On Not Growing Up in Evangelical Youth Culture

I never thought that Slate would become a must-read for insightful reporting and commentary on evangelicalism, but after Ruth Graham’s fine work earlier this month on a controversial book about heaven, last week brought Laura Turner’s remarkable memoir of coming of age at Willow Creek, the Chicago area megachurch where her parents (John and Nancy Ortberg) were on staff and where she and her friends “moved as one organism in those high school days, submerged as we were in the urgent, heady waters of teenage faith in the middle of the cresting wave of American evangelicalism.”

Like the best writers in the coming-of-age genre, Turner looks on her teenaged past with equal parts fondness and regret, but as a skilled reporter, she also checks in on the present: having long conversations with Willow Creek friends that she hasn’t seen in years. The result is deeply personal in observing the author herself, empathetic in observing the lives of her one-time friends, and trenchant in observing evangelical youth culture. (Turner’s comments on purity culture took on new resonance when it came out days later — again, via Graham in Slate — that Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was separating from his wife.)

It seemed like every evangelical within a decade of my age shared this on Twitter within a day of its publication. But it resonated with me for a very different reason:

It reminded me that I’m an evangelical who grew up apart from key sources of evangelical culture. Almost nothing that Turner wrote about evoked a personal memory in me — and yet here I sit, a professor at an evangelical university who writes books for publishers like Eerdmans and InterVarsity Press and writes blog posts for Patheos Evangelical.

It’s not just that my (evangelical) church was nothing like Willow Creek. I went to Sunday School with other high schoolers, but spent few evenings with our youth group. I didn’t take part in our denomination’s triennial summer youth rally. I didn’t go on youth mission trips or attend Christian concerts.

And I didn’t count any close friends among my church acquaintances.

Instead, my peer relationships were with friends at the rather secular private school I attended from grades 3-12. Like them, I dreamed of attending an elite private college, preferably on one coast or the other. So I didn’t so much as set foot on a Christian college campus, much less apply to one. And even in college and graduate school, I didn’t take part in evangelical student ministries. Instead, I jumped back into evangelicalism as a Christian college professor — where I often teach students whose backgrounds are far more like Turner’s than my own.

I know you’ll be shocked that my senior photo at such a high school would look this preppy. “Were you in Dead Poets’ Society?”, someone asked me my first week at the College of William and Mary…

At one level, I’m envious of her experience. “Collecting these stories, piecing together our teenage years from our collective memories, was balm to me,” she writes. “Even the hard ones, the sad ones, the friends whose faith had entirely crumbled—there was something concretely satisfying about playing the role of friend again to the people I had once spent more time with than my family. We all fell easily back into conversation. We needed each other again. Well, I needed them.” If I made the same effort to reconnect with my high school friends, I’m sure I’d feel some of it as balm. But I suspect the memories wouldn’t run as deep as those binding people who grew up perpetually wondering about the nature of God… and why He allowed suffering. What it meant to follow God in all aspects of life… and why the results didn’t always feel life-giving.

“We become what we dwell on,” she concluded. “And what we dwelt on in high school, what we breathed, was God’s goodness. And what I dwell on now is God’s goodness still, but also the loss that has attended my life and the lives of those I love and how a good God could allow it all.”

In my own teenaged years, I did dwell on such things, and dwell on them still. But I didn’t do it with people my own age. If I discussed my questions and doubts at all, it was with people older than me — my parents, my grandmother, my teachers, and my pastors (but almost never our youth pastors, who rarely stayed more than a year or two and never knew what to do with someone like me). From a young age I devoured books about history, mythology, literature, social science, and even philosophy, but the only avowedly Christian book that I remember reading was Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic.

There’s much I regret about that path, but I’m not sure it didn’t actually help me in the end. I spent far more time around religious diversity as a young adult than I do now as a middle-aged one, so I never felt cloistered — part of the “bubble” that our students simultaneously criticize and cling to. For all the theological questioning that’s a natural part of making one’s faith one’s own, Christian belief never had to be extricated from Christian subculture. And while I watch many ex-vangelicals rage against that culture, I was able to ease back into evangelicalism on my own terms, at a more settled time in my personal and professional life.

Like most evangelicals, I’ve got my issues with evangelicalism. But most of those concerns have roots that are both older and newer than my own adolescence.