Discovering Life After Leaving Church

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For those of us who grew up within evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches, and have since walked away from the church (and possibly our Christian faith altogether), there is often a major sense of “separation anxiety” to deal with. The doctrines and teachings we received Sunday after Sunday, month after month, and year after year, were deeply ingrained into our very souls. All of that indoctrination we received ended up forming both our identities and worldviews. One can’t hear sermons (allegedly from the Bible) on a weekly basis, year in and year out, and not be somehow impacted on a very deep level by this sort of communication.

One of the most common issues that ex-evangelicals report is how, after leaving the church behind, they are triggered by all sorts of strange things. These stem from such things as their years spent within the church with little to show for it; the slanted “biblical teaching” they received; religious or sexual trauma they may have suffered; or perhaps they were treated shockingly badly by other Christians. As time goes on, and they move farther and farther away from their past beliefs, and gain some objective distance, they begin to notice just how emotionally scarred they are from those experiences. They begin to understand just how messed up they are emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and perhaps sexually too.

A Manichean Worldview

Some of this damage can be traced to “black-and-white” dualistic thinking in which churches often specialize: us-versus-them, sacred vs. secular, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. “Good Christians” vote Republican and stand for God, country, home-schooling, “traditional family values” and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, gun rights, Donald Trump and the American way. On the other side, the “enemy” are such people as liberal Democrats (who stand for such terrible things as gay marriage, abortion rights, stricter gun control legislation, LGBTQ inclusion, gender fluidity, feminism, etc.).

In other words, oftentimes churches make their parishioners feel that they’re a part of an embattled, persecuted minority. The notion of “taking a stand for God and Jesus” in Western society may mean that they have to go on the offensive to get their point across to that person with whom they disagree vehemently on a particular issue. Hell, Christians will even vilify other Christians with whom they disagree — be it over an issue of theology or a certain biblical interpretation like speaking in tongues, end-times rapture scenarios, or whether a woman can preach in a church (or even be a pastor or an elder — or teach in seminary, for that matter, according to John Piper).

What’s most important, in such a scenario? It turns out that more Christians would rather be right than approach the truth; shockingly, many Christians in such a system and worldview would feel fine about “winning” an argument, and destroying a relationship with another person over it. This is all fine, as long as they can walk away and claim that “Well, at least I was right.” Sadly, this is just one legacy of much of evangelicalism, but it helps to explain why Christians can, so much of the time, just be assholes — not just to non-Christians out there in that evil, secular world, but to each other too.

A “House of Cards”

Contributing to this type of thinking is this problem: for many evangelicals, the stakes are simply too high. This explains why they can be so rabid in defending their particular point of view, no matter how warped. But the reality is that this entire edifice is built upon a shaky foundation; it’s a house of cards. For example, many Christians can’t admit that their Bibles might contain even the tiniest mistake; their entire view of God and Jesus is tied up with the truthfulness not just of the text of Scripture, but with God’s very nature as a truth-telling deity. If Scripture were somehow found to be false in any way, internally contradictory, or proven to be in error, then by extension, their God collapses too. It’s all interconnected.

This mentality also helps to explain why so many evangelicals cling fiercely to such doctrines as biblical inspiration and inerrancy, and defend them to the hilt; but typically, it’s largely because of their theological commitments that drives them to embrace such a position. This leads in turn to behaviors such as bibliolatry (worship of the Bible as somehow a “magical book”) and biblical literalism (claiming to take every word in Scripture literally, even though this is technically impossible to do). For example, it’s very difficult to apply a piece of poetry or allegory literally; even narrative texts are notoriously difficult to wrest a bit of morality from, too.

The ultimate irony in all of this is, of course, that most Christians don’t really obey even some of the clearer teachings in the Bible, like foot-washing, women not being allowed to teach (or even speak) in churches, greeting each other with a holy kiss, raising “holy hands in prayer,” and so on. So many of these are explained away as not being “culturally relevant” today; but when it comes to a hot-button issue like homosexuality, both sides of that argument will delve into both Old and New Testaments to bring up a litany of verses that prove definitively that God is for it — or maybe he’s totally against it. They certainly can’t agree on any one interpretation of these texts. Entire denominations exist because of an historic split centuries ago over a differing interpretation of the Bible.

Concluding Thoughts

Is there life after evangelicalism? Absolutely, there is. There’s a ton of irony in this whole thing too. When you do make the difficult decision to walk away, what you begin to find out is who you really are. Ironically, the church was supposed to be the institution helping us to discover this, but they failed with their purity culture bullshit and legalistic rules. In church, many times people simply learn to “wear the mask until their face grows to fit it.” The sad truth is they can’t afford to be real, vulnerable, and truly themselves. And the person who does dare to remove his or her mask becomes a threat to the other actors, and can expect humiliation or ostracization as a result.

If they reveal too much, or disagree with the party line, they can find themselves shunned by the community, which is a common tactic shared by evangelicalism and cults alike. Or, if you’re a pastor, or in some leadership capacity, then this is even more the case. There’s all kinds of insane expectations projected by congregations toward their leaders. They put you up on a pedestal and expect you to be a “super spiritual Christian,” but then throw stones at you since you’re such a convenient target up there.

And if you’re a pastor or a leader, heaven forbid if you should ever let anybody know that you struggle with a “sin issue,” have any kind of doubts about your faith, dared to criticize the NRA, got found out for a Facebook post about Donald Trump’s despicable character, spoke out to defend same-sex marriage, or said something negative about whichever political party or candidate your people supported. Whatever it is you may have done to anger and offend your parisioners, chances are you’ll shortly find yourself looking for another job somewhere else.

In the final analysis, then, in just so many cases the church is simply not the place to air your problems and real-world struggles; instead, it’s the place to see and be seen, a social club where everyone abides by the accepted social construct. People mostly want the preacher to confirm every Sunday what they already believe, and to interpret the Bible the same way they already do theologically. It’s essentially confirmation bias, writ large.

Yes, it’s certainly true; for many people, the church often provides a sense of community and can indeed be a truly welcoming place. But this could also be “love bombing” of the newest members or prospective recruits, too. The church can be accepting, that is, until somebody gets offended by someone else, and then the squabbles and interpersonal conflicts begin. Then once again, the long-suffering pastor has to deal with yet another conflict between two or more people. I know, because I spent 12 years in ministry, and this was the bulk of how I spent my time: solving petty skirmishes between church folks.

It’s all too tiresome even to contemplate; it takes too much emotional and spiritual energy to deal with all of it. It’s frankly exhausting to try and keep up the façade, so why even bother? These are just some of the reasons why I walked away from the whole mess, and never looked back.

In the final analysis, when you combine the interpersonal conflicts, together with a “healthy dose” of shame and guilt every Sunday from the pulpit by the preacher, there you have it: church. Here’s what is so bizarre: even though you’re a Christian, and you’re on your way to heaven, every week you hear the same variation of a familiar guilt-inducing message.

The preacher states repeatedly that God is disappointed and angry with you. Why? What have I done to upset him so? Because, the preacher intones, you haven’t been reading your Bible enough, praying enough, and evangelizing enough. Add to that: patriarchy, misogyny, rampant sexual abuse, toxic teachings about a “surveilling God” who watches us 24/7, coping with sin in our lives, and filtering out “impure thoughts” that must be dealt with constantly, and you’ve got a recipe for religious trauma, anxiety and depression.

I have to ask, in all seriousness: why would anybody want to be a part of such a system?

But here’s the good news: There is real life after evangelicalism; there’s freedom and release from those heavy burdens — to be discovered outside the walls of most churches.

There’s irony for you.

Written by

I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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