After my short foray into youth ministry I had the opportunity to travel around the country representing my university. This sounded extremely glamourous to me, since I was only a freshman.

In my mind I envisioned that we would travel like rock stars and be greeted by throngs of teen fans when our tour bus arrived. We would ascend the stage, performing our hilarious show, which would culminate in my own one-man dramatic act, after which they would cancel the sermon, open the altars, and perhaps by the end of the summer both Jesus and I would be famous.

Indeed Jesus remained famous at the end of the summer. The rest of this dream was far from the reality. Instead, we would travel like cattle in a broken down van. We would be greeted by disgruntled camp workers who seemed to have chosen the wrong profession, as they disliked teenagers. Instead of ascending a stage, we would perform out in the open under trees or by campfires with little light, while teens looked up at the stars or snuck off with their boyfriends. Our act turned out to be more corny skit than hilarious show. Also, my one-man act failed horribly, as dramatic interpretations of Ray Boltz tracks jumped the shark that very summer.*

Instead of canceling the sermon, the youth pastor preachers would sometimes cancel our part. We did not become famous… although many teens harbored secret crushes on our team whilst we gave away free University T-Shirts and inspired them to live the Christian University life someday with our Mummers for Jesus routine!

MEANWHILE, I should note that I grew up in a more permissive Christian home with virtually no legalism. I also grew up the “church growth” movement. My home church was over 1,000 in attendance, so there was little to no legalism at my church. (I know large churches can also be legalistic, but in this case they were running from it). That summer was my first experience of legalism. I had heard of legalism–Lord knows I had heard sermons against it. But I had never really witnessed it.

We showed up at a few camps and were told that neither we nor the campers could wear shorts. The girls on our team had to wear skirts. One of the guys in our team had to take our his earring too. Also, we all had to grow Amish beards within 24 hours or face the shunning, or something like that. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. I wasn’t abused by these obscure rules, I was amused by them. I thought it was absolutely hilarious to see southern boys at an obscure concentration-camp-like setting playing basketball in pressed slacks! And the dress-wearing girls playing tetherball were a classic Instagram pic back when you didn’t need an app to make one.

I apologize if such images make you recall a harsh childhood (or present day) when you experienced that kind of “otherworldly” (literally & theologically) behavior. I remember being scolded one time by an old camp worker from a district for something I was wearing. She was so irate I never really figured out what I was doing wrong, perhaps my sleeves were too short or my glasses were too hip or I didn’t have seven buttons on my shirt, only six, or perhaps my shoes were too old or my Bible was too new, or the other way around. I honestly don’t know. I only know that my outward appearance offended her–and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

This was all very funny to me until I got to talk to the teens in the cabins. They were struggling with all the same stuff that the kids at the liberal camps (we went to those too, more on that later) were struggling with. They faced physical temptation with girlfriends, they hated school, they felt pressured in sports by their parents, and they worried that they might not get into college. Some wondered about suicide, and a few had tried in the past. Some were obsessed with sports, others with death, others with music, and all of them were obsessed with sex. Some wanted to be doctors and lawyers when they grew up, or pastors–the kinds of answers that make adults smile and win approval at mixed age events. Most of them hadn’t thought past next week.

The tragedy is the very keen sense they all had that their parents had no clue what they were going through. They talked about all the fighting they were going through with parents about clothing and going to movies and playing cards and going to all the church events. These were the battle lines they had with their parents. But the inner battle, the deeper one for their physical temptations and their spiritual lives–that battle was waged with no parental involvement. Say all you want about rules that make us separate from the world–I can see why we have many of them for adults. However, I wonder if we have trouble with teens when we move the battle lines so far from the real war. These trenches are no where near the enemies offensive attack. It’s like setting up your bunker in Norway when you know they are landing in Normandy. I shouldn’t make to sweeping a judgement on this. I’m sure there are some very engaged parents among the more conservative movements out there. However, at these camps I saw this happening. It was funny at first, scary next, and finally it became something I’ve worked against in my own parenting, with my friends who are parents, and in my ministry and coaching of youth pastors whenever possible.

How about you?

*Footnote: It turns out that Ray Bolz jumped the shark a second time later in life, a feat not oft performed twice. Also, if you watched that entire video of “Watch the Lamb” you really need to get a hobby, friend. Just sayin. This also serves as a disclaimer for the content of the video–which I could not bring myself to watch in its entirety.

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