For fifteen years, I attended a Southern Baptist Church here in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m not sure if it matters that this was a Southern Baptist Church. Legalistic, controlling, and authoritarian churches come in every shape, size, and denomination.
Throughout my life, one of the things that always troubled me about Christianity was how some people could claim faith in Jesus,and yet live a life totally unlike Jesus. Christians talked about the word of God but it didn’t seem to make a difference in their lives. It bothered me how I could walk into a church at the beginning of a service and leave at the end without ever having spoken to a single person.
In 1994, when I went away to college at UC Berkeley, I found what seemed to be a remarkable bible study and church. Everyone seemed real earnest in wanting to live out the words of the Bible. Everyone was friendly and they both figuratively and literally embraced me. The Gospel seemed to mean something there. In 1995, I made a decision to follow and fully commit my life to Jesus. For the next fifteen years of my life, I became increasingly invested in this church. I moved cross country to be with the leaders of the church. I lived in community housing with other church members. I became a staff member of the church. I led college bible studies and gave Sunday sermons. I joined a church plant.
Oppressors do not get to be oppressors in a single sweep. They manage it because little by little, we make them that. We overlook too much in the beginning and wonder why we lose control in the end. (Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Jean Chittister)
For a time, life was good, or least it seemed good. Looking back, it’s hard to understand how I missed the warning signs of those early days. One of the things they always talked about at church was obedience. This wasn’t obedience in an abstract, “I want to obey God” sense, this obedience had a very practical component. Obedience to God meant obedience to the people (leaders) God placed in your life. Church leaders took a very personal interest in the lives of the church members. Everything was fair game for the intervention of the church leaders, including your career, where you should live, the person you might marry, whether you should attend graduate school and much more. All church activities, and there were many of them, were mandatory. This included everything from church services, to Bible Studies, drama programs and volleyball leagues. Church leaders took an interest in how much you gave to the church as part of your offering. If you were a staff member you were expected to be at one to two extra meetings per week that often lasted until 2-3 am. If you were not a staff member, you might find yourself providing free baby sitting for the church staff during those same times. If you were married and had children, you understood ministry would always come before your family. Of course, all of this was done for your own good, and if you missed a few church activities, you would received correction in the form of heavy-handed “rebukings” from church leaders. Built on guilt and fear, these rebukings were often manipulative. Despite the harshness of these “rebuking sessions” you wanted to please the leaders God placed in your life and you wanted to fit in.
Writing this out, I know it must sound strange to some of you. How could I live like this? Most members of the church were college graduates from very good schools. We were smart people. Shouldn’t we have known better? Shouldn’t we have set better boundaries?
Not long ago, I spoke to someone close to me who attended a church in Southern California. She shared her frustration about life at her church, and the total lack of commitment of the church members. I totally understood her frustration, and yet part of me shuddered, because this is how it starts. You’re frustrated at people for being wishy-washy and lacking commitment. Shouldn’t church membership mean something? Gradually, you increase the requirements for church membership and participation. It is all done for the very best reasons, but pretty soon you have a church where people are motivated through manipulation and guilt, rather than God’s love. Moreover, while legalism is a poor substitution for the love of God, it can offer a type of easy and straightforward “paint-by-the-numbers” spirituality. Just follow the rules and you’re able to obtain the approval of others. You are recognized for your spirituality and good works. The association grows stronger in your mind that Christianity and legalism are one and the same thing. You can’t even imagine leaving this world, since this would mean leaving all of your closest friends. It might even seem like turning your back on faith and leaving God.
This was my life, until I inevitably and perhaps predictably burnt out.
It’s a great burden to be perfect. The fear of failure skulks around the perimeters of hubris with irritating consistency. There is always the possibility that someone will come along with is even more perfect than we are. There is, if nothing else, the weight of being responsible for the world by those who think they are. Unable to accept ourselves as we are, we wear ourselves out in an effort to become unempeachable. (Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope; Jean Chittister)
Endings and New Beginnings
Never have I felt greater failure and known greater disappointment than in the church.
In Falling Upward , Richard Rohr writes:
So the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride. There is still a marvelous marriage with such a bride, and many whores do occasionally become brides too. In a certain but real sense, the church itself is the first cross that Jesus is crucified on, as we limit, mangle, and try to control the always too big message. All the churches seem to crucify Jesus again and again by their inability to receive his whole body, but they often resurrect him too.
These words strike disturbingly close for me. As vulgar as it sounds, at times the church has seemed to me a pathetic whore. And yet as Rohr writes, I have also found great hope in the church. When I was at my lowest ebb, I was able to turn to dear friends in Christ for consolation. In retrospect these friends helped keep me sane and were a calming presence during an otherwise turbulent time. They were reminders of God’s abiding care, at a time when God’s love seemed in doubt.
Eventually my family did find the courage to leave our old church. After a very brief search, God brought us to a new church, where we were able to find grace, the love of the Father and spiritual healing. Thankfully, I was able to again experience Jesus’ resurrection. In this respect, I have found the church to be a beautiful bride. I will likely never be able to forget the hurt that we experienced in our old church, but in this moment in my life it doesn’t seem to matter as much.
I know that some people after going through a controlling or abusive church environment might never want to experience church again, while others will do their best to forget the past or pretend it never happened. These are all understandable responses. When we left our old church we were in desperate need of spiritual healing. We were broken and felt like spiritual failures and losers. We were also angry. We were angry at people, at God and even ourselves. We needed forgiveness. We needed to forgive people. We needed to forgive God. We needed to forgive ourselves. We needed healing.
I’m so thankful that my family found a church that understands the spiritual part of our pain and hurt. Through a process heavily invested in prayer and intercession, people walked with us. We found the strength to forgive and let go of our anger. We didn’t find this strength in ourselves or in our strength of will, but through the reassuring love of Jesus in our lives. In a stroke of irony and God’s blessing, although church may have been a source of disappointment and wounding for us, we were able to find God’s love in another church. Our present church didn’t try to control or manipulate us, but simply listened to us, prayed for us and gave us opportunities to grow when we were ready. We are still going through a healing process even today, but we are also in a much better place.
Finding Healing and Blogging Along the Way
When I started writing Momentary Delight, I wanted it to be an authentic place where I could share openly about my life. One of the things I”ve struggled with at the outset was my relationship to the church. Could I even write about church after everything my family experienced? I wasn’t sure whether it was possible, so at the beginning, this blog was almost a secret project. Unsure about my motives, the quality of my writing, and my ability to express difficult things, I kept my blog hidden.
Over time, I came to realize that Momentary Delight was part of my healing and restoration process. Since leaving my old church and coming to the place where we currently worship as a family, one of the things I’ve desired the most is for God to redeem my past. I wanted my struggles and times at my old church to mean something. I wanted God to use my family’s experience to help others find hope and healing.
That said, more recently this blog has seen a noticeable shift, as the topic of church no longer has the same urgency for me. My family is in a different season of life and on the whole this is a good thing. Time often gives perspective, and no doubt, I will continue to gain perspective on our church experience. I’m also sure the topic of church will continue to find its way into my writing in new and different ways.
Over a year has passed since I started Momentary Delight and I wanted to share all of my posts on the topic of church on this page. These are the writings where I’ve worked through my past experience. Sometimes, these posts are funny and other times they are painful, as if a scab were being ripped wide open. I invite you to read these posts and walk this journey with me. Although, your journey may be very different from me, my hope and prayer is that these posts will be some help to you.
I don’t claim to have the right answer to some of the questions I raise, but these posts were part of my process as I worked through things. Sometimes, my response to circumstances was less than ideal. Mistakes were made. Despite all of my shortcomings, I hope you can see the thread of God’s love and grace in my life. I encourage you to take whatever might be helpful here and to simply disregard the rest.
God Bless You and if you’ve had a difficult church experience, may you find peace and become reacquainted with the God who loves you.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message Version)
I understand that writing comments or questions is not for everyone, so if you would prefer, you may contact me by email at email@example.com
Why I Still Need the Church
I suppose it would have been easier for me to simply leave the church altogether, but this is not what happened. These posts are about why I have not left the church, and they are about rediscovering what is still beautiful about the church.
Different Ways of Seeing and Understanding the Past
It’s sometimes been hard to understand what I’ve experienced in the church. Don’t even try to throw out those familiar platitudes about how the church is filled with “imperfect people.” This just doesn’t cut it. One of the most difficult questions I was forced to ask was, “Where was God during this season of my life?” These posts discuss some of this struggle for me.
One of the hardest topics for me. Forgiveness is easy until you actually have someone you need to forgive. Sometimes the person you need to forgive is yourself.
On Finding a Church
Other Posts on Church
When a Christian loses their way, one of the best things they can do is to return to Jesus, and become reacquainted with Jesus.
For much of my life, Jesus was the “Lord and Savior” who helped me become more religious “to be a good Christian.” He helped me become a better person and he was the one who helped me follow the rules. The spirit of Mondays with Jesus was really about me needing to start over with Jesus. Many of these posts touch on the aforementioned subjects of church, as I reconsider what it means to follow Jesus.
Some Helpful Books
Throughout my own process of recovery, one source of blessing to me were books. These books helped me work through my struggles and were of enormous help and benefit to me as I recovered from my past church experience. I wholeheartedly recommend each of these books to you.