Probably the most real time ever to be a Christian teenager was in 1997. It was a different time, before kids in youth group were texting nudes to each other with their e-Bibles. Before Janet Reno made DC Talk break up. Before the yoga pants wars.
Hillsong hadn’t been invented yet, so no one wore sandals to church. Everyone dressed up like it was a funeral and the clothes were tight and itchy and everyone was miserable, but what could you do, holiness don’t come easy, trick. Once you got to the sanctuary, you only had a few precious moments to ditch your family before the service started. If you escaped, you could sit with the youth group, who all sat together, which was a horrible idea, because no one in the youth group ever paid attention, not even the homeschooled kids: the girls wrote notes to each other on the church bulletins and played those M.A.S.H. games and the guys just sort of sat there spacing out during the sermon. Something about Clinton, something about engaging the culture, stand up and sing the “As the Deer,” then you were free.
On Wednesday night you went back, but not to the main sanctuary, no sir. Wednesday night was youth group, which was held in your church’s edgy youth annex, where the lights were turned down and the walls were covered with Audio Adrenaline posters and spray-painted graffiti like SOLD OUT or BLOOD BOUGHT. Also there was pizza and Dr. Pepper and free WWJD bracelets and stacks of permission slips on the counter.
This was before youth pastors looked like frat boys in khakis with their sunglasses on a neck strap. Back in 1997, youth pastors had frosted tips and wore black t-shirts and tight blue jeans. They sort of looked like magicians.
The youth pastor would give a message where he kept saying the word “teens.” Teens this, teens that, talking about how he needed some teens who were radically saved and teens who were IN the world but not OF the world. He also talked a lot about Marilyn Manson and how he was dragging souls to hell with his music, but I don’t know. I heard Manson’s music in Hot Topic and it was horrible, so maybe Satan needed some better music. Anyway, towards the end of the message, the youth pastor got sort of weepy and talked to “my seniors.” He kept saying how this was the most important year of their life, and that when his seniors got to college, The Enemy would be coming for them, even though most of them were going to Christian colleges, but whatever. Then someone played “Two Sets of Jones'” as the pastor’s daughter stood at the front and did sign language to it. The youth pastor gave an altar call but no one raised their hand because it was the same 18 kids who had all been saved since fourth grade.
In between trips to church, you sort of just avoided all the non-Christian people. It was okay, though, because if they wanted to know more about God, your Christian novelty t-shirt would do the work for you:
Then on Friday night you went to the Christian coffeehouse across the street from your church. The church owned and operated it, but they didn’t really advertise the connection. It was kind of like hey, stop in for some chai latte, we just happen to be playing the Christian radio station and also take this flier for the church rummage sale and also don’t forget to write your prayer request on the Prayer Wall on your way out.
While you waited for your friends to arrive, you would take out your Spousal Checklist and fill it up with all sorts of earnest gibberish about the many godly traits your future spouse would surely possess. Nowhere on the list did you write “willing to get up at 3am with the baby who shat through his onesie,” but you should have. It’s okay. There was no way for you to know how important that trait is.
Then your friends got there just in time for the live music: your friend’s brother’s band was playing, and they did a bunch of Jars of Clay covers and handed out business cards with the band’s Angelfire web site address on them. Then it was 9:30, and Jesus never broke curfew, so it was time to head home, where you’d wait for your parents to go to bed so you could get online. If you timed it just right, you could catch a couple of late night Christian music videos on TBN. Then when your parents were asleep, you’d string the phone cord to your 200 lb desktop computer and log onto AOL. Then you’d spend 3 minutes waiting for a single email to download before you got on AOL IM with the same 5 people you were just hanging out with. Maybe, if you were lucky, you could even find a youth group girl who hadn’t read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and flirt with her. You had to be careful, though: sometimes those were the girls who owned Marilyn Manson CDs.