My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (3)

I’d been depressed before. My mom had died the previous year and I remember sitting in my room while she lay down the hall suffering from the second bout of cancer, which would eventually kill her, thinking to myself, “I’m glad I know there’s a God, and that he actually cares about me, because if I didn’t, I might as well shoot myself in the head right here and now.”

This time, I didn’t have that luxury. From April to July of 2004 were the darkest days of my life. I no longer knew who I was, or who I wanted to be. I no longer knew what I believed, or why I had ever believed any of it. I hated myself, and realized that I had hated myself for a long time. I dove back into the pornography as a coping mechanism, and I engaged in long-running and heated debates and arguments with God.

My accountability partner thought I needed to spend more time in church. My Bible study mates seemed mystified by all of it, and promised each week to pray for me.

I, on the other hand, remember very vividly one of the few church services I attended during that time. Through most of the sermon, I sat in the third row contemplating different ways of killing myself. Eventually, I talked myself out of it because I figured it would hurt those I cared about too much if I died.

That was one of the last times I went to that church. As I began talking through all of this with the few people from that church who had demonstrated any real care for me – particularly my Bible study leader and a couple of the church elders – I realized that they didn’t have any answers. The answers they gave me seemed rehearsed, superficial, and singularly unhelpful.

Through the long, dark process, I began to come to the heart of the problem, and it was this: The self-doubt, and fear of being rejected by anyone and everyone had overwhelmed me completely. I had given away the ability to define myself. I had been freely allowing anybody and everybody around me to tell me who I was, and I had, to the best of my ability, become exactly the person they wanted to see: Pastors, parents, teachers, friends, each and every girl I’d ever attempted to have a relationship with . . . all had a hand in who I was at that point . . . everybody but me. To be sure, it wasn’t always malignant. In most cases, they simply defined me because I refused to define myself.

I had become a nobody, in the most literal sense . . . a shadow person. I had allowed everybody to define me as they wished, to the point where I had no idea who or what I was even supposed to be, much less who or what I had become.

There were a handful of people who tried to be there for me during this time, but two people in particular were able to see through all the facades and walls to speak to who I really was . . . two close friends of mine who knew about my struggles with pornography and self-esteem issues, and who had each been through the wringer themselves.

I shared everything with them – something which I’m sure the people at my church would have discouraged had they known. You see, both of these friends were girls, and this church, like ATI and the church in which I grew up, were of the belief that deep heart-to-heart conversations with members of the opposite gender lead to “unhealthy emotional bonds.”

In my case, the bonds started slipping away. I started seeing that there were people who actually cared about me, liked me for who I was, and enjoyed spending time in conversation with me. I realized that the pornography was rooted in a complete lack of self-respect and self-definition, and I started discovering the person I truly had been all along . . . the person God created me to be, but who had become so obscured by my desire to be all things to all people, that he got completely lost in it all.

I’d had confidants before . . . people I trusted with my story, but during this period, for the first time, I was able to share with someone who neither judged me and rejected me, nor tried to turn me into a project and fix me. This person, a longtime friend who was (though I had no inkling, as yet) to become my girlfriend, and later my wife, trusted God with me, and God came through. She had been through this whole mess of depression and rediscovery herself, and she kept telling me, “I know you hate hearing it, but I’m actually glad you’re going through all of this. I’ve been there, and I know what’s waiting on the other side.”

What was waiting on the other side was reality – a deeper reality than anything I have ever known. I had let other people define me for so long that I had stopped listening to God telling me who I was meant to be.

When I started listening again, I didn’t find anything remotely resembling what I expected.

Soon, the people from my church began getting concerned because I wasn’t showing up regularly at all. I didn’t want to leave, because I still loved the Bible study and getting together to talk over life’s issues with the other guys. Eventually, I started dating the girl who had been there for me through my depression . . . the one who had herself been through it all before. She was the one person who truly understood me, knew what I had been through, and knew me for who I truly was, and was meant to be, rather than the person I tried and pretended to be for so long.

The church, of course, did not approve. This girl, after all, was not going to church. She’d been hurt more than once, and had seen close friends torn to shreds by the church, in the name of “pastoral counseling.” And she wanted none of it.

Still, as I said before, she was fine with my journey being where it was . . . even if neither of us quite knew what that location might be.

I toyed with the idea of leaving the church, but wasn’t at all sure that’s what I wanted . . . or what God wanted for me. I didn’t know where else to go.

Soon, it all became much clearer. My Bible study leader informed me that the church leadership was concerned about my irregular attendance, and was considering placing me under church discipline if I did not show up more regularly. They didn’t inquire as to why I wasn’t more active or offer to help. They condemned me for failing to conform to their set of desired behaviors. When I tried to explain, they couldn’t see past my actions to engage with the deep internal struggle I was going through.

So I struggled alone. I studied and read a great deal about the church, its beliefs, and the scriptural justification for those beliefs. My study led me to an inexhorable conclusion – one I’d been fighting for a while by that point, despite my girlfriend (now my wife) having already reached that conclusion some time before.

I do not believe that Scripture mandates church attendance as a part of life in Christ’s body. I do not see any differentiation in scripture between what has become known as “the local church” and “the universal church.” I believe that distinction to be an entirely man-made construct.

To me, it seemed in my studies, and still seems now, as though scripture lays out a picture of the whole body of Christ as a single organism with Him as its head. While gathering in local synagogues and homes and hearing scripture read and taught may have been the most efficient and effective mechanism to engage in body life during the first century after Christ, it certainly isn’t anymore. I will write much more about this later. For now, let us continue on our journey . . .

(to be continued . . . )

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13 thoughts on “My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (3)”

  1. Keep going! We’re dying to know how this turns out! 🙂

    Seriously, I am following this and am touched by your openess and honesty. I am horrified (but not surprised) by the church you describe here, and how they have latched on to a few verses about church discipline while ignoring the rafts of Scripture about loving and supporting each other.

  2. I understand your struggle with this particular church, and I know the other difficulties that you have been through. I wonder your thoughts on whether you believe the entire “church” movement is inherently bad. Do you believe that there is truly no place in the Christian life for the church? Do you believe that it is impossible for a church to truly be helpful in one’s Christian walk? While I too have been completely turned off by churches in the past, I now have found a place in which I feel that I am with very “real” people who do not judge me based on a certain set of behaviors that they expect from me. I’m just wondering how you feel about this movement away from Main Stream Christianity might be better for you in your current situation, but might not be what someone else needs in order to grow.

    I was also talking to someone else about this, and I wonder how your thoughts might change once you have a child and have to worry about raising them not only in a Christian environment, but also making sure they have strong interactions with other Christian children….just a thought…

  3. Me,

    Thank you for your comment. I have several thoughts to share . . .

    First off, please understand that I am not advocating the course we have taken for everybody. God, I think, works different ways in different people’s stories. I am absolutely thrilled that you have found a safe place that you can go to engage in real, genuine relationships with people who are able to speak truth to your life. This is, I think, important in ANYBODY’s life. You’ve found such people in church. I’ve found them outside of it.

    My point, in writing what I am about church, is to speak to the point of view that demands church attendence for all believers. I think that point of view would be just as harmful – and just as wrong – as if I were to state that I think everybody should live their Christian walk OUTSIDE of church.

    It is interesting, too, that you bring up the issue of children. It is certainly a question worth wrestling with. This is something that has come up several times in discussion between ourselves and some of the older believers we have come in contact with, who are also walking this walk outside of church. I think the point is to give one’s children a safe, healthy environment in which to grow, discover and become more fully themselves. If that environment is in church, and that is where they find their relationships, so be it. I certainly found all of my closest friendships during my childhood in church. My wife, on the other hand, did not. Her closest friendships came mostly from homeschooling groups and other settings where she was exposed to other, Christian young people.

    I can’t say any of this any more eloquently than my wife did in a post she recently wrote about a conversation on precisely this topic. Our new friend, Marti (currently raising four girls outside of the institutional church), put it in the form of a question which, while simple, is full of meaning and says it better than I ever could, “Is God Big Enough?”

    I believe Him to be big enough to lead certain people into an organized church environment, and other people into something else entirely.

  4. I am going to agree with you that at certain points in the Christian life “strict” church might be good for some and not for others. I appreciate the fact that you are not saying that everyone should be pouring out of the church doors, because to do so would be to contradict what you seem to be standing for.

    I would urge you to think on this for a bit, while I agree that God certainly is big enough to lead you away from a certain church I wonder if you could be misreading the signs that seem to be pointing you away from organized religion entirely. If God did not have any reason for the organized church, why would he have put such a focus on his disciples and apostles to be church planters? And while I will agree with you that many of the churches today are simply a distortion of God’s perfect plan (as is much of what humans do to God’s creation) there is something that might be gained by continually seeking a church family that is what you are looking for. It sounds to me as though you have found something like that, but I would caution you in your adamant decry of the organized church that not everyone will find that “home group” or group of strong Christian friends with whom they can grow. Many people whom you might have the ability to influence could quite possibly simply decide to drift away entirely from any edifying body of Christ due to some of the difficulties they have tolerated within the organised church.

    I know that you are on this journey for truth and to continue seeking God’s will for your life, but I have to ask what it is that makes you so determined that you should not be seeking an organized church that does stand strong in the fundamentals of the Bible without being legalistic. They are out there. So, along this journey of yours never decide to give up completely of the church, just continually seek what you need in order to constantly be edified and a strong member of the nody of Christ.

    (And always remember the effect that you might have as a “strong, seasoned believer” on the baby Christians who might also be suffering from discontent with the church….who might simply decide that if someone like you who has been at this for 20+ years can not find God in the church that they should give up and go back to their carnal ways. In a far less obscene way, it could be like a “Christian” bumper sticker on the back of a car in which the driver is a maniac who often uses crude jestures and foul language)

  5. “Me” –

    I’ve been thinking about your comment regarding the importance of children growing up in the church with strong Christian relationships, and that perhaps we will reevaluate our church stance when we have children.

    While I always want all of my various thoughts to be open to reevaluation, I don’t know that having children will affect us in regards to our beliefs about church. I grew up in Sunday school. I memorized verses, had near-perfect attendance records, knew all the songs, participated in church plays. If I had to summarize what I learned about God through most of that, it would be this:

    We relate to God primarily through shame, guilt, and a focus on achievement.

    For example, the song – “Oh Be Careful Little Eyes What You See/Oh be careful little ears what you hear” – what’s the punch line? “For the Father up above is looking down in love, oh be careful little eyes what you see.” What does this teach us about God? I remember being a kid singing this song, and thinking of God as a sort of divine policeman waiting to “catch me in the act” of sinning. It contributed to my overactive sense of shame that I had as a kid, always trying to earn God’s approval. So do the often-used “prizes” given in Sunday school for good attendance, memorizing the most verses, etc. Sticker charts and gold pins for perfect attendance teach us to relate to God on the basis of what we can earn, and also teach us that spiritual fervor is measured by how much we “do” for God. That’s certainly the message I got as a kid in the system, and it’s taken years and years to begin to relate to God on the basis of his love for me and not on the basis of the good things that I do.

    A good description of this occurs in an online book called “So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore?” There is a chapter titled “Is This Christian Education?” If you click the following link, it will take you to an interesting discussion of what Sunday School is really teaching our kids.

    http://jakecolsen.com/chapter3.html

    I’m actually excited about the possibility of raising my children to be able to relate to God on the basis of love, not fear….on the basis of what he has done for us, not what we can do for him. I’m excited about being able to spare them from the shame game and the overwhelming guilt that I had as a child. I’m exciting about bearing the primary responsibility for teaching them about God.

    As far as friendships go, as Mike mentioned, my friends growing up rarely ever came from church. My best friends were the children of family friends, up until I was a teenager and then my closest friends came from homeschool support group activities and the like. I assume that since we know many young couples who are in the process of starting their families now or in the next few years, that in time we’ll end up having kids around the same ages, and that they will develop friendships naturally within the context of family relationships/outings/get-togethers.

    Perhaps some of our other readers who are outside institutional church AND have kids may contribute on this thread? Lynette or Marti – thoughts??

    I also wanted to comment about what you said about “giving up on the church.” I don’t think that either Mike or I view our journey as giving up on the church. Indeed, we are very passionate about developing community based on Christ, sharing in prayer and worship together, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper together. We haven’t “arrived” but we are seeking these things. If we’ve given up on anything, it’s simply the 21st century “construct” of what church is supposed to look like. We no longer believe that in order to participate in a Biblical church that we have to “go to” an organized church, but we haven’t given up on worshipping God in the context of community – which I think is what being the church is all about. Again, many people ARE able to participate in the life of the Body of Christ within the context of a normal, organized, institutional church setting that is familiar to our 21st century minds. That’s fabulous! We have friends who are where God has them – in a “normal” organized church. We would never seek to pull them away from that. Many people, however, are not able to find and participate in body life within a “normal” church, and find that other expressions of church life are where God has us – whether those expressions are in someone’s living room or through the worldwide web.

    In short, institutional church is one expression, one way, of living out life as the Body of Christ. There are other expressions and other ways of doing so that can be equally as Christ-centered and Biblical, and for some of us, these “different” expressions of church are where God has us at this point in our journey.

    ~H

  6. Well Heidi, this journey out of religion and into Christ has meant that I have had to trust Father like never before for myself and our kids! When we’re relying on an institution or what WE do, we have no need for God. When Father called us out of religion ten years ago, our kids were just 2 and 5 years old. We were shunned and so were they and I really felt for them. We didn’t understand it let alone them!!! But I felt Father said that if He could enable us to trust Him for fellowship for ourselves, then we could also trust Him for fellowship for our kids! And by fellowship of course I don’t mean going to meetings, but koinonia – communion and friendship with one another wherever, whenever, however Father brings it about! We were pretty much on our own for years BUT the depth and intimacy of my relationship with Christ which developed over those years, is precious and worth the pain of isolation!!!

    Rather than having all the head knowledge and facts, I trust that my kids will grow up seeing how REAL and precious God is in every day life to us! I try to be looking and listening for the times when Father wants to speak to us through one another, and that includes Him speaking to me through my kids. It feels risky sometimes because it doesn’t always look like we’re learning much. But I would rather they have little to no religious knowledge and discover God personally and relationally than know everything ABOUT God! I grew up in religion, my parents were in Missionary Training College when I was just 3, went to the missionfield when I was 8 and returned when I was 18 so all my growing up years were spent in a missionary community. While there are a lot of things about that which I am thankful for, there is also an awful lot of baggage that Father is still dealing with and a lot of religious stuff which He has had to redeem in my life. Religion is never the same as Life!!! I lived and breathed religion until God called me out and made me alive in Christ and it really was the difference between death and Life!

    So bottomline for me is still what Marti said “Is God big enough?” Obviously the answer is YES!!! To which I have to ask myself “Do I TRUST Him to take care of my kids?” And the answer is surely “How could He not???” They are HIS before they are mine!!! This deals with the question about what “effect” we might have on “baby Christians” too – they are their FATHER’s!!! We can trust Him with His own children! Really! 😎 He is the best Father ever yet often we don’t trust Him with ourselves let alone with others…

    And as to the question about why God had such a focus on being church planters if He didn’t want the organized church, I suggest, as someone whose parents were church planters, that your reader might want to read this: http://www.unveiling.org/Articles/planters.html because in order to plant the church, we first need to know what the church is, AND what it isn’t!!! 🙂

  7. Wow, Lynette, thank you for that perspective. I loved this part: “But I would rather they have little to no religious knowledge and discover God personally and relationally than know everything ABOUT God!” Amen to that! I think there’s this assumption that if we’re taught ABOUT God that we’ll end up discovering him relationally too, or that it’ll come later, or something, but I haven’t seen that. So many people I’ve known are crippled by the ways that they were taught to relate to God on the basis of their “work” or their “spiritual fervor” or their “achievement” or their “knowledge”, and are hindered from discovering him as a person, as Father, as someone we can just run to – not someone we need to earn favor with.

  8. You all have done a great job of saying just about everything I would have said, and far more eloquently! 🙂

    For our family, it does boil down to the question that I’ve raised… “IS GOD BIG ENOUGH?” Either He is, or He isn’t, big enough to take care of us in our spiritual walk, and to take care of our children in theirs.

    The path we were on, following religion, taught our girls ABOUT God, but but they didn’t develop much of a relationship WITH God. It inoculated them, making them feel assured that they must have it right – they were earning their rewards in their classes and such – while their spiritual lives were devoid of real substance and relationship.

    Now, my girls are fully aware (painfully so, sometimes!) that their parents do not have all of the answers. However, they see that we are living loved, full of Father’s affection and grace. As we seek Him, we find Him in new and exciting ways. We meet other people who are following hard after Father, and finding Him. They develop friendships with those adults, and begin to pattern their own relationships with the casual confidence they observe in the people around them. They see our struggles, and how He guides and strengthens us in the middle of the mess. He isn’t just a Quick Fix – a Magic Wand Waver that does our bidding if we just pray long enough, hard enough, and often enough.

    Could they have found this in the context of a Sunday morning gathering? Possibly, but it wasn’t where the Holy Spirit led us. To try and force that context would have been disobedient to the Spirit’s voice within us. Does that mean everyone needs to do what we do? As Paul says, “May it never be!” 🙂 However, as I don’t begrudge anyone who feels Father’s calling to them in the midst of a Sunday service, please don’t begrudge the calling He gives to me to find Him in another environment.

    The other side of this is that we have learned to be content in NOT having the answers, NOT knowing the final destination, NOT having “a vision” that gives us clarity about exactly where we’re going, what we know, and how we’re going to use and share that knowledge. We’re no longer heading toward being the mature old ones who can share our great wisdom with the young ones as they stumble along. No, we just as full of wonder as they are! It’s an adventure! Scary as anything, to be certain, but it’s so full of Life that I would never trade the wonder of it all.

    To me, that reality – that freshness – that honesty and truthfulness – that true relationship with our Father and with each other… that all speaks VOLUMES more than any class teaching ever could. And if we’re truly missing it, we’re back to Point One… trusting that God is big enough and full of enough grace to reach them in spite of any mistake we make.

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