“We Worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everyone else. This shift made us into a religion of belonging and believing instead of a religion of transformation” – Richard Rohr
When I left high school, I got a job at a little mall coffee shop to earn some money before starting college. One day between buttering bagels and refilling the coffee grinder, my boss asked me if I was a Christian, because if not I was going to hell (as I write that sentence now, it strikes me as funny that I didn’t tell him to go hell on the spot, because that’s what I’d do now!) But my 19 year old self was searching for answers, and questions about the afterlife were top of my list.
This my friends was the beginning of my journey into a nearly 20 year relationship with evangelical Christianity.
Dun dun dunnnnnnn…..
I’ve always been a seeker, and growing up in a household that didn’t encourage questions about the spiritual realm, I was forced to do my seeking elsewhere. The little chat with my boss left me fearing for my immortal soul, and it seemed to make sense that I check out church with my friend who was a Christian. So one Sunday night, I walked into a school gym that smelled like socks and had various national flags haphazardly hung on the walls. There were folding chairs instead of pews, a music stand instead of a pulpit, and a band instead of an organ. The pastor wore casual clothes and spoke with an accent. It was so different, and I was intrigued. That very night, after singing romantic ballads to God and watching people lift their hands in surrender, I too surrendered and “gave my heart” to Jesus.
And it really was a surrendering. After 19 years of questions and anxiety, I finally had my answers! There was a God who loved me! I wasn’t going to hell anymore! Phew, made it to heaven. All the answers to my life long questions were neatly gift wrapped and handed to me on a platter, otherwise known as the Bible. We were taught that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. We called ourselves a “bible plus nothing, bible minus nothing” church, and we strived to live that out in daily life.
I now had answers to previously unanswerable questions. I’d grown up wondering about the afterlife, life’s purpose, the spiritual realm. Now I was surrounded by people who were absolutely certain about everything: How to live, who to marry, what your purpose was, what happens when you die, what’s right and wrong. For a person who likes certainty and security, I felt at home. I felt safe. We were pointed to the Bible over and over again. “What does the Word say?” was a well used phrase. I remember someone saying from the pulpit one Sunday that you only know God as well as you know your Bible.
I had instant family. I felt like I’d found my tribe. A happy, positive, faith-filled group of people who genuinely cared for each other? Sign me up.
A few other plusses worth mentioning: I learned emotional maturity. I learned how to balance my finances. I learned how to be an entrepreneur. I learned how to put others before myself. I forged deep and long lasting friendships. I was surrounded by people who had the art of encouragement down. I gained enough confidence in myself to finally do what I’d always longed to do: Sing!
So it didn’t seem bad at first. The subtle control I was under only became apparent to me much later. We met nearly every day. Tuesday cell group (the irony is not lost on me now); Wednesday morning team time; Wednesday evening prayer; Thursday music practice; Friday youth outreach; Saturday team time; Sunday 2 services. Not to mention that before many of these meetings, we had a prayer meeting about the meeting! We only had Mondays off because we needed a day to recover. It was a full time job! I remember once asking an elder if I could scale back on meetings because I wanted to go to the gym. He laughed and said I could go in the morning before work. So I woke up at 5:30am and went to the gym. But it wasn’t sustainable so I just quit the gym. Sometimes I think my personality type is perfect cult fodder, because in those days I was such an obedient sheep. Are most cults made up of Lindsays?!
Another time, I decided to skip prayer meeting, and boy did I pay. I beat myself up bad for that. I didn’t enjoy a single moment, the guilt was so crushing! Shortly after that we were publicly berated for not attending prayer meetings. We were actually shouted at. Your attendance measured your direct level of holiness and commitment. I don’t remember a single thing we every prayed for. It was never world hunger, or warring nations, or global disasters. Our focus was myopic and internal. There was certainly a lot of thrashing about in great dramatic fashion.
I became dangerously dependant on my community. I was addicted to the feeling I got of belonging. I rejected my non-believing friends because our views didn’t align. I missed many of my family’s birthdays and special events. I was completely sucked into a “more important” family. No more vacations or weekends away with my parents because it was taking me away from my church obligations. We were told by leaders that vacations were a waste of money that could be given to the church.
One of my most shameful moments (and perhaps it will be cathartic to share it, but I am not so sure – the tears are prickling behind my eyes as I write this) was when I got a call from my mom one Sunday morning, just as I was about to lead the singing at church. My dad was in emergency, having had a heart related episode. But I decided to stay and fulfill my duties, and I said I’d go later. I still don’t know how they ever forgave me for that, I certainly haven’t forgiven myself.
We couldn’t sneeze without permission. It was called accountability, but it was control, plain and simple. Essentially the leaders were our pope, able to hear from God about the direction of our lives. Should I buy this house? Should I go to college? Should I marry this person? Problems arose when two leaders offered differing opinions – how could I know which one was truly hearing from God?! At the end of my time in that church I didn’t know how to make decisions for myself, a power that has taken me years to get back.
And this was my life for 14 years. I was happily ensconced in my little church, as my dear parents fretted from the sidelines. There was a lot of good and a lot of not-so-good. I think one of the biggest challenges of leaving a community like that is trying to decipher what exactly I should hold onto, and what I need to let go of. What was true and what was false?
There are days I want to crawl back to the safety of that place, but it’s like trying to fit into an old sweater I have outgrown.
Because it was also where a struggling 19 year old rediscovered the Joy she’d misplaced as a child. The Peace I’d longed for, I finally felt. The Love I had always known existed was now real and concrete and tangible. It’s a feeling I have only recently begun to think is possible again. Oh how I have missed it! The hardest thing about having left the church was not losing the people, or the purpose. It was losing Jesus.
Only now am I seeing that Christ doesn’t live inside the walls of the church, or in a certain people group – how exclusionary we have made him!
Our concept of Jesus was too small, too human, too much like looking in a mirror, and it was in desperate need of an overhaul if my faith was to survive. The dissonance I felt between “Church Jesus” and the true Christ would eventually cause me to leave the community, and the faith altogether.
Stay tuned for Spiritual Journey #3 – The Exodus!
For Faith Journey Part 1, click here!