Leaving an unhealthy churchI didn't join an unhealthy church on purpose. Like many others, I joined because I was looking for something -- I wanted to be in a church that was "alive." I wanted to see and feel God's power. I thought that if I could experience something supernatural, I'd somehow become a super-Christian: one who had no doubts and no fears. Then, maybe, if I was good enough, perhaps there would be a chance that God would use me in one of those spectacular supernatural ways.
The irony is that my journey took me in the opposite direction. Instead of becoming a super-Christian,
I found myself caught in a terrible situation. Instead of getting closer to God, I found myself
farther away than I had ever imagined possible.
Waking UpI liked my church. I liked being a part of something that was exciting, somewhat controversial, and always in motion. I didn't just wake up one morning and decide to walk away from that. It happened over an extended period of time.
It started with some nagging doubts and reservations. Some of the supernatural stuff started to seem questionable to me. At times, I wondered if people had really been miraculously healed or if they were just "speaking in faith." At other times, I wondered if the supposed recipients of the healings had ever been sick in the first place. The folks who really needed healing the most--the cancer patients, the seriously ill... basically, anyone with a medically verified condition--they never got healed. I also wondered about "prophetic words" that seemed to contradict eachother and even contradict the Bible. Some very specific "prophetic words" were simply forgotten or ignored without commentary when they didn't come to pass. It made me uncomfortable, but my desire to have faith outweighed my doubts.
Faith was supposed to be like a muscle -- you had to use it in order for it to grow. My faith was weak, but I dreamt about having "faith to move mountains." I looked to those who were further along than I was, and longed to be where they were. Certain pastors and leaders were held up as heroes in the faith. They seemed so solid, so convinced, absolutely unshakeable. I attributed my lack of faith to a lack of maturity. If I could only stick with it long enough, I believed that all those questions would melt away.
My questions didn't just melt away, but I learned how to talk as if they had. Talking correctly was just as important (or perhaps even more important) than believing correctly. The reasoning was that if you "talked the talk" long enough, you'd "walk the walk" eventually. Faith was "calling those things that be not as though they were." I learned to speak with confidence and passion in areas where I really had zero conviction. Essentially, for the sake of "truth" I learned to be a very effective liar.
I was ready to defend my leaders even when I disagreed with what they did. Staying connected to the church was all that mattered. If staying connected meant promising to live according to the group's rules, then that was a small price to pay. The church was my family. Services, classes or other activities took place almost every night of the week, and I was there whenever the doors were open. We genuinely cared about each other. We made sacrifices for the good of the church. We were making some pretty big life decisions -- where to work, where to live -- because those decisions would make it easier to commit even more time and resources to the group.
The teaching was something that appealed to me and I wanted to believe it with every fiber of my being: God loved me, God didn't want anything bad to happen to me, and God would protect me supernaturally if I would just believe and follow Him--follow the rules. I longed to be closer to God. I wanted to experience the supernatural aspects that the charismatic / Pentecostal movement was known for. The worship, the message, the ministry time at the end: everything set the stage for an emotional "close encounter" with God. Feelings were important. If you didn't feel anything, someone would be there to help you "pray through" until you did. It was a high. It's... addictive.
Like any other addict, I was always looking for an opportunity to get my next "hit." I went to "revivals" on the west coast, special services on the east coast, visited "hot spots" in the midwest and even Canada. These special meetings stretched into the small hours of the morning. You didn't dare leave before it was over -- you might miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an encounter with God! No one wanted to be the last person who left the upper room before Pentecost happened! With each new city and new speaker, I hoped that maybe this would be "my night." But that night never came.
The highs were tremendous, but the lows were horrible. There's a flipside to believing that God will bless you if you live, speak, and believe correctly. If you're not blessed, not protected, or not healthy, then the inescapable conclusion is that you must be doing something wrong. There must be some sin in your life.
When I reached that point for the first time, I was discouraged... but instead of walking away, I decided to throw myself into my faith with even more energy and abandon than before. After all, I wasn't perfect, so I was probably doing something bad without even realizing it. My pastors tried to diagnose my spiritual shortcomings. Maybe I needed to stop working extra hours and devote more time to the church. Maybe I wasn't reading my Bible enough. Maybe I wasn't listening to the right music. Maybe I wasn't bold enough in my witness. Maybe next time I would get it right.
But I didn't get it right next time, or the time after that, or the time after that.
I was dealing with a painful medical problem. Going to the doctor was an acceptable "last resort" option, but it was also an admission of failure and lack of faith. If you requested prayer for the same thing multiple times, that was also a sign of failure. I learned to hide my symptoms and act like everything was OK.
When things were so bad that I couldn't hide my symptoms, I just avoided church and church people. That, in turn, just re-enforced the idea that I was doing something wrong. I'm sure that my friends and leaders assumed that a guilty conscience was keeping me away from church. People would naturally wonder if I was backslidden, but my choices were limited: stay away and risk being labeled apostate, or show up and let everyone see how badly I had failed in my faith. I prayed desperately for my own healing. I agonized over what I might be doing wrong. I pleaded with God to show me where I was missing it so I could "fix" whatever it was and live in His blessing again.
I never had one of those supernatural healing moments. I thought I did at times, but whenever the pain came back, so did the feeling of complete rejection and failure. I had done everything I knew how to do. I had begged God to forgive me for whatever it was I had done wrong. I prayed, but "the heavens were brass."
I was still being taught that God loved me and wanted to bless me... but I didn't believe it anymore.
What did love have to do with rewarding people for doing something correctly? In my mind, God was now
was some cosmic game show host saying, "Sorry, that is correct but you didn't answer in the form of a
question." The buzzer sounds and the bottom falls out of your life...
LeavingIt wasn't easy to leave. The church was my family, dysfunctional as it might have been, and I was not eager to lose them. Fear was also involved. If bad things could happen to me while I was making a real effort to stay under God's protection, what horrible things awaited if I rebelled and walked away?
When I joined the church, I had signed a "covenant" where I promised, among other things, to speak to the leadership first if I ever wanted to leave. I dreaded that conversation more than a whole mouth full of root canals. The leadership believed that they were able to receive very specific verbal direction (called "prophetic words" or "words of knowledge") straight from God, not just for themselves but for those in their churches. They believed that they were responsible for the members of the church, and it was their duty to warn them and discipline them if they were heading in the wrong direction. I had tasted that discipline before, but I knew it was nothing compared to what was coming.
My initial meeting with the leadership was brutal. I was told that I would be a failure wherever I went, that I was not nearly as smart or skilled or spiritual or useful as I thought I was, that I would never find another church like this one, that I would wind up sick and possibly even die because I was outside of God's will. Whatever pain I had experienced up until that point would be nothing compared to what was to come... and then I wouldn't have people in my life with enough faith to pray for my healing.
They reminded me of all the mistakes I had made during my time at the church... and they didn't have to exaggerate, because I had done some pretty stupid things in my time. The church had forgiven me even though I didn't deserve it... so surely I owed more loyalty to the leaders -- and to the group -- and to God. Besides, I was serving in the church... and if I left, I would be hurting the work of God and forcing others to pick up the slack.
I felt guilty. It took more than a year for me to work myself into a position where I had the courage to even think about leaving again. I did my best to leave honorably and correctly, but it didn't matter. Nothing I could ever do would be enough... and I should never have expected it to be enough. Looking back, I realize that there were only two ways to leave my church: in a conflict or in a coffin. Ultimately, I accepted a new job in another state and left... without the support of the church leadership.
It was an awkward departure. I still had close friends in the church. There were tearful hugs and promises to keep in touch, but I knew I was saying "goodbye" forever. Even if we did keep in touch, it would never be the same.
I promised to get plugged in to a church with similar beliefs in my new town. Thankfully, that's a promise I didn't exactly keep.
I wanted to stay in a charismatic/Pentecostal church, but I hoped to find one that wasn't so controlling. I didn't know what I wanted in a church, but I was absolutely clear on what I DIDN'T want. I wound up joining a large and much more mainstream Pentecostal church. It was completely different from my previous church. There was no pressure to join or stay or even attend on a regular basis. It looked like a safe place to go.
And it was safe. The church was definitely Pentecostal, but the supernatural gifts and miracles were rarely the focus of a meeting. Everything was done with excellence and professionalism. It was top notch. There were career musicians on the worship team. Nationally known guest speakers visited from time to time. They used drama and technology and elaborate sets to enhance the services. The messages were much shorter and more practical than what I heard before. The topics were "ripped from the headlines." Often, there were social/political themes to the teachings, followed by a call to action. (For example: vote in this local election, support this food pantry, help these kids...)
The pastors were friendly and easy going. There were no major control issues here. They didn't use "prophetic words" to try to direct the personal lives of the congregation. In fact, the pastors were so busy that they didn't know very much about the lives of their members outside of church... and they didn't want to know either. They weren't shy about asking for money -- and there were definite echoes of prosperity teaching involved -- but they didn't hunt you down if you didn't give for a week or two.
There wasn't the same sort of "exclusive club" feeling. They cooperated with other churches to organize big events in the community. They had a lot of positive press coverage. Marketing and Evangelism were interchangeable terms. There were many who volunteered their time, but paid staff members handled the bulk of the responsibilities. The pressure to serve the church just wasn't the same. The majority of the congregation could just "show up" and enjoy.
There was something happening literally every night of the week. Cars were always in the parking lot. There were always meetings and programs -- yet was difficult to build relationships. During the year that I attended that church, most of the staff and a significant percentage of the congregation left & were replaced by others. It was a huge revolving door. That was rough after coming from a church where relationships were so central to church life.
The worship time was powerful and emotional... but strangely empty for me. Even the supernatural aspects had lost much of their appeal. Somehow, it all seemed so cheap and plastic now. It was a warm fuzzy experience for the sake of warm fuzzies. If I was going to have a genuine close encounter with God, I expected that I would walk away forever changed. Here, it seemed like I was changing, but not for the better.
I began to wonder if the things I had loved about my previous church were inextricably connected to the things that I hated. Maybe strong relationships only happened in an environment of strong control. Maybe what I had grown to love so much back there wasn't God at all. Maybe that's why I felt like I was further away from God at this point in time than ever before.
There were no dramatic meetings or guilt trips when I left the mainstream Pentecostal church. I didn't feel torn or conflicted about leaving. No one tried to shame me into staying. In fact, I'd be surprised if anyone even noticed that I was gone. I was just... done.