Defining My Devotion

On the Record sophomore Liz Klein continues her series about her own experiences with teen life. In this installment, she discusses how her relationship with faith has evolved and ways other youth can become engaged with spirituality.

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Photo and Illustrations by Sylvia Cassidy

When I was an infant, my parents had me baptized. I attended the same church my whole life until about three years ago. 

I tried to get involved at church, but they didn’t have much for the youth to relate or connect to. Going to church felt like a nuisance. I remember sitting in Bible study Sunday mornings, only participating when we did crafts. On an ordinary day, I, as well as most of the other youth, just sat around twiddling my thumbs and having side conversations. Sitting there taking turns reading the Bible felt like an unengaging English class. I wasn’t learning about God in a way I could understand or relate to, so I stopped believing. I wanted to believe in God, but, like many people, I had so many questions that I needed to be answered first.

I didn’t understand why such bad things happen if there’s a God, or how I’m supposed to believe in a God if there’s no scientific evidence of one. How do I believe in this God when the Bible (specifically the Old Testament) preaches things I don’t believe in, like disregard for women and minorities? For the time being, I decided to just believe in something bigger than myself; not necessarily God, but more like the universe. 

During a discussion about religion in my freshman English class, I learned that a lot of teens feel the same way I do; they wanted to believe in something bigger than themselves but they weren’t quite sure what to call it. 

When I was in eighth grade, my family switched to a church that met our needs better, including catering to youth more. In the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of it because it was unfamiliar and, quite frankly, I wasn’t open to engaging in the community there. I had my opinion on religion: it was confusing. I didn’t have the time or resources to help me find the answers to my questions and doubts. 

Religion just wasn’t something I was interested in. But the youth minister at this new church wasn’t reaching out to me in a “religious” way. He asked me how I was doing, and let me know when I came that my presence was welcome and appreciated. With time, I even began to enjoy being there. Church stopped feeling like an obligation because when I went, we had an open, easy-to-understand dialogue. I began to realize I could express how I really felt, and I wouldn’t be punished for it. 

In other words, I could say out loud at church that I don’t know if I really believe in God and know with confidence that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. Rather, other members of the group thanked me for bringing it up and then we could go on to have a conversation in Bible study or one-on-one with a pastor.

 And if I didn’t want to, I knew that would be fine too. I could still be a part of the church community because it was so much more than just God. It was a safe space to grow, love, and be loved.

On a mission trip this past summer to Holmstead, FL, I had the chance to hang out with the migrant community there. Two years ago, at a church camp in North Carolina, we focused on the word ‘enough.’ How I am enough, there is enough, God is enough, and sometimes it’s important to say enough already. While in North Carolina, members of our youth faced racist and homophobic prejudice and the response from other members of our youth was astonishing to me. I witnessed a group of young people come together and stick up for one another in a way I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t matter how well we know each other, there is an unspoken agreement of support within the group. The church has placed so much love in my heart. The pastors and members work to create an atmosphere that welcomes everyone, no matter what, and it comes through everything they do. All of this made me enjoy being at church more and more, even if I was still uncertain about my beliefs. 

Recently, I reached the point where I felt comfortable and ready to explore my questions about God, but only because I knew I had someone I could talk to who would understand me, and definitely not judge me. 

On Thursday, Oct. 24, I met my youth minister, Perry Dixon, at Highland Coffee. The beauty of the fall night begged us to take our conversation outside.  We sat down to discuss my feelings toward religion and how our church has impacted me. 

“I always wanted to get myself rebaptized when I felt it was the time for that and to be completely honest I haven’t approached it because the idea of figuring it all out is just overwhelming and kind of intimidating,” I started to tell him. 

He cut me off saying, “You know what’s amazing?”

“What?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” he proclaimed with a grin on his face. His expression told me that he was about to reveal something completely new and wonderful to me.

He went on to say, “Maybe one of the biggest animating frameworks for me in my time at our church is the idea that a covenant relationship is different than like a friendship or other kinds of relationships.”

He explained that baptism isn’t saying you know all the answers, or that you’re never going to mess up again, but that you’re committing your trust to a higher power. To him, Jesus is the Lord but also a Palestinian Jew of color, a revolutionary pacifist who wanted a new and better life for all people. Baptism, then, is accepting that you don’t have it all figured out, other than that you have faith in something bigger than yourself. It’s believing that everyone is worthy of wholeness and deserving of justice. For Perry, being a part of a Christian church led him closer to this belief, not away from it.

And I was dumbstruck. It had never occurred to me to think about baptism in that way and the more I thought about it, it led me to brand-new conclusions about Christianity as a whole. 

I’ve always believed that everyone is worthy and deserving of justice and wholeness but before I started attending this church, a church hadn’t been one of the influences instilling that belief for me. I now realize that church should push you toward the things you trust and believe in, and encourage you to do what you’re passionate about. I now realize that the feeling of love that this church has helped place in my heart is the feeling that should be associated with God. I now believe that God is not necessarily an object or a thing or some person floating in the clouds, He’s a feeling, He’s my favorite people, places, and things. But I know that I probably would’ve never figured that out if it weren’t for a church community that “speaks my language.”

The reality is, most youth don’t have a religious community that speaks their language, so they become unengaged and put religion on pause, or even completely give up on it. The way the Bible is presented to Christian youth is unappealing and hard to dissect in relation to our modern lives. I believe that part of the requirements of a youth pastor or Bible study teacher should be to break down each lesson into our language. Relating lessons from the Bible to current events, asking us what we would like to do and involving us in decisions or keeping in touch with us even while not at church, or making an effort to be there on a more personal level are all great first steps to engaging youth more. 

I think a lot of people would find Perry surprisingly down to earth for a youth minister. He doesn’t just “talk God” at you, he has real conversations. His lessons incorporate what’s going on in the real world and how it affects us and our beliefs. If I, you, or whoever would like to see more young people interested in spirituality, it must be more versatile than just reading scripture and singing hymnals. 

That being said, I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m okay with that now. Knowing that I’m allowed to ask questions regarding faith, as well as create an individualistic relationship with God rather than strictly believing exactly what is written in the Bible, is so relieving. When I was baptized at the age of three, it was about my parents’ commitment to raising me as a Christian and the church’s commitment to take care of me and lead me to God. Thirteen years later, my plan is to claim my Christianity and beliefs for myself, and publicly profess that I am committing to living in a gracious way. 

I’m very grateful for being able to find a community full of people who are willing to work with me to help satisfy my needs. However, I know that isn’t the case for most people who feel how I did. While navigating through the tough waters of adolescent life, being able to trust in something bigger and know that everything will be alright, as well as have a community that reinforces that belief, is so important. I encourage adults who have faith to reach out to youth and start simply by asking them about their current opinions and needs. In turn, I ask that youth try to have an open and honest conversation. You never know what doors it may open.