I grew up in a wonderful Christian home. I had two loving, present, smart, Godly, and fallible parents. I was homeschooled my whole life and raised going to our small town church every Sunday, and also every other day there was EVER a church event or gathering and which usually consisted of myself, my sister, my parents and about fifty elderly people. (Yay hymn sings and church camping trips!) I was the most active person in my youth group and went on every youth trip there ever was, even if I was the only person that went! I helped with children’s church, nursery, the worship team, VBS, and much more. After high school, I went to a Christian College and decided I loved working with youth so much that I should major in it! College was fun, hard, frustrating, challenging, and amazing. I found that some of my favorite classes were those where we got to discuss theology, philosophy and the Church. As I look back at college, some of my fondest and most missed memories are those where I sat around with friends and simply discussed deep topics, wrestling with what was right and true and looking for answers to turn idealism into reality. These discussions often left me filled with a mix of frustration and hope, because even though there is no way to truly fix our broken world, I knew that there were like minded people who also wrestled with and longed to make the world, and the church in particular, better and more efficient.
After college however, I took a step back from church for a bit. After moving 5 times in 3 years, two six month long internships with Church youth groups, and a relationship with a guy who was “Christian” but lacking of any sort of spiritual fervor, I was left feeling a little alienated and “burned out” as Christians so often like to say. I tried a few churches here and there, but for about a year and half I felt almost no desire to go to church. There were many factors and excuses for this, from wanting to sleep in to not wanting to go alone, but deep down the truth was I just didn’t want to!
Now let me just state that my faith in God has never once wavered. I cannot and will never get to a place where I believe that there is no God and no Jesus. I know that outside of God, life makes no sense; we as people have no value, no purpose, and nothing outside of our own existence. My parents made sure that I had a solid foundation and biblical worldview, and that influences everything I believe and say and do. Those core values I have never wavered on. However, as I left college and entered into an atmosphere where I was not surrounded by like-minded people, some of the things that I had held as “truths” began to be challenged. Things that I had been raised to believe were biblically based and were black and white slowly began to be challenged and morphed into gray. I was forced to truly examine the “why” of my beliefs, and to ask myself if what I believed to be a truth was truly what the bible said and meant, or if I believed something because all my life I had been TOLD that was something the bible taught. From issues ranging from modesty, to dating boundaries, to alcohol and much more, I had to ask why I believed what I did and if it was actually biblical or if it was simply a pharisaic/legalistic rule that started as a guideline for holiness, but was turned into an unquestioned law with disobedience of it resulting as a “sin”. Did I believe that drinking was a sin? The bible speaks of drunkenness as a sin, but even then to what extent? If I drink one too many glasses of wine and suddenly go from “buzzed” to drunk is that a sin? And if I drink that wine alone, in my room, and simply fall asleep in a drunken state, is that a sin? Or is it only if I drink around people and do something stupid or pass out naked like Noah? Or is it if I become a “drunkard” and neglect responsibilities and let alcohol take over my life and become an addiction? Many Christians have no idea where that “line” is, and so instead choose to simply run from something that might even lead them close to temptation instead of walk that tightrope and possibly “falling”or “tripping” with the tiniest misstep. It is easier to simply say, “don’t do it or even star down that path” and to teach that to the following generations, and then to sit back and judge those who do. Do what is right, and the church will interpret and dictate what “right” means for you. If you do not go along with their interpretation, you are looked down upon, gossiped about, and judged. I can say that this is what many Christians in the church do because I have done this and been a part of this myself!
I grew up rather “innocent” since I was homeschooled and most of my interactions were with my church friends. I KNEW (or so I thought) what was wrong and what was right, and I judged my friends faith by their actions. I would sit back on my high horse and think, “I know for a fact that guy drinks alcohol, how can he raise his hands in worship and claim to be a Christian?” “That girl has had sex with her boyfriend, how can she stand on the stage and “lead” us in worship?” Yet these things were only whispered about, never once were they talked about openly or confronted with these people. And I knew that in truth, I was not 100% real either! I had secrets, I had sins that weighed on my conscious, and yet every time I was at church or around those people I would put on that same mask and walk into youth group and be that outgoing, innocent, spiritual girl that everyone expected of me. Through the years this only got worse, as I learned even better to hide my secret life and who I truly was. The key to not being judged was simply not getting caught. Throughout all of college I recall wrestling constantly with this idea of the “perfect Christian woman” that I wanted so badly to be, and with the fallible sinner that I knew I was. It was exhausting to be constantly wearing that mask of feigned righteousness, but it was better than the terrifying idea of removing the mask and showing others my true depravity. I knew what my fellow Christians would say and how they would judge me, and the people pleaser inside of my never ever likes to disappoint anyone or have someone think bad of me, yet I knew this would undoubtedly happen if I showed even a small part of my true self to those I went to school with, worked with at the church, or even my family.
So between this exhausting charade, and having no place where I felt comfortable to discuss my questioning on the “why or why not”, I began to withdraw. Church was a chore to go to, and seemed simply like another thing I had been told all my life to do, even though I benefitted from it almost not at all. In fact it seemed to have nearly the opposite effect of what was desired, driving me to be “fake” and draining me instead of filling my soul. I longed for community, but not a church community where I was judged for disagreeing and questioning and “sinning”.
I left my Christian college and after a few months moved to a “secular college town” where I was surrounded by a culture whose norm was partying, swearing, drinking, sex, and drugs. Nothing was taboo and no one judged you. No one pretended to be someone they were not. People were themselves and the need for a mask and secret life quickly dissolved. I was free from the eyes of those who had watched me grow up and who “knew” me and expected me to act a certain way. I was surrounded by non-Christians who asked “why” and didn’t have all the answers, but were free to question and challenge everything. Truthfully, for the first time in my life I felt free to be completely me and to explore who that truly was. With every mistake I made, I began to realize the judgmental hypocrite I had been in the past towards others, which also heightened my thankfulness for grace. In his book “Blue like Jazz”, Donald Miller tells a similar story about how in college, some of the greatest community he ever experienced was with people who were non-Christian, yet were the most accepting and loving people he had ever met. I suddenly began to understand what he meant, and realized that I wanted only friends who accepted me for ME, for the good the bad and the ugly. I wanted friends who loved me even though I showed them all of the darkest parts of me. Friends who accepted me and let me be myself and be honest, without judgment, even if they did not totally agree with me. For about a year and a half I did not go to church more than a handful of times, yet in that year and a half, I became a far more loving, humble, accepting, genuine person. I found and worked on developing those real friendships. I slowly started to reconcile myself and take that mask away. Then, after a devastating, heart breaking breakup with my boyfriend of a year and a half, I decided to once again move. I packed up and drove to California, and was actually excited to return to the church I had previously interned at 2 years before. I had experienced a really cool community at that church, and loved the worship and the pastor. The preaching was probably my favorite part of the church, because the pastor did not follow the normal expository, 3-point sermon outline. He preached in a way that captivated the audience and always revealed a new truth or perspective that one had not seen before. I was so excited to be back at this church, though a lot had changed, and wanted so badly to continue that honest community with people my age, only this time with Christ at the center of it.
I could recognize by now that, while living in that college town, surrounded by people who I could truly be myself around, had helped my develop into a more genuine and less judgmental person, it did not help me grow spiritually or challenge me to go deeper in my relationship with God. I was developing as a person, but my spiritual growth was put on the sidelines. (Note: I am not saying this is necessarily good or bad or recommending that anyone else should do this, I am simply saying this was part of my journey and what I was going through.)
So with a fresh perspective and a new start, I entered back into the church. Only to be thrust back into frustration, confusion and lostness when 3 months later the head pastor suddenly left, followed by the children’s/ young adult pastor. Things seemed to crumble apart within the church. There was no young adults ministry running when I had moved back, but I had been talking to the pastor about starting it again and there was a good group of young adults going to the church. However, this bombshell sent the church into semi-chaos, with half of the congregation leaving, which seemed to include about 80% of the people my age, and some ministries falling through the cracks. I again found myself questioning if this was truly where I wanted to be and why I even went to church, and again for about 3 months I slept-in instead of going.
However, I did stay active in the youth group because of the amazing connection I had made with some of the girls, and so I still felt like I was involved in a Christian community that helped and challenged me. The pain and anger of the loss of the pastors subsided, and after trying a few other churches, I realized that I still loved my original church and felt like God wanted me there. So I started going back, mostly for the few friends I had left and the girls in my youth small group. It is not an ideal church or even a great one, but in my youth group girls I have seen and found an acceptance and genuine love and I am able to be pretty honest and myself around them. They are so real sometimes that I envy them. They have nothing figured out and question everything openly and are still learning things. They can be crazy goofy and silly and funny, but also have far less of a filter than most adults and will break down crying in the middle of small group. They don’t hide when they are upset at church or put on a fake smile and pretend to always be happy. They are so young and innocent and confused, but they are blatant and obvious about it, and it is a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I can help them through their problems or questions, and other times I can simply hold them and cry along and say, “I have been there. I know what you are going through. And even I don’t have it all figured out, but God is real and can help.” They are open about their struggles, and yet they still accept each other and support one another. It is an incredible and beautiful thing to watch and be a part of, though with them I get to be in the mentor/ friend role and I am still searching for people my own age to share a similar community with. I have not found that yet, but I now know the type of genuine community that I am looking for, and if I can not find one already established, then I will continue working to create that with my own close friends.
So why did I leave church?
Because it is often fake; I grew tired of the charade of always being a good, redeemed, righteous Christian and never being allowed (or at least comfortable) to be a broken, confused, questioning sinner who still needed love and grace and acceptance without judgment.
Because it was boring; I spent my life learning and studying the bible, so when I sat through a sermon at church, it was rarely something I had not heard before or did not know. My thought process was hardly ever challenged, nor was I provoked to question why I believed what I did and to get to the heart of a topic. Instead I usually walked away from a sermon with 3-point notes on “what we can learn from the woman at the well”, shallow points that rarely ever inspired the thought process or deep theological conversations like the ones I used to have in college. In fact, even at a young age still in high school, I went home frustrated and vented with my dad at the boring, depthless, almost waste of my time sermon I just had to sit through (Yes, that is exactly where I got it from. The Apple didn’t fall far from the tree in my case, though he did try sometimes to be a lot more positive about it than I). If I only knew what I had learned from sermons and Sunday school, I think I almost certainly would have abandoned my faith long ago and went on a search for something more “enlightened”.
(Hang on with me in this next part as I rabbit trail a bit… I promise it is relevant and will make sense… I hope!”
Thank goodness for parents who made me study the bible, talked about it in great lengths, and forced us to sit through things like “The truth project”, even though I HATED it at the time and had the worst attitude about it! I thought “The Truth Project” was the most boring and terrible thing I had to watch EVER, and if I am honest, I basically slept through half of it. (If you have never seen it, I would HIGHLY recommend that you also sit your whole family down and torture your own kids with an hour each Sunday of watching this video series. It may be the best “terrible” thing you ever do to your family.) It is a mini series of lectures on apologetics, “an in-depth Christian worldview experience”. (If you are curious you can learn more Here. ) I managed to get my hands on it recently, over 10 years after I originally was forced to watch it. After I got home from church today, I decided to pop it into the dvd player while I did dishes and cleaned. However it was not long before I was completely captivated by it. This time I could actually appreciate and enjoy it! I sat here with my mind spinning, realizing how much the things that were being taught had formed my entire worldview and thought process. Things that I had not even realized I had learned or remembered yet were at the core of my belief system. Things that are so fundamental and that every person who calls themselves a Christian should know and believe, and yet things that are not talked about in most churches!
Yet these very pillars of our faith, the things that influence everything we do and say and believe, are rarely talked about in an average sermon! And as I sat here listening and being thrust back into the same excitement as my days as a student, I realized the biggest reason why I lost my interest and desire to go to church:
BECAUSE IT IS SHALLOW.
Excluding my former pastor that left, nearly every sermon I have ever heard in my life was somewhere along the lines of “how to live life as a better Christian” including how to be thankful, loving, merciful, forgiving, etc. Here are the truths from this passage that you need to take and apply to your life to grow and be a better Christian. Almost never have I heard a pastor wrestle with ideas such as what does it truly mean to be a Christian? Or a human created in Gods image? What did the Biblical first century Church look like? What is evil? Who IS God? The truth is I don’t need to know how to be a better Christian. I need to know WHO God is. Because otherwise I just fall into legalism and focus on what I should and shouldn’t do, instead of focusing on who God is and how I can become more like him.
My journey has been rough and not ideal. It has led me away from God and the church, and then back again. I have loved Church and I have left church, and returned again. But I have never left my faith, and that is because my parents made sure to instill in me a firm foundation built on core, fundamental truths. The truth that there is a God who created us and loves everyone, who sent his son Jesus to redeem us from our sin that separates us from Him, and who offers reconciliation and a relationship, with the promise of then spending eternity no longer separated from His glory. I love and believe the gospel and the Bible, but I no longer blindly accept man’s interpretation of the Bible. I question every belief and practice, and test it with what God says and who He is. Romans 12:2 (NIV) says, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” My mind and opinions are always being renewed, and I am always questioning the “patterns” that are already established in our world, especially in the present day “Christian” world, and I am testing those patterns to see if they align with God’s’ will. Is it God’s will for the church to preach messages that are boring and shallow? Is it his will for the congregation to meet once a week and put on a fake smile and fake persona and to all act like we have everything together and are perfect Christians? Is it His will for us to scorn, excommunicate, and judgingly gossip about a pastor who has sinned and had an affair? Or one who does not agree completely with our own personal theology?
I readily admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I sure do have questions and I hope they spark some conversations that might lead to change. Don Miller recently wrote on his blog about how he actually doesn’t attend church very much because it doesn’t help him connect with God. (You can read it here.). The truth was, when I read this I could relate 100 percent! I don’t really get connected to God through the sermon or the worship at my church, though I do connect in many other ways like reading, writing, listening to music on my own or pod casts, ect… Yet I go to church for the community. Miller is lucky because he has strong community with Christians outside of the contemporary church service, but I have yet to find that. Many people criticized him, but I think that he was challenging this idea of what church really IS. I know this is almost a subject for a whole different blog post, but is church about the community and meeting of the body? Or is it about a traditional service that has simply become the pattern of our world, even though it seems to lack in depth and anything actually life changing?
I left church because for a long time it had nothing to offer me that I couldn’t get elsewhere. Truthfully, not much has changed, but now I have reasons beyond myself to go, for my youth group girls and the community with other friends and believers. I am learning how to become a genuine and honest person, and always working towards that goal of no longer being two people or wearing a mask. I am growing and developing as a person, and I am being transformed daily into someone who is more like God. I still falter, but I admit to my mistakes and I study them so as not to repeat them. I am constantly learning and moving toward that goal of becoming “me” in all that I am meant to be and as someone who reflects God to others. I don’t have everything figured out, but I have finally come to one conclusion about church: I don’t want to “go to” church anymore; I want to DO church. Now I just have to figure out what that truly looks like and how to get others on board with me…
*Disclaimer: This is only based off of my personal experiences, and does not apply to every church, pastor, congregation, and sermon. Just most of them…