Over the weekend, Mary found a youth group.
There’s this church that my parents have been begging us to sit in on for months. This preacher is different, they kept telling us. He’s like, cool and stuff. And young. And relatable. And they call this place, “real church for real people.” It sounded like a lot of fluff I’ve heard before, a claim that always, always falls short of being the truth. And it annoyed me a little every time they’d bring it up, as if this were some revolutionary idea. Hey! Let's make church cool so even people who love God won't hate going!
I love being a Christian, but I’m not any better about celebrating it outside of Christmas than anyone else. I drag my children to Sunday service in a stuffy room and suffer through their embarrassing behavior over awful gonging of an echoing organ, out of something that is more parts obligation and guilt than any respectable reason. As a parent eager to set my daughter on a path of hypocritical righteousness, though - or at least halfway decent decorum - I decided on Sunday that we’d sit in on this special-event-service thing this so-called “cool” church was having called Hot Seat. The notice on facebook said that Pastor Mark would host five sessions that weekend, of sitting on stage, answering hard, real-life, no-holds-barred questions about faith, submitted by others - without seeing any of them ahead of time. I respected that, and I thought that since right now I was under-qualifiedly tackling the elephant of answering Mary's questions on the subject alone, this was worth checking out.
Mary wasn’t thrilled at first, but she wasn’t completely against it either, which would have been enough to make me proud. Clearly, I didn’t have the highest hopes. I expected guitars and music that probably tried too hard to sound angst-y and hoarse. But I didn’t expect any of us to come out of it changed people. Mary's twelve and spends ninety percent of Sunday service at our other church either making fun of people in the surrounding pews or otherwise making it flagrantly obvious that she's miserable and not paying even the smallest iota of attention to the pastor. It's exhausting and infuriating and an embarrassment EVERY TIME. Expecting a few electric guitars over an organ to make a dent of real difference here, would have been a joke.
But then, right out of the gate, the projection screen read: Does God really hate gays?
Wow. To my surprise, the questions actually were real questions. (By the way the answer is obviously a resounding no.) Questions that almost had me blushing. Questions that children under 5th grade weren’t supposed to sit in on. Questions that made me look forward to listening in on the available Podcast of the earlier four sessions that week, which tackled a different set of questions each time. These were the type of questions that Mary needed answers to, the type that people generally seem to skirt, but that I didn’t want to. Questions like these were the reason I wanted her to be there. For the first time in literally my entire life, ever, I was nodding my head in church. I was clapping. I was breathing in hard to keep from choking up. Every once in a while Mary would laugh out loud next to me, and intermittently, she’d pull her knees up to her chest in the chair and lay her head on my shoulder. And we’d listen together and we would say “amen” at all the same times.
At the end of the service, they announced that Youth Group was meeting there that night, and immediately, she wanted to go. She ran to her friend’s house down the street when we got home to invite her and I e-mailed the group leader to see if it was okay, and the two of them were enthusiastically encouraged to show up with any and all questions they had about joining.
When I dropped them off that night, the smell of grilled food resonated outside of the building and there were rows of tables set up with two-liter drinks and bagged snacks and buns before a row of grills to walk past before you even got inside. (They FEED these kids!? I thought. I LOVE THIS PLACE.) Someone met me at the door because they noticed we were new, and over live, thumping music, they offered a rundown of exactly what would happen while the girls were there. First, they watch the concert. Then they meet by the café and they the pastor leads them all in a “café-style” conversation about real issues facing kids their age today, in a faith-based format that’s designed to do exactly the opposite of what every other church on the planet does -- turn them away, guilt them into behaving, you know the drill. Plus, I can leave and just pick them up in two hours. SWEET.
“Try not to show up at exactly 7:30, if you can help it,” he said. “They usually want to stay for a while afterward.”
And true to his word, they wanted to stay. In fact, they came back with nothing but wonderful things to say - about the kids there, about that church, and about (WOW) God, Himself. Mary even found a teacher from her old middle school who promised to tell all of her friends back at GR how well she was doing. It was a good night that led to the start of a terrific week. Now, to say that I’m looking forward to many, many more just like it isn’t remarkable. But to be able to say that so is Mary -- That’s something. And I'm just really glad.