Even at last Sunday's weepy 9 a.m. service, one New Life Church teenager wore a black T-shirt that seemed to encapsulate the church's youthful spirit: "Satan is a nerd."
Unlike their elementary-aged counterparts, the megachurch's massive number of high school and tweenage kids were not asked to leave the service when Pastor Larry Stockstill read the letters penned by Ted and Gayle Haggard, epistles that sought to explain the kind of sins that evangelical young people are repeatedly warned about.
But after the service, several high school members of _tag, New Life's high-tech youth ministry, expressed sympathy for the pastor and pledged not to leave the church even as they predicted that some of their peers would.
"Just because he messed up doesn't give us the excuse to run away," said one 15-year-old who has attended the church for two and a half years. "Everyone sins."
The young woman, who is a leader in _tag, says the group held an open house just after the news broke, where she prayed that "kids' hearts won't turn away."
Haggard founded the first "tag" group when he led a small weekly service in Baton Rouge, La. It was one pastor's answer to the question of how to keep young people involved in the evangelical movement. It's been a longstanding issue; the National Association of Evangelicals, from which Haggard stepped down as president last week, issued statements this year lamenting a high dropout rate among teenagers.
But _tag and other evangelical youth groups nationwide have capitalized on these concerns, launching a campaign to make evangelicals number at least 4 percent of the youth population.
"I am sure some people might leave," said one 17-year-old who has attended New Life for nearly two years. "That is separating the wheat from the chaff."
By many accounts, the youth movement at New Life, buoyed by Christian rock music, trendy logos and hip leaders, is thriving. And though high schoolers outside Sunday's church service shied away from questioning their former pastor, a robust conversation took place over _tag's group on myspace.com, which boasts more than 500 members.
"Yes, I feel very sad and very confused right now, but it's one of those things I can't control," wrote one 14-year-old. "It's all in God's hands now, and His will is going to be done. Yes, he admitted. Yes, he could be guilty of much more than he will admit. But why should that effect [sic] how we view God?"
Another person had a different take. "Honestly, I don't know whether or not to believe any of this, but I lost respect for Ted Haggard many years ago," wrote one 19-year old. "If any of this is true, then it's a dealbreaker [sic] for me regarding churches and religions in general."
A third posted a template for punk-rock style pins in fuchsia and bright green. "Ted Haggard is my hero," they read.