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As a teenager, church was a crucial aspect of my life. As a matter of fact, it was the most important part of my life until I went to college. Life changed after that.

It’s crazy how something is meaningful one day, then the next it just isn’t.

For me, church was the first time I ever felt accepted by a collective group of people. I was an oddball kid, and I didn’t fit in with anyone at my high school. I was a nerd; always looking for a library and another fictional adventure to lose myself in.

My mother didn’t believe in minors going to unsupervised parties or teen lock-ins at the local skating rink. Didn’t matter how many times I asked, she wasn’t having it. So after years of being an awkward loner, aimlessly wandering, meeting and losing friends, I discovered the Youth Whole Life Network.

YWLN was the youth ministry at the church my family and I were attending at the time. Prior to becoming a youth leader, church was a routine for me. Every Sunday morning we’d start around 10:30 am and let out somewhere between 1:30 and 3 p.m., depending on how good the Holy Ghost hit that day. Praise and worship, some prayer, a hefty offering, long, boring sermon, and then altar call.

During that time, church was routine. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But after becoming a youth leader, that all changed. Church became not only an enriching place but also a social necessity. It provided me, a loner, with a chance to thrive and dwell amongst others like myself. But at a cost.

Some expectations came with church leadership. Although I was still a child, I was held to a higher standard, and I had to do more. Be more.

I was taught to pray without ceasing and spent long hours studying the intricacies of the scriptures, old and new. Long nights were spent planning youth conferences and retreats where other kids just like me could be filled with the Holy Ghost. Every fourth Sunday I found myself in the pulpit on Youth Days, nerves racked as I spewed long, powerful prayers over the congregation.

I would sit in the bathroom stall before service practicing how to pray; fitting in praise and worship clichés in between Lord We Thank Yous. The prayer had to be perfect. It had to be impactful. It had to have power.

Over time I realized, despite the many positives of being a youth leader in the church, I was developing a religion instead of an actual relationship with God.

Ten years later, both myself and the other young people I grew up with in church are all adults. We’ve graduated from our respective colleges and universities and moved forward with life. Our youth pastor, who led us with such diligence, care, and precision, now has his own ministry. About 70 percent of the youth leaders from my old church are now members of his church, and their congregation is thriving and growing more every day.

I don’t go there, or any house of worship for that matter. Years of active church leadership revealed the flaws behind the veil of ministry, and I needed to separate myself from that to have a real relationship with God.

But social media keeps us all in contact with one another. Memories of piling into the church van and ministering to other youth, traveling across the country for church retreats and the jokes and laughter I shared with my fellow youth leaders still cross my mind and leave a smile stretched across my face.

I’ve watched their lives blossom and develop through Facebook, and everyone appears to be leading rich lives. They are all married, and the majority of them have children.

Not that there is anything wrong with being married. Marriage is a beautiful thing. But everyone is married to other youth we grew up with in church.

And I just find that a tad bit odd.

After all, these former youth leaders are around my age, most of us not even close to 30. But people are in full-blown marriages with babies or babies the way, creating families. It makes me question if church influence and fear of the consequences of sex before marriage pressured some people to move sooner than they should have.

As a youth leader, we were taught about conviction, but I never fully understood it. It almost felt like beating yourself up for doing bad or “sinning.” I would find myself repeatedly repenting for the same things; seeking internal forgiveness from God–and from my church. I think we all were as we kneeled before the altar, tears running down our faces, thanking the Lord for being a forgiving God and for giving us a chance to get it right.

I learned at an early age that self-conviction was a silent killer, and any kind of sexual sin seemed to be the ultimate letdown to God. Although I wasn’t sexually active in my teenage years, I was extremely curious and would sneak to watch porn when no one was at home. As an adult, I realize it’s normal for teenagers to be curious about their bodies and sex. But as a Holy Ghost-filled, praying, retreat-planning youth leader, I was convinced after every click on YouPorn that I was going to hell.

I was a sinner. And so were others.

Growing up, when girls would get pregnant in church, they would get dismissed from ministry. A.k.a., they would “sit you down.” It was almost like church punishment for your sins. I remember multiple teenage girls getting pregnant before they were married. They were soloists in the choir or youth leaders, like me. But after they started showing, they seemed to disappear from those roles.

I think that was a fear for every youth leader. That either they’d get caught having sex or get pregnant and be ineligible for ministry. So when I noticed everyone suddenly hopping on the marriage bandwagon, that was the first thing I thought.

There was so much pressure on us to be great. To uphold righteousness and be set apart. We were told we didn’t fit in with the world because compared to those in the world, we were unequally yoked. So we all gravitated towards each other and, subsequently, started marrying each other.

But everyone is still so young.

In my mid-20s, I feel that I’m nowhere near ready for marriage. There is so much more of me to explore; pieces of me that I haven’t uncovered yet, gems within myself that have yet to shine.

I want to travel to countries I can’t pronounce, fill up a passport with rare stamps, and dine on food my mother can’t prepare. There is so much more of me to see before embarking on a lifetime partnership with someone else. Your 20s are for discovering yourself, right?

With divorce more prevalent, marriage just seems like something not worth rushing into. Yet, with my church upbringing and the Bible’s ‘no sex before marriage’ command, it’s easy to see how some can be persuaded into marriage to avoid carnal desires of the flesh. But I can’t help but feel like organized religion is dissuading people from getting the most out of life’s experiences.

One thing is for certain: Either I’m moving too slowly, or all my peers are moving full speed ahead into the rest of their lives. Or perhaps, there is a pace for everyone, and there is no race to the finish.

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