For the Youth Group Kid Leaving Home

photo by Chethan Cee, Flickr Commons

photo by Chethan Cee, Flickr Commons

It is the summer of your senior year, and you will spend it at the beach with your youth group.

Around you, the sky will turn to dusk as you play Ultimate Frisbee, eat a hot dog straight from the grill, jump into the cold, wild deep.

You will go on one last missions trip, maybe. Maybe Mexico or Costa Rica or just downtown to help at a shelter. You will eat simple foods and disconnect from electronics and meet people so different, so beautiful that your heart will ache with it.

You will vow to live differently. You will want to change the world for God.

In that foreign place, you will feel the deep threads of connection. Your youth group will become a kind of extended family as you work together to build a house or a well or to serve food to the hungry. You’ll pick up a soccer ball and begin to play, and you feel so child-like and so grown-up all at once, all of you together in that other world.

At church on Sunday mornings, you’ll all sit in one row, listening and passing notes, so aware of who is next to you. So aware of God around you.

And this is your last youth group summer. Enjoy it. Play every stupid group game. Stay out late, drinking gas-station cappuccino, driving nowhere in particular. Lie side-by-side on the hood of your car, counting the stars and wondering about God. On those last warm beach nights, dive all the way in.

It won’t really be like this again.

You need to know that. And you need to know that it’s okay.

I want to tell you that faith is easy when you are well-loved. When you are circling to pray, hand-in-hand, holding on tight to each other.

At fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you are infinite and invincible and on the verge of Everything. It’s a kind of liquid oxygen – these feelings, this love – and when you add the spark of new faith, it’s so easy to find yourself on fireto glow bright, to light the world.

But you turn the tassel on your graduation cap, and you turn into your new life. You go to college or to work. You move out. You move away.

Maybe you’ll love the Christian group on your campus. But maybe it won’t feel right, won’t feelthe same, and so you’ll stop going after three weeks and never go back.

If you go to Christian College, you might find yourself at the other end of those side-eyes that make you feel less-than, because this is how it goes: you are all new here. All of you are looking for your footing and your family. You will, consciously or unconsciously, size each other up. You will judge and be judged and it will hurt like mad, all of it.

If you grew up in one church most of your life, it will feel really different to go somewhere new. Without the youth group to take you in, there’s a chance you’ll feel unmoored. You’ll sit alone in the sanctuary maybe, and in the sea of smiling church people in the lobby, you’ll feel adrift and lonely.

It will be easy to find fault with every church you go to. It won’t feel right, and you’ll be tempted to pin-point what’s wrong. To blame the preaching or the music or the people. Really, the truth is that it’s just not home. And it’s okay if that feels hard; it’s okay to stop going for a while or to find other ways of doing church, of being Church in your normal life.

One by one, your friends will break those vows you all made to each other and to God. The ones spoken at banquets and on missions trips and late-night under the stars. The disillusionment will creep in, stark and cold, and the reality of the world you live in will feel big and sharp. For a while, everything will feel in flux.

Maybe your closest youth group friends will give up on God altogether, and if they trust you enough to tell you this, don’t quote Bible verses or launch into memorized apologetics. Just listen. Just be there.

Reach across the table and hold her hand. Give him a hug and then be there. Because faith is easier when you are well-loved exactly as you are…and it feels nearly impossible when you’re not.

What I’m trying to say is that it gets more complex from here on out.

It’s tempting to want to recreate those youth group days, to try to replicate it in your grown-up life, but I’ll tell you right now that it doesn’t work. You are older now, and once you move on, you can’t go back. Community will look different at 20 and at 30 and at 40, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful, any less important, any less at all.

It’s tempting, too, to write off these early years as less real, as less important, as too simple.Maybe you’ll read an article about how 20-somethings have a hard time connecting in church because they are used to being entertained, because they’re used to being catered to by youth group leaders everywhere. And you’ll think, Yes! That’s it! That’s why it’s hard! Maybe you’ll be tempted to point fingers, then, to blame the past for how it feels now.

But really, that’s not the whole truth, is it?

The whole truth includes evenings at the edge of the water with your friends. It includes handwritten notes from your youth pastor and that church family who let you all stay in their lake house that one weekend for a summer retreat.

It’s late-night coffee and old, ripped up couches and it’s true – you won’t always feel it. Faith is a journey and a landscape. It’s mad seasons and cold seasons and those first warm dayswhen you feel God’s great love again. All of it is hard and beautiful, and every bit of it matters.

And if you find yourself well-loved by Church People in this, your last youth group summer, be grateful.

Dive in and swim deep. And when you towel yourself off and put on your shoes, notice the way you feel right now: waterlogged and happy. Sunburned and invincible and beloved.

Carry it with you. And walk on.

  • Cindee Snider Re

    Addie, wow! You’ve touched something deep and necessary and so real here. Thank you. With one son in college, one headed there this fall and three more walking that way, your words resonate and touch what I’ve heard from the college crowd. It’s sooo good to be loved long and deep by your youth group, your church, your friends, but it changes and that can be hard and disorienting and leave these kids disillusioned. Thank you for sharing your heart, these words, hope. May they reach across the screen, across miles and states, and touch the hearts of many. Bless you!

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Cindee!

  • kevin

    Thanks Addie. It wasn’t't perfect back then, but we worked hard at creating close community, teach the Bible well enough to impact you so that you could impact others & make a difference. Every year it was hard letting go of another Senior Class. Because I loved each person in it.

    • Addie Zierman

      I know you did. You were a great youth pastor, and I am grateful for those youth group years, Kevin! Thanks!

  • kevin

    Thanks Addie. It wasn’t’ perfect back then, but we worked hard at creating close community, taught the Bible well enough to impact you so that you could impact others & make a difference. Every year it was hard letting go of another Senior Class. Because I loved each person in it.

  • Jen Bradbury

    Addie –

    As a youth worker, I really appreciated this post. I thought you might also be interested in reading this:

    Blessings & thanks for your words –

    • Addie Zierman

      Very nice! Thanks for sharing.

  • Katie

    So beautiful and heartbreaking, Addie. This mirrors my own experience in some ways. Thank you.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Katie!

  • Leanne Penny

    Sunburned and Invincible. Those seasons are a fleeting gift.

    I love your weaving words about this because it’s true and it’s hard and it’s so easy to remember those days with cynicism and invalidate them completely.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Leanne. Yes, the cynicism infects everything, doesn’t it? It’s like a kind of addiction. You think you’re in control and that it’s a legit feeling and then all of the sudden it OWNS you and all of your memories and everything you once thought was good. I’m so over you, cynicism.

  • Patricia

    This is such a gift to those young people! I know it always helped me to be able to draw on the perspectives of others who’d already been there…when this or that happened, I could remember, oh yeah, so-and-so told me this might happen, or that i might feel this way. I could take comfort in knowing that, even if my experience was painful, there was nothing wrong with me.

    • Addie Zierman

      That’s my hope Patricia. Looking back, I think this is what I might have said to my 18-year-old self. (Who knows if she would have listened!) Thanks so much.

  • Paige Tobie

    I love this. Life is so much harder after those days at the beach.

    • kevin

      Those were good days weren’t't they!

      • Addie Zierman

        Very good. Beach night was the best idea ever.

    • Addie Zierman

      Agreed. Thanks sister.

  • Clay Morgan

    Wow, I love this. You’re a great writer Addie, that’s obvious, but a piece like this is so full of beautiful reflection. Few people can clarify past experiences so well. I hope a million students read this.

    • Addie Zierman

      Such a kind comment, Clay. I so appreciate these words! Thanks!

  • Kim Van Brunt

    Have I told you what I love about your writing? If it’s not clear, this piece is such a great example. You tell the truth to both sides, but deliver it with so much grace that it feels like a gift no matter who you are. This is so beautiful and true and affirming and it feels like a big hug. Love you.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thank you Kim. I’m so glad that it feels graceful and life-giving. That’s what I want for this blog, and I’m so happy it’s coming through. (Love you too.)

  • Alise

    Thank you for this, Addie. This has helped me reconcile that former Youth Group Kid with the adult that I am today and that is incredibly healing.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Alise. And I know what you mean. I spent a lot of time resenting my former self for being so naive, and on the other side of the coin, I think 17-year-old Addie would be a little shocked at who I’ve become. A big part of my journey this past year has been learning to love this former self and to see the gifts that are still waiting there in that past for me to discover.

  • Sarah

    I keep coming back to this entry and it makes me cry each time I do. The person above me commented that it is healing, and I think it is. I don’t know if I realized how I consciously struggled with integrating that person with the person I am now – and I had a very limited youth group experience. But I did have the summer after senior year, with my small group of six at my church, which seemed never-ending and this captures that feeling so well. I’ve missed that summer because it was fun and we’ve since grown apart, but I don’t think I fully realized that I also missed it for deeper reasons: the simplicity and a sense of belonging. This is beautiful and true, and I don’t think I can completely articulate how much — I’m not sure I completely understand how much. Thank you for writing this.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Sarah. I know what you mean about missing that summer and that feeling of belonging. For a long time I was so angry because I could never seem to find it again — not at any church I ever visited. I didn’t realize until much later that so much of what made it what it was was our actual age, our high-school-ness, our blissful hope, our easy fire for God. Anyway, thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate it!

  • Jim Fisher

    Addie, I love how you painted the path on which many have us have journeyed … a masterpiece of guidance for all ages. May it be a blessing to all who witness the wisdom you so skillfully crafted into it..

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Jim. Kind words.

  • Kimberly Walker

    Can you believe that amazing summer was 13 years ago? How on earth does time go so quickly? And how surreal that life can change so much in such a short period of time. Do you think we ever would have believed it if someone had said? Perhaps those days were felt so special because God knew we would need for them to be later on in life.

    Feeling so nostalgic for the days of sitting on the beach, each other the most important part of life.

    I’m so happy that you still are that important to me, drastically different as our worlds are today from then.

  • Jane Peterson

    “Faith is a journey and a landscape. It’s mad seasons and cold seasons and those first warm days when you feel God’s great love again. All of it is hard and beautiful, and every bit of it matters…Carry it with you. And walk on.” Beautiful. Spot on. Your writing touches this 62-yr-old’s soul. Thank you for your writings, Addie.

  • Sharon Bloch

    Beautiful. And very well timed. My son is leaving for college this year and just had his last youth group meeting. He goes to summer camp for the last time next week. His church pours a lot of resources and energy into their youth program and the leaders are terrific. But I worry about what will happen when he doesn’t have that and is just one of the crowd in “big church.”

  • Jane Peterson

    I agree with Jim. “A masterpiece of guidance for all ages.”

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  • Amanda

    Thank you so much for this. It speaks so clearly to my own experience in ways I never really realized. And yet, now I work as a college campus minister and I struggle with why I have trouble connecting with students. This will be a great resource to share with them, and my friends in youth ministry.

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  • Claire Asbury

    Addie, this is so spot on. I’m seven years past that last youth group summer, and it still hits me in the gut, what you’ve written here. Thank you!

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