In Spring of 2002 I began my first semester at Central Michigan University. My sister, four years my elder, was also a CMU student. Over her time at CMU she became involved in a church called The Young Church. Early in that fall semester I was called on my dormitory phone by a member of the The Young Church, to see if I would be interested in getting to know other freshman students through fun outings led by 2-3 other younger leaders in the church. These individuals ended up being JS, RB, and BL. I do not recall how my number was provided to this caller from the church, only that I certainly have no recollection of disclosing it. Despite being unnerved by receiving an unsolicited call, I was up for anything and meeting new people sounded like a great idea. I had gone in blind to my dormitory and did not particularly care for any of my roommates. There wasn’t much for me lose in this scenario and figured that I could try one engagement with this church group and if it didn’t go well, just never show up again.
The group engagements ended up being a blast. I enjoyed the friendship of the other freshman and group leaders, many of which I remain friends with today. I most vividly recall enjoying Monday Night Football and other weekday specials at La Senoritas with the group as well as going skiing in Cadillac, among other activities. These positive experiences made me more positively disposed to the church and I eventually started attending weekend services and found the people there very warm, friendly and welcoming. I was particularly impressed by the zeal for serving Christ that was evident in many of the people I met. I began to be excited about the idea of joining this group and being a part of something much bigger than myself.
In the fall of of 2002, I made the decision to be baptized at the Young Church. This decision in many ways represents the official start of my faith journey. Shortly after winter break, I made a decision to join the Children’s Ministry and was soon contributing with a small team of people to teach K-3 Sunday School. My leader to help me grow both in serving this team and in my newfound walk with God was AS. Over time, I was encouraged to be a greater and greater part of the Body of Christ by AS and other church leaders and members. This entailed coming to Tuesday night prayer meetings and other mid-week engagements, in addition to any preparation required for the Sunday School lessons and activities, which included a dry run of the entire Sunday School lesson with the team. Our lessons were full-fledged mini-services: worship sung by a worship leader, often a drama performance, a hands-on craft, activity or game, and of course a sermon and bible reading. We almost always created all of our own kid-friendly content (beyond using worship CD’s) based on the last week’s Sunday Sermon given by the pastor and purchased any craft or activity supplies at our own expense. I vaguely recall someone telling me that any ministry expenses can be considered part of my financial contribution to the church. This was all on top of my 15-18 credit hours. I was a strong student and able to sacrifice social time with my non-church peers and able to meet all the demands of my schedule. I was unable to visit home much on the weekends, or if I did, I returned late Saturday, due to my commitment to serve in Sunday School. I have a fuzzy recollection of signing some form of a commitment statement or contract and turning it into RG, but am not entirely sure what I signed and no longer have a copy of it to reference.
Everything was new and exciting. I was meeting many people who desperately wanted to make their lives count for God. Having never read the Bible, I was grateful to learn from others and the teaching delivered by the Church pastors. I am unable to recall specifics from every Sunday service, but a few key themes and supporting Bible verses stand out. One clear theme was the need to be prepared to follow Christ, whatever the cost. Teaching clearly identified parents as a potential deterrent to following Christ, particularly if they were not believers or did not demonstrate beliefs consistent to Young Church teaching. Matthew 10:37 was oft-cited as a biblical foundation for this teaching. The second key theme that stands out is the teaching that “the local church was the hope of the world.” Matthew 16:18 as well as other scriptures served for the foundation of this teaching. It was repeated so much both from the pulpit and the pew that someone once asked me, in all sincerity, to help them locate the bible verse reference because they couldn’t find it in their glossary. Lastly, the church was regularly reminded of their fallen state and the fact that they were incapable of recognizing the depth of sin’s influence in their lives without the assistance and submission to God-appointed leaders the church placed in their lives. Jeremiah 17:9 (wretched and unknowable state of your own heart) and Hebrews 13:17 (give account to your leaders) were used to justify this teaching. We were always to be on the lookout for idols placed before Christ in our hearts. These teachings, in my opinion, were instrumental in forming the culture and identity of the church and were not subject to further debate or interpretation.
As summer approached, my leader strongly encouraged me to stay up in Mt. Pleasant for the duration of the summer in order to continue to remain a part of the church body. Going home to old habits and old friends may not be the best thing for my spiritual health. Additionally, by staying I continue to learn and grow in may capabilities to serve in Children’s Ministry. While the exact words escape me, my leader presented this as more than just a suggestion. He framed it as very likely God’s will for my life that he had successfully discerned. I gave a high amount of validity to his suggestion because I was a new Christian who was quite uninformed in discerning God’s will for my life and had come to trust and respect my leader (who could not have been more than 6 years older than I was). After some initial waffling I decided to stay in Mt. Pleasant that summer, despite not taking any summer credits. I would never live in my parent’s household again.
My leader additionally thought I should consider signing-up to go on a Pilgrimmage Trip with other members of the church body. Pilgrimmage was the term the church used for an extreme outdoor camping trip where one hiked/canoed/portaged anywhere between 15-20 miles a day in the pristine wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. I identified Pilgrimmage as a rite of passage within the church. It seemed to me that all core members of the church had completed this rite of passage and folks were always quick to swap their Pilgrimmage stories with each other. This experience was a common bond they all shared and I wanted to share in it too. I signed up.
The trip was led by my leader AS and his leader, RG. I do not recall many details from this trip, but the few that I can recall are very poignant. The first and easiest to recall was how it was run like a boot camp. The trip leaders were in charge and not to be questioned. They were the only ones who knew the day’s route. They were the only ones with watches. They chose when we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner and when to break and set-up camp. Only they had a copy of the map. They set the pace, which was unrelenting and grueling. Everyone had blisters and scabs on their hands and upper back from canoeing and portaging the canoes. No one was to provide assistance when portaging canoes overland. You picked up the canoe when it was your turn, put the yoke on the back of your neck and went forth until you reached the next drop-in point. The second vivid memory from this trip was being given the map and asked to lead the canoe convoy through the vast interconnected inlets and lakes of the Park. I reached a point where I was unsure where to go. It was possible I needed turn left up a channel around this land formation that seemed to mimic the map, but I was far from sure. I asked my leader if he could help. Not only did he refuse to help me, he forbade anyone in the group from assisting. I was incredibly anxious and struggled to think straight, I could feel my mind and eyes undergo a tunnel-vision like transformation. This was a big decision. A wrong turn would cause us a delay of who knows how many hours and with all the miles we had to cover there was little room for error. In addition, I didn’t want to my team leader to regret the faith and confidence he showed in me in allowing me to have the map during this brief period of time. Long story short, I took a wrong turn and the group suffered on my behalf. I was profoundly embarrassed and ashamed I had let the group and my leader down. My final memory from this trip is arguably the most disturbing. A young woman who had been struggling mightily to keep up on the trip (which I believe was between 5-7 days, though I’m not positive), could no longer walk straight, was intermittently fainting, her eyes as wide as saucers, and incoherently muttering gibberish. I noticed and doubled-back to help. She was not carrying the canoe at the time and I put her arm over my back and tried to help her hike the treacherous terrain, slowly but surely. It was beginning to get dark and we would not have light for much longer and these trails are quite dangerous and known to turn and break ankles. Eventually, my ministry leader doubled back for us and while initially was angry, he quickly recognized the severity of the situation. He asked her a number of questions and we were able to parse through the gibberish that she had a low blood sugar condition she did not disclose before going on the trip. She was going into what appeared to be a severe diabetic shock. We emptied our packs of fruit snacks and sat with her while she ate as many as we had and with her arms slung over each of our backs and head-lights on, we slowly brought her back to camp.
During my Fall sophomore semester at CMU, my ministry leader in the Children’s Ministry encouraged me to seek more responsibilities and I eventually was granted more and more of what I considered to be prestigious and important responsibilities, such as being able to deliver the message at Sunday School. My sophomore year, I had chosen to move in with another sophomore who attended the church and by this point I almost exclusively spent my time with people from the church while not at church or physically at the church outside of my studies. I felt that my increasing responsibilities in Children’s Ministry were evidence of my commitment and proof of my ever-strengthening walk with God. I continued to be diligent in completing all the spiritual disciplines tasked of me (spending time reading the bible and spending time before God in prayer and silence as well as reaching out to those who “didn’t know God”) and reported on my consistency in doing these things as part of my regular reporting to my ministry leader. This included a narrative written report, a schedule for my next week, and a revised schedule of my previous week compared against my original plan in order to properly account for my time. This practice was referred to as developing a “Love Action Plan (LAP)” by senior pastors. My ability to do these things well were seen as leading indicators of the state of my heart and my love for God and I was eager to demonstrate both of these things were above reproach. In addition, my leader routinely spoke the truth in love to me. Which in practice, was an unsparing account of any way I fell short of being the best Christian I was capable of being, with a heavy negativity bias on weaknesses and areas of improvement. This practice was justified by Ephesians 4:15 and was expressly taught from the pulpit as one of the most important ways the Young Church body practices love toward one another. Most Christians didn’t love each other enough to point out faults in those they love, but WE did.
Over the course of the past summer, my brother in-law had completed a summer internship with the Church. My perception became that the summer internship was the next step one should take in order to advance in ministry leadership and become a stronger Christian. Once I made the decision to do an internship, I had to raise the requisite funds (I don’t recall the number, it was in the thousands) from friends and family by a certain date. I sent out at least a hundred solicitations, probably more, and was able to raise what was necessary. I do not recall what expenses the funds were expected to offset. The only hard costs the church would pay on my behalf, that I can recall, were associated with a Pilgrimage trip exclusively for interns and whatever expenses were needed to have a computer workstation and the requisite software needed for my summer work projects, which included learning to code PHP in order to redesign portions of the Children’s Ministry Website. Not one cent of the funds raised went to support my rent or other living expenses that summer.
Despite spending at least 40 hours a week at the church that summer, I can scarcely remember what I actually did with my time, in addition to working a part-time summer job. I took no summer credits that semester and remained in Mt. Pleasant in order to remain involved in the work of the local church. I do remember running up to 12 miles a day with the other interns (every other week day no later than 6AM), having hour-long or more morning prayer sessions that also started no later than 6AM where we literally all had to stand (part of this was practical, if we sat we’d fall asleep) and we prayed for the needs of the church, those who didn’t yet know the Lord, and searching the depths of our souls to confess our sins in order to have a clean conscience before God.
For my junior year, I moved off-campus into an apartment of five other devoted church members. I was also given more ministry responsibility and helped lead a team responsible for Sunday School lessons for students in 4-6 grade. I was beyond thrilled to have this responsibility, equating it with evidence of a higher degree of spirituality I attained through my dedication and sacrifice. I was soon placed in a position of authority over others and led them in the manner I had been led, something I say with great regret.
At this same time I began taking courses that were specific to the degree I was earning, which was secondary education. The pedagogy of teaching requires instructors to help facilitate learning and be adept in helping students embrace and exercise critical thinking. I specifically recall taking courses taught by Dr. Frank S. and Dr. Susan S. and recognizing that I was guilty of willfully suspending my critical thinking faculties when it came to issues of faith and the church. Not only did I suspend them, I ceded them to other persons whose opinions I had come to value and trust more than my own. This troubled me and I slowly began to view the activities of the church from an alternate, more critical and questioning perspective. I began to realize that in the core of my being, I didn’t agree with most of what the church did or taught in terms of how it treated others, taught scripture, and instructed folks on how a faith earnestly lived should look in the real world. I am forever grateful to these professors, particularly my fellow-classmates in Dr. S.’s courses who reminded me what it looks like to regularly engage in critical thinking and embrace a diversity of opinions. It profoundly altered the trajectory of my life. I was learning to move and breathe in the world with my own eyes and I began to trust myself and my value judgments anew. At this time, I began to make a list of all the things that kept coming to my mind that made me feel uncomfortable about the church, a list that would grow to be over fifty items long. However, I was not yet ready to leave the church. The prospect of leaving provoked mind paralyzing levels of anxiety in my mind, so I continued to attend and made all appearances to be of one mind and spirit with the body when nothing could be further from the truth.
In the end, it was two things that gave me the courage to leave the church and in so doing, almost my entire network of close friends. I had gotten sick. I routinely would get sinus infections that developed into strep throat, something that didn’t end until I had ENT surgery as an adult. My new ministry leader at the time was the wife of a very senior staff member. She told me that my illness was in all likelihood caused by secret sin I was holding in my heart. I needed to search the depths of my heart and come back to her when I was ready to confess what I had found. I recall thinking this was patently insane and it has long been objectively proven that this is not how illness spreads, but found myself wanting to make something up that sounded plausible as to not be accused of being prideful or stubborn to my leader. Thankfully, in that moment, I refused to go along to get along and realized in an abundance of clarity that any church that demanded false confessions to be in good graces with leadership and seen as fit to serve was not one I needed to be a part of. I called her after a day or two and informed her that I was unable to find any secret sin and I probably just got sick, you know, the way that people normally get sick. She did not challenge me further on my non-confession. However, I was now prepared to walk away from the church and it didn’t take long for a new incident to prompt me to follow through.
My best friend had been trying for years to fit in on a ministry team and serve in the work of the local church. He tried several different teams and despite his best efforts he didn’t seem to fit in or connect anywhere. His story is his to share, but in the end he was asked to leave because the church was not a good fit for him. I was beyond words. The local church was the hope of the world and over the years the leadership of the church made it clear that other area churches were “less than” in comparison to the Young Church. Those in leadership even referred to some campus ministries as “para-churches.” In my view, my friend was being told to find a home in a “less than” church because he wasn’t good enough to thrive in the Young Church. At the end of the day, I was more than positive that any church that couldn’t find room for a person earnestly looking to love God and serve others was a church that I fundamentally could not align myself with on a matter of principle. They may as well have asked me to leave. I decided to present my ever-growing laundry list of concerns regarding what I considered to be unhealthy church practices with JS, a church staff member. He informed me that my spirit was not in a good place, I was projecting my own insecurities upon the church, and the issue with my friend being asked to leave was in reality, an expression of love from the church that I was incapable of recognizing. Roughly a week later, BF met with me for about 45 minutes and did most of the talking and I specifically recall feeling intimidated throughout the interaction. At the end of the meeting he requested a verbal commitment from me not to speak poorly about the church and I consented.
Thus ended three of the most bizarre years of my life. I scarcely recognize the person I had become under the influence of the church. To be sure, I allowed this to happen to myself and hold myself accountable for allowing others to make decisions for me. It is a mistake that will never happen again. I also hold the senior pastor, BF, accountable for the culture and teaching of the church that created and encouraged an enabling environment for what I had experienced. I do not believe it’s a healthy spiritual environment and at minimum, constitutes emotional and spiritual abuse. In my personal experience, the vast array of negatives easily outweigh any positives.
Shortly after leaving, I met my future wife and more amazing friends through involvement at His House Campus Ministries at CMU. The unconditional love and grace that was extended to me in that time by Pastor MS, other students at His House, and other Young Church exiles helped me begin a recovery process that continues to this day. I’m no doctor, but I believe I have endured sporadic bouts of depression later in life due to the psychological trauma I experienced at the Young Church. I am also beyond positive that my experience at the Young Church negatively impacts relationships with my parents and my wife to this day. The superior and highly critical spirit that grew in me during my time at the church has taken years to recognize and address to the best of my ability. I’ve had visceral, emotionally charged reactions to attending different churches up to the present day. I’ve had to do the extremely difficult and necessary work of completely deconstructing my faith and reconstruct it with a faith perspective that is fully my own, not something handed to me from somebody else. I even very recently found a church home that aligns with my spiritual framework. Tears routinely well up in the corners of my eyes during service as I experience what it’s possible for a church to be.
In the event any persons who I knew at Grace Church are reading this, specifically Phil C, Missy C Ryan G, Betsy G, and Jon C, I want you all to know that I am for you. Regardless of what happens now or years from now, I want the absolute best that God intends for you, whatever that may be. I won’t pretend to know what that is, but I’d sincerely love to hear your voice again. I hold nothing against any of you. I have no doubt we have more in common than we do that divides us. And whatever differing opinions we may have, none of them merit turning our backs on our friendship. I should have reached out earlier than today and for that please accept my sincere apology. I care for you all deeply (and I’m pretty sure many others do as well). I would be beyond thrilled to hear how life is treating you these days, what’s new with your kiddos, and what books you’ve been reading ?
My story is my own and all the things described are true to the best of my recollection. Many of the events described occurred more than 13 years ago.