Immaculate preconceptions

title: Immaculate preconceptions


Throughout high school and for part of undergrad, I used to be involved quite a lot with a Christian organization named Youth Encounter. I “encountered” them through their “Youth Quakes” (ages 7th grade and up) and “Youth Congresses” (from 9th grade), annual regional youth conferences which bring together churchkids for a weekend in an event center hotel.

Mostly Lutherans, mostly white (redundant)

I haven’t gone for years, and sheltered, awkward teenage me almost certainly enjoyed them for the sense of belonging more than being emotionally or spiritually stirred (no matter how much I hoped, I never was moved to tears by a gospel message–without forcing myself to cry, anyway). In fact, since I didn’t go until I was in high school, I was able to immediately become a “junior guide”, a sort of quasi-leader responsible for shepherding the younger kids who was also endowed with a cool blue paper wristband in lieu of the gaudy eggyolk-yellow bracelet of the unterkinder. It’s the first experience that made me realize I liked mentoring (or, at least, feeling superior or at least feeling competent). I don’t remember how problematic their theology was; [most] Lutherans aren’t a particularly fundamentalist bunch, and while I imagine the majority of people attending and working at these conferences thought homosexuality is a sin, the presenters never preached those views explicitly. It was a fun time, fun enough that I would feel guilty if I were sarcastic or flippant with Youth Encounter.

I was struck with a sinking feeling when I saw this notice on Youth Encounter’s website:

After 51 years of successful and fruitful ministry, Youth Encounter is shutting down
operations and closing its doors at the end of April. …

Wait, what? Each of these conferences were attended by maybe 800 kids. They weren’t small, as of four years ago, anyway. Have they shrunk so much?

The press release (read: blog post) goes on:

Several factors have contributed to this situation, including declining numbers of youth
in the church, an increasingly competitive market for the attention of youth, and a
challenging fundraising landscape. Youth Encounter has seen participation numbers and
overall support decline for the past 10-15 years, creating debt and an unsustainable
business model.

“Declining numbers of youth in the church” has been a problem in my former church (a congregation primarily composed of aging white upper-middle classers located in an increasingly Latino area) for a long time. But somehow, I thought that surely some Lutheran congregations somewhere must be thriving, right? When I read this announcement, two points jumped to mind:

  1. How could Youth Encounter–this institution which existed for 51 years and more importantly which I experienced–suddenly vanish?
  2. Am I going to be saying Point #1 about all Christendom in general in 20 years?

I oppose many of the views of the mainstream Protestant churches, and I’m downright reprehensible to several of the fundamentalist ones: I had sex before marriage, I don’t have any interest in restricting abortion, I don’t think the Bible is literal or necessarily inerrant, I’m a scientist who thinks conservative Christians by-and-large celebrate anti-intellectualism, and I’m gay. So, I should want to see Christianity lose power in the world.

In theory. But although I’m not religious or a churchgoer anymore, I still believe in God and while I’d even say I’m still Christian (whatever that means). I’d like to say the closing of Youth Encounter saddens me for this reason, but the truth is that, fundamentally, change in the core of society bothers me–the idea of America becoming less Christian than when I grew up bothers me. In a college class, I’d say I support gender fluidity and non-traditional marriage, but at the same time, I’m troubled at the idea of a world where the nuclear family isn’t the norm.

Christianity is so engrained into me that the idea of losing it is frightening to me, even though many of its teachings are a source of constant guilt, passivity, self-limitation, and self-hatred within me. I can’t turn against it. No matter what I do in userspace, I’m still at the kernel’s mercy, and I don’t have the write access to successfully recompile my morality. (Jesus is my sysadmin?)

Youth Encounter’s closure has gotten me to thinking about other concepts that Christianity has imprinted on me and forbidden me from modifying. One is, of course, to do with love, and it ultimately sets so many people–including me–up for earthly disappointment. As I was browsing through the comments on the closure announcement on Facebook, I came across an earlier, entirely unrelated post from the Youth Encounter staff:

When He was on the cross, you were on His mind

I’ve been conditioned to expect love that is selfless and constant. Jesus thought about me on the cross; my ex didn’t even think about me when I was across the sofa.