On Leaving the Church
Raised in a Christian home, I have always believed in God, and I have always aspired to be a “good Christian”. I was always the “good kid”. Pleasing God and those that I respected was always a high priority for me. My Christian friends complemented me on my strong faith and my great character. My non-Christian friends expressed admiration of my motivation and my compassion. Their approval encouraged me; it affirmed my avowal of Christian culture.
After I graduated high school, I moved away from my hometown to attend a public university in a city where I knew no one. I immediately sought out a church* to be involved in. One of the first Bible studies I visited greatly impressed me. The people were welcoming, funny and passionate about Christ. I admired the community that they fostered. I wanted to become a part of this group. (For the sake of anonymity, I will call this group “CIJ” which stands for “church I joined”).
As I continued attending CIJ, I learned that their theology differed from my own – they were more restrictive than I was as to who could be included within the group, who was “saved”. They called themselves “disciples”, and the general unspoken attitude was that CIJ was the only “real” church. Disciples who didn’t regularly attend church events and socials were labeled as “struggling”, and concerned members would encourage them to become more involved. I disagreed with these practices, but I decided to continue attending CIJ because there were positive elements to the community. For a year and a half, I immersed myself in this culture, yet I was always the odd one out.
It is difficult to explain my experience with this group to outsiders. CIJ’s worldview is so far from that of many people that it is difficult to understand how members could be simultaneously loving and cruel, welcoming and judgmental. Because of the time I spent with them, I learned to love individuals within CIJ. There were many that I respected and admired despite our differences. I caught a glimpse of their way of thinking and in the process I learned to understand it, even if I didn’t agree with it.
December of my sophomore year of college, I experienced a moment of clarity. A dear childhood friend of mine, whose faith I had always admired, passed away from leukemia. I was devastated. One of my church friends asked the question that to her was essential, “Is he in heaven now?” By her definition and that of this church I had aligned myself with, he was not saved, but by my definition, he was celebrating in heaven. I realized that I was performing a facade in order to be accepted. It was in this moment that I decided to leave. Because I lived with church members, I decided to keep quiet for another seven months until my lease was up to avoid conflict in my apartment.
Throughout this time, I never lied outright, but I felt like I was living a falsehood. Although I considered these people fellow Christians, I knew that once I left their group, they would no longer consider me a disciple. I was going to lose some of my dearest friends, people that I respected and valued. I remember someone told me she couldn’t wait until the faraway day when she would marry and I would be in her wedding. My only thought at the time was that once she learned that I was leaving the church, she would never speak to me again. It was a painful idea.
After my lease ended, I sent a polite email explaining why I was leaving: my theology was different and I found the overall culture repressive and exclusive. I emphasized that I still viewed them as fellow Christians; I just wanted to worship elsewhere. I received a mixed response. Some individuals responded with respect and love; many others have never spoken to me since then. I knew that many believed that I was no longer a Christian. In staying true to my beliefs, I lost a community. I walked away exhausted, spiritually and mentally. I lost the desire to participate in a church. For a year and a half, I made excuses, explaining that I hadn’t found another church because I was busy, I traveled a lot, I hadn’t found a place I really liked, etc. The truth was that I was terrified of being told that I wasn’t good enough, that my identity as a Christian was not legitimate.
As time passed, I gained confidence in myself as an individual. I learned that my faith was a personal concern. No other person could tell me that I was or was not a Christian. My faith was legitimate regardless of the opinions of those around me. I have gained a stronger sense of self, and in the process I have forgiven those who I felt robbed me of my identity. My involvement with CIJ forced me to re-evaluate myself. I realized that I had defined my identity as a Christian by the approval of other Christians. I now have a better understanding of my faith, and I am confident that no one can take it away from me. I do not believe that I have to be accepted by a group of Christians to consider myself one.
*In Christianese, a church signifies a group of believers, not a building.
Note: I wrote this for a class I am in this semester. I just edited it so that it sounded less “academic” and shortened it as much as possible.