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...
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.
But 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.
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.
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.