People start going to church for a variety of reasons: salvation, enlightenment, atonement. Maybe they go out of a sense of duty, of family tradition, or maybe it’s guilt.
I didn’t grow up in the church like a lot of my friends, going to CCD and throwing parties for their first communions. The only thing I worshipped on Sundays was the Philadelphia Eagles, a rite I still practice today.
But one day when I was in middle school, my mom decided we were a Church Family and started dragging me out of bed for the 8:30 service.
At first it was boring, memorizing books of the Old Testament and reading stories about dudes with crazy names. But then I discovered there were girls at all of these church events, and I became a full-blown Jesus freak.
At that time in my life, there were really only two things I was interested in: girls and guitars, and honestly, the only reason I liked guitars was because I thought they’d attract more girls.
In those pre-internet years, school was our only chance for co-ed fraternization: the cafeteria, a couple of minutes in the hallway between classes. And then on Friday afternoon, you’d get off the bus and stare at the wall, waiting for Monday.
All of a sudden, church opened a whole day of opportunity previously earmarked for solitary confinement. There were girls in my Sunday school class, girls in the pews next to me during the service, girls at youth group Sunday nights. And talking to them was so easy because I could open every conversation the same way:
“Oh man, this is so boring,” I’d say, and she’d say “I know, right?” And from there, I was IN.
Unfortunately, the church I went to had a pretty small congregation, so it didn’t take long for me to exhaust my options for companionship. I had to start looking elsewhere. And that’s when I discovered the magic of church camp.
Church camp is like the regular camp you see in movies, where there are bunks and a lake and a crafts hut, but at this one, there’s also a giant tabernacle where you have to attend services three times a day. That was the bad news. But the good news was that meant three times a day, you’d sit next to OTHER girls from OTHER churches. And that was quite enjoyable.
During the summer, my friend Bill and I went to a weeklong church camp, where we fell in pretty quickly with a couple of girls named Callie and Erica who lived an hour away. They were cute and fun to talk to, but we especially enjoyed how seriously they took the church services.
The final night of camp was always an emotional affair, where the counselors took the fun and excitement they’d ginned up all week and turned it on you. You know all the good times you had this week? The friendships you formed? That’s because of JESUS. JESUS DIED FOR YOU SO YOU COULD HAVE A GOOD TIME THIS WEEK.
They’d do these things called altar calls, where they’d invite the campers to kneel before the altar and pray for salvation. Every year, Callie and Erica would go up to reaffirm their relationship with JC and come back to the pews a sobbing mess.
So Bill and I would sit there, our arms around these crying girls, pretending to be somber and touched by the service but actually just stoked out of our minds we were touching real live girls.
Callie became my summer camp girlfriend, and sometimes during free time we’d sneak into the woods and sit on a log and hold hands or give each other little pecks on the cheek.
It never got more serious than that, though I did eventually see Callie naked, when she posed for a porn site and I saw her full of a lot more than the holy spirit.
My romantic crusades continued to succeed into high school, when I joined the local chapter of an organization called Young Life.
I started going because a girl I had a crush on was a member, and when I asked her about what it was like, she replied by saying, “Well, people say it’s a cult, but it is definitely NOT a cult.” Which is, like, the first thing people say when they’re in a cult.
Young Life was run by this guy named Mitch who was in his late 20s and trying just a tad too hard. He wore baggy jeans and baseball hats and came to the local punk shows at the VFW with a skateboard under his arm. I already knew Mitch because he was a substitute teacher and had a reputation for being “the cool sub” who didn’t really care if you did your work or not as long as you didn’t cause any trouble.
At least with my church youth group, the mission was clear. The thing about Young Life was that it was absolutely a religious organization, but all the leaders pretended like it wasn’t. Every proclamation had a subtext, a perpetual mumbling parenthetical.
“We’re just here to have a good time! (and spread the word of the lord).”
“Everyone here is such good friends! (all connected through Jesus Christ, our savior.)
“Let’s eat some pizza! (and thank God for the bountiful gifts we are about to receive.)”
Young Life met on Wednesdays in this kid Alan’s basement. Mitch would play guitar and we’d sing along, but unlike at church camp, they’d be secular songs, like Blink 182 and Tom Petty. Then, right before we’d adjourn for pizza—there was always pizza—he’d sneak in some story that would start as an anecdote and end with a bible verse.
I didn’t care, because not only were there more girls at these meetings, there were more camps. In February of my junior year, we went to a retreat somewhere in upstate New York. At the time, I was dating Leslie, a sophomore I’d coerced into joining Young Life so we could spend time together during the week.
1) It was like a 6-hour bus ride to the camp, which meant 6 hours of Mitch half-assedly supervising whatever was going on under the giant blanket I brought for Leslie and me.
2) There was a hot tub, which meant bathing suits, which by the way, is basically underwear.
We got up there late Friday night and settled into the boys’ barracks while the girls got squared away in their room down the hall. We were talking about farts or football or whatever high school boys talk about and getting ready for lights out when all of a sudden, Alan put a chair in the middle of the room and sat down. Alan was a senior and Mitch’s de facto lieutenant since we met at his house. He was also into Christianity a lot more than us, the type of dude who’d wear a shirt to school with a Nike Swoosh on it that said JESUS: Just Believe Him.
“Okay you guys,” he said, “I know we’re all here to have a good time, but I also think it’s really important we don’t forget the REAL reason we came here this weekend.”
The room tightened up as the rest of us began examining the floor, waiting for Alan to launch into his monologue.
But instead of talking, he pointed right at me. “Sam,” he said, “why are YOU here this weekend?”
In the past conversations like this had always been framed as why are WE here? How can WE better give thanks to the Lord? and I was able to just kind of nod along to the other answers in the room. But now here was Alan, singling me out in front of 10 of my friends.
I knew the truth—actually, I’m here to feel up my girlfriend in the jacuzzi—was not the right way to go. I desperately looked for help from Mitch, but he was busy putting new wheels on his skateboard.
So I took a breath, all the eyes in the room on me, empathizing with my position but happy it wasn’t them, and I said “I…don’t…know?”
He shifted forward in his chair. “Then let me ask you this, Sam. How would you describe your relationship with God?”
The rest of the room began counting ceiling tiles. It was just me and Alan. “I guess, good?” I said. “Pretty strong I think?”
That must’ve been the wrong answer, because Alan shook his head. “No,” he said. “You should always be working on your relationship with God.” He turned to the group. “It can ALWAYS be stronger.”
Then he went on a diatribe about the importance of communing with God every day, how the temptations of the teenage world—alcohol and drugs and sex—were so persistent, so relentless, that only a true relationship with the Lord could show you the way.
I doubt anyone gave my call out another thought, but as Alan asked us to bow our heads and ask God to guide our hearts so we didn’t forget the true purpose of our retreat, I felt like everyone was praying for—and judging—me.
Was I really a bad person for not taking this seriously? Was I using Jesus as my personal pimp?
We ended up leaving early, or rather, the retreat organizers asked us to leave early. See, while everyone was at dinner on Saturday night, Mitch and a couple of the other guys from our chapter broke into the girls’ bunk and stole their underwear. Then, they strung it in the rafters of the covered bridge leading to the tabernacle, so that on Sunday morning when everyone was heading to church, they’d see the girls’ bras and panties. This was a cool prank for a substitute teacher to pull off, but the camp council found it decidedly un-Christian.
Six hours is a long time to contemplate your moral worth, but that’s what I did on the way home, staring out the window and staying as far from my Leslie’s wandering hands as possible. I told her I didn’t feel well, that I was coming down with something, but the only ailment I had was guilt. Don’t touch me there, I thought. Jesus is WATCHING.
I went to Young Life less after that, not because of Alan’s little speech, but because my new driver’s license opened up a wider variety of social options. Still, each time I did attend, a little part of me worried I’d get exposed for not being devout enough.
Mitch kept subbing and running Young Life for another couple of years until he moved to Georgia.
I continued going to my church’s youth group every Sunday, and my senior year, I met Jessica, a junior some of the other members had brought along. We were brainstorming ways to raise money for our upcoming mission trip, and when I suggested selling drugs, she laughed so hard she started to cry.
We dated for the next four years. We didn’t end up getting married or anything, but she was my first serious girlfriend, the one who taught me what a real adult relationship was going to be like.
Not too long after Jess and I started dating, we went to a house party, the kind that belongs in a 90s teen movie. As we walked up the driveway, a dude stumbled out the front door, collapsed to his knees, and hurled into the flower bed.
It was Alan, now 20 years old, puking his guts out at a high school house party. It took every ounce of my self control not to put my hand on his shoulder and go, “Hey man, I was just wondering. How would you describe your relationship with God right now?”
But I didn’t, because I knew it wouldn’t change anything. Alan was no more devout and no less flawed than me; he was just a kid on a church retreat trying to prove his own worth.
And I couldn’t fault him. We all went to church for different reasons.