I accidentally converted to Christianity once.
I don’t mean that I tripped on a bible or fell off a horse and saw God for a minute (I’m looking at you, Saul!); when I say I “accidentally” converted I mean that for the entire time leading up to that moment I had no intention of doing so, and then all of sudden, BAM!, I was a Christian.
I lived on a rural island in Lake Ontario when I was in high school. The kids on the island were ferried over to Kingston to attend high school. I had a few friends on the island, and we sat near each other on the bus and we had small gatherings and outings together.
One of those friends, Josh, came from a devout Christian family. His parents were among the nicest people I’d ever met, and welcomed his friends into their home warmly and frequently. I was living with my father and his girlfriend at the time, and they never seemed to mind all the time I spent with Josh’s family, although I never really asked their opinion. My father was raised Catholic, and his girlfriend was raised Anglican, so it probably wouldn’t have worried them too much that I was spending so much time with a Christian family, even if my family wasn’t more than culturally Christian by that point.
I was essentially a teenaged atheist, with a copy of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail on my bookshelf and a strong sense of medieval church history playing in the background of all of my thoughts about Christianity. This was aided and abetted by my father’s Masonic leanings, and the wiccan beliefs his girlfriend developed as an adult. My religious world was bigger than Christianity. But it was also isolating, because there are no gatherings for teens who are secular, atheistic, versed in the bible and church history, and who also have leanings toward Celtic paganism. Or, if there are such groups now, there weren’t any then.
My friend Josh had an older sister, Jenny, and I definitely had a crush on her. So it took very little effort, really, to get me to start going to youth group nights with them in town. Their church was on the mainland, so the youth events (basketball, game nights, parties) were not only social, when I really needed social, but also off the island, when I really needed to be off the island. And, of course, Jenny went, and I was going to miss no opportunity to spend time with her.
The youth group at their church was led by a young married couple in their very early twenties. Imagine the most perfectly beautiful blonde white people you can. Do you hear the “ting” when they smile? Yes, that’s them. They were fun to hang out with, and they were only a mild authority. It was a little thrilling to have their attention, like when your older cousin takes you to a college party and people talk to you like you are an adult for the first time when you’ve spent your days being lectured to by old teachers. The church couple made sure the youth group was a fun, engaging place rather than an overbearing lecture.
There were other kids, ages ranging from about fourteen to seventeen, who would come to the group. I thought they were all from families like my friend Josh’s: traditional, Christian, proselytizing. I would realize later that many of them were like me: lonely, bored, unattached to any church. I knew some of them, like Mike and his sister, from high school, but the rest went to different schools, all over town.
I spent enough time with this group of kids, and the youth leaders, that I started to recognize different bands that were on the radio in Josh’s car as we drove. Petra, of course, was a major presence in the group. But smaller acts like Hokus Pick also showed up on the radio and we sang along so often that I can still remember the lyrics to “Simple Song”.
Spending so much time with Josh at school, at his house, at his youth group, and spending so much time with Jenny (we eventually started talking on the phone very late into the night…but, you know what? Jenny gets her own story, because I just remembered how very strangely that turned out), and with Josh’s family and the other kids, it was almost inevitable that I’d begin attending his church. I wasn’t attending as a believer, born-again into a faith I’d lost or something. It was a social event, for me. It was always social. I retained a fairly strong atheistic streak, though I don’t think anyone minded much, even if I not-so-secretly thought that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and so the whole church is a lie, man!
One night, the youth group had an outing to Ottawa, a couple of hours away. We were going to a Christian Rock concert. Road trip! We were very excited, though now I can’t remember who we were going to see. Some bearded guy at a piano. Does that even count as rock? I didn’t know what to expect, apart from a concert. I certainly didn’t expect the mini-sermons in between songs. My only concert experience up to that point had been seeing Michael Jackson in Montreal when I was a kid. This was very different from a Michael Jackson concert (although for many, seeing Michael Jackson in the 80’s was a religious experience).
If you had asked me before we arrived what I thought was going to happen at the concert, I never would have predicted seeing teen after teen crying, and then stumbling out of the auditorium with the help of their own youth group leaders. My friend Mike was one of them. He just started crying during one of the bearded piano player’s songs, and he made his way out of the row of seats, passing me on the way and entering a hallway to the right of the stage with the husband of our pair of blonde leaders. I was worried about him, worried that something had happened in his family and he just couldn’t hold it in any longer, or worried that he was in trouble somehow. So I followed him and the husband into the hallway. I followed them into, what I would realize later, was the conversion room.
The room was quiet, but filled with couches and chairs arranged into private spaces. In each of those spaces, a teen sat, often weeping, while a young adult spoke quietly to them and held their hand. I saw Mike on a couch, with the husband in the chair, and I went over to them to make sure Mike was okay.
“I’m so happy,” the husband said as he saw me coming over. As I sat down, he continued, “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, like Mike just has?”
No. Oh, God no. Hell no. What the? Is that what…?
Something happened while I was sitting there, dumbstruck by his question and realizing what the purpose of this room, this concert, indeed the entire policy of having non-church teens attend the youth group nights was. I was looking at Mike as he wept, and I realized he hadn’t, until that moment, really been one of “the group”, though I’d believed him to be. And I wasn’t really one of “the group” either. But suddenly, because I realized Mike was about to have something I didn’t have, I wanted it too. I wanted to be like Mike, and Josh, and Jenny. I wanted the acceptance and the attention. I didn’t want to be on the outside, looking in.
So I said “yes”.
I don’t think oral contracts are really binding in a conversion, or at least I hope they aren’t, because I definitely wasn’t entering that agreement in good faith. I didn’t believe in God, or that Jesus was reigning in Heaven at his Father’s side, or that the good would be rewarded or that Jesus Saves or any of that stuff. But I did believe that I couldn’t say “no” to this person, at this moment. I was too afraid of having to explain myself honestly to say “No, I still don’t believe what you believe; I’m just here to support my friend as he deals with some emotions.” I didn’t want to deal with the conversation that I feared would follow. I didn’t want to be rejected.
I’d always been warned about peer pressure, but only about drugs, alcohol, and behaviours; I had no perspective from which to see the peer pressure that was at work here, to see how I was letting peer pressure, rather than honest feelings, determine how I was going to react.
The husband beamed at me. Mike smiled through tears. We all hugged, and we returned to our seats. We were greeted by the rest of the group, who seemed to know all about the conversion room (I was the only one who didn’t know what the hell was going on back there), and who were very excited that I’d leaped up to join Mike as he disappeared down that hallway during the concert. We returned home in a glow.
Not long after the concert, I stopped going to church with Josh and Jenny. I stopped going to youth group meetings. I don’t remember why. I probably felt fraudulent. I didn’t start believing things I hadn’t believed previously, but being in that church environment did prime me for the next few years of high school, and my interaction with another strongly religious family during that time. I was about to start dating a Mormon.