Surprising Things I’ve Learned Are True Since I Stopped Going To Church

I’ve been thirty years a Christian, and about twenty five of those involved in church in one way or another. I know some stuff about it. And a lot more the last few years, since we stopped going to church so much. Here is what I once kind of suspected was true, and now, know for sure.

It’s impossible to have all the answers. Funny, that. And you know what? Nobody outside the church really expects you to have them all anyway. Sure, there are your argumentative types, but you’ll find most of them are other Christians.  I know we’ve been told we need to be able to give a thorough and theologically accurate answer to anyone who challenges us, but in my experience, people who don’t go to church seldom actually ask for one.  Anne Lamott once wrote, and I’ve found it to be true, how a friend of hers said that most people just want the answer to two questions – 1) Who’s in charge around here? 2) How much do you love me? When it comes to people, I think that’s all you really need to know. Most unchurched people I know respond with warmth and relief when a Christian says to them politely and sincerely, “I don’t know.”

It’s natural and okay not to get along with everyone. God is love, and a friend loves at all times and all that, but you and I both know sometimes it’s just impossible. Let’s just call a spade a spade – some people you just get along with better than others, and that’s perfectly fine. There are people in this world you will never have anything in common with, or be friends with, or even be able to be in the same room with, and that’s just the way it is. I know we’ve been taught we must be friendly and compliant and cheerful and sweet to everyone we come across, but lets face it, even Jesus was mighty pissed off at times, and sometimes with his own friends. Cut yourself some slack. Not everyone you clash with isn’t your friend, and not everyone who is nice to you is. Boy – ain’t that the truth.

God doesn’t always make things work out in the end. This is sometimes the hardest thing for believers to accept, but the reality is sometimes people pray about things and get what they want, and sometimes they pray and believe and they don’t get what they want. Sometimes people pray for healing, and the person they prayed for actually dies. And sometimes nobody prays, and nobody even believes in God in the first place, and everything works out just great. This is the way of the world. Keep on praying that things will go well, but also accept that part of them going well is you being contented with whatever outcome comes to pass. It’s the prayer and the faith in itself that is the victory, not getting what it was you prayed and believed for in the first place.

People who aren’t Christians usually know exactly what they’re doing. I know we’ve been told that all non-Christians are hard-hearted and ignorant. I know we’ve been told everyone who doesn’t share our faith is uninformed, and misinformed, and has been led astray. I know we’ve been told they are all dead in their sins and blind to the truth, and will always be naturally opposed to everything you or I as a Christian say and represent. But you should know that non-Christians are not as selfish and stupid and pig-headed as we have presumed. You should know that people who are not Christians actually do you a great service by allowing you to practice your religion freely in their midst, and sometimes even in their face in quite a patronising fashion. You should be grateful that many non-religious persons vehemently defend your right to worship your god whenever and however you want to, despite the fact there is no benefit in it for them, other than they wish to live in a society where this is possible. Christians also ought to thank God that the people we may have considered dead in their sins do not consider our Christianity a crime or an offence, and we also ought to honour the fact that un-Christian law makers have written into legislation your right to profess and practice our faith, and are happy to benefit from our input into society because of our moral right-standing.

Universities and parliaments and hospitals are filled with people who have given their lives to help and govern and educate people just like us, regardless of our opinion of them or our high-minded views about their religion, or lack of it. Our society’s education, health and freedom is facilitated by the service and leadership of these whom Christians often consider to be ignorant and immoral, and we do well to give due respect. It does not behoove Christians to hold onto the collective mindset that presumes acceptance of Christ is the peak of human intelligence and sophistication. Because we would be wrong about that. Respect and regard for other human beings however may turn out to be.

The way we do things here isn’t compulsory. Of all the the things that surprised me when I no longer was part of a church, this surprised me the most. You can really do whatever you want, judge, think or decide, and the world does not come to an end. All your friends do not have to agree, participate or confer.

Some churches love this part – the part that says this is the way we do things here – so much, they have a name for it – church culture. It’s what makes us feel we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and gives us reassurance that given the same set of circumstances, others would do what we’ve chosen to do.  But church culture can be very constraining, and even damaging. It separates us from those outside the church, but also from each other. Church culture defines not only what choices we make, but perhaps even what we wear and how we talk. It may dictate what we do, and affect our decision making. Thus, the person who chooses a divorce, or who accepts their child’s homosexuality, or even who simply takes a job with hours that restrict church participation may be subject to intense disapproval from their congregational peers. Observers then watch and learn that they should never dare to do the same. The right thing is the way we do things here, and vice versa. I have found though that the very people who like to help you choose the right thing are seldom there to help in the same way when that right thing goes to hell in a hand-basket. While we ought to seek wise counsel, we ought never, ever lose our strength in deciding for ourselves. You alone will bear the consequences of your actions.

Working for/in/with the church won’t solve all your other problems. Once, a friend of mine who was having terrible marriage problems was told now honey, just devote yourself to the life of the church, and God will sort out all your problems for you. He didn’t. In all my thirty years as a Christian, I’ve yet to see this happen. When my own marriage fell apart, one of the issues I actually had to work through was my absolute, pig-headed determination over the years to remain involved in church life and activities regardless of the things that were happening in our relationship, and to our family. I have now turned my complete attention away from being a worship leader in the church and servicing it’s needs to being a wife, and working on my own marriage as a ongoing concern. There’s Godly priorities, and there’s Godly priorities. 

If you give the church your money, the church gets your money. I can’t be any more blunt. If you give your money to the church, the church will spend it. As they see fit. They may give it to missionaries, or they may use it to pay the electricity bill on their five hundred seat auditorium. They may use it for the salaries of the pastors, or they may sink it into investments you have no way of knowing about or endorsing. They may use it to expand God’s kingdom on earth, or they may fritter it away on stupid things and even lose it forever. If you give your money to the church, you can call it tithing or offerings or whatever the heck you want, but if you give it to the church, the church gets your money. It’s not spiritual, metaphysical supernatural or existential in any way, shape or form. As long as you don’t have a problem with that, then there’s no problem with you giving your money to the church.

The church is there to help you, but only sometimes. I do not mean this unkindly. There are certain problems the church will be happy to help you with, and others they will not be so keen to get involved with. Here’s a clue – if there is any possible way the outcome will preserve God’s good reputation, they’ll probably want to help you out. If it could all go terribly wrong, and probably will, or won’t be something you will be likely to give a positive testimony about afterwards, you better find another way of solving the problem. When I had cancer, the church was falling over themselves to help me. When it turned out that my husband had become mentally ill, an alcoholic and lost his business and all our money, it was a different story. The church loves victims. Perpetrators? Not so much.

You’ll never be in the “in” crowd. If I have learned anything, I have learned this. I know it looks like there is an in-crowd at your church. I know there seems to be an inner echelon, a tight-knit circle of the elect, chosen ones that everyone on the outside looks up to. I know it seems like there is a master race of ministers at the top, and everybody wants to be them, or be with them, or be just like them. But there isn’t. I know you’ve asked them and they’ve said there isn’t, and you haven’t believed them, but take my word for it, it’s true. They are just like you, except their mortgage documents read “minister of religion.” Next time you feel like envying them, think about that.

You know how you feel insecure sometimes about your life, and have doubts about your faith? So do they. You know how you feel stupid and ugly and dirty and unloved and rejected and like nobody would ever be your friend if they knew what you were really like? Those people you look up to feel that way too. There is no dream team, no inner circle, no in-club of ones who have made it in ministry life. They sure don’t think they are any better than you, in fact, they know full well they are exactly  like you in every way that matters.

Those people in church you look up to might seem more confident, more capable and more anointed, but they aren’t, in reality, or in their minds. Don’t resume their arrogance just because they have “made it” into ministry. Trust me. Those people you idolise feel just as intimidated and insecure as you do, and they know they are nothing special. They know all they have going for them is God’s grace, so don’t you go thinking they have anything else, over and above what you have, okay? Pastors and leaders know full well they are called not just to lead, but to serve, and for the most part, they take it very seriously, and with humility. Being a pastor is one of the hardest jobs I can imagine.

Church isn’t meant to replace your brain or your personality, but many people still act like it is. We are the church, and it should reflect everything that we are – mind, soul, personality, character. We are flawed – the church will be too. We are less than – the church will be too. We are trying to be better – the church will be too. We are redeemed by grace – and the church is this too. The church does not replace our intelligence, our diversity, our judgement or or our humanity – it is the expression of these. Hold on to everything you are – the church needs it all, the world needs it all. God needs it all. After all, He made you in His image. For God’s sake – don’t let anyone unmake you in theirs.

 

 

A Christian, Unbecoming – Part 2: Love Is A Battlefield

I reckon when young folks in the church decide they are called to become missionaries, rather than sending them off overseas to give immunisations or sing Father Abraham to little wide-eyed, brown skinned babies on the other side of the world, we ought to just send them into their local state high school instead. And we ought to tell them to leave their Bibles at home, and take a tazer and  supply of anti-depressants instead, and make their sole ministry to protect the life of any unfortunate soul who gets found out for being a Christian.

Me and two friends messing around painting a fence. I remember I was grounded for something, and wasn’t allowed to go out that Saturday.

I was “saved” in the early eighties, at high school, in ISCF (Inter-School Christian Fellowship) one lunchtime after hearing a man speak who had been terribly burned in a bus fire. I had always known God, but Jesus was a whole, wonderful new concept to me. Once I’d heard the burned man speak, I felt I had found the bridge between myself and a God who had seemed to grow more remote as I grew older. However, if I’d thought being saved from my own innocuous, pre-teen sins would extend to my also being saved from the violent, abusive and oppressive sins of my peers, I was sorely mistaken.

I feel I must take at least some responsibility for the relentless persecution I suffered once I made it public I’d found Jesus. I mean, I stuck Jesus stickers all over my school books. I argued with the science teacher about evolution. I wrote slogans in white-out all over my Globite school case such as “Jesus Saves!” and “Know Christ – Know Life, No Christ – No Life.” Suffice to say, said school case suffered it’s own unique and truly awful indignities, thrust ruthlessly as it was across the asphalt quadrangle, and kicked out from underneath me as I sat on it in assemblies. I learned the hard way that when someone spits on your school bag, if you rub it in hard enough then some of what they wrote in black permanent marker over the white-out actually comes off…a little.

I thought for ages I was the only Christian in my entire year of high school. But over a period of time, usually after there had been a lull in me having garbage thrown at my back, someone would sidle up behind me while I walked between classes and whisper something like “Pssst….you know, you really need to learn to keep your head down. I’ll – uh – pray for you.” before slipping around the corner out of sight. How come those kids never went to ISCF? I learned that there were other Christian kids in my year all right, but they had learned the art of discretion. I would know them by their sympathetic expressions as they rushed by me in the hallway while I wiped someones spit from my cheek. They seemed to have learned when they were very young never to let on they were Christians to anyone outside of church. Only we dummies who had been saved late in the game were stupid enough to think being religious was something you’d be safe telling anyone you expected not to socially crucify you in slow, painful increments.

Even in church, you could always tell us newly-saved grace-trophies from the birthright-born-agains. We were a little rougher around the edges, bringing our embarrassing problems from home to the post-service prayer line, and we were always asking people to pray for our unsaved folks. We were the ones racing off after the altar call to the phone booth around the corner after to make giggly prank calls to the operator – “Did you know, Jesus loves you?” We’d be in the bookshop buying glitter chrome stickers for our school books or clever evangelical t-shirts , while the church-experienced kids would roll their eyes and compare the Bible covers they got for their birthdays. They’d never be caught dead with that witnessy stuff. After the youth-group meetings were over, they’d be dutifully picked up by their parents, while we’d all bus it back home together in the back of someones van. Our church attendance wasn’t carefully regulated by our parents, in fact, our parents were probably grateful just to have the religious weirdo they couldn’t believe they gave birth to out of the house for a few hours. I did feel bad for my mum. I once remember her overhearing me when I was praying out loud, and her coming in when I was finished and telling me not to pray for her, thank you very much. She’d had her share of God when she was younger, she said, and those church people never did anything for us when we needed them the most. I got the impression that she wasn’t as uninitiated into the ways of the church as I’d probably believed.

The whole thing had begun to really wear me down. I felt like I was living three separate lives. There was home, where my family were happy to reap the rewards of any “clean Christian living” I managed to demonstrate provided I didn’t give credit to Jesus out loud at the dinner table. There was school, where I kept all public appearances to an absolute minimum, and only ever went into the toilets when everyone else was in class. And there was youth group, where it seemed I was destined to only ever be the proof that God really will save just about anyone.

I was 15. I could play pool like a biker. I was spunky. And I knew it. I also knew someone was taking this photo.

I guess it all started to go seriously haywire at school camp. Two other girls relented to share a tent with me, and I promised myself I’d try and justify their tolerant patronisation. One night, some of the popular kids decided to have a seance. Of course, being the only one present who publicly confessed any knowledge about spiritual things, I was asked if I wanted to participate. I thought it sounded simply terrific. Unfortunately, I was probably also the only one there who took it seriously, and I managed to invoke a realistic enough manifestation of something that caused every single person in attendance, including four of the toughest guys in our year, run from the room in terror, probably convinced they were about to relive a scene from “Carrie”. For my part, I was quite deflated when the seance ended early. I hadn’t considered that anything malevolent could possibly happen that I wouldn’t be able to handle. Hadn’t everyone seen this kind of scary shit before? Sheesh! We saw this stuff in church all the time. On returning to my tent, I found my two tent-mates had abandoned me. My social excommunication was complete. I was now not only the resident freaky Christian, I was now also the resident harbinger of supernatural evil. Oh, just frickin’ great.

By about year nine, I’d had about as much as I could take, and not just at school. My parents had dutifully endured what they hoped was my evangelical “phase”, and actually seemed relieved when I stopped going to youth group so much and started locking myself in my room listening to Pink Floyd for hours and hours. I’d already started trying to build back some credibility in school, taking up cigarette smoking and hanging out with the older, tougher girls on the back seat of the school bus. I began spending my Saturdays hanging out at the local roller skating rink, spending my pocket money on Alpines and teaching my girlfriends to do the draw-back behind the railway station. I stole alcohol from my parents bar and built up quite a resistance to intoxication at around the same time most of my friends were still having a sip of their mothers chardonnay at the dinner table. I rapidly became the girl parents warned their daughters to stay away from. The beatings and slangings at school relaxed, and I threw my offending school bag into the creek behind the school cross-country track. In just a few months, I went from being isolated in my own private religious piety, to being isolated in my own private delinquent infamy. It was quite thrilling and liberating, in a nasty, terrifying kind of way.

In fact, I really missed God, but I didn’t seek Him out like I once had. I no longer chased his silent, moonlit gaze around my pillow, instead resorted to sleeping with all the covers wrapped around my head leaving my legs naked, because I was actually terrified something would come and grab me on the back of the neck in my sleep. I hated the dark. I dreamed of vampires, and often just stayed up smoking cigarettes out the window until two in the morning, just to avoid having to try to go to sleep.

At school, I finally felt safe from my peers, but I’d had to become as dangerous as they were to do it. I still wanted God inside me and with me, and I certainly wanted more of Jesus if that meant more of God, but I didn’t know how to grow God big enough to swallow up the pain of having my guts hated because of Him. Being a Christian was clearly bad for my health – physical, emotional and mental. I couldn’t be with Him, and stay alive too. It meant I was going have to die one way or another – probably by being marginalised into an obscure social death by my peers and disenfranchised from my family of origin. I realised being a Christian would be an awfully lonely path for me, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready for that.  But there was an alternative. Unable to denounce God, I decided I would confront Him with as much bad and stupid behaviour as I could muster, and try and offend Him into leaving me alone. Being a Christian was just too darn hard for me.

I figured that at the very least, next time I got saved, I’d really have something to get saved from.