Gaming my youth pastor’s system, so to speak, was one of the perks of being the pastor’s kid. One of the highlights (lowlights, rather) of my duplicitousness was going to my dad behind my youth pastor’s back and asking him if boys and girls could sit next to each other on the church bus. You see, recognizing the single-minded focus of teenage hormones, my youth pastor had decreed that members of the opposite sex couldn’t sit beside each other on the bus. My dad, who would not have been happy if he had known what I was doing, was probably preoccupied with study when I asked him, and didn’t really think about what motives would’ve propelled a teenage boy to ask such a question. Regardless, I got what I wanted, and it ended as my youth pastor expected.
Growing up in the world of strict fundamentalism meant that, among other things, my friends and I became fluent in the art of subterfuge. We became adroit at balancing on the thin fence that separated our authority figures’ positive expectations from their negative expectations. Too far on one side, and we’d be expected to deliver devotionals, lead in prayer during youth group, and sing solos during the Christmas cantata. Drift a little bit the other way, however, and the proverbial screws would be tightened, making it harder to get away with doing whatever we wanted to do.
And whatever we wanted to do almost always violated one of the many rules that our parents, youth pastors, and Christian school teachers had established as protective moral fences. As silly as this may sound to some, “going bowling” was code for “going to the movie theatre” in my fundamentalist world. You see, going to the movie theatre was anathema. And we couldn’t listen to Michael W. Smith, much less Nirvana or even Ace of Base. Any music that remotely reminded our authority figures of rock and roll was banned. My sisters couldn’t wear pants, and I was required to tuck my shirt in when I wasn’t playing sports.
The rules were many. But as alluded to above, most of us found an equilibrium that allowed us to do pretty much what we wanted without attracting too much attention from the adults. Most of the time, the largest obstacle to our fun was a friend who became convicted during a revival service, school chapel, or at a youth retreat. Whenever that happened, we would have to keep our contraband and illicit activities hidden from that friend for a few short weeks.
For some who grew up in a similar conservative evangelical world, the tense divide between child and authority figures hasn’t morphed into the mature perspective that is normally included in the party favors one receives when entering adulthood. Instead, these continually embittered souls have created a cottage industry churning out books, blogs, and podcasts shredding the world of their youth. Painting the conservative evangelical world with the broad brush of abuse and legalism, Donald Miller, Rachel Held Evans, and other Pied Pipers of the ex-evangelical world have succeeded in leading many from my generation and the next onto the entrance ramp of the road to perdition. However, for many (myself included), our strict upbringing has been a blessing.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything my parents taught and did. And I recognize that some of their rules did communicate some unhelpful things. However, I am also very aware that my children will probably be able to say the exact same things about some, if not most, of my parenting decisions. But, by God’s grace, I trust that when they’re adults, my children’s anecdotes will also include a warm and thankful reminiscence about how I loved them, and more importantly, loved King Jesus and taught them about the love of Jesus. Because that’s the most important legacy that my parents and many of my authority figures gifted me.
Through it all, even when they were frustratingly strict, I never doubted that my parents, teachers, and youth pastors loved me and were concerned about my well-being. I knew that everything they did was meant to protect me. Whether or not it worked is beside the point. Because what did work was their incessant preaching of the gospel to me. At my lowest point of rebellion, after I had dived head first into the pig trough, the Holy Spirit would not allow me to escape the words of truth and love that had been drilled into my unwilling head. God used my mom’s tearful words, “I love you, God loves you, and I’m praying for you” to eventually drive me to my knees in faith and repentance. No amount of strict rules undermined the love shown through the preaching of the gospel. And that’s the primary thing that I learned from Christian fundamentalism – the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I’ve written elsewhere, my fundy street cred is legit: my dad was a fundamentalist pastor, my mom a teacher at Santa Rosa Christian School in Milton, Florida, I worked several summers at the Bill Rice Ranch, and I attended Bob Jones University. And not once was I ever taught that obeying the rules and standards are what determine a person’s standing before God. “By faith alone” was drilled into my head. The love of Jesus was modeled for me in the love my parents, teachers, and youth pastors demonstrated toward me.
My understanding of my authority figures’ love for me and my ability to game the system aside, I chafed at the rules, and I longed for the day when I would be free from the constraints. But my antagonism with the rules revealed a problem in my heart, and not in the hearts of those who implemented and enforced the rules. I was as aware of that then as I am now. Since the existence of God didn’t make sense to me at the time, I believed that the state of my heart was irrelevant. When I finally broke free (or so I thought) I embraced a pedal-to-the-metal hedonism that would’ve eventually been my complete undoing if God hadn’t intervened.
During my time at Bob Jones University, I heard several times the testimony of one of my strict dorm supervisors about how God had saved him out of a life of grotesque sin. In that testimony, he would warn us that cashing in our inheritance for the sake of worldly pleasures was not as fun as it appeared. Years later, I would lie awake after an evening of getting high and other debauchery, remembering my dorm supervisor’s words. I would think to myself, “He was right, this isn’t fun.”
During that same time period, the Holy Spirit used the teaching from my youth to help bring me to the end of myself and to the point where I recognized my need for a Savior. All those silly flannel graph lessons about Jesus, the countless chapel messages about a holy and righteous God, and the love demonstrated to me by people that I rebelled against played over and over in my mind. No matter how high I got, I was unable to escape the God of the Bible that I was taught about in my strict, fundamentalist upbringing. And that God wasn’t an overbearing God of rules and standards, but a God who loved me enough to send His son to die for my sins. That’s what comes to my mind when I think about my strict parents, teachers, and youth pastors. And I thank God that my authority figures loved me enough to teach me about the love of Jesus.