Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why I Left the Church...and Why I Returned

photo credit: Tru Stevens Photography
It seems that for every happy, churchgoing Christian, there is another who has a painful story of how they've been wounded by the church.  As a college chaplain, I encounter more reasons for why my students don't go to church than reasons why they do.  Of the 58% of our students who self-profess the Christian faith, only a small percentage go to church regularly.  This seems to mirror a growing trend as many articles and studies point out, and it's not just among young people.  I received a message from someone who had left the church and found life to be surprisingly comfortable without the Sunday commitment.  She asked me, "Why do we need to go to church when it seems that churches only hurt people?"

I found myself an unlikely advocate for the church.  I've have my share of scars from churches behaving badly.  My beloved home church that I grew up in does not support women in ministry, and instead of celebrating my call to ministry, denied it.  My first church internship was in a "purpose-driven" church that seemed to be more about stage lights, catchy music, and attendance numbers than authentic faith (although, to be fair, I met wonderful people there that are still part of my life, and the church has grown to create some wonderful outreach ministries for the community).  I watched my fiancĂ© (now husband) get battered by one church, then another, and the bitterness still rises whenever I see those self-righteous committee members that declared him unworthy, while the staff stood by silently, continuing to pat themselves on the back and rake in their big paychecks.  After 5 years of being in a much better place in terms of our careers, finances, family, and church, I still struggle with anger over how we were treated, and how common our painful experience really is.  

It took a lot of searching and a lot of healing (still in progress, obviously) to find a safe place for us to return to church, and that was only with the understanding that we would just be pew-sitters for a while.  The community of faith that we found was not what we expected.  From the surface, they looked like a dying congregation, their numbers decimated and aging in a large and mostly empty sanctuary that reflected better days.  There were few programs, and no Sunday School class for us; our kids and the pastor's children were almost the entirety of the children's department.  It did not look promising, but, oh, how they reached out to welcome us.  Against our initial impressions, we felt like we had found a home.  We knew things weren't perfect, but we were able to let our guard down.  As the first year wound down, we felt ready to get involved again.  When the cracks began to show, we were already committed.  Our kids had been dedicated, one had been baptized, and we had made friends as more young families began to join.  Our pastor was a wonderful preacher, a compassionate leader, and a friend and mentor to me.  We spoke up in strained business meetings, we stepped up to fill leadership roles, and we prayed that the ugliness of the past would not repeat itself.  At least this time, we weren't in paid staff positions.

But now, the brokenness is undeniable, and I wonder if it's irreparable.  We are saying goodbye to our beloved pastor who is resigning after doing her best to hold things together for the past 18 years.  There is grief with all its stages: sadness, denial, anger, bargaining...I want to run away one minute and fight the next.  So the question, posed the day before the straw that broke the camel's back, becomes even more relevant and personal: "Why do we need to go to church when it seems that church only hurts people?"

My answer would be a little more hesitant and uncertain than it was just a few days ago, but deep in my heart I believe in the power of a church community.  We are there to support, encourage, and keep one another accountable.  We join together to seek God's vision as a group so that it doesn't just become all about "me".  We are stronger together, so that we can reach beyond the church walls and minister to our hurting community as the Body of Christ, a real and tangible reminder of God's presence, concern, and love with us.  Just like the first disciples, we won't always "get it".  We will hurt each other, intentionally or not, and we will betray the very Jesus we claim to follow.  We will get more wrapped up in business than ministry.  We will point fingers of blame and give in to fear instead of faith.  But, with God's help, we will heal together and learn to trust God and each other again.  We will fight the temptation to isolate ourselves and will do the hard work of breaking down our walls of protection, softening ourselves to the risks and rewards of authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability.  We will share our stories with one another and learn that even those that seem so different are connected to us by the bonds of family.

We will take our inspiration from the bread we break, remembering the body of Christ, broken as we are, and yet is the source of healing and hope for us all.

Read my follow-up post on "Why We're Not Enough to Fix the Church (but God is)" here.


  1. My church is struggling; we had a wonderful part-time pastor, who did wonders, but is now leaving for a full time position. I'm very happy for her, but scared.

    I have never seen such mean behavior as I have in the church. I have also never seen such kindness. Why do I stay? I need God, and I get a lot of Him through the magic of the liturgy and the fellowship with others who feel as I do.

    As we are all telling ourselves, we will "carry on." Fortunately, we have God to help.

  2. Thank you both for reading and taking the time to respond. Martie, I can relate to your fear, and am starting to see that a lot of the "bad behavior" in churches stems from this. We are afraid to trust, and we haven't learned how to live in community with God and others. I'm getting a lot of inspiration from the Old Testament narratives of God's people struggling in the same way. They would be rescued by God and would turn to follow God, but the smallest challenge would send them running away again. I admire the courage of those in churches fighting to stay strong, stay committed, and find the beauty even in the mess. Blessings to you both!