One of the most life-affirming, uplifting, joy-returning, burden-lifting things I have done in the last two years is stopping going to church. I also quit my Bible study and stepped down from a fledgling leadership position I had in a faith-based nonprofit, but the most impactful decision, by far, was no longer scheduling worship into my Sundays.
I was positively guilt-wracked the first few Sundays I deliberately slept in, even though I had been attending church out of nothing more than obligation and habit for months. I hated the evening rock band service at my congregational church, but neither did I get much out of the traditional morning service with the long-winded preacher exegeting Hosea five weeks in a row. I hated my friend’s Vineyard church, and Catholic Mass was hollow to me as well since I couldn’t partake of the Eucharist and wasn’t a total fan of their theology anyway. I was definitely a spiritual orphan, and it manifested very concretely in my extreme discomfort and sense of banality at virtually every church I attended.
Still, I felt guilty about no longer going to church. So one week early after I stopped going to church, I tuned in to the public radio broadcast of a local church service (bleah); another week I watched Joel Osteen (he has really white teeth!); yet another week, I tried to read my Bible some, but that felt flat too.
When I realized I wasn’t getting much out of these church surrogates, it hit me that I mainly felt guilty for letting down friends and family who saw me as a “Good” Christian. I realized, like a bolt of lightning one day that I didn’t actually miss God.
And I started to notice that heavy, heavy layers of obligation, legalism, expectation, and duty had settled around my shoulders. Quite physically, too: I carry stress in my shoulders and my back was positively a thicket of knots.
I came to realize that everything about my faith had devolved into being about me cultivating the right beliefs and actions; it never seemed okay to wonder “well when is God going to bend down and carry part of this? What happened to the light burden and easy yoke of Jesus?” The answer always seemed to be: do more in order to get closer to God and hear his still, small voice (which is there, you just have to somehow be in the right frame of mind to hear it). Read your Bible more. Join another Bible study – better, lead a Bible study. Do more service projects. Pray more. Confess your sins. Go to church every Sunday even if you don’t feel like it – faith isn’t about feelings, you know. Do the right thing and the feelings will follow. Jesus will meet you where you are.
I did all the right things, earnestly, sincerely, genuinely, for years. And you know what? The feelings did not follow. God did not stoop down to meet me, to lift me up, to answer my questions. Jesus did not meet me. The two-way “personal relationship” we are to cultivate with Jesus was oh-so-one-way: I was doing all the work. I didn’t hear from Jesus, cosmic hug or otherwise. It was indeed a “one-way mirror”, described so eloquently here on Memoirs of an Ex-Christian’s blog.
Well-meaning Christians make things worse by asking questions like “are you keeping up your end of the relationship?” (Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me? What else am I supposed to do here?) When you are sincerely trying to find God, this line of questioning tends to fuel ever-deepening spirals of self-recrimination, as well as increasingly frantic efforts to “do” the right things so that God will finally respond. It is in this kind of environment that grace loses all meaning.
So I walked away from church, hanging onto the thinnest hope that God’s grace would somehow be bigger than whatever sins I was committing by leaving the fold.
And I have not been so happy or burden-free in years.
I have not become an amoral hedonist; I have become someone unburdened by guilt and obligation. The knots in my back have receded. I am healthier physically and emotionally. I have become someone who is no longer afraid to ask the big questions – the really really big questions – and I am becoming less afraid of the answers.
I do not plan to go back to church on any kind of regular basis. I went on Easter Sunday and realized that I still didn’t miss it. When friends or family invite me to come to church with them, I inevitably shudder. I have come to associate church – any church, any denomination – with the legalism that had me trapped so desperately for so long. I refuse to put myself back into that environment. I have come to believe that whoever God is (if God is), he does not intend for us to live fear-based, guilt-ridden lives of perfunctory service.
I am finally learning to extend grace to myself. Now I simply hope that God does too.