Comeback Kid

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Note: Caroline agreed to use her first name in telling this story, but desired to remain otherwise anonymous. If you happen to know her, please respect her privacy.

So far I have only heard stories from people who left church. That wasn’t intentional on my part, but there are just so many. Finding a person who’s come back to church is, from what I can tell, substantially rarer. But Caroline’s is that story, my first look at someone (other than me) who’s left and come back.

Unlike everyone else I’ve interviewed so far, I don’t know Caroline well. We only met two weeks ago. But once I heard her story and her passion, we had a sudden kinship that’s going to stay with us, I think, for a long while.

Also unlike others I’ve interviewed so far, Caroline wasn’t raised in church. Her mother had been pastor’s child herself, but had such a bad experience that she didn’t want to go back. Caroline’s first real experience at church happened for the very best of reasons.

“I was invited to youth group in middle school. I went because there were going to be cute boys there. I kept coming because my friends were there.”

Though I’m sure that the church would rather have attracted Caroline through a different approach, going to church set Caroline on a spiritual journey with lifelong impacts. She was saved, almost stereotypically, at a Christian youth camp, in seventh grade. Also somewhat typically, she only went to church for her youth group.

“I consistently went to youth group only. No Sunday school, no service. Just youth group. I mostly went because of the community [of my youth group]. It was like church without old people.”

That may sound somewhat callous, but Caroline illuminates a driving problem that existed in her church at the time, and in mine: generational segregation.

Youth groups in particular end up being their own little sub-church in many congregations. They often have their own Sunday school, own small groups, own curriculum, their own events, their own area of the church, and even their own services.

This was certainly the case in the churches I grew up in. The idea was to make church more attractive to middle and high school students, while also making the material more approachable to them.

That was the notion, and it’s not a bad one, but it led to a kind of segregation that has led to major generational rifts in churches. It taught us that “real church” wasn’t for us, and it separated us from the church community at large. Caroline and I both believe this is one of the major contributing factors to students abandoning church once they go to college. You can’t segregate people from “real church” their whole lives, then expect them to seek one out once they become an adult.

Caroline instinctively knew this, even at a young age, and rather immediately felt called to do something about it.

“I felt a call into ministry in ninth grade, again at a church camp. From that point forward, though, I totally ran from it. I went to college and majored in psychology. I figured I was going to minister to people without being in the ministry.”

Part of Caroline’s pull away from this calling came from her family. Her parents initially were okay with her being a Christian, even taking her to youth group when she was a student, but they were wholly unsupportive of a career in ministry. I can’t help but imagine that some of her hesitancy toward ministry came from that conflict.

There were other reasons, too. She felt pressured by her gender and was told that she wasn’t allowed to be a minister. That personal exclusion too closely mirrored the church’s exclusions of others, too, in such issues as race and sexuality, and that was enough, at least temporarily, for Caroline to avoid a career in church.

But Caroline couldn’t avoid it forever.

“I had some friends tell me that I was running from my calling and from church. I didn’t go to a church full-time until I was a junior in college. When those people had the gumption to call me out, I realized that I was just running.”

So Caroline stopped running. She changed her major and, really, her life, to pursue finally the path of ministry. It may have taken her a while to make that decision, but that time was not for nothing. In those crucial years, something changed in her parents’ hearts, too. By the time Caroline had graduated college, her parents had come around to supporting her, even sending her to seminary, where she studies now.

Caroline may have come back to the church finally, but she didn’t forget how she first arrived.

“I usually connect best with people who feel like a black sheep in church.”

Caroline relates to them quite personally. Just like her, they don’t feel like they fit in, they don’t have family there, and don’t fit the mold. They stand out, often, and they can get pushed to the side a lot. Caroline fights for those people because, in a way, she’s still fighting for herself. She says openly, almost with pride, that based on her circumstances, she never should have been in church in the first place. She even says,

“It was a mistake that I was there at all.”

A glorious, blessed mistake.

Now Caroline wants to minister to other ‘mistakes’ as well. She wants to close the generational gap in church, particularly between youth groups and college groups. She seeks to include and integrate outsiders into what she considers a more beautiful mold of church.

“If you look at Jesus and his lifestyle and the people he surrounded himself with, they didn’t fit the mold.  The ones who did? Jesus called them out. It’s the outsiders, the people who don’t fit the mold, that know what the Beatitudes look like. They know what it means to be the meek and the poor and the powerless, the widowed and the orphaned. That’s who the church was created for. I just think the church went wrong.”

I have to do a double take as she says that. I found someone whose passion on this issue matches (or possibly exceeds) my own. She speaks with such depth, but also with such accessibility, that I know she will have more of an impact than even she thinks possible.

In her youth, Caroline avoided “real church,” but what she fell in love with was real church. It was community and relationships and care with a healthy dollop of Christian truth, however imperfect. I believe she will create such a church around her throughout her ministry.

I would definitely go to that church.

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