Faith-based

Sixteen and Evangelical

In high school, my friends and I were inseparable. We grew up in the same church with the same faith. How did we all drift so far apart?

Illustration of a group of teens in front of a church watching the sun set in the background.
Doris Liou

The church at the corner of Algonquin and Barrington roads was so big that it was often mistaken for a community college. At Willow Creek, a mile-long driveway wound around a manmade lake where believers got baptized in the summer months, and in the spring it was littered with Canadian geese and their goslings. The parking lots were so big that I learned to drive there, on uninterrupted swaths of flat Midwestern bog. My family lived three miles away; my parents were both pastors there; my first job was there. My friends were there. For a time that still feels like something out of a Pat Conroy novel, I had a group of wonderful friends. We moved as one organism in those high school days, submerged as we were in the urgent, heady waters of teenage faith in the middle of the cresting wave of American evangelicalism. Bound to them by the kind of affection born of knowing someone when they were 16, I still count these people as dear to me. But the truth is it has been a decade since we were all together.

When I was young, I had certain ideas about how the world worked, how God worked. One story of youthful zeal is that it fades with age, as life gets harder and more complex; that the center of an uncompromising faith structure cannot hold in a complicated world. As my friends and I have aged, though, we’ve all developed wildly different relationships to our religion. We’ve grown up and apart and orbited each other like satellites. I am almost 34 now. I am a mother, a wife, a writer, a homeowner, and it is just beginning to dawn on me—a realization I’m sure is not unique to me—that I will never again be a teenager. I have also noticed something that psychologists and poets have been saying for centuries: We become what we dwell on. And what we dwelt on in high school, what we breathed, was God’s goodness. And what I dwell on now is God’s goodness still, but also the loss that has attended my life and the lives of those I love and how a good God could allow it all.

I set out to write this because I wanted to know what has happened to me and to my friends since high school; how we have navigated faith and doubt as life has dealt us more hardships than we could have anticipated were coming, including the suicide of one of our own. I wanted to know how, and if, the faith withstood the hardships. I wanted to know where we had all gone.

So I called my friends. I started writing this essay when I was pregnant, which means that I called them on various commutes between home and the hospital, or home and the doctor’s office, or home and therapy. My friend Jenna and I talked one gloomy afternoon as I drove over the Dumbarton Bridge at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay. Jenna was a year younger than me and attended Willow Creek Community Church most of her life. She lives with her girlfriend in Colorado now. We talked about Jess, who lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids, and then I hung up with Jenna and called Nick, who lives in Boston, and asked him so many questions that I was late for my next appointment. Kaitlin and I had two or three phone calls and could have had five more. I called Steve while I was waiting for the street sweeper to pass on our block. He lives in Guatemala now—has for years, working for a humanitarian organization and climbing mountains in his spare time. I forgot about Skype, so our phone call cost a hundred dollars, but I would pay it again for that hour.

Collecting these stories, piecing together our teenage years from our collective memories, was balm to me. Even the hard ones, the sad ones, the friends whose faith had entirely crumbled—there was something concretely satisfying about playing the role of friend again to the people I had once spent more time with than my family. We all fell easily back into conversation. We needed each other again. Well, I needed them.

The group expanded and contracted depending on the year, on who was away at college and who suddenly got close with friends at school, but mainly we were 15 or so teens living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, attending various high schools and all part of a big youth group at a big church. We spent Sunday nights at church together, and Sunday mornings at church with our parents, and most of us were there Wednesday nights for services too, and maybe once again during the week in one capacity or another. But we spent a lot of time together outside the church too, on other aimless pursuits—long drives down endless leafy roads cracked hot by Midwestern summers, high school dances, winter nights watching comedies in mildew-dank basements.

This was the heyday of evangelical purity culture, the baked-in teaching that sex was reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and that we could trust God to deliver us from our sexual impulses until we were ready to express them in marriage. My friend Jess recalled a moment in the church balcony with a few other friends in which Steve told us he was never going to kiss anyone until his wedding day. (Steve definitely kissed someone before his wedding day.) Our youth group spoke often and regularly about sex, and in a very frank way: There were conversations about whether oral sex was sex (yes), if kissing and hand-holding were OK (only if they didn’t lead you to lust), and if it was OK to date someone who wasn’t a Christian (inconclusive). There was a song about abstinence called “The STD Song,” sung by a staffer who dressed up as a Matt Foley character named Bob Sportsmonsfrager:

You could get gonorrhea, HIV

All kinds of STDs

Genital herpes and chlamydia, too

I don’t want those

How ’bout you?

The attitude seemed irreverent and funny, and it did take away the stigma of talking about sex. But if you were interested in sex, or if you occupied a female body, or if you had masturbated, you often came away from a talk about sex feeling bad about yourself. During summer camp, a female student wearing a two-piece bathing suit could cause a small scandal. Teenage girls were told that guys were uniquely visual and so we had a responsibility not to dress in a way that would tempt them to lust after us. As our friends dated each other—Kaitlin and Nick, Randi and Dugan, Katie and Matt—they were quite chaste, and would often set rules around what they would or wouldn’t do: We can hold hands in the car, but we can’t kiss there. We can kiss in the living room of my parents’ house, but we can’t be alone in my bedroom. It could get confusing. It could confuse a person for years.

Josiah was my date to two high school dances. Tall, blond, and broadly handsome, he played basketball and lived in an unincorporated community that struck the rest of us as the height of rural life. So much so that we tried to go cow tipping near his house one night, but couldn’t find cows, nor, we eventually realized, did any of us know how to tip them. Josiah’s best friend was Nick, a slight, redheaded senior whose intelligence was matched only by his penchant for procrastinating: He once pulled an all-nighter at the church youth group offices because he hadn’t even started on a video project that he had to turn in the next day. Nick did catch me one time when I fainted at a John Mayer concert in Milwaukee, the same trip during which Josiah pulled out his newly acquired Palm Pilot and played Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” Nick didn’t command a room through manic energy in the way some other kids tried to; he simply had a lot of integrity. He was funny and authoritative. One night at a gathering in one of the many conference rooms in the church basement, Nick gave a talk to the high school students that became our rallying cry for the year. Pious words and evangelism wouldn’t do much to win over our secular classmates, he said. But we might make them care about the gospel if we lived lives that were “noticeably different.” That was catnip to a group of teenagers who were convinced it was our job to change the world, to capture the hearts and minds of our peers for God and not be assholes about it.

He was dating Kaitlin, who had two older brothers and an easy athleticism that intimidated me, even after we became close. As she confided in me, I could feel my own sense of self growing and swelling. Her home became the default meeting place for our friends, a swirling, soft landing pad of Thomas Kinkade paintings and cinnamon rolls and white basement walls we drew on with Sharpies. She had a dignified living room where we met on Monday mornings to pray for each other, for our church, for our school.

Chris was my closest guy friend. Easygoing and affable, he had an eyebrow ring and bleached blond hair and an uncanny ability, as a teenage boy, to listen to whoever was in front of him as though they were the only person in the world. James was lanky and drove an old Bronco and played Ultimate Frisbee with seriousness and focus. Matt moved from eastern Washington state at the beginning of our senior year when his dad took a job at our church; he had four younger siblings, which made him seem exotic, and for a while I was smitten with him. Dugan had red hair and the intense, coiled energy of a theater kid with not enough theater in his life. Steve was the rebel of the group, which mostly meant he dated girls who weren’t Christians and occasionally smoked cigarettes outside the doors to the church. He had sandy hair and loved ska music and had a habit of holding eye contact a second longer than necessary.

To me, the boys were liquid, eternal, a fraternity of accessible and mysterious interiority. I was probably the only one of my friends who would have identified as a feminist in high school, and something about the ease with which these young men navigated the world—their confidence, their adaptability, their surety that things would work out for them—attracted me to them, in the way that we are all attracted to what we do not have. Once, I ended up at a boys’ night at Josiah’s house. I stayed, and we sat around a bonfire, and they talked about girls and I luxuriated in listening, a tourist eavesdropping in a foreign land. Steve handed me a cigar, and I started smoking. “Are you inhaling?” he asked, narrowing his eyes in a way that suggested I shouldn’t be. All I wanted was to be fluent in the language being spoken around me, to be tough. “No,” I said, exhaling lungfuls of smoke. We laughed and laughed. Impressing them was like a drug.

And then there was Laurie. Laurie was a year older than us, and, in the economy of high school youth group kids, the coolest—kind, outgoing, breezily athletic. Laurie dated Brian seriously enough that most of us assumed they would get married. They were like the mom and dad of our friend group: very steady, and mature in a way that felt like a rebuke to our own high school immaturities.

Laurie’s parents had divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mom and stepfather and stepsiblings. That was enough to make her slightly unusual among a group of friends whose parents were all otherwise still married. And even in a group of friends connected by religion, Laurie was singularly, enthusiastically devoted to her faith—“on fire for God,” as we would have said. There was no one in our group of friends who didn’t receive a note of encouragement from her, always in her precise handwriting, always ending with a reference to 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Laurie’s faith was contagious, expansive, inviting. It incorporated everyone she knew; she had conversations about Jesus with cashiers at restaurants, homeless people living in downtown Chicago, friends of friends who ended up at the same party. And her faith felt expansive enough that we all took shelter under its umbrella; she was so sure of God’s goodness, his nearness, his truth. Where I often felt myself faltering, Laurie was confident. Where I hesitated to share my faith with anyone, I admired Laurie’s ability to naturally insert Jesus into any dialogue. And among our friends, when Laurie was around, we would spend most of the time listening to her talk about Jesus’ character. She sounded like a lovestruck newlywed.

It was hard for Brian, in a way, knowing that people were looking up to him when everything wasn’t as perfect for him as people thought it was. “I think the reality is that everyone saw Laurie and my relationship at Student Impact as the perfect relationship,” Brian recently told me. “People would tell us that small group leaders were pointing to our relationship as an example.” He saw his relationship with Laurie as something more intentional than dating: “I saw so many people date and break up and date and break up,” he said. “In my mind, we were dating with a purpose, with an outcome in mind—I was thinking long-term.”

I remember one summer afternoon between junior and senior year when we all clambered into cars early in the morning and drove to downtown Chicago for the Air and Water Show, a day that represented the best Chicago had to offer: boats and planes and hot summer days, hot dog vendors, sweeping views of Lake Michigan from Navy Pier to the Adler Planetarium, heavy afternoon clouds, the monthslong expectation of too intense heat a balm after the season we had all spent mostly indoors. We laid beach towels on the grass that sloped toward the lake and unpacked bags of sandwiches and chips. Steve and Laurie rollerbladed toward the planetarium, yelling after each other, and someone pulled out a boombox. That day in downtown Chicago, we stayed on the lawn until well after sunset. The night was as warm as the day. I’m sure we talked about God, but mostly I remember eating pizza, holding ice to my sunburnt shoulders, wishing that the night could last forever.

Four years later, I was 20 years old and in the backseat of a car when I got the call that Laurie was missing. It was a Thursday evening, and I was 2,000 miles away from Chicago, on my college campus in Southern California, returning to my dorm from an off-campus Bible study. Randi called me first, then Kaitlin, and then all I remember for the next two days is being glued to my blue Razr cellphone. We floated theories: She was kidnapped. Carjacked. She had gone downtown to hand food out to people living on the streets and didn’t tell anyone.

Details trickled in: Police found her cellphone, wallet, and keys near the Adler Planetarium. They found her shoes and jacket nearby. Her black Jeep had been towed by the city to a location further north before police realized whose it was. They found a note. On Saturday, they found her body in Lake Michigan.

Laurie’s death was bewildering to us then and remains bewildering nearly 15 years later. She had, at some point unknown to most of us, been introduced to a consuming doubt about the goodness of God. She couldn’t hold the pain at bay in the face of the overwhelming blackness of a world that she wasn’t made for. She had believed faithfully for years, but the doubts that had crept in were too strong to overcome. We hadn’t known. How hadn’t we known?

Laurie and Brian had both put off their first year of college to do missionary work in Querétaro, Mexico. After they got home, they’d broken up. She’d started dating someone else; they got engaged. She saw other friends, new friends from college and from the Starbucks where she worked. It was all in the course of normal life, in which we each befriended new people in our new locations, but in hindsight we saw only the conversations we hadn’t had, the phone calls we hadn’t answered.

The line for Laurie’s wake snaked through the church basement where her mother and stepfather received visitors for hours. The wake was open-casket. Laurie’s body was both bloated and well-preserved, having been in the freezing waters of the lake for days. Her funeral, held in the church’s enormous chapel, was standing room only.

We spent the year after Laurie’s death checking up on each other. When, several years later, our friend Matt’s sister died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, we all gathered back in the church for the funeral. We were trained for grief.

Laurie’s death acted like a prism: We all went into it as one coherent bloc, and it refracted us, and we couldn’t be put back together in quite the same way. God was the glue that had bound us, and even though we still loved each other, our faith—the collective unit of faith that we had and we were—fractured. There would be no more late nights singing worship songs.

Randi, who had missed a phone call from Laurie just before she disappeared, picked up her phone on the first ring for months afterward. She couldn’t forgive herself. “There are always flags, and how come I didn’t see a flag?” Randi now remembers thinking. “If I’m her best friend, how come I didn’t notice?” Randi felt angry with Laurie, angry with God for putting us through her death, alone in the loss of her friend. Laurie’s death consumed Randi. And then time went on, and she realized that she wanted to continue to follow God. “When I look back now, I say, ‘That was a really big mountain to climb,’ ” Randi said. “But I was able to kind of come out of that. … It didn’t put my faith on a downward trajectory.”

For others of us, it was the beginning of the end. “Would I have lost my faith, my belief in a personal God, a ‘relationship’ with Jesus Christ, if Laurie hadn’t taken her life?” Steve asked when I spoke to him. “There’s just no way to tell. I had all those things at 20 years old, and by 23 they were gone and haven’t returned. I can’t expect anyone to believe her life trajectory was not a major factor [in my loss of faith]; still, I’ve been unable to prove to myself otherwise just yet.”

“I tried really hard to figure out how to be a good Christian in high school,” Chris told me. “And I think that came with a lot of guilt around feeling like I was getting it wrong.” Laurie’s suicide scared him, in part, because it made faith seem insufficient. “I ran from the faith that I had because it didn’t seem like it was going to provide me with the solace I needed.” Still, Chris attended a Christian college and slowly probed the topic of Laurie’s death with his new friends. “My life experiences have caused me to have a different faith,” he said. “It’s more chipped and broken. … [But] it’s OK if my faith is a lot more academic than it is emotional for a while.”

Jenna suffered from depression in high school, even as she felt a profound sense of belonging in our youth group. Being a gay teenager in suburban Illinois in the 1990s wasn’t something anyone was talking about, at school or at church. Those years, she recalled, were “a very challenging time of thinking, I’m supposed to love myself, and God loves me, but I don’t feel like that can be one and the same.” After Laurie’s death, Jenna says she had a hard time believing in a loving God and stopped going to church for a time. She skipped chapel at her Christian college in Colorado. And although she returned to church for a time after school, she doesn’t attend right now. “Faith will always be a little bit a part of my life, but it’s probably the least present it probably ever has been in my life. For me, that’s OK right now.”

Brian is married to someone else. For the past seven years, he and his wife have been running a discipleship ministry for college students in Colorado. Even now, he was careful not to talk much about Laurie’s death. He preferred instead to remember her life and their time together: riding in a friend’s Jeep, getting stuck with the bill after a group dinner at TGI Fridays, hanging out with all of us in the sunny atrium of the church.

In recent years, we’ve been given another reason to see our years at Willow Creek through a new lens: a series of sexual misconduct allegations against its founder and longtime senior pastor, Bill Hybels. When my family attended the church, my dad’s office was a few doors down from Bill’s. Bill had a reputation for being both tenderhearted about the gospel and quick-tempered. He made self-deprecating jokes about his Dutch thriftiness; he also, allegedly, groped, kissed, and made advances toward women who worked for him or attended the church. Bill was not at all involved with Student Impact. But he was the church’s senior pastor, and if you attended the church, his name and fingerprints were everywhere. There was no hint at the time of his behavior, at least not in my world. (Years later, my parents were two of the people who brought the allegations to light, who spoke to the church board and then to the press.)

Looking back on teachings about sexual purity now—the conversations about modesty, about saving oneself for marriage—I am struck that we never, not once, had a conversation about consent. It was reasonable for a boy to suggest that he was “tempted” by a girl wearing skimpy clothes, but the blame was always placed on the girl for dressing that way. We never talked about power, about how being a man in power could warp a person’s soul, how that warping could turn into abuse, how that abuse would go unchallenged. We were liabilities, even as men thought they were loving us. We were taught that men have the upper hand, and that it was a woman’s job to defuse that lust. We never talked about what it meant to be a person, a complete, vulnerable, whole-bodied person who had control over her being.

When I talked with my friends, the sense I got was that we were all far enough removed from our time at Willow that, mostly, the allegations against Bill, which were reported in 2018, didn’t shake our faith. We all loved Willow, or at least carried gratitude to it, even as our relationships with it grew more complicated and the allegations against Bill added to that complication.

A world without God wouldn’t make sense to me. But it now makes sense to many of my friends. I finally understand that we never had a shared faith structure. We went to the same church, some of us for years. We heard the same sermons, slept in the same cabins at camp, read the same books of the Bible, listened to the same music. But we went home to different families. We heard different stories about what it meant to be gay, to be a Christian, to experience the death of someone we loved. After Laurie’s death, we were left holding the broken pieces of a faith some of us had never expected to falter. There are seasons of my life when the practice of going to church feels like the only thing that keeps my faith in God alive. I am, perhaps, not brave enough to imagine what would happen to me without those Sunday mornings. Or I realize that I cannot believe apart from other people. Either way, the foundation feels shakier now, but my feelings also feel less important.

What I want to convey is the slant of light in the mornings through the enormous auditorium windows; the sweep of energy in the three-minute countdown before youth group started when the music was loud and all my friends were in the same room; the quiet assurance that God spoke to me when I prayed. What I want to convey is that we are all the people we are because of this youth group and because of each other.

A few nights before we scattered across the country to go to college, our whole group of friends gathered at my house. The guys, lithe and carefree in my memory, lingered around a fire in the backyard. The girls sat on the roof and talked. A thunderstorm had rolled through earlier in the day, and as the sun set, the temperature stayed the same, day into night. At some point, we ended up in the above-ground pool my parents had just installed. Our house was emptied of furniture; my parents would be moving across the country just before I did. Our too loud voices echoed through the house and reached the willow tree at the far edge of the yard. When everyone left, I wandered through the house and touched the walls of each room before they disappeared from me forever. Nothing would be the same. Nothing ever was.