose tears have barely dried from the concrete of Cheasapeake Energy Arena who, by the next NAYC in 2017, will have realized the lies and fear so ardently expressed to them this week. And with no guidance, and a lot of regret, they'll begin a journey in a direction they don't know where will take them. I hope they have the good fortune that I've had, but I've seen too many that haven't. And for that I am deathly afraid.

16 comments:

  1. I'm sorry this happens. Im always called the young minister even though I'm 41. Ill do my best to not hurt others. If I had, I repent before all.

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  2. I am here from Ronna's blog.

    There is just so much to this post that I do not even know where to begin. When I was "serving the Lord" I often commented that I would never backslide because I had nothing to backslide to. I never, ever thought that I would leave the church. And yes, I remember crying out in tongues and prophesying and feeling so close to God and feeling like I would never turn away.
    And yet...
    Here I am. I have not totally lost my faith in *something*. I just don't believe anything that I used to other than the concept of love. (Oi! I wish I was more articulate!) I believe in a god that initially attracted me to Christianity and the scripture, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest..." I now find that rest in meditation and through connecting with others no matter what they believe and humanitarian work. I have connected deeply with Sikhs, Catholics (only one!), Buddhists, Christians and Atheists and I now believe that the light of God is in everyone and in nature as well. When I do go to a service I go to a Quaker church that is very, very liberal. We have atheists that attend just for the meditation and the humanitarian efforts.
    OK, I am rambling. I don't have a lot of regrets in my life but I deeply regret ever setting foot inside a church. The church took so much from me. I had so much potential! So much.
    One last thing. I have always, since I was very small, wanted to know "why". Why are trees green. Why is the sky blue. I did live by faith for awhile but when I did start asking questions at church I made people mad. In my heart I know that at the time it was not lack of faith. I just wanted to understand. It was only when pastors and pastors wives started getting angry and *rebuking* (I hate that word) that my faith started to dissolve. I clearly remember the anger in more than one pastors eyes when I had questions. It scared me and confused me. I thought that there must be something very wrong with me and that I was somehow evil. I was convinced I was going to hell. Of course there is a very long story behind it but that is when I stopped going to church. My falling away didn't happen overnight. In fact, I think it is still happening. Though I don't think of it as a falling away so much as a transition. I have peace now. I feel love so much more than I ever did as a Christian. I feel a Spirit not and whether that is God or a god or nature or just a general love for humanity I do not know.
    Sorry for the book and that it is so convoluted. I think it does show that I have a way to go from those ties that bind.

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  3. Glen, you are brilliant with your words....I have never read such a good article about surviving the UPC!
    And sadly, it is all true and I weep for the ones who will not make it out in time. I grew up in the assemblies of god under some of the same strict rules, played the piano and organ for my church, but at 18, started sneaking off to Calvary Tabernacle in Indianapolis, because as a musician, I was fascinated with the musical talent that the UPC has to offer. I missed out on youth congress(thankfully) but attended music conference in Jackson a few times.....at the age of 25 I moved to Phoenix to do the music program at an A/G church. While I had known I was gay for many years, the church was a good place to hide and soon started attending a UPC church again, thinking that if I did all the right things, focusing all my energy on god, that I would become straight, but of course, no matter what I did, it never happened....I loved playing the organ for the UPC church, but after every service I had to face reality when I walked out the door just as gay as when I went in......in the meantime found out that there are tons of gay men hiding in the UPC! They get married, screwing up the lives of others while getting sex from men on the side........My freedom finally came when my "boyfriend" decided he could not live a double life anymore and ended up marrying a girl.....I was devastated, but finally came to the realization that the UPC is a cult and god was non-existant.....I finally made it out !! That was over 22 years ago, and even tho I'm atheist now, I still have anger issues that pop up from time to time and still deal with regrets of being in such a repressive religion.....your article is so needed to warn others.....thank you so much for sharing your story!

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  4. Hear, hear! And speaking of which, it is truly awesome to hear from you as well, Glen. You have been missed, but let me raise my glass to toast those who rejected pretense for a life with a truly clean conscience. My Aunt who left the church decades ago recently recounted how she regrets my decision (not her own), because she says it has cost me much happiness. I keep reminding her I'd rather have my dignity. I know you get that.

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  5. Thank you so much for your beautifully written blog. You have said exactly what I have felt. I DID end up getting out because I don't want my children to be raised the same way I was. I want them to see the beauty of this world full of people working together for our own betterment. I want them to know there is good in almost everyone- not have them think there are very few "good" people in this world. I want them to know there is a whole world full of choices out there, and that they can take their time to choose carefully, from this whole wide world, who they will marry- if they wish to. They have more to choose from then just "those that are in the same faith."
    I am glad that I'm not the only one who shivers with disgust when I see the lives of innocent kids getting preyed upon. These children haven't experienced "sin" and don't even know what their fervent commitment really means. It makes me brokenhearted to watch these FB videos.
    Thanks again. You said everything I've been wanting to say for years, from the "gods" that are really only men (the pastors), to the anguish I felt "backsliding." <3

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  6. I am blown away. I was a 14 year old who escaped the world and found the peace I had always been seeking.....in an apostolic church. I left the church a year later because I wanted more of the world. I was NEVER, EVER, EVER in that time chastised or cast away. I was loved. When I decided to come back in my later teens, it was to open arms. I came back because I found out what I always knew....THERE WAS NOTHING IN THE WORLD THAT GAVE ME PEACE.

    Glen, you may think your career, your life and the beautiful world you have now is self fulfilling. If you do, then I have no idea what your experience was while you were in the church. It sure wasn't and isn't mine. I have never felt closed in and suppressed, like you and so many other have described. Furthermore, I know more people who left the church (out of weakness) that came back because they, too, never found peace in the world that they had when they had the Holy Ghost living inside them.

    You may feel like you are representative of those poor, misguided souls at NAYC. Please don't give yourself so much credit. Trust me when I say, many, many of them....even at that age....are truly hungry for more of God. We don't want your sympathy. Maybe when you're 86, you will wake up. The terrible experiences you say you had in your youth will never, ever be an excuse to diss a loving, merciful, graceful God (because you have) who loved you enough to give you His spirit. People may have hurt you. GOD NEVER DID. THE HOLY GHOST IS STILL REAL.

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    1. YES HE DID. NO IT'S NOT. WHY ARE WE YELLING.

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  7. "We could have accomplished SO much. But we let them rob us of a future that hadn't even been written yet." Yes, I had so much potential that was destroyed by a religion. I am still struggling to deconvert myself - it is such a painful process. But i am glad i am out of the system. Beautiful writing, Glen. Thank you.

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  8. I was so very sad watching the video of those poor girls... I relate to so much of what you wrote and I'm still in therapy trying to recover from this fear-based, legalistic group. Much of my angst is also due to a dysfunctional home-life and sexual abuse from a church member (to which the pastor turns a blind eye) but the stuff I still wrestle with the most are my beliefs. I hate to own that I am agnostic because I would like to believe in a benevolent diety, but between my questions about the Bible and my experience with "God's people" I cannot firmly proclaim anything right now. Perhaps in time as I continue to recover....

    Thank you for speaking so eloquently for those who for so long had no voice of their own.

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  9. I can relate to a lot of this actually. Though I have not turned away from 'religion' and still hold to many doctrines to be true... I can see through many of the man-made traditions that people cling to as truth. Jesus said we are free indeed and that He came so that we could live life abundantly, not in isolation. There is a difference between being separate from the world and not wanting to take part in any part of the world. I could go on and on about how much I hate the doctrine that leads to this, but I don't here.

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    1. Is there a way to edit posts? I made a typo...

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  10. I know that your wrote this quite a while back, but thanks for your very articulate post. It's been about 15 years since I've been a "true" believer, and I still struggle with some of the things that I was led to believe as a youth.

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