From The Shallows of Youth Ministry to the Depths of Despair, and Back to the Grace of God.
By Daniel Shultz
The Sad truth about the state of most American Churches grows out of a desire to reach people for Christ. Unfortunately because of a distorted view of Biblical evangelism many churches have abandoned the truth of the Gospel for self help mantras and a Gospel lite that emphasizes love without ever mentioning sin or man’s total depravity or need for regeneration, or even the Imputed Righteousness of Christ, nowhere is this as heinous or as destructive as within the modern youth group.
Like so many stories mine starts out in a Christian home, but unlike so many mine doesn’t go south from there, at least not at first. I grew up going to a Christian private school, one run by my Southern Baptist church. I grew up hearing bible stories and learning within a viewpoint that God was real, composed of three persons, The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and Also that Jesus had come to earth and had died for my sins.
I was a believer from an early age, so early in fact that I remember my conversion only in light of where I was when it happened and not what age I was. But like so many in Evangelicalism I believed my conversion hinged upon the fact that I had “accepted Jesus as my Savior invited him into my heart and made him the Lord of my life.” Over the years I must have repeated this prayer at least 5 times hoping that at some point it would stick and I would stop being such a bad boy, that at some point I might really mean what I said and I would stop sinning.
As time passed I stopped praying this conversion prayer but the belief that I might not truly be saved lingered in my mind. In middle school I was put into extra Bible classes as elective courses, one of the classes was based around Blackaby’s Experiencing God; the other class was titled “Practical Christianity”. In both of these classes I was made to feel as if I was missing out on some important part of being a Christian. Others in the class felt God talking to them, or had some sort of religious experience while in nature and I had none of these experiences, instead I merely believed that Jesus had died for my sins. I kept my feelings inside except once when I said that I had never had a profound experience in nature and found being outside and inside of a building to be very similar in feeling. I remember other students being offended by my feelings that nature wasn’t somehow able to make me feel closer to God.
While my school taught me this, the church did very little to teach me anything substantial about the bible, looking back at my middle school youth group I only remember the games we played, who could put on and take off an XL shirt the quickest, who could guide their blindfolded friend to some goal while holding an egg in a spoon, whose group could answer the most pop culture trivia questions.
These entertaining activities are the only things I remember from the youth ministry of my Middle School years.
By the time I started attending a public high school, I was biblically illiterate, I knew that I was suppose to hold conservative Christian beliefs, but what exactly those beliefs were eluded me. The messages of the High School youth services tended to be on a small handful of topics: sex and why we shouldn’t do it, How God loves us and how we should Love others, and of course the ever present commit yourself to Christ and experience his abundant life.
As High School went on I became more and more biblical illiterate, I had no idea why I believed the things I did. I knew people who didn’t “accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” Went to hell because they hadn’t made this choice, but exactly what the bible said on sin, grace, and forgiveness was foreign to me. When Mormons told me they were Christians too I had no rebuttal to give, and conceded to keeping my mouth shut.
One conversation I had with a teacher at my high school sticks in my mind. This particular teacher had professed Christianity, and later when I become her student aide we discussed many things. Over the course of time she told me that she didn’t believe in the trinity, especially she didn’t believe that Jesus was God. She believed only that he was the Son of God. Instead of pointing to the scriptures and showing her where Jesus had claimed to be God, I made some silly attempts to explain it to her, I talked about an egg and water. (I realize many years later that my water explanation seems awfully close to modalism.) I remembered about some part of the bible talking about how Jesus was the Word and he was God, but since I rarely if ever actually read the bible I had no idea where in the bible it was located.
Eventually my high school years ended and I went out into the world, I was professing Christianity but didn’t have any real knowledge of what it was. After an unproductive semester of community college I joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and was shipped off to Great Lakes, Illinois for recruit training. While in boot camp I clumsily ministered to a fellow recruit walking him through a conversion prayer, and leaving him on his own.
Once out of boot camp I found myself alone without close friends or family. Throughout the remaining 7 months of my initial training to become a Hospital Corpsman (Fleet Marine Force) I went to church and read my bible a grand total of zero times. I became depressed and fell deeper into sin than I ever had before, I lied, blasphemed, began to swear more than ever, broke the rules of the command and worse broke many of God’s laws.
I was falling deep into depression, the sins I was committing came so easily to me that I couldn’t understand how a Christian could do these things. Was I truly saved? Where was God, where was all the love and joy pastors had promised me he would give me. Where were my blessings? All I saw around me was pain and despair. I fell further away from God and into a deep despair.
A faithful Christian Brother was in my unit during Field Medical Training in Camp Pendleton, California. But I like all the rest of the unit found him weird and awkward, he was always going to church or reading his bible, and I wanted to have fun. Once he asked me why I sided with my Mormon roommate and a Catholic in a religious discussion instead of him. Another time I asked him if he thought I was a good person, I myself believing that professing Christianity made me a good person. He faithfully and truthfully told me I was not a good person. I swore at him and berated him for his hypocrisy and intolerance. Now I thank God for him.
I returned to my home after training and remained in my despair. I was excited to go to church again, I felt that going to church would cure me of my despair and make me happy again.
Around this time the youth minister had been promoted to an associate teaching pastor and was now preaching at the main church services while the church fazed out the old preacher, leaving the church with two main Pastors and the old pastor who preached from time to time. I went nearly every Sunday but found that I could not pay attention to the sermons. They bored me, all I heard was stories about the pastor’s lives and jokes about pop culture, and there was no real depth to their message.
It was during this time that my family experienced a tragic situation. This circumstance although sad was to turn out for the good. I began to really see that something was different in my family after that point, my father questioned a lot of choices that the church had made over the years, and he began to read online about other Churches that had done similar things, he began to watch sermons frequently online, and I began to do the same.
At some point my father found Chris Roseborough’s Pirate Christian Radio. I began to listen to Fighting for the Faith, I heard Chris talk about Law and Gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins. I heard him talk about sound Biblical hermeneutics and exegesis.
Throughout all my despair and doubt the one thing I had needed was the one thing that the church hadn’t been providing. The Gospel. I needed the Gospel. I, a Christian, needed the Gospel. I needed to hear that Christ had died for my sins. I needed to hear it regularly to show me how I had been saved from all my sins past present and future. Because of the lack of the Gospel I had been blind to its true joy. My Christian parents (Whom I thank God for) had told me the true Gospel, as had the occasional bible teacher, but the culture of the church I had attended had blinded me to the joy that comes through the continued proclamation of Christ.
Now that I had been treated like an adult, and been told blatantly what the truth actually was, I understood it fully for the first time. I felt joy, great joy, no longer did I despair over my sin. Instead I knew that Christ had died for me personally and His righteousness had been imputed to me.
I finally left that church after the former youth pastor preached a sermon about Lectio Divina in the main church service.
This whole story will be fleshed out even more as I continue to discuss the results of the Gospel less message that my former church taught, and sadly is still teaching. It is my hope that my old Church will change for the good of those they claim to care about.