Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why do Our Kids Leave the Church - Part I Randy's Story


I’ve picked Randy as the “face,” not because his story is extreme or unique. I think he is more typical than most Evangelicals realize. He was raised in the church, has left the church, and will never be back (from my perspective) unless God does something outside the laws of sociology or psychology. As I describe his story, see if you notice any subtle hints as to why he may have left.

A number of years ago, I got to know Randy when he was about 12. His mom, Jane, was in our home Bible study.

Randy’s parents had met within the context of a Church of God. His father got involved in church ministry and eventually went to a two-year Bible school to become a pastor. Randy’s early church experience was within the C of G. There spirituality was defined by supernatural (outside of the laws of physics) events. Speaking in tongues, “healings” were commonplace in their church service.

His father, as an associate pastor, had many of those dynamic proofs of his spirituality and God’s “reality.” His father, at the same time, was also having a sexual affair with one of the church's staff . . . eventually leaving Jane, Randy and his two siblings . . . moving to the other side of the state.

Randy, at about age seven, saw his dad walk out the door never to return.

Jane struggled to raise her children as a single parent (and very limited income). Her husband did not pay child support, although he was now the head pastor of another Church of God. The church that she has raised Randy in, which his father had the affair in, left such a bad taste in her mouth that she eventually left and brought her kids to our church.

Randy ultimately developed some emotional problems (as did his siblings). He was diagnoses as ADD and placed on medications. Jane, continued to struggle as a single mom, often working two jobs.

From the distance I observed that Randy was a social out-cast in our church’s youth group. The first time I watched the interaction up close was when I volunteered to take entire group on a rappelling trip. Randy was about 14 at the time. He was hyper and in constant motion and with frequent irritation expressed towards him by the other kids.

When the youth pastor left, a couple of years later, I saw a crack of daylight for trying to make a difference. I asked the pastor if I could take over the youth group. He gave me a four week trial period while they searched for another youth pastor.

During the first class meeting, in the basement of our church, I tried to settle the kids down, gently, so we could start talking. During that time, I noticed how everyone picked on Randy . . . especially the Pastor’s son and daughter and one of their best friends. “Sit down Randy!” or “Shut up Randy!” was their constant cry.

I started to toss out questions, just to explore the direction that I would take the group in.

Me: “So, what’s on your minds? What do you really want to learn about during the next month? Any big questions that we should take on?”

One of the pastor’s kids spoke up. “We should learn more about Church doctrine, that’s what we suppose to be doing (then rolling her eyes).” There was something in the way she said it that told me that she was not expressing what her heart told her, but what she thought I would want her to say.

“Okay,” I said. “But before we go there, let’s talk about some more personal questions. Do any of you have any doubts . . . you know, for example, wondering that something you were taught in church really isn’t true? Do any of you doubt God’s existence . . . even now and then?”

With silence filling the room, I continued, “I’ve had a lot of doubts over the years. Even now and then I have real doubts.”

Randy was fidgeting in his seat and then said in his high pitched voice, “Hey, hey . . . you know . . . there are times when I’m laying awake in the middle of the night and I ask myself, how do I know that Christianity is true? Maybe Buddhism is correct”

One of the pastor’s kids reacted very profoundly, like she was embarrassed that Randy would say something like that, “Oh good heavens Randy . . . you are such a moron! Of course Christianity is true!”

Me: “Wait a minute, I thought what Randy said was profound. That would be a great place to start.”

We did talk about doubts for a while, and Randy had a very engaging understanding of the concepts, far above what I expected. I was even starting to think that maybe he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, instead of ADD. In Asperger’s the person often has above average intelligence . . . although they have social difficulties.

By the time that first meeting was over, I decided to try and help them in the area of critical thinking and cultural discernment.

In the next class meeting I basically discussed the essence of how philosophical thought enters culture, explaining it in very simplistic terms. I reviewed the Schaeffer book, Escape from Reason explaining it in day to day terms that they could understand. They seemed to grasp it well. Then to bring it home, I asked them to tell me their favorite part of American culture . . . was it a movie, TV show, or music lyrics?

Randy responded first. He was really interested in a particular genre of rock music. Again, several of the others in the class started to ridicule him. I asked him to bring the lyrics of his favorite song next time and we would discuss them, and then we (mostly me) would do research into the life of the song writer, trying to figure out where they were coming from.

The other students were either quiet or offered up ideas that I knew that they were only saying for show, “Oh, I mostly like hymns that we sing in church.” I knew that was a crock.

Randy brought his lyrics to the next class meeting and no one else brought anything. He did a profoundly insightful analysis of the song, the song writer and how it influences teens that he knows (btw, the lyrics put a favorable spin on suicide as an option to give meaning to your life). I was really impressed. But the whole time Randy was trying to talk, in the background the pastor’s kids, and others, kept throwing out derogatory comments like, “Why do you listen to that trash! You are such geek!” Randy and I both tried to ignore their insults.

I was getting excited because Randy seem to get what I was talking about and I was hopeful that soon the other 12-13 kids would catch on.

I asked them about a movie or TV show. Finally one of the girls said, “Oh, I love the TV show Lost!”

“Great!” I said. I will rent an episode and let’s watch it at my house, in our home theater next Sunday morning. We can get popcorn, pop, coffee and relax. We can then have a great discussion.”

I spent the entire week studying the TV show Lost. Previous to this, I knew nothing about it. I typed up a list of four discussion questions. The writer of the series had powerful influences in his life from pantheism, which shows through in his writing. Most of my questions compared the Judo-Christian perspective to the pantheistic one.

We watched Lost. For the first time, the entire group seemed to be onboard with the direction, which I was going in . . . and not just Randy.

During these first few weeks of the class, I kept the pastor up to date with what I was trying to accomplish. He didn’t have much positive to say, but raised concerns each time. For example, “Mike . . . some people in our denomination don’t watch TV or even allow it in their house. I ‘m not sure how parents are going to react to their kids just watching TV for class.”

It didn’t make sense to me because I knew that each of the kids in the class had TVs and watched them all the time.

When I mentioned that we were talking about doubts and critical thinking about culture, the pastor raised the question, “How do the parents feel about that? I mean they expect their kids to be studying the Bible or church doctrine.”

Outside the classroom, I felt the tensions building each week, while inside the class I was seeing some real breakthroughs. The kids had never, ever been taught to think critically about culture.

To make a long-story short, the pastor canned me after four weeks . . . and he took over the class.

Randy and I didn’t have a lot of contact after that. Looking back, I wished I had tried to be a mentor to him. I did talk to him about music and video games each time I saw him. I just think I was too busy with my own kids and work. I did invited him over to our house to play video games with my son . . . he came once.

The last part of the saga involved his mother. Some of us men at church were trying to help her with her old house now and then. One Sunday morning the pastor grabbed me and pulled me to the side, “Mike, someone in the church has donated a good some of money to replace all of Jane’s windows. They want to remain anonymous. I would like for you go and break the news to her.”

Me: “Wow. That’s great. Do we need to put them in for her?”

Pastor: “No. The money will cover installation.”

I told Jane that morning and she broke into tears. She was overwhelmed with the gift. I almost had to hold her up she was so overtaken with emotion.

A couple of weeks passed and I asked Jane, “Well any words about the windows?”

Jane: “Hmm . . . not since you told me.”

I asked the pastor that morning when the windows were going to be replace, he seemed evasive.

A month passed and I asked Jane, “Any word on the windows?”

Jane: “Not a word.”

I asked the pastor about it, “Don’t worry about it Mike . . . I’m taking care of it.”

Another couple of months passed . . . winter on the way . . . and I asked Jane, “Did you get your windows replaced?”

Jane: “Mike I’ve never heard a word from anyone since you told me about them five months ago. I just knew it was too good to be true.”

I asked the pastor, “What became of Jane’s windows?”

Pastor: “There’s been a change in plans. I think we will use the money for something else she needs more.”

Jane and Randy eventually stopped coming to our church except for a rare visit. Two years passed and she never had new windows or anything replaced and I don't have clue what that was all about. I just know that I will never get involved again in giving someone a message when I’m not involved in the plan of making it happen.

The last time that I saw Jane and Randy was one of their rare appearances to our church. Randy now out of high school and looked quite differently. He sat down right in front of me and he had a friend with him. They were loud and Jane seemed embarrassed. When the pastor was praying, I heard Randy say to his friend, “Listen to this!” and then he farted really loud. Both of this burst out laughing, loudly. Jane asked them to leave the church. They got up and left, and I never saw him . . . or his mother again.


Justin said...

MJ, I have to say that it's rejection and broken promises like these shown here which cause anyone, not just our kids, to leave the church. I'm impressed with the boy's mother for her persistence in trying and trying again. Jesus' illustration about the millstone around the neck comes into huge play, here, IMO. What a sad, and all too common, story.


Hope T. said...

It is always sad when people use Christianity as a way of pumping themselves up at the expense of others. Anybody who is an outsider or a little bit different is fair game, especially in the teen years. It takes real inner strength to perservere through the kind of ridicule Randy took from the kids in the group and the insecurity of the teenagers makes it even harder for them to make themselves vulnerable by attending church, not to mention actually speaking up.
When I was in youth group, I was teased because I didn't fit in and I quit going. Decades later, I still do not have the backbone to swim against the tide but I am starting to learn how it is done by watching other "oddballs" who have the strength of their convictions.

MJ said...

Yeah Justin, one of those stories that leave a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. I still think I could have done something differently. I find the situation frustrating as well.

MJ said...

Hope T. Even though I had five teens in my house at the time, I was still surprised (and had forgotten my own teen years ) how cruel kids can be to one another. Can you imagine being a church youth group, being 14 years old and weighing 250 lbs? or having a face covered with zits (cystic acne)? It must be hell.