I didn't know I'd feel such deep hatred for other ChristiansBut just like my parents, I'd become codependent on the church. Everything I believed to be true was built around it. My faith had become unhealthily connected to a building, to a way of life, to a bunch of rules, to a particular type of service, and to a doctrine. I was nearly 20 years old when we finally made the break. We were tempted to go back and try again, but we didn't. My family, along with six other families, left the church because we couldn't take the rules, the harshness, and the graceless theology. A church split has consequences I was not prepared for. It never occurred to me that I would lose most of my friends who still attended. I didn't fully understand that people who still frequented the old church would become almost like enemies to me. Thinking about their actions kept me awake at night and filled my head and heart with anger. I didn't know that I, who had been following Jesus since I was four, would be able to feel such deep hatred for other Christians. But I did hate them--with a deeper passion than my naïve conservative mind hated child molesters and abortionists. My family, along with a bunch of bitter, pain-stricken friends, did what many fundamentalist Christians do: We started a new church. Not surprisingly, this new church was as ill-fated as the last. Only two years later, my family was maliciously and unanimously voted (yes, they actually took a congregational vote) out of the small community church because my mom wanted to start a praise and worship band and read out of the NIV Bible instead of the King James version. That, along with a few theological differences, caused the pastor to become paranoid that my family was trying to strong-arm him. Sadly, the preacher wouldn't have an in-depth conversation; he simply called my father one afternoon and told him that my family was no longer welcome at his church. Ironically, two years before, my father had been one of three deacons who had invited the preacher to pastor the church. The pain of the breakup was the same. My dad felt like he had been spiritually beat up. My mom was a hysterical and depressed. My sisters cried a lot. So after our forced exit, my family took some time off from church. A year after this second church split, my sister and I ran into its pastor at the public library. When I saw him, hatred poured through my veins. He had kicked us out and manipulated our friends. I wanted to scream obscenities at him. I wanted to know what he had made me feel. But I ended up just giving him the finger when his back was turned.
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We watched in terror...After a cooling-down period, I began visiting a medium-sized church. The first time I walked through its doors, I experienced a welcome I had never encountered before. Despite a 50-minute drive from my house, my family and I soon joined what I called the "friendly" church. As soon as we had joined, we got involved. The people quickly became like a family, and we felt and showed love like never before. In fact, the love of that church helped put my family on a new journey of faith.I realized that Jesus wanted me to learn how to love the people I so viciously hated from those first two churches--the people who were once our friends and had backstabbed us. Jesus showed me that if I truly desired to be like him, I would love like him, and that included loving those who had hurt me deeply.Ironically, just as my family was getting to a place on the journey where we could begin forgiving the people from the first two churches, the friendly church split right down the middle. It was happening again just like before--but for the first time, we weren't involved.The breakup was the result of a long, ill-mannered relationship between the pastor of the church and one elder. Most of what was really happening was kept secret and behind closed doors. But the effects were felt throughout the church. We watched in terror. We were caught in the middle; we didn't have any opinions about the issue or issues at hand, and I loved people on both sides. Watching them argue and fight and then, over a mere six months, fall apart, was heartbreaking.My family stood in the middle of 400 wonderful, beautiful people and heard them say things we knew they would one day regret, do things they probably thought they would never do, and feel emotion and pain and hatred they never thought they would feel. I was much more affected by this church's split than the first two. I had good reasons not to like the last two churches. But this third split felt the most like divorce. It was as though my family and I were kids caught in the middle of two amazing parents who couldn't get along.However, for the first time, I knew I was called to love. I knew that in coming years, there would be a time when the people who split would need help picking up the pieces. Healing is still happening for the medium-size church; brokenness still abounds.I still do very much love the church. But I've also matured in my thinking. Living through three church splits has taught me that I cannot depend on the church for my spiritual nourishment. I must seek Jesus through humility, meditation on his teachings, and prayer.
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Today I know that the church is not supposed to be the center of my strength, hope, and worship. I cannot (and will not) depend on it. Sure, in some cases, it's a good resource, and I attend a service on Sunday morning and teach a second-grade Sunday school class, but the church will never be the crutch and the core of my spiritual life. I'm an imperfect follower of Jesus; I want that, not a church, to define my existence.