December 20, 2007, here on slacktivist: Road to ruin
I’m not sure who I feel worse for here — the patrons of JR’s harassed by the everything-but-snake-handling prayer meeting on their sidewalk, or the “young people” corralled into this awkwardly aggressive form of “radical evangelism.” The youth leader who organized this expedition, in my opinion, has a millstone-necklace with his name on it.
My own church youth group never laid siege to a gay bar, but I still wince when I recall some of our forays into “radical” evangelism. We did “boardwalk evangelism” down the shore. I personally handed a gospel tract to Madame Marie herself. Unlike the many mission trips our youth group also did, that wasn’t something I enjoyed at the time or felt proud about afterward.
This is the dynamic at work in so much of what fundamentalist and evangelical churches think of as “youth ministry.” Tell a bunch of good church kids what God expects of them and they will do their best to comply. Tell them God wants them to pass out tracts to strangers and they’ll go along. Tell them God wants them to lay siege to a nightclub and they’ll get on the van. They will go along because their conscience will be telling them that if this is what God would have them do, then it is what they ought to do. But their conscience will also be telling them that this seems not just awkward or intimidating, but wrong. “Be bold and courageous for God,” the youth minister will tell them, but they’re not balking out of fear, they’re hesitating out of guilt. That will, in turn, provoke another crisis of conscience as they wonder what’s wrong with them that makes them feel like right is wrong.
You can only stretch that rubber band so many times before it snaps and one of two things will happen. They may decide that their conscience cannot be trusted and thus will stop listening to it, becoming the sort of people who will one day grow up to lead another generation of young people in another round of purity sieges. Or their conscience will win out and they will have their Huckleberry Finn moment.