I’m not going to lie. I’ve been scared to write this post for a lot of reasons. It’s been ruminating inside of me for years and I haven’t felt comfortable to share. Which is shocking, because I share so much. But when it comes to my faith, I struggle to share about my relationship with the church for many reasons, but here are a couple:

  1. People within the Christian church assume that your faith is bullshit when you take issue with the church as an organization. 
  2. People outside the faith assume that all of Christianity is bullshit when you share about your issues with the church. 

Neither is true. Things aren’t always just all bad or all good. Lots of amazing things have come from my being part of churches and my faith is not shaken by going to a church and being wounded by the people in it. So I’m just going to say it from the start for those who are struggling in similar ways as me and for those who will jump to conclusions about my relationship with God:

You can take issue with the church and still love God. You can believe in Jesus and His sacrifice even if the church has wounded you. You are allowed to struggle. You are allowed to have a complicated relationship with church and still have a relationship with God.

This all came to a head a few weeks ago when I was sharing with a friend why I’ve been finding it difficult to feel comfortable in a congregation for a long time. I don’t feel like I can express my faith in more conservative churches or more progressive churches. I don’t fit in with either. I love liturgy but have deep wounds from the Episcopal Church. I don’t feel like I align with the Anglican Church, the Baptist tradition, or a lot of non-denominational churches. But the issue is a lot bigger than just not fitting in.

The more I go about my journey of trying to find a place to go on Sundays the more people I learn are in similar places to me. Part of me feels that the reason a lot of my peers are opting out of going to a weekly worship service isn’t because they don’t have faith in Jesus, it’s because they have lost faith in the church itself.

It is hard to see people who claim to love Jesus and His teachings support someone like Donald Trump and excuse his entire history of racism, misogyny, business corruption, and adultery. It is hard to reconcile a group of people who say that we should love above all else with their very real actions of excluding those they don’t think belong. How can you leave motherless children at the border? How can you feel comfortable cutting social programs?

It’s even more difficult to see others sit back and be complicit when I know they feel differently.

There are hard questions I’ve asked myself over and over again. Yet, when I was talking to my friend, I realized that I have been hiding something much more personal under the guise of standing on a soapbox and raging against the patriarchy, homophobia, trans phobia, and other forms of bigotry that come out of the church. 

While we were talking it dawned on me.

The truth is, at some point in my participation in every single Christian group I’ve been a part of, when they realized I wouldn’t or couldn’t conform to what they expected or wanted…people I loved turned their backs on me and I can’t do that again.

I have spent the last few years pointing at all the damage the church has caused everywhere else, but I have been too afraid to even think about the damage that it has caused in my own life. I’ve been horrified to share about the wreckage in my heart from a lifetime in the Christian church. Why? Because I knew that if I raised my hand and said that I don’t agree or that I have chosen to step away from congregations, I would be told all the same things everyone else is told.

    You just haven’t found the right church.

    You need to keep trying. 

    Just visit churches until you find one that fits.

    The church is full of people, and people hurt each other. 

    You can’t blame other Christians for how people have hurt you.

But the more these things rattled around in my head, I remembered the words of a friend who sat across from me and told me a hard truth about my marriage, she said, 

    “You know he doesn’t have to hit you, right?”

This woman had nearly lost her life at the hands of her abusive ex-husband more than once, so her words rang in my ears and my heart so loudly that I was taken aback. As I’ve wrestled with that sentiment of “why don’t you just try harder?” the realness of her words have surfaced again.

I kept giving the church more chances even though each wound just got deeper. I kept going back because I thought that’s what dutiful Christians do. Even though like a toxic ex-boyfriend I was just giving the church a new way to hurt me. I made a commitment to Jesus, so that means I have to suffer His people, right? But what do I do when instead of building me up and drawing me closer to Him, they make me feel like garbage and as if I should hide from Him?

I have horror story after horror story of things that have happened to me and others at the hands of those in the church. My moments of deepest rejection, pain, ire, and grief have been at the hands of other Christians. Part of that is because when we are in a community of faith, we are more vulnerable with one another, we have higher expectations, and we feel hurt and rejection deeper when it comes from those we are intimate with. 

The other part of the pain, is that there is so little accountability in churches for anything to change, so we know when we’re hurt we will be hurt again.

One of the worst examples I saw of lack of accountability was a church allowing an ex-pastor who had been actively abusing a teenage girl in his previous church, be an elder at their church. They took someone who had abused their authority before and moved him right back into another position of authority. I knew I could never attend that church and feel safe or like I would be taken seriously if I needed to express an issue of concern.

A dear friend had to sit back and watch her church leadership abandon her, all while they knew that her then-husband was abusing her and her son. The extra sick part? They kept cashing his checks while they knew that she and her son were going without food and heat and were constantly in fear of losing their home as well, a home they had lived in long before she was married to that man. 

Another instance was a church that allowed someone to spread lies about myself and my ex-husband and never put a stop to it. It got so bad we couldn’t attend the church.

Personally, the most painful was that after I left Kansas City no one from my church reached out to me. They knew that I had separated from my husband. They knew things were not okay and not a single member of the church even checked in on me. There was no way to hold them accountable since I was gone, but it was painful nonetheless. 

I know more than one person who has been sexually assaulted by another member of their church and nothing came of it.

In all of these cases, nothing has ever changed. The same things happen over and over again and there is always an excuse.

There are huge numbers of us who are tired of the excuses. We’re tired of being sacrificed again and again for the comfort of those in leadership. We are exhausted from the double-edged sword of knowing that we want to be in a faith community but it will only mean pain eventually.

I am not alone in how I feel. Sure, there are lots of issues ideologically that need to be contended with, but there are so many of us sitting on the sidelines licking our wounds and seeing our abusers stand at pulpits and get applause that we need more than just ideological change. 

We need the church to take a hard look at itself. We need more than empty promises. We need to be heard and believed. We need people to listen, instead of tell us that if our faith was stronger we would be able to continue on in the church in a spirit of love and forgiveness. We need to know that we can come to those in leadership in times of deep hurt and be believed and earnestly prayed over. We need a culture where forgiveness runs rampant, but so does personal responsibility. We need more than just “bless your heart” we need people we can call and tell our deepest truths to without feeling judged or dismissed out of fear of how it implicates another member of the church. 

I know the kind of person that I am. I know that I can be careless with my words. I know that I have probably caused wounds myself. I know that I have probably made people run from Jesus because of my actions. I wish that they felt comfortable to tell me that I had hurt them so I could apologize and make real amends. I know intimately that I too am part of the problem and I don’t deny how I may be a giant hypocrite.

But I can tell you the reason why I myself have stepped away from church, it’s because I’m tired of going back to an organization just to be kicked in the gut over and over. It doesn’t seem to matter what congregation, denomination, or location. This is a widespread problem. We preach love and acceptance and then spurn anyone who disagrees with us on other issues. We avoid conflict and criticisms. We rail against those who we think are living sinful lives and don’t look critically about where the ideas of that being sinful even come from. Or we weigh sins against each other and point fingers. (I urge any pastor reading this to think of how many times he or she has spoken “out of love” to tell someone there was sin in their life, all the while they hadn’t taken a true sabbath day in years.) 

I am still a Christian, no matter how many have questioned that because of my lack of church attendance, and I feel responsible for how the church is behaving.

I am not sure how to reconcile my faith with the actions of at least the Western Church. 

I am not sure how to keep operating inside a group full of infighting and division. 

When I was doing youth ministry I would tell the kids, “The church is a body and every once in a while, you poke yourself in the eye.” 

There are accidents, yes. But when you’re constantly punching yourself in the face, it may be time to admit you have a problem.

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Photo Credit: Andrew Stawarz