I was young—no older than 6 or 7, when one morning I gained the courage to ask my mom something important. My bare feet pitter-pattered on the cool wooden floor as I came to her, sitting on our tattered black couch. The morning sun was shining through our screen doors, closing the living room off from the porch that was half hanging outside, perched up from the seventh floor. I came so I could ask for her help to “ask Jesus into my heart;” reflecting on that moment, I’m unsure of my motivation. I may have been driven to that question by the fear of death or being alone. Perhaps I believed that I needed an exact set of words for my life to be changed, and most importantly to guarantee that my scared little heart wouldn’t be sent immediately to hell. She walked me through the sinner’s prayer, and I thought I’d feel at once different. Did I feel something change in my heart? I don’t know. I can’t exactly remember. Memories are a funny thing. Directly after the prayer, I still felt an underlying anxiety but, perhaps, I thought, I might also be feeling the beginning of something.
As I got older, my anxieties evolved from the widely-shared fear of the dark to the equally-shared fear of going to hell. It was always at night—when I was on the doorstep of the unknown. Sleep presented itself to me in a strange form, an in-between consciousness that had to pass for me to start my next day. What if I died in my sleep? What if I choked on my spit? I clearly messed up and sinned during the day, so should I not repent just in case I die? How am I sure that I’ll go to heaven? Clearly, I was a bundle of nerves wrapped up inside a nine-year old’s body, who had yet to grasp the basic message of the Gospel, which led to me feeling a need to “recommit” myself to Jesus every night. My nightly pilgrimage consisted of a journey across the dark hallway into my parent’s room, where I remember getting frustrated with my mom that the prayer wasn’t the same set of words every night: but my parents, in their immense love for me, would walk me through some form of the sinner's prayer night after night, and for a short time, I would be able to relax my anxious, hyperactive brain.
Throughout upper elementary and middle school, my normal mundane homeschooler/missionary kid schedule would be broken up by a church retreat or some form of youth camp. In each of these experiences, I would be surrounded by more kids my age than I was used to and would voluntarily sit through hours of Bible teaching, along with the occasional messy game, high energy worship sesh, PDA, and random talent show night filled with lip-syncing.
“Cry nights” would fall near the end of a night of prolonged worship, when kids had the strongest push to respond to the message. I’ve participated in too many cry nights to count. I’ve repented at cry nights in response to more messages than I can count. A lot of the messages over the years have taken vaguely the same shape. The only thing I remember about those experiences is the emotion. There was one specific “cry night,” near the end of middle school, that I first remember being disturbed by the feelings being curated.
At the emotional height of the music, I suddenly heard a loud gong. The ringing punctured my eardrums and rattled my chest. I was startled, unsure of what to do. The worship band was trying to push something, it was clear to me. A question was looping in my head: how were they trying to make me feel? What were they pushing? Everyone else around me was either crying with their arms up or crumpled in a ball. The gong was a strategy, struck to make us all feel a certain way.
Were these feelings true if they existed in a curated situation? I had noticed a pattern of “hilltop” experiences at these conferences. A few weeks after these retreats and youth camps, I would return home, and everything would be back to normal. Young people would have a new surge of religious zeal during the conference, just like I had experienced, which would fill their lives up after they left, but after a few months, weeks, or even days they would quickly go back to old habits. I was exhausted from this pattern.Every small group gathering after that, I shared one simple message. I would ask for prayer that what we learned in that setting would carry on into our everyday lives. After I would return home, everything would be back to normal, consistently.
We moved when I was in high school. Things changed. Suddenly, I was around more people every day than I ever was back home. I finally had the chance to interact with a large number of peers daily. My school was a private Christian international school that was made up of 98% missionary kids. The majority of people around me still had very similar situations to my own. Conservative Christianity was the norm, and I started to notice a pattern in how we spoke. Not just our parents, but teenagers my age used the same phrases to describe our emotions and experiences. After 16 years, the “Christianese” that I had heard and spoken my entire life was getting old. I realized I’d never truly understood when people said they were “going through a difficult season.” What did people mean when they talked about spiritual warfare? Was that just a blanket statement in which they could blame all the hard situations that came their way? It seemed as though it was. I had heard the same words, day after day, that were supposed to be encouraging, and yet I never found myself encouraged. A simple “I’ll pray for you” never made me feel better, since it always seemed as if they were dismissing the conversation to move on with their lives. My faith was still vital to who I was, and I wasn’t planning on leaving it, but I knew this language everyone was using around me just wasn’t it. Maybe it was my need to be different, but after my junior year of high school, I was determined to change my language. I may be describing the same things, but from then on, I was going to express points of faith in new ways. I not only wanted to purposefully use different language when talking about my faith, but I also wanted my faith to be apparent. For three years in high school, I made it a point to say “hi” to every single person I knew who walked into school. It was simple, but at the time it was the most practical way for me to live out my somewhat shaky faith.
The anxiety came back in college. Perhaps it took a brief vacation in high school due to the constant busyness and still being under my parent's watchful eyes. Whatever made the anxiety vanish was gone in college. Debilitating anxiety kept me from sleeping at night and made my entire body break out in hives. Being at a conservative Christian college, I was still subject to plenty of Christian conferences and experiences, but I started hanging around the crowds that wanted nothing to do with them. Don’t get me wrong, these crowds were Christian, but being mostly philosophy and Biblical studies majors, the content that these chapels covered would be too simplistic for us, or too repetitive.
Topics included inspiring people to lay everything down for God or being able to go anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice if God calls. “Calls to action” included physical prompts, such as writing anxieties on rocks and giving them to God or taking off our shoes and lifting them above our heads. Those “calls to action” were uncharacteristically stinky, which added to the normal layer of odor of sweaty people who had just spent worship jumping up and down in their religious zeal. A “call to action” would often tell the listeners to change, but rarely provide practical advice for how people could change. Every time, I subjected myself to an emotional rollercoaster, since I believed that’s what a proper Christian should do. Our school would commonly have traveling ministries visit for a couple of days. One of these was filled with energy being led by trendy, attractive, young people. They preached a message of revival and connection to college students all over the nation. I felt what they wanted me to feel, I went through the motions, and when asked, I signed up for their “catalyst” program to connect with other creative college students across the nation. I was added to a group chat. I never said a word or read anything that was sent.
Before I knew it my junior year crept up on me. When I was catching up with one of my best friends, she told me about a new boy she was talking to and immediately expressed she wasn’t ready for him to meet me. She said, “Adam he’s just so Christian and you’re just not.” Ouch, that hurt. Especially since I was Christian and have been for as long as we’ve known each other. But I got what she meant. She meant he dressed like a stereotypical Christian man, he talked like most Christians, and he consumed mostly Christian media. To a certain extent, this was some form of a backhanded compliment. My goal of changing my vernacular in high school had been achieved. No longer did one of my closest friends use the descriptor “Christian” when describing me, while I was still a Christian. I still wanted to be seen as Christ-like by my friends and family. Was I not Christ-like? Was the only way for me to be Christ-like to fit the stereotype of exclusively listening to Christian rap and using the stereotypical language? I know there’s a difference between being stereotypically Christian and being Christ-like, but will others around me still see Christ in me?
I was sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s car, venting that I felt drowned in Christianity. Guilt hit me as soon as the words left my mouth, but on that rainy spring day, my friend agreed with me. I wasn’t alone. The message of salvation had begun to grow old. It wasn’t the message itself. It was the packaging which had been presented to us for as long as we’d had the cognitive ability to understand. In church settings, it was still being presented to us the same way it had been since elementary school. I’ve begun to find myself extremely tired of the word Christian. It sounds terrible coming from someone who still is very much a Christian, and yet I grimace at the sound of the word. It’s not the beliefs of Christians—I’m exhausted by the way those beliefs have been packaged and portrayed. Words and phrases that should be motivational and encouraging no longer work. The message spoken at Christian conferences often makes my eyes roll. My friends and Bible classes have taught me how to look at teaching objectively, and sometimes cynically. Unfortunately, I can no longer sit through a sermon without picking apart the theology and dissecting whether they used a passage in context. I no longer look at the pastors and youth leaders of my childhood with naivete, wanting to be their mirror image. I still find meaning in the principles of the faith, and I’ve grown a lot in my faith over these few years in university, but the growth has been through academic study and not the popular encounters with worship. It hasn’t been in a church where people say you are supposed to lean “closer” to God, it’s been in conversing with professors and trying to figure out what the Bible says. I still believe in the God of the Bible. I still believe in a Son of God who lived and died so all these miserable sacks of flesh might have a better life. But it’s becoming continually harder to add Christian to a list of identifiers when introducing myself. Why would I want to say I’m a Christian when I don’t want to be anything like most Christians that live around me? They fight for causes I don’t believe in, and too many of my friends have been hurt by these “Christians.”
Just last week, I was sitting front row in a chapel service with my friend who hadn’t stepped foot in any Christian setting in months. He had graduated a few months before and was in chapel due to our close friend since freshman year preaching in chapel. The front row was a new frontier for all of us, who usually sat comfortably in the back as we texted each other our own personal critiques of whatever the current speaker was talking about. This day in chapel, I observed our recently graduated friend react to all the different Christian worship tropes that he had been hidden away from for months. I watched him chuckle as everyone raised their hands at the same point during the peak time of the worship set. I saw his smirk as the worship leader emotionally rocked back and forth. “What a load of BS,” must’ve been the thought crossing his mind. And how could I blame him? I’ve seen worship be used as a means of manipulation countless times, so I knew where he was coming from. What makes for genuine worship versus emotional manipulation? I don’t know. I’m always tempted to scoff along with him because I see how ridiculous it is.
A room full of people raising their hands in unison at the same part, while they sing to an unseen deity—this unseen deity that I still believe in. I still want to grow in my faith. But if that means I become more like the average Christian, I’m seeing every day that I don’t want it. I refuse to continually let myself be manipulated by worship leaders in trendy clothing with fog machines and impressive light shows (trust me, after 6+ years of theatre, some of the theatrics seen in churches are leagues above most community theatres). I know I believe in the Divine that’s presented in the Bible, but I don’t know if I can continually identify with others who claim to believe the same thing. I’m drowning and praying, occasionally begging, that I’ll learn how to swim.
The same traveling ministry that came my freshman year visited again my senior year. When they came my senior year, I saw them in a new light. This time around, I noticed them counting how many people responded to the message. They said no one was looking, and then they proceeded to count. Why did they need those numbers, besides gauging how effective their service was? During worship and the sermon, they had the group in the back reading the room and then proceeding to write on a whiteboard if they needed the leaders to add more energy to get the proper emotional response from the audience. They did the same shoe trick, but this time I didn’t take my shoes off. It felt like peer pressure. They had a time of prayer and confession, but a lot of it was my peers going and seeking prayer from the people that would only be there for two days. They weren’t going to follow up. They didn’t have the time to invest substantially in our lives. This time around they felt fake and manufactured. It felt as if it was purely based on getting a strong emotional response. Did the ministry change? Or did I?
I feel as if I haven’t been fair to the younger me. I was dealing with big emotions and that is a lot for anyone to handle. I’m too hard on myself today, and I’m too hard on who I used to be. This world of Christianity was all I knew and now I’m scared of it. I still enter that world regularly, whether it’s visiting with my parents or hanging around my high school friends who still very much have the same faith as I once had. They scare me. I can’t look back at my old beliefs with respect. I look back and feel queasy; I hardly believe that I once thought what I thought. I look at my friends and family and see their beliefs as a continuation of what was oncediscovered, never improved. My beliefs have led to deconstruction, rather than a painful and meticulous reconstruction. I’m jealous of their continuity, or maybe I’m just scared of disagreeing with them. How can they not see all the dysfunction? How can they not see the problematic beliefs? I know that to continue in the faith, I still need to surround myself with these people. They are my siblings in Christ, but my old friend anxiety returns when problematic beliefs pop up in ugly ways. I need to rejoin Christians, and I pray that one day, I can.