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Get Ready — The ‘Ex-Youth Group Kid’ Is About to Be a Major Pop Culture Character

Get Ready — The ‘Ex-Youth Group Kid’ Is About to Be a Major Pop Culture Character

For many, many years, there were approximately three different Christian stereotypes that made it into mainstream pop culture discourse.

There was one we’ll call the Goodily Twoshoes, so-named for Ned Flanders. This Christian dork usually had a small mind offset by a big heart. They’re a little too square to know when they’re the butt of a joke and would last maybe four seconds in a real crisis, but they’re not a bad person.

Next up is the Fun Police, the Dirty Dancing-type Christian who has very little interest in faith, hope and love but lots of interest in making sure nobody’s having a good time.

Finally, we can’t forget the Pervy Hypocrite (think Frollo in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame), whose screeching indignation at the sins of others is clearly just a mask for the sorry state of their own souls.

Now, we’re not here to judge any of these stock characters. If you’ve spent any amount of time in church, you may have run into real life variations of one or all three of them. But there is a new Christian stereotype on the horizon, and they’re about to become a major player. Call it “Ex-Youth Group Kid” or maybe the “Youth Group Dropout.” Again, you’ve probably met some version of their person in real life (or maybe you are this person!). Get ready to see them on screen.

The Ex-Youth Group Kid is usually young, pretty cool and a little jaded. They don’t necessarily go to the church anymore, but they’re carrying a lot of baggage from whatever time they did spend in church. They’re processing their feelings about God and also their experiences with God’s people (and the amount of daylight between those interactions). They’re probably single. They might be queer. Crucially, they aren’t necessarily opposed to Christianity. But many of their experiences with Christianity haven’t been very positive.

You can find lots of real versions of the Ex-Youth Group Kid in pop culture. Semler has become a minor saint among legions of Youth Group Dropouts by untangling her youth group experiences in song. Elsewhere, artists like Lucy Dacus, Julian Baker, Ethel Cain and even sad girl music queen Phoebe Bridgers have all bled their experiences in church for some really interesting music. “Jesus, if you’re listening, let me handle my liquor!” prays Ethel Cain on “American Teenager.” “And Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel alone in this room with you?”

Likewise, Dacus reflects on her time at a Vacation Bible School on “VBS.” “You said that I showed you the light,” she muses, remembering an attempt to witness to a non-Christian friend when she was young. “But all it did in the end was make the dark feel darker than before.”

It makes sense. Youth ministry really reached the zenith of its powers in the late 80s and early 90s, when a new wave of megachurches dumped huge amounts of money into full-time youth ministry, putting a laser focus on teenagers by offering them a unique experience distinct from the “grownup” church. By Gallup’s most recent count, something like 47 percent of Americans regularly go to church — the lowest figure they’ve ever recorded, but still within the margin of error of half the country. That means there’s a lot of people forged in those youth group fires out there who are ready to start processing their experiences in public.

The blueprint is definitely there. Now it’s time for the fictional characters. From Tom Holland’s Spider-Man accusing Toby Maguire’s “Peter Two” of dressing like a youth pastor in No Way Home to Pete Holmes’ slow deconstruction in HBO’s Crashing to Ann (“her?”) and her ill-fated CD-burning parties in Arrested Development, Hollywood can smell a demographic out there.

And the Ex-Youth Group Kid is about to get its most prominent placement yet in HBOMax’s upcoming comedy Church Girls. That show is being written by Meg Stalter, the Hacks breakout who will also star as a “20-year-old Christian closeted lesbian as she wrestles with her sexuality and faith in God, while entering adulthood in suburban Ohio.” The show is largely based on Stalter’s own experiences as a bisexual woman growing up in church. “I believe in God, I just don’t go to church,” Stalter told iNews, which is about as Ex-Youth Group Kid energy as you’re likely to find. And if you find yourself judging her for not going to church, well, maybe Church Girls will explore some of the understandable reasons a woman in her position might feel like church isn’t really for her. We’ll see.

At this point, it’s probably worth noting that all most of these examples are women. There are a few reasons this might be. The past few years of reckoning with the Southern Baptist Convention’s dreadful mishandling of sex abuse claims in its denomination is a reminder of the disproportionate number of women who had bad experiences growing up in church. In short, the Ex-Youth Group Kid pool might just lean woman in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how far this trend goes. There’s clearly a lot of people out there who have experiences with youth group and would be interested in seeing their experiences reflected back to them on screen. But church is deeply personal. Ask 10 people how they feel about church, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. That can make nuanced exploration tough, especially since Christians have historically gotten loudly angry whenever a fictional depiction of church is less than flattering.

But maybe the Ex-Youth Group Kid will give discerning viewers something to think about — a window into the life of a type of person who they’d otherwise write off as backslidden, cynical or just “angry.” The reality is often far more complex. Hopefully, this is a sign that those stories are about to be told.

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