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Why Did These Millennials Leave Church?

A reader has a theory about the trauma of youth group culture -- like masturbation talk at Bible study
Boring sermon

Here is a lengthy comment by a reader named Tony, from the “Donald Trump Is Not The Messiah” thread. It was so long and interesting I wanted to give it its own page. Tony begins by quoting something from reader Jonah R. (in italics):

“The biggest Trump supporters I know, including my own extended family, are nominal patriarchs of families where middle-ages kids are shacked unmarried with their latest boyfriend or girlfriend. Their grandchildren, glued to social media on their smartphones, know nothing about Christianity and have rarely if ever set foot in a church. MAGA Grandpas rarely attend church themselves. Despite having a solid work ethic and many other admirable qualities, they’ve failed to preserve and pass along their faith and their culture within their own families, and they want to blame “the left” for what their kids and grandkids have become.”

This struck a nerve with me, particularly the part about ‘the left’ being blamed for what ‘their kids and grandkids have become.’ I’m of the age to be considered one of ‘the kids’ in question here, even though my own family, while Southern and somewhat conservative, are not diehard Trump people. (The ones who are endorse Trump for reasons that are less cultural than political. I don’t agree, and they know that, but we’re all able to still drink beer and love each other during the holidays, and for that I’m grateful.)

I’m an elder Millennial. I come from a conservative Catholic community in south Louisiana. I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. I got involved in campus ministry at my high school, and even stuck with it well into college. I knew the history of the Church, I knew all about the pre and post-Vatican II controversies, I knew all about the faults and shortcomings of modern American culture, and I even thought about being a priest for a little while. Maybe even more strangely for someone at those ages, I loved to pray. I spent a lot of time alone, trying to know God. I spent a lot of time with others, trying to know God. I made a lot of friends throughout that time, friends who are still in my life, and who I hope are in my life forever.

I ended up leaving Christianity. (I’ve been trying to piece something of a faith back together for the past couple of years, but that’s another story.) I know of at least one other person in my group who did, too, and I know of more who dropped out of being ‘involved’ in their faith at all, whether or not ‘faith’ remained something vital in their lives. And in the past few years I’ve met not a few people in my age group who also grew up in very religious communities (families went to church often, kids were involved in Bible studies/retreats, etc.) who now, in their 30’s, want absolutely nothing to do with religion in any form, much less Christianity.

We’ve shared our stories with each other. There are themes. And I think they speak to what this commenter said about the faith not being ‘passed on’ to people in my generation and in subsequent generations, because what was ‘passed on’ to us was not, from my current vantage point, ‘faith’ at all. Often it was things that were much, much worse.

Some of this might be a little graphic, so I’ll warn you ahead of time right now.

First, the Bible studies. Everyone I know who grew up in religious communities at the same time I did, be they Catholic or Protestant/Evangelical, east coast or west coast, south Louisiana or South Carolina, has a Bible study story. Often several. And it’s always the same story.

Bible studies, frankly, weren’t Bible studies. They were Masturbators Anonymous meetings. Even if you attended a meeting with the intent of learning about the Word, or understanding your religion in a deeper way, or even just hearing how other people related to Christ in their own lives, nine times out of ten you weren’t going to get that. It would start there, and then the leader, often a parent or someone your parents’ age, would inevitably guide the meeting to a discussion about masturbating.

The merits of traditional Christian sexual morality are beside the point here. Imagine, instead, that you are a teenager, likely even below the age of 18, and your youth minister is pushing you to tell a group of your peers, in a ‘Bible study,’ how many times a week you’re masturbating, and what you plan to do to let Jesus help you overcome this struggle. Worse still, imagine that you are that same teenager in a ‘Bible study,’ and your youth minister (who, again, is much older than you) is confessing to you about how often they masturbate and/or watch porn, and about how it’s threatening their marriage, and all the while they’re wailing and gnashing their teeth in front of you begging God to help them overcome this struggle. (Again, this is not an adult sharing this with another group of adults. This is an adult sharing this with children. Furthermore, nothing–not the sacraments, not the relationship with Christ, not the growth in discipleship or how to pray–will ever, ever get as much air time as this particular topic will, at the behest of the adult leader. Who, as a kid, you are trusting implicitly.)

Yeah. It’s weird. And in my experience and in the experience of people I came up with, that kind of thing was normative. What was the hot topic at Bible studies? Masturbating. Men’s meetings? Masturbating. Women’s meetings? Masturbating. Retreats? Masturbating. And it was never the kids who wanted to talk about it. It was the adults.

This kind of thing sets up a weird dynamic for a young person. And it does something to you, even if you don’t know it’s happening, even if you’re bought in 100%. Or even if you’re not bought in 100%, and all this masturbation talk weirds you out a little, but you can push that aside because you’re really here to try to bring Jesus to other people inasmuch as you understand what that sort of thing actually means when you’re a young person. (That was me near the end.)

Second, emotional manipulation of young people was rampant in these sorts of settings and communities. Say, for example, you’re a chronically depressed 16 year-old. You’ve thought about suicide several times, and one time you even came close to attempting it. But you don’t know who to turn to with this information, you don’t think anyone will understand, and you don’t even know what to do, but dammit, you need to tell someone. Who’s the one person in your life who, at least in your mind, represents unconditional love and acceptance? Who really ‘gets’ you, but could also probably help you? More significantly, who’s the person in your life and in this community who has actually gone out of their way to present themselves as this unconditionally loving, competent, empathetic person?

Your youth minister, of course.

So you tell your youth minister. And he listens. And he tells you that he can help you, but not only that, Jesus can help you, and not only that, you can help others by ‘being brave’ and sharing this with others in the open. At a retreat. And you can tell your peers about how Jesus saved you from this dark time in your life. Wouldn’t that be great? Imagine what you sharing this with your peers would do in terms of bringing them to Jesus. (Again: this is not an adult and an adult. This is an adult and a child, a child who is looking to this adult for real help with a really distressing, dangerous situation in their lives.)

Yeah. It’s weird. And dark. (It’s also the sort of thing that cults do to obtain new membership and solidify current membership. You can look that up if you don’t believe me.) I happen to know someone who witnessed that exact thing. I have a similar story, though mine is not nearly as egregious as that example, and I have heard other stories that were every bit as bad as that one. Again, this sort of thing does something to you when you’re that age, whether you’re aware of it or not.

The third thing that comes up often is fear. The people in my life, myself included, who came up in these sorts of environments or were involved in these sorts of environments will often say that the main dynamic in them was fear. The stories here are varied: your parents wouldn’t let you watch Disney movies when you were growing up because they were secretly Satanic. (Ditto any kind of music that wasn’t explicitly ‘Christian,’ of course.) You had to be homeschooled (poorly, in this example–I’m not at all against homeschooling per se) because public schools were ‘a den of demons’ (I know someone whose father actually still believe this. Nevermind that Christians are capable of existing in public schools, too.) Sexual contact of any kind before marriage is sinful in a way that other sins are not sinful, so you better guard your ‘purity’ in a way that you don’t guard anything else. (‘Purity culture’ in particular was very influential when I was growing up, and I know people for whom this obsessive focus on sexual sin resulted in an anxiety around having sex even with their spouses once they were married. I shouldn’t have to explain why I don’t believe that scaring the living daylights out of people when it comes to sex to such a degree that they are dysfunctional when they are trying to have healthy sexual relationships with their spouses has anything to do with the mission of Jesus in this world, though obviously others disagreed.)

I could go on. The way the religious life was framed as non-stop ‘struggle’ or ‘battle.’ (Wild at Heart was big at the time.) The way you were encouraged–sometimes explicitly–to not associate with people who were not ‘in it’ like you were. The way people who ultimately did leave the faith–whatever faith–were pitied, or ostracized, or shamed. What any of that, or any of the rest of it, had to do with with the kind of life offered by Jesus is something about which I currently have strong opinions, but only because Jesus is someone I still care very much about, even if I’m not entirely certain what that might mean.

But most people in my age group with whom I’ve had these conversations over the years just don’t care. At all. I said before that all of that weird stuff does something to you, even if you don’t realize it. What it does is create something like a trauma response in adulthood: exposure to anything that reminds you of those particular settings and situations triggers emotions that are unpleasant, even aversive. Simply put, exposure to anything religious grosses you out. You may not know why. And then you start talking to other people, and you realize that you’re all grossed out because of similar experiences you all had at the hands of the adults who were entrusted with passing on the faith to you. Had you been given Jesus and the freedom of a way of living in the knowledge that God loves you unconditionally, and of the responsibility you subsequently have to love others unconditionally, and how sin and grace and all of that orbit around that center of gravity, you’d probably feel differently. But chances are you weren’t given that. What you were given instead were sermons about how Satan is hiding in children’s movies, and how your mental health issues could be leveraged to bring more people into the Jesus Club, and the fact that adults seem really, really, really fixated on talking about jerking off.

I’m not dumb enough to believe that everything I’ve said here is the only reason why Christianity is declining in America, much less the West. I’m not dumb enough to believe that this is even the only reason why people my age (and younger) want nothing to do with religion, or even that my experience here is necessarily representative of the broad experience of church camp kids who are now Millennials. These are, admittedly, just anecdotes, and anecdotes are not data. But they are anecdotes experienced by me and others over nearly a decade and in numerous places and regions nationwide. And at some point, that points to something.

So, yeah. It’s easy for Trump-supporting Christians (and maybe even Christians who don’t support Trump) to point at their Millennial and middle-aged kids who are shacking up with their significant others (or whatever other horrible sins they’re indulging in) and bemoan the lack of religion or morals in public life. It’s easy to blame ‘the libs’ or ‘the left’ for it, or whatever boogeyman happens to be convenient. What’s not convenient is facing the fact that a lot of people in my generation think about Christianity and are not just apathetic, but angry and outright grossed out, and a lot of it stems from the sick behavior of the people we were trusting to give us something that was more real than the rest of the world.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

I’ve really enjoyed the blog and The Benedict Option (will be reading Live Not by Lies when my semester ends). I’ve commented a few times, but I haven’t been able to shake this post and wanted to follow up with a few thoughts.

A little background. I’m also an older-millennial (mid-thirties) and was raised in a very similar youth group culture. We were encouraged to read the Bible, pray, stay away from all bad influences in the world (i.e. most non-Christians), and to not in anyway be sexually impure. My family was also, fairly suburban Christian as well (not fundamentalist, but very conservative and involved in the local mega-church). My experience is very similar to the writer of the post. Unlike him, I haven’t had a deconversion experience, but most of my friends from church have and I really struggled to mature in my faith with tools I received from my church’s ‘discipleship’.

In talking with my friends and reflecting on my past experience there were three things that really led them to walk away (and caused me to struggle/stunted my spiritual growth). First, while we were told what to do as Christians, we were never shown how to do it. I was never taught how to read my Bible or pray. This made any attempts to read and pray a frustrating experience and added guilt to my life when I neglected to do so. If any Christian living was modeled, it had to be observed at distance.

Second, dating, sex, and masturbation were the most talked about issues in the group. It felt like these topics were spoken about in depth about every two months or so. Sexual sin was put on a pedestal, in a sense. Not only that, but the idea of Kissing Dating Goodbye was prevalent and encouraged. Once again we were told not how to practice our faith in this area, but what not to do. There was also a real lack of grace in talking about these things. This is what led to the ‘masturbation’ talks in all our Bible studies or at camps and retreats. If it’s the worst sin, and a prevalent sin in the group, why wouldn’t it be talked about at every chance?

Third, I think a misunderstanding of what it means to pass down faith by parents and administrators handcuffed many of our youth pastors. I paint a bleak picture of the youth pastors in my life, but in reality, I think they’re really great guys. But, as in talking to them and reflecting on their experience, so much of what they did was driven by the demand by parents and church admins/directors (not pastors!!!). Parents wanted to make sure we were good, did ok in school, and didn’t have a kid out of wedlock. They really pressured staff to make this the focus of ministry. Also, many of the most vocal parents, were also volunteer leaders in the group. They pushed the pastors to make sure to speak to us about topics that were ‘relevant’ to keep us plugged in. Also, in the mega church model, church’s are run like a business. So you have directors (not pastors!!!) hearing the wishes and complaints of parents. These admins would take this feedback and push youth pastors to create a ‘product’ that ‘met the needs’ of the families of the church. Most of my old youth pastors have moved to different areas of ministry and regret what the way they did ministry.

Until the Church and parents begin to take the students they serve seriously, youth ministry will look the same. If church continues to be seen as an extra-curricular activity that produces good morals and abstinence we will see more students like you writer you published. We’re so worry about the eyes of a few students glazing over, that we ignore the ones that hunger and thirst for the Lord (and even the ones whose eyes glaze over have more hunger and thirst than we given them credit for). Faith isn’t learned and passed like a multiple choice test, it’s practiced and we need to get back to that.

Some of the good news (at least in my context) is that the few of us who have stuck with our faith are pretty determined to not repeat the past (though, I humbly admit we will make our own mistakes). There is so much data to prove the old way didn’t work. Parents are more willing to try new things in the face of these realities. So, it’s not has hopeless as it seems.

Another reader:

I am an evangelical Christian who has raised children for over 45 years – my own three children and then a grandchild.  All of these four children grew up in children’s church, then youth groups.  These were in Southern Baptist, Nazarene, and nondenominational evangelical churches in Texas.  None of them experienced youth groups that talked about masturbation or had leaders trying to get the kids to confess sins like they were in an AA meetings.  I have never been in any adult study that mentioned masterbation.

My grandchild I raised went to a very conservative Christian classical school where their focus at school, and they encouraged us to focus on at home, was the child’s heart.  Their belief was not to concentrate on raising good kids, but raising kids that had a heart that loved Jesus and doing good would flow out of that.

I was very strict with all the children about what they watched and listened to because “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base.  I hate the work of those who fall away;   it shall not cleave to me.  Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;  I will know nothing of evil.”  Psalms 103:3-4 RSV and “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8.  And yet, they did not grow up in a cocoon.  For a decade we brought homeless people into our home to live to help people get back on their feet.

And I tried to teach them about grace.  That we all fall short (even their parents and Christian adults in their lives) and are to forgive each other and extend grace to others just as God has extended so much grace to us.
These four children I raised may have strayed from Christianity for short periods, but always believed in God and are Christians.   They feel like they had good experiences with youth group.  I’m sure there are things our churches, youth groups and certainly my husband and I did wrong raising them, but we are a very close family that has fun together and supports one another and loves God.  After my daughter married, they bought a house 1 mile from us, and we went to church and Sunday school together.  She was killed by a drunk driver and the thing that mattered the most – that we will see her again in heaven – was the only comfort that mattered.  The only thing that matters for eternity is the people that you spend eternity with (and God!).

To all the Millennials that had bad experiences with youth groups, churches, or parents, I would say – just seek God.  Get to know Him, what He’s like, His love and grace.  He promises us “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  Jeremiah 29:13 “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”  Prov 8:17  Ask God to heal those broken places in their hearts and wrong ideas caused by broken adults.

I do think sex outside of marriage is just a huge landmine for Christians.  God gave us marriage (done right) to be a symbol of Christ and the church.  He gave us sex to not only procreate, but strengthen bonds in marriage, to enjoy each other.  Sex is so powerful and it can reach all the way to the deepest part of a person’s soul.  But it’s like every good thing – used the wrong way people get hurt, consequences can be hard.  I’ve had kids/grandkids having premarital sex, but they knew while I believed it was sin, it wouldn’t change how much I loved them.   It saddened me whatever sin they might indulge in because I know sin hurts the heart of God and I know sin hurts the sinner, too.  When my child sinned, I finally understood the Father heart of God and how He could love me when I sinned against Him.

UPDATE.2: A high school reader:

I am an 18 year-old Christian from California. I am the President of my school’s Chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). FCA is predominantly full of Evangelicals, though they are (at least in California) a very liberal bunch overall. This might be just anecdotes, but I think that my experiences can be revealing into the current state of faith in America. While I am technically Generation Z, this probably apply to millennials as well.

One of the biggest issues that I have found with Generation Z Christianity is that it has become feel-good. People will talk the talk but not walk the walk. We are the largest club on campus, but very few people practice what they say they believe in at FCA. One guy even bragged about his promiscuity directly after a meeting (the faculty advisor was rightfully appalled, though no one could do anything about it).

What I fear is happening with Christianity in America is that it has become too much of a feel good message. People consider themselves Christians, not out of any Piety, but simply because it feels good. The same thing happens with almost every Sermon at my Parish, which are almost always about nebulous topics such as “tolerance” or “interfaith dialogue.”

The whole state of Southern Californian Christianity almost reminds me of Heart of Darkness. Christians, much like Kurtz, set out to enlighten the world, yet at least looking at those around me, many have fallen into the tendencies of the pre-Christian Pagans. Good friends (raised as Christians) that I have known have often fallen into the secular pitfalls of modernity, such as drugs, pornography, alcohol, etc.

I honestly don’t know what can be done about it in this day and age. Certainly us Christians are somewhat to blame with regards to not teaching Generation Z (of which I am a part of). Many of my classmates lack an understanding of basic biblical concepts, and I fear that this will become a spiral as they will teach their kids even less. The whole thing reminds me of a Charlie Brown scene (often cited by Charles A. Coulombe) in which they are complaining about the older generation and decide the only way to get back is to make it even worse for the next one, in this case spiritually.

Another reader:

I read your most recent post with letters from older Millennials and a parent. I wanted to share my perspective.
By way of background, I was raised in a conservative Evangelical family in Phoenix. Our church was not a “mega-church,” but it had about 2000 attendees every Sunday. I converted to Catholicism as an adult, so I think I also have some distance from my upbringing.
The experience of your two commenters is not representative of my experience. I went to Bible studies as part of my youth group throughout high school, went on church retreats, etc. Was our church perfect? Of course not! And yes, we heard a lot about sexual sin, and there was, in my opinion, *far* too much emphasis on girls being modest. But we were never, never asked to confess to masturbation or any other sexual sin. Masturbation was never mentioned. Nor was anyone ever asked to share that they had struggled with suicide – and there was at least one suicide attempt of which I am personally aware. We had studies that focused on “What is a Christian worldview?,” etc. When I got older, I wished there had been more explanation of theological concepts, etc., but to be honest, that probably was not something most people at the church were interested in or that was particularly relevant to their lives.
I’ve left that world behind, and I don’t miss it. There were (and are) things about that church that were unhealthy – cliques and difficulty fitting in being among them. But in all honesty, this is a church that has been doing a sort of Benedict Option since my childhood. There were families who homeschooled (like mine), families who sent their kids to Christian schools, and families who sent their kids to public schools. I don’t know the statistics, but just based on the people I know, many of those kids have grown up and remained in the church. Many of them married other people who grew up in the church, or people from neighboring churches, and are now raising their own kids in the church. As I said, I’m Catholic now, but those girls (now women) are still some of my dearest friends, and Christians who I can rely on. They pray for me, and I for them.
Anyway, everyone has their own experience, and I am very sorry for the bad experiences your other correspondents had. But I think your blog may attract a certain sort of disaffected Christian (perhaps because you are very admirably open to listening to other viewpoints!), and so I think you may receive a disproportionate share of negative anecdotes. Even though I am no longer an Evangelical, no longer live in Phoenix, and had my own problems with my childhood church, I really think the evangelical pastors and parents of my childhood (by and large) did the best they could.
On the other hand, there were a number of kids raised in these families who wound up going off the track – drugs, out-of-wedlock births, etc. (including my own family, sadly). But in a “Coming Apart” society, I’m not sure that would have been avoidable even if the churches and parents did what your commenters would have preferred.
(I also think maybe I should mention that I have turned out to be relatively normal – at least, people are surprised to hear that I was homeschooled and am a Republican.)
Another one, this one from a young Catholic in her twenties:
I wanted to share a few thoughts I had regarding your readers’ comments, feel free to share, if they’re relevant.
First, I agree with absolutely everything your first two readers have to say. And it’s worth noting, at least from my perspective, that these issues don’t just affect Millennials, but they’re also affecting Gen Z in a major way, and stand to impact the next generation even more heavily.
I’m going to preface by saying, I never went to bible study or youth ministry as a kid or high schooler. My parents were wise beyond their years about the track of those sorts of things, and kept us (very firmly) away from them. They had the conviction of believing that you come to understand the faith deeper as you grow and ask questions, and that watered down, ‘for the kids’ versions were best kept to things like those old VeggieTales tapes every Christian family had in their house at one point. I’m grateful for this, especially since I’ve heard the exact same stories as the above readers are telling from many of my friends and peers.
One friend in particular (with whom I am no longer in contact, for a host of reasons) told us in great and vivid detail about her experience growing up in Baptist circles that she described as being ‘cult-like’ in their approach to faith. She often told us increasingly outrageous tales of the ‘Jesus Camp’ she was forced to attend every summer, where youth ministers similarly encouraged her to stand up around a campfire and tell all of her peers her deepest sins. The reader who writes that these experiences “create something like a trauma response in adulthood: exposure to anything that reminds you of those particular settings and situations triggers emotions that are unpleasant, even aversive,” is exactly right. The friend I mentioned was barely Christian at the beginning of the time I knew her, and by the end- well, she was very woke, and that was her new religion. She also vehemently, passionately hated religion and anything to do with it, and the beginning of the end of our friendship stemmed from how eagerly she spread her religious hatred around our mutual friend group. She spoke often of how traumatizing religion was for her, and how all of it stemmed from those childhood experiences of feeling like she was being indoctrinated to act, think and be a certain way without ever really knowing why.
That’s far from the only experience I’ve heard of. I myself, as an adult in college experienced the type of Bible Study that devolves into a discussion and lamentation over sexual sins. Sexual sins really are put on a weird pedestal, and while I think some part of it is a natural response to how alluring they can be, some of it is very difficult to process. As an adult with an anxiety disorder, I’m often confounded by how much my adult self still feels so much more intense guilt over anything related to sexual sins and purity than any other type of sinful behavior, even if the other behavior was objectively more sinful from a religious perspective. I feel that some of this stems from how difficult it is to escape that pedestal-like focus, even if logically, I know how these things should be weighted in my life.
That same college group that I went to bible study with infrequently also had a recurring ‘retreat’ (I never attended) where the big focus was on ‘testimonies’ from that year’s retreat leaders (selected from the students). I remember a friend from that group showing me what she had selected to share with everyone- an account of her past with an abusive boyfriend and how her faith had saved her in a dark time. It was very moving, but it begs the question- is that kind of thing appropriate? Should we be encouraging young people to bare their deepest anxieties for the sake of some kind of group spiritual revival? I don’t think so, personally.
What I do think, honestly is that what a lot of young people are so desperate for is spiritual guidance. That’s the need that these programs are trying to fill, but the reality is that the need primarily exists because parents have stopped filling that role, and no one else picks it up until you become an adult and can seek your own spiritual advisor. Many kids I knew were badly confused about many things by their adult years, including sex, abortion, various social morality topics, and so on. They had questions as kids, burning ones, but no one answered them, or when they asked, they ended up having a feel-good kind of session with a huge group of kids, instead of one-on-one, actual explanations of their faith and why it meant what it did.  My parents did those things for me, and I am grateful for it every day. I never felt like I just didn’t ‘get’ religion. Anything I ever wanted to know, even now, was answered for me (or, at least, I was pointed in the right direction for answers). Our generations’ task is going to be trying to do the same for our children. Dumping them on youth ministry, unfortunately, just isn’t going to work.
One more:
I recently received an email from a kid who used to sing in one of my youth choirs at our Catholic parish. It’s worth reading to see how the dynamics of sexual desire and curiosity get totally mishandled (or perhaps not handled at all) by youth group leaders and clergy. I’ve omitted his name, references to the university he now attends, and the name of our particular parish youth group. Unfortunately, a lot of the most hardcore youth group members from our Church, like this young man, have fallen away in their young adulthood.
I played music for many youth retreats and heard plenty of youth testimony over the years. So much of the teaching in these groups focused on being proud of our Roman Catholic identity and learning the subtle and no-so-subtle ways in which other denominations fell short. Sexual purity had pride of place among the teen issues. I strongly believe this was being passed along by adult ministers and parent volunteers who had never integrated their own sexual experiences in a healthy, spiritually holistic way. Examinations of conscience at retreats would follow the 10 commandments, but things like kissing boyfriends/girlfriends passionately” would be read back into “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. It all amounted to Catholic culture being no more than social/sexual conservatism in a “JP2 Rocks!” Or “Mama Mary is my homegirl” t-shirt. Little depth, little mystical wonder, no prompting of the big questions in life and faith, no modeling of how to think critically through these delicate issues, and hackneyed “teen resources” to prompt kids toward spiritual maturity. Our church is filled with good, faithful, and loving ministers who have hearts to serve. But there’s something missing, something in the sturdy heart of our faith, that’s not getting passed along to the youth.
I know you’ve always said that “hunker down and head for the hills” is a total misreading of BenOp, and I believe you. There are swaths of dangerous ideas floating through liquid modernity and the emerging consensus around sexual selfhood and identity. But far too often I see a tendency in a lot conservative Christians try to shield themselves or hide from some of the genuinely valid questions about sexual repression and self-identity that comes from those who have left the Church. I fear that defensiveness and self-righteous moral superiority, which is a temptation for all who see themselves as guardians of 2000 year old tradition, are only driving these cultural wedges in harder. How can we trust the Church’s sexual teaching when the celibate clergy often proves to be the most sexually perverse? Why should we take our notions of marriage and sexuality from literal readings of Genesis when anthropologists have evidence of different social/sexual norms from pre-biblical times! If our cultural norms are eternal and true they should be able to stand up to scrutiny. It makes me wonder if we have put our faith in cultural power rather than the one who transcends all things.
 Anyway, here’s the email:
I want to preface this lengthy email by first explaining that I do not blame you for anything I will describe; I merely want to share my story with you and hope that it provides you some insight as to how to teach future [Youth Group] leaders and/or help teens and young adults in the future. Over the course of my time in [Youth Group] , and  my last few years of college, I perceived many of the church’s teachings to be repressive regarding sexuality, and it has had traumatic effects on my psychological and sexual upbringing. These lasting effects were a result of combining information from various sources, in part from the [Youth Group] lessons that I perceived to prescribe combating and conquering all sexual desires.
When I was in kindergarten, a girl wet her pants, and when puberty hit, this was all I ever had an interest in. I truthfully did not even know what a vagina looked like until I turned 19 or 20. For years I believed it was circular, about three inches up, and served as both a urinary and sexual organ. The only pornography I watched was girls wetting their pants, reinforcing my confusion with accurate anatomy. I know I had seen diagrams and pictures in school, but in my head, I could not be convinced otherwise.
So I sought answers about pornography and masturbating from priests in confession and leaders in the church, never getting straight answers, while never truly disclosing my lack of accurate knowledge or understanding about female anatomy. One day at [Youth Group], a leader passed out Catholic CDs, one of which was Jason Evert’s Pornography Detox CD’s from 2013. I placed this on my MP3 player and listened to it whenever I believed I had sinned. I hated myself for years. I remember crying myself to sleep some nights, repeating to myself that I killed Jesus because I masturbated and had thoughts about women. I believed at the time that I was inadvertently harming all women by shamefully thinking about them, when they should be upheld in the larger body of Christ. I remember that when I graduated high school, I had masturbated earlier that day, and then I got a call that my grandmother was in the hospital. I condemned myself because I believed that I had caused this by harming all women and angering Jesus. I have suffered through multiple panic attacks and constant anxiety that I would be condemned by God and deserved to be, simply for masturbating to something that I never even understood. I never understood what a vagina was or how it functioned. I never understood myself when it comes to fetishes and how they can be different for everybody. I HATED myself because of the inability of the people I looked to for help to properly think that some teens might just be struggling with what their sexuality actually is. I hated myself because I listened and believed Jason Evert’s and other Catholic speakers’ perspectives on sexuality and pornography. I haven’t had sex. But I have been instilled with enough traumatic beliefs and sexual confusion that I have been working through this and other anxieties in therapy and with caring friends who share similar backgrounds and interests.
I want to reiterate that I do not blame you personally, as I do not believe there were harmful intentions when it came to the confusing and unhelpful responses I received from the priests and peers that I confided in. Still, I hope you can learn for future [Youth Group] and/or Confirmation lessons and discussions that keeping teens safe from sexual intercourse does not mean barring them from exploring avenues of their sexuality, whether it be through masturbating or fantasizing. Throughout most of high school and college, I condemned myself for watching some of the most soft-core porn I can think of. I even condemned myself for simply thinking about urine. I cannot adequately sum up all I want to say and all the pain and suffering I wish to express to you, but I hope this gives you a general sense of it.
Over the years, all of this pain and confusion led me to question who, if anybody, there was to blame. I blamed myself at times, priests, church leaders, and [Youth Group] friends, peers, and adults. Strangely enough, I never blamed my parents as much. Both of them are pretty much sex positive, and while the conversations emerged here and there, discussions about sex with them or my peers at church never cleared up the anatomy confusion. 
During my most recent therapy session, my counselor helped me understand that, while it is natural to want to blame others or myself for all of this, there were likely no harmful intentions on the part of the church, or you, or myself, or my peers. In this sense, I apologize for shooting the messengers by seeming to blame you in part for my suffering. I am still struggling with not wanting to blame others for all of this, but I recognize that any and all of the confusing responses I got from my peers were more like symptoms that reinforced my pain rather than the immediate cause.
I will end with these last few points. Teach teens to love themselves and relax about their sexuality. I built it up in my head as this massive and constant struggle, when in reality it is a mere fraction of the kind of person I am. Teach teens to love themselves and understand the world in different ways before you suggest praying a decade of the rosary for every time they masturbated in the last week. The more you do the latter, the more psychological and sexual fear you might reinforce in young Catholics’ hearts. I do value all that you have taught me over the years and how you have all helped me be an even more loving and compassionate person. The best thing I could have been taught is how to love myself, and I believe this lesson can be achieved for future teens who may have similar (if not worse) struggles and anxieties.
I would not at all commend the advice of this poor tormented young man, re: encouraging teenagers to explore their sexuality. It sounds like an overreaction to his neurotic suffering — suffering that sounds like it was self-inflicted. Nevertheless, it is important to think about how we deal with this stuff, and how some young people are torturing themselves.


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