When I was 19 years old, my dad looked me in the eyes and told me we were leaving our church.
My sisters and I looked at each other and smiled. We didn't even have to say anything out loud; all of us knew exactly what the others were thinking: Finally we're leaving this hellhole.
I've been through divorce three times. It wasn't marriages that split up; it was my churches. Each time was different; each taught me something new, and each experience hurt like hell.So when my father said we were leaving our church, part of me felt sad--though the other part couldn't comprehend why on earth I would feel anything but joy.Our membership at that church began in 1977, when I was four years old. That summer, a twentysomething preacher with a soft grin and an influential message came to our house to present his idea for a new church concept. Mom and Dad wanted something more than what our current church was offering, so they jumped at the chance to become a part of a Bible-believing, no-nonsense fundamentalist church complete with hellfire-and-damnation preaching. Almost instantly, our lives changed drastically. Not only did we begin going to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, but we also had "soul winning" on Thursday night, Bible study on Tuesday night, and the occasional kid's time on Friday evenings. For the next 15 years, we spent nearly as much time at church as we did at home. But time was simply the beginning; the church changed our lifestyle, too. My sisters could no longer wear pants and shorts, and I had to keep my hair short enough so that it would never touch my ears. Movies (plus any TV after "Wheel of Fortune") were out, as was any music with a drumbeat (including Christian rock). Wanting to live for Jesus, we eliminated from our lives anything the church deemed sinful. We were taught that no Christian, at least not any good Christian, would partake of anything the world offered. Nearly every aspect of our lives was in some way controlled or influenced by what the preacher said or what was written in the church bylaws. A year after we started, the church started a Christian school, which I began attending in first grade.Some days the "sin" was going to movies, or unmarried couples holding hands during church... Read more on page 2 >>
At first, our new life was lovely. The church's passion for God was inspiring and fresh. The people of that church became like blood relatives. My parents believed we had discovered the path to a truly God-filled experience.But that slowly changed.As is true with real families, our church family began to experience conflicts. Disagreements erupted over the pastor's theology, "church discipline," and certain rules-like the pastor asking families to sign over their personal property to the church. No matter how big or small the disagreements, they were--more often than not--simply left unresolved. Sometimes the pastor would lie to get out of handling the issue, and when people didn't agree with him, they were either asked to leave the church or left of their own accord. In a few cases, the congregation voted people out. As people left, the church leadership fed us lies about the "backsliders" to make us feel better about their angry departures. As time passed, my parents began to question the church's leadership style and its harshness toward those who didn't follow the rules. My mom and dad knew they had chosen a very conservative church, and they were OK with that. It wasn't until they saw the damaging effects of a merciless, legalistic approach to the gospel that they began to worry. They slowly began to realize that our church was much too concerned with its attendees' lifestyle. Some days it was the "sin" of going to movies, or whether or not unmarried couples were holding hands during church. Other days it was hearing about how one of the church ladies wore pants when she was at the supermarket, or catching one of the school's high school kids with a can of beer. My parents witnessed our church becoming much more passionate about punishing than about being the message of Jesus. When they challenged the pastor, they were silenced or told they weren't acting "like good Christians should act." But like the wife who consistently takes back a deadbeat or abusive husband, my parents continued putting up with the church's harshness.It wasn't until I was 15 that I truly began to see how the church's ugly version of Jesus hurt people. One of my Christian high school friends got pregnant. She wasn't the first who got kicked out of my school and church for getting pregnant, and she would not be the last. However, from the church's perspective, my friend's situation was different--because she was white and the boy who got her pregnant was black. When her secret was found out, she was kicked out of church and the school, and told she would not be welcomed back. Having to watch her walk through this already painful situation without her closest friends hurt. By the time I was a senior at my Christian school, I was pretty sure I loved Jesus, but was beginning to harbor hatred for his house. Eventually, my feelings toward the church got so bad that every time I walked into the building, I got sick to my stomach with anxiety, frustration, and anger.