The year my parents stopped attending church was the year the Christmas cards stopped arriving.
For most of my teens, my parents and I were members of a Protestant Chinese church not far from our house. While the church was far from being fundamentalist, it was conservative because of the congregation's right-wing views mixed with a traditional Chinese heritage that favored modesty and moral values. My parents assimilated easily into the Mandarin-speaking congregation, led by an amiable married pastor with a boyish smile and a strong handshake.
Two years after we arrived at the church in the late nineties, my father was singing in the choir and my mother became one of the church bookkeepers. Eventually, my father also became a trustee. Meanwhile, at 14, I cautiously eased my way into youth group--50 Chinese-American teenagers who met every Friday night for worship, prayer, games, and wholesome messages, all led by an adult.
Those Friday nights were moving, but also incredibly lonely. Youth group felt too much like a cliquish Christian version of high school. All the popular kids were the "deeply Christian" ones leading worship and Bible studies; they formed little groups, while the "fringe" kids were left out. Because I was shy and quiet, I became one of the "fringe" kids who wanted to be outgoing, but were often ignored.
After a year in youth group, I decided to get baptized, which would make me a church member. I had always believed in Jesus and baptism seemed right, but my motive was not pure: I had seen some of the shy kids, once baptized, become fiery, new, popular Christians. By getting baptized, I would cement my faith and become a joyful, super-improved Christian. So at fifteen, on Easter Sunday, I was tipped backwards into a tank full of water to become an "official" Christian.
For a while, I experienced joy, and prepared myself to suddenly fall in sync with the popular, knowledgeable Christians. But it didn't happen. Perhaps because I neglected day-to-day activities (like prayer and scripture reading) that strengthen a Christian's faith, I became more withdrawn and resentful. I also became angry at what I thought was church hypocrisy. I hated the adult leaders who surrounded themselves with the popular kids, even as they advocated reaching out to the "fringe" kids. I also despised the youth group members who advocated loving everyone, but barricaded themselves in cliques and befriended only other Asians who knew how to dress, joke, flirt, and talk with self-assurance. In a way, my need to be a popular, accepted youth group member was more important than being a true Christian.
I was also repulsed by the youth group's evangelizing tactics: every retreat was about force-feeding the gospel to non-Christians so they wouldn't end up in hell. Instead of being welcomed at youth group or Sunday school, the friends I brought to church were either ignored or accosted by other teens eager to pressure them into believing in Jesus. Even though Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, I don't think he ever imagined using relentless guilt tactics. Some non-Christians were never welcomed for who they were, but for who they could become; other non-Christians (if they were popular, friendly enough, and Asian) were immediately accepted.
After a year or so, however, I fell into a small group of friends. We were the misfits, and we formed our own anti-clique clique. We began rebelling against the youth group in small ways--defiantly sitting down during worship while others were standing, and sending scathing (anonymous) articles to our youth group newsletter pointing out hypocrisy in others.
While we teenagers were challenging the status quo in the youth group, I began hearing whispered conversations between my parents about the adult congregation. As a trustee, my father experienced first-hand what he considered the pastor's obstinacy and pride; he found him to be a controlling man who often forced others to agree with his own vision. My mother, meanwhile, thought she had begun to notice discrepancies between each Sunday's offering money and the church's monthly totals. I also learned that a few families who had been with the church for years had left, and no one seemed to care enough to call on them; instead, they were forgotten or gossiped about.
When I was 17, my parents reached a breaking point. My father had a hard time dealing with what he considered the pastor's desire to dominate, and my mother became increasingly concerned about the church's collection money. Overwhelmed by the pastor's hypocrisy, the troubling accounts, and the thoughtless adults who didn't care which families stayed or left, my parents finally decided to leave.
For a while, I stayed in the church for the sake of my misfit friends. But even those friendships were growing shaky, and it became difficult to see adults (among them the pastor's wife) ignoring me simply because my parents had left the church.
Eventually, I left the church too. That Christmas, my parents sent out many Christmas cards and received few in return. All the "friends" who once sent cards without fail chose that year to cut off communication. My parents didn't say anything, but I know it hurt them. I was hurt, but more than that, I was angry about the hypocrisy and the lack of love.
A few months later, we heard that more families were leaving the church--and heard a rumor blaming my father for the defection. The same people who once praised my parents now condemned them. My parents and I did begin attending another church, a smaller one, but it didn't feel like one where we would stay for a long time.
Two years after leaving the old church, I found out news that would make me disown the church and other Christians for a long time. A family friend was remarking on the then-exploding gay priest scandal along with the increasing sexual infidelity of married pastors. In the midst of her remarks, she dropped the words, "Just like our old pastor." I was shocked, thinking maybe I had misunderstood the comment.
But I had not. A year before, a rumor had circulated throughout the church that the pastor was having an affair with at least one woman outside the congregation. This was the same pastor who had preached against movies and TV shows containing illicit sex (like "Friends") while supporting wholesome fare (he recommended "Beauty and the Beast"). The same pastor who told stories of staying awake the entire night while on missionary work in East Asia, for fear of dozing off and waking up to find an unscrupulous woman sleeping next to him.
The whole church finally broke apart when I had already begun college. As my confidence in Christian leaders and in the church itself dissipated, I began avoiding all churches and church conferences. I became suspicious of the shiny, passionate faces of Christians. For years, I wandered halfheartedly from church to church. To my non-religious friends, I was religious, but I never felt like a "good" Christian. I felt a huge disconnect from God, the church, and other Christians. I tried to forget my past experiences, but the pain, anger, and suspicion took years to fade away.
In the end, before the pastor was forced out, it was revealed that some church staff had known about his affair, but hushed it up; only when the truth leaked out did they vote the pastor out. He left without a word and immediately founded his own church, filled with those still loyal to him, just miles away from the old one.
Even though it's clichéd to say no Christian or church will ever be perfect, the glaring flaws and hypocrisy are still crushing to see and experience. For someone who has grown up in any faith, the betrayal of others within the same faith is one of the greatest betrayals in life. An ideal is lost; the pedestal you created for people you considered more godly erodes into sand.
Today, I no longer feel the intense bitterness and anger I once did, but cynicism has taken their place. I still can't commit to a church, and am unable to trust any pastor.
I can't blame anyone for my own inability to forgive and embrace the imperfection that will always be a part of church life. But even though I haven't pulled myself fully out of a ravine of doubt, God has begun leading me to genuine Christians who infuse me with hope in God, his faithful, and the church. What I look forward to and hope for is a future with a church that will be full of the authenticity, humility, trust, and grace that God embodies for every Christian.