My story is rooted in whispers, conversations behind closed doors, arguments, struggles, isolation, and above all, a certainty that there is only one right way to be a real Christian.
My parents came of age in the Shepherding movement, which resulted in their arranged marriage. We stayed in that church until I was 10, but the dysfunction lingered.
I don’t have one specific traumatic event that lets me claim the title ‘spiritual abuse’. And so I think when people look at me, they wonder how or why I would struggle with church. I’m on the bubble of the millenial generation, and their issues captured in books and research are my issues. I want to be a story, not merely a statistic.
The system I grew up in, the only church system I know, has stifled, and continues to stifle me. My culture gives me ample reasons to walk away from God and his people. I want to cry a freedom song that is recognized by what it is not.
Something is there, buried under so many years and sermons, like a foreign odor in the house, prompting me to move from room to room, cupboard to cupboard until I find the forgotten potato, way in the back, molding and oozing, it’s stench far-reaching. There is something in my story that makes me uneasy with church, and as I get closer to naming it, I find my discomfort growing stronger.
And so I sniff and search, trying to identify and root out the source.
How I was raised doesn’t directly correlate with my church experiences. One parent had issues; they seeped into me, and spilled over into how I was raised. In the end, I have a lot in common with IFBers and other fundie kids, even though I didn’t grow up in their churches.
But the churches I went to actually confirmed, encouraged, and even implicitly taught that the way I was being raised was the correct way. The ideal way.
I sat and listened to so many sermons talking about what music we shouldn’t listen to, what movies we shouldn’t watch, what clothes we shouldn’t wear.
Not everyone had such a black and white parent, so they just taught those things more and more.
We had a burning party at youth group one time in high school, where you brought unholy things you owned to be burned – cds, movies, books, cigarettes.
I didn’t have anything to bring, but everyone else did, but knew they shouldn’t have. That’s what sin was, why we needed revival, why we needed church and Bible and prayer, and ‘this generation’ – so that we could remind ourselves, even will ourselves back onto the right path. The only path to be a Christian.
My story is that I did everything the church asked of me, preached to me. I was an excellent Christian and with the exception of one major oopsie (which was handled gracelessly), I was on the right path.
But then, life.
I was out of my Christian bubble, out in the real world, with real problems, and it didn’t matter what music I listened to. All of the Christian clichés that people spouted didn’t help. Knowing my ‘role’ didn’t help. None of it was working. None of it was affecting what life meant, how and why I should live.
I wanted to chuck the whole damn thing.
I couldn’t abandon him. And he lives in church, right? So I stayed. And struggled. And struggle.
Ever since, I have found him more on the fringes of the church than I have in the fabric. I’ve found freedom, acceptance, love of tension, love of differences, and a welcome attitude toward wrestling.
When I look at my life and the churches I’ve been in, I can’t help but wonder if the system itself is set up to be abusive.
I have been in many churches, many denominations, and they have all advocated the same thing: a clear reading of the Bible, a love of proof-texting, clear roles, habits, and characteristics rooted in gender, and certain personal habits that are preferred. Heaven forbid if you swear or believe in evolution or believe there is more to the gospel than salvation, that God’s voice is not limited to the Bible, that incarnation affects us daily, that there are meaningful things in all denominations.
The churches I’ve been in have taught the Bible as authoritarian, living the perfect morally correct Christian life is the goal, and you don’t talk too much about problems – if you do, there’s only one answer, found, of course, in the Bible. We major on personal habits and minor on everything else.
And I look at this list and wonder. How could I have spent so many years in so many different churches and feel like most of this fits them all? I might not have been in a church that forced allegiance to a leader, but they forced allegiance to an ideology.
When churches don’t teach discernment and nuance, when there is no flexibility in belief systems, when we rely on ‘biblical’ instead of the Holy Spirit, it forces people to hide who they are in order to fit in.
Go to a mall, a restaurant, an airport, and people watch. You cannot tell me there is a one-size-fits-all faith, a one-size-fits-all church. This denial that life is complex, that life is different, that Jesus incarnates all of it makes church seem like a naive place to be. And I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.
I spent most of my life doing what was right. Being what was right. But now that I have turned into a different person, the places I’ve been don’t fit me. I don’t know if the places I am now fit me. I’ve been raised to believe that Sunday morning is the be all, end all of Christian community. But what if it’s not?
Can we even ask this question? Or do we trigger symptoms of abuse with the possibilities of having different ways to run after Jesus?
I’ve been indoctrinated into not being gut-level honest. I’ve found more freedom in hiding than I have in being authentic. I have found more community in this new crazy thing called the internet than anywhere tangible. And so I wonder:
Is Sunday morning essential to following Jesus?
I’m not sure the answer is no, but I’m not convinced it’s yes.
The source of my struggle to be with Jesus in my culture is the system that turns divinity-humanity into a one-dimensional figure, and a collection of letters, poems, and histories, into a set of clear mandates.
The source of my angst with church comes from their denial of life.
I don’t know if my story qualifies as spiritual abuse. But I do know it doesn’t qualify as safe.
This post is linking up for Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week. Check out the other stories.