When I was in high school, I was very active in my church and in a Christian youth movement. I was a “born again” Christian and hungry for a profound spiritual experience. What I discovered, however, was that the institutional churches were not all that interested in promoting faith that was predicated on anything other than the authority of the institution. If it didn’t come from the church through approved channels, it was suspect.
A group of what were then known as “Jesus Freaks” moved into an old nursing home in town and lived a communal life in accordance with how they interpreted the New Testament. They were mostly young and were not affiliated with any church other than their own church that had worship and fellowship daily at the “commune”.
The community ran a restaurant called the “Yellow Deli” which served some pretty good natural foods. I really liked their salads and papaya juice, and I ate there whenever I could afford it. There would be music in the evenings, and one of my friends sometimes played his guitar there and sang. We got to know the Jesus Freaks and occasionally visited them at their community. This brought down the deacons on us. They warned us that those Yellow Deli people were a “cult” that would try to brainwash us and get us into their crazy commune. Some concerned citizens made a concerted effort to shut the Jesus Freaks down, and I am proud to say that they had failed at least until I left town.
We were under a lot of social pressure to stay away from our new friends, but we stuck by them. I didn’t reckon they were any more of a cult than the First Baptist Church, and their community seemed a lot more Christian than anything else I had ever seen. If anything, they made the deacons look like the Pharisees that had hounded Jesus. I wasn’t recruited or anything, but I probably would have been welcome if I wanted to join the community once I came of age. Knowing them did cause me to rethink the church, and I never again belonged to a church that I didn’t think had the makings of a halfway decent Christian community.
I was also involved in a Tuesday night Bible study that grew from about five participants to a coupe of hundred in the space of a year. I was in an “action group”, a kind of cell in the movement and led less experienced youngsters in forming their own action groups. A benefactor donated an abandoned farm building that we turned into a meetinghouse. We sponsored trips to Christian concerts and training seminars and revival meetings.
When things got cooking, we drew the wrath of the local churches. Our group was characterized as a “cult” that was in competition with our churches, and the volunteer adult leader was persecuted so much that he had to quit leading us out of fear of losing his day job and being run out of town on a rail. Parents were warned not to let their kids get involved with us, all because we offered something in the way of community and experience that the churches were unwilling or unable to offer. Our group encouraged active churchgoing, and we were astonished and hurt that the churches turned on us in this way. I later learned that the leader of Young Life, a mainstream youth organization approved by the churches, had been involved in working against us. The churches were not about to tolerate having young people seek the Lord and experience Jesus except through their mediation.
That was such a disheartening experience that I stopped being as active in church once I went to college. I was a half-hearted member of the Baptist Student Union for a while, and I attended church only sporadically (I sat behind President Carter on occasion). By the time I finished college, I no longer even considered myself a Christian.