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The Heartbreak of the Teen Zealot

The Heartbreak of the Teen Zealot April 10, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I saw something that downright dismayed me: a young evangelical zealot who’s very upset about upsetting her family with unwanted evangelism. It reminded me very much of how I acted at that age. As you can imagine, her tribe gave the very worst advice imaginable — just like mine did! Today, let me show you the damage young zealots can do to their relationships and lives, and why it doesn’t bother older Christians in the least to encourage this behavior. 

blowing flames
(Judeus Samson.)

(Important note: I don’t want to name the redditor who sparked this post because I don’t want anyone to hassle her. She’s possibly underage, and she’s having a rough enough time as it is. I completely sympathize with her and wish the best for her. Thank you for understanding.)

A Reflection of the Past.

Sometimes I go looking at Christian subreddits (“subs”) over at Reddit, especially the fundagelical ones.

One of these subs, r/TrueChristian, caught my eye some time ago. You’d think it’s a satire sub, right? But it isn’t! They’re dead serious. They Jesus the Jesus Jesus 100% correctly! And they created this self-described “safe space” for everyone who is 100% convinced of the same.

It’s almost low-hanging fruit to quote these nutbars on anything at all, so I usually don’t. They squabble about doctrine about as much as they agree on it, and most of the people in the group are the worst-of-the-worst in Christianity. Their beliefs gravitate roughly around nondenominational fundagelical culture warrior, which is to say Southern Baptist.

But not long ago, I caught some posts there that brought a tear to my eye and suddenly brought back many painful memories of my past days in fundagelicalism. 

Collateral Damage in the Culture Wars.

A certain young woman faced the decades-old questions faced by many evangelicals her age — like I did once.

Here was my big problem as a young Pentecostal, one shared by this young Christian today and countless others from the past, present, and future:

How do TRUE CHRISTIANS™ fulfill the requirements they think were set by Jesus himself to go save errybody without completely wrecking their entire social support system?

How does someone pursue zealotry non-stop without alienating close friends and family?

When someone rejects the “good news,” how does a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ deal with that rejection?

Should I tone down the zealotry? Or continue to press the issue with my loved ones?

The kicker? Like this young woman’s, my family was already Christian. They just weren’t the right flavor of Christian! Worse, my family (like hers) rejected each and every one of my sales attempts. At first, they gently rebuffed me and tried to rein me in. When that failed, they began reacting with alternating humor and alarm. It was clear that my behavior (like hers) was quickly fraying my family’s patience and harming my relationships.

Seriously, her family could have been mine — almost to the letter.

Worse, the usual platitudes of encouragement in these situations quickly stopped comforting her, as they did me.

I mean, sure, I knew I’d lose friends because of my deeply-held beliefs. That’s a martyrdom/persecution claim very common in fundagelicalism; they think that pushback and rejection only happens because of their Jesus auras, not because they’re behaving like hateful, control-grabby dillweeds. But soon enough, those familiar talking points stopped buoying my confidence. Similar to what was described in these Reddit posts, my fears were overtaking me.

When I read about this young woman’s plight, I recognized my younger self and my fellow fundagelical converts from long ago.  It was so striking, the similarities.

The Zeal of the Convert.

Like a lot of these very fervent young fundagelicals, this anonymous young woman had converted into that end of Christianity from one of its less extremist flavors. So had I, and so had most of my fundagelical peers.

Unfortunately, new converts take a religion’s demands way more seriously than kids who grow up in it. That was definitely all of our experiences as well.

That’s why converts can be the most extreme and wackadoodle people in a church. They’re certainly way more fervent than lifelong members tend to be. Christians themselves recognize that truth, as we see discussed here on  a hardline Catholic forum:

As a convert, I can say that, in my opinion, converts don’t really make “better” Catholics so much as “fresher” Catholics, because “cradle” Catholics a) have been exposed to this religion their whole lives, and are kind of bored or jaded by it and b) they really aren’t taught their religion.

Fundagelical converts run along the same lines.

Pews Full of Powderkegs.

Combine converts’ natural fervor with the enthusiasm and inexperience of youth, and you get a potential powderkeg.

See, everyone else in church has had decades of disappointing experiences to temper their expectations and compliance levels.

However, young converts lack all of that. The group pretendy game they’ve entered feels completely, totally real. They live about 1/8″ underneath their skins at all time. Life’s just so intense for them!

Churches and believers’ groups can and do easily take advantage of a convert’s fiery zeal. Whenever I looked across the ranks of volunteers at church, for example, often it was the new converts filling any non-glamorous role.

I think churches depend on those zealots to do the bulk of their soulwinning too. It’d take a newbie to think those tactics represent viable sales strategies — and it’d take a zealot to keep using them even when it’s obvious they are only backfiring.

The Toxicity of Zealots.

So our young Christian did what almost all new converts do in times of worry and fear, and exactly what I did too: she went to her chosen support system to seek advice.

Unfortunately, our chosen support systems were a bunch of fellow zealots. 

Zealots are toxic. They don’t care about ethics or morals.

They care only about correctness.

I can’t even say they care about sales. That’d imply that they sought and practiced workable, effective sales tactics. But they don’t. Successful sales are not actually their goal. Absolute orthopraxy is.

In fact, zealots don’t generally make a lot of sales. But they think it’s of vital and paramount importance that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ be 24/7 salespeople employing tribe-approved sales tactics, or Jesus will become very angry with them.

In the pursuit of that goal, nothing whatsoever stands in the way — especially not emotionally-torn young converts already seeing the negative effects of zealotry in their lives.

The Extremes.

Orthopraxy taken to this extreme reminds me a little of an eating disorder, just applied to absolutely-correct-all-the-time practices. Zealots combine it with a similar obsession with absolute orthodoxy, or completely-correct beliefs.

In the best-case scenario, zealotry represents a way to feel more in-control of an out-of-control life — to soothe anxieties and maintain cheer. It’s a false feeling of control and soothing, but to someone lacking the real things, it might seem like a good substitute.

In the worst-case scenario, zealotry becomes a blank check and golden permission slip to abuse and take advantage of others, to control their lives, and gain at their expense. It functions as well as a self-punishment strategy — and as a way to avoid painful self-reflection.

All too easily, zealots can be influenced to harm and abuse others and themselves. They’re like a flamethrower that an unscrupulous group or leader can point at will.

Deep Similarities.

Zealotry mangles countless teens and college-age people who don’t have the experience or personal skills to recognize what’s going on when they sit down to play that reindeer game.

I’d have been exactly like this young woman if social media had existed back in the 80s and 90s. And my friends were just like me.

Like her, young zealots worry about accidentally breaking a rule, about whether or not they’re really safe from Hell, about how often they should perform devotions, about missing the Rapture, and more.

Christianity made me a wreck emotionally with its manipulations and fearmongering, just like it did to my friends. Man alive, we all fretted about everything! 

Meanwhile, the kids raised in fundagelicalism thought we were hilarious and pathetic and weirdThey knew this game wasn’t based on reality.

The Call Coming From Inside the House Heart.

And a young convert’s peer group — their chosen social support network — is worse than useless. It’s made up of two types: older and more experienced Christians who find validation in converts’ zealotry, and other very young converts who have no idea about anything yet.

In response to a young zealot’s questions, both types provide the same answers now that they gave me. They cry out:

No no! It’s time to drill down even harder on the tribe-approved tactics. YOU’RE not the problem. THEY’RE the problem! Jesus on, gal! You have to save them all!

Oh, sure, a few Christians try to tell freaked-out zealots that they’re being kinda pushy and going kinda overboard. Not all of them go full throttle. Some even give good advice. I saw a few of those on that r/TrueChristian sub. But nobody can talk down a frantic zealot. The zealot will only argue with them out of fear. What if Jesus gets upset?!?

Back then, I was the same way. What I really wanted was someone to assuage my fear of Jesus-ing wrong, but that fear comes from a very irrational place in the heart. And it’s based on the premise that fundagelical fearmongering reflects reality, which it doesn’t. Thus, it’s all but impossible for anyone, much less strangers, to soothe a zealot’s fears from the outside.

Abandoning Family.

Obviously, seeking help from loved ones outside the group is out of the question.

The terror-driven tactics of evangelism do a great job of destroying close bonds. Evangelists encourage converts to think of their own safety first. Once they’ve got that person on the hook, they insist that now the convert must go back into the battle to “win” the “souls” of their loved ones.

Converts to zealotry learn to see their closest friends and family as enemies and/or prospects. When converts finally realize someone simply won’t ever convert, they’re subtly encouraged to cut that person out of their lives — if the hard-sales didn’t already drive them away first, of course.

Until then, zealots can’t trust their loved ones to provide accurate information or advice anymore. Those people are influenced by real live demons! Nor can zealots show weakness or doubt of any kind around their loved ones, or act hypocritically — or they’ll become a “stumbling block” for potential recruits!

What I describe here is a horrifying burden placed upon shoulders that are completely unequipped to handle it. Every moment, when I was Pentecostal, I worried and fretted about my loved ones’ souls. I could never relax or stop seeking sales opportunities. Their eternal fates dangled on the line.

Looking for Love (In All the Wrong Places).

When it comes to their most important questions and most pressing concerns, then, young zealots can no longer trust the people who’ve had their backs and loved them unconditionally for years.

Instead, they look to people who barely know them.

They don’t know yet that their fellow zealots aren’t real family. Heckies, they’re not even real friends! They’re just work friends. After deconversion, a lot of young onetime zealots can finally perceive all the cracks that existed in that “church family” facade.

In reality, that church full of people hugging their necks might seem wonderful, but every one of those people would sell them to space pirates for a stale Hot Pocket

Collateral Damage.

It feels to me like other Christians see in young converts a sort of confirmation of their own beliefs. Thus, nobody cares if young, overly-fervent Christians lose every single person they hold dear in their quest for ultimate correctness. Heck, they’d be martyrs then! OMG, real live PERSECUTION! 

As long as young zealots follow the playbook, their fellow Christians will gladly put up with constant questions and provide reassurance on demand. Those other Christians also provide constant exhortations to Jesus harder. After all, it’s not their own social capital being risked as the zealot plunges ahead with hard-sales, judgmentalism, and control grabs.

However, there’s a more insidious thing going on in this situation than a rousing game of let’s you and him evangelize.

As outside emotional bonds dissolve under hard-sales pressure, zealots turn inward to the group for affirmation and social interaction. A group’s interests are therefore served through the destruction of a zealot’s outside support network.

The End of a Rough Road.

I know what the end of the zealotry road looks like.

Love bombing is a favorite cult tactic for a reason: it works grandly. However, once I deconverted, my “church family” vanished from my life like morning dew. Others turned on me. Even today, members of my onetime tribe judge and condemn me for all kinds of errors they mistakenly think I made.

And all that’ll be left after deconversion are the tattered ties that zealotry destroyed. Hopefully, a young zealot can rebuild those ties and repair that damage.

Sometimes, though, the zealot has pushed things too far.

I saw some of that, too.

Repairing the Damage.

People dwelling in a broken system turn on ex-members on a dime when those folks stop serving their interests. It’s how we know it’s a broken system and not a functional one that actually meets members’ needs and fulfills its own promises.

We’ll be looking at this exact dynamic in a few days — I’m still assembling stuff for it — but for now, just know it breaks my heart to see that nothing whatsoever has changed in fundagelicalism since I left it. Young fervent converts pay the price of the lies at the heart of Christianity, just as they did in my day.

It took a long time for me to crawl back from the damage Christianity did to my life. But eventually, I did. Thankfully, my family accepted me back with open arms. A few folks are still kinda at arm’s length, but things improved once I stopped my 24/7 hard-sell routine. I’m still embarrassed about some of the stuff I did and said back then, but I know they love me and forgive me.

I hope these young converts can escape as well, that their loved ones similarly accept them back, and that they escape before this sick game chews them up and spits them out…

… Like it did me.

NEXT UP: Why liminal spaces seem to get tangled up with religion so much. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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