Leaving the Church Behind

Last week, a former congregation member emailed me to see how I was doing after closing down the church where I was the pastor for eight years. In the email, he asked me if I had found a new church to attend; and in my reply, I told him that I had not been to church since The Journey closed and probably would not be back to church for a long time. My response triggered concern and curiosity, so he asked if we could meet. We decided to meet at a local brewery to pray, drink some beer, and catch up. As we talked, I found myself struggling to articulate why I’m leaving the church behind.

It’s difficult to find satisfactory answers to provide people who believe that church attendance is an essential element to their faith, whether it’s from a place of desire or obedience. For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine life without church either. My entire life has been invested in the church, and I scarcely can remember a time when I missed consecutive Sundays from childhood to adulthood.

I haven’t been to church in two months. This was the first Easter I spent outside of church. I don’t miss it.

I miss A church, but I don’t miss THE church.

I miss The Journey. It was, by far, the most positive experience I ever had with church. My friend suggested that I may have an over-romanticized view of The Journey, and he’s probably right. He’s right because we tend to romanticize things that leave deep imprints of beauty within us. For instance, when you fall in love with someone it is difficult to explain to anyone outside of that relationship why you love that person. The reasons and explanations you’re able to articulate fail to describe the actual beauty and depths of the relationship. They can understand from a descriptive standpoint but not from an experiential standpoint. It’s a futile attempt in describing the indescribable.

Closing a church is perhaps one of the most painful things a community of people can go through, particularly when it is due to lack of funding rather than age, conflict, or health. Pulling the plug on a vital, relational component of your life creates more than a void. It creates a deep sadness that isn’t as easily remedied as replacing something you lost. It’s like walking in the desert without beginning or end, shrouded in your pain.

But at some point you have to choose to walk a different path.

I’m under no illusions that I can replicate my church experience at The Journey. Honestly, I don’t want to because doing so would diminish its beauty. However, there are things about The Journey that I want in a church. And some of these things I have a difficulty believing I can find rather easily elsewhere.

Certainly, I have minor reasons that are surmountable. For instance, I’ve never connected to God through the church-sanctioned, kitschy, three chord worship songs. I find myself connecting to God through music residing well outside of that realm such as the art of Sufjan Stevens. I’m simply not an auditory learner. The times I have connected with God most deeply were in the woods, outside of church programming. The woods invigorated me while the pews stifled me.

But it’s the core values that make the search seem overwhelming and lonely. There is just so much shit you have to shift through in the church before you find anything resembling a shred of authenticity.

On paper, a larger church (100 or more) seems like a fit for me at this point. I’ve been through 8 years of grueling ministry, and I need to feel at rest in church. But, honestly, when I walk into a large church everything feels like a sterile performance and polished production. If I wanted that type of consumer-based experience, I’d go to the mall or Wal-Mart. And let’s face it, many churches feel like a mall; and going to these churches feels like bathing in hand sanitizer week after week – nothing really changes, you just feel gooier than when you arrived but you don’t get to smell like alcohol.

I don’t want a sanitized faith. I want something real, something authentic. I want to be in a church where people are fucked up, aren’t scared to show they are fucked up, and are allowed to be fucked up. Sanitization isn’t transformation. I need something raw, sacred, and vulnerable.

I am leaving the church because there seems to be a lack of authentic interactions with people and too many conversations overflowing with pre-programmed, evangelistic hidden agendas. I am leaving the church because there seem to be more “word of encouragement” faith monitors than thoughtful listeners.

I want a church where people don’t use “God spoke to me” as a convenient method of authenticating what they want to think or do.

I want a sacred space adorned with listening spirits.

I want a church that explores questions, rather than treating them as encumbrances.

I’m leaving the church because much of it remains overzealously skeptical of science and yet stamps out any hint of skepticism within its ranks.

I want a church where faith and doubt remain in tension, rather than hidden by doctrinal idolatry or dismissed with broken, unsatisfying answers that are stamped with biblical proof texts.

I’m leaving the church because too often it equates busyness and attendance in church programs with healthiness.  Breathing and thinking are just as sacred.

I want to be a part of a denomination that doesn’t define and ostracize its leaders or members because of their political persuasions but by the fruit of their service. I want a church that doesn’t equate Christianity with the Republican platform without question. I want a church that doesn’t confuse the American flag with the cross. I want a church that doesn’t equate the kingdom of God with capitalism.

I’m leaving the church because too often I’ve heard poor people referenced as “freeloaders.” These are the same people who say that everything is a gift from God then, in the same breath, talk about everything they’ve “earned.”

I want a church that doesn’t use the hope of the afterlife and the return of Jesus as an excuse not to take care of this earth now.

I want a church that understands truth as nuanced, rather than resorting to reactionary, binary thinking. A church that understands that its standard for objective truth is affected by its own presuppositions and confirmation bias.

I’m leaving the church because many of its adherents feign persecution while using the substantial power they still hold in the political realm to oppress the most marginalized groups and call it religious freedom.

I want a church that is more skeptical about the powerful within its own institution rather than powerless, welfare recipients.

I want a church that’s honest about the composition, discrepancies, and nature of the Bible.

I want a church that’s interested in cultural revolution rather than cultural warfare. A church that doesn’t treat homosexuality as the single biggest issue God wants them to oppose, when it’s mentioned all of six times in the Bible. This issue was such a priority to Jesus that He mentioned it all of zero times. I want a church that cares more about feeding the poor than harming homosexuals.

I want a church that is defined by what it’s FOR, not by what it’s against.

I want a church that prioritizes relationships over numbers.

I want a church that is pro-life beyond the womb and doesn’t delight in the deaths of its “enemies.”

I’m leaving the church because I can’t pretend anymore, but pretending is an act of worship in many churches.

Am I too cynical? Probably. Am I too idealistic? Probably. Am I too prideful? Probably.

Will I return to church at some point? Probably, but it won’t be the result of duty or responsibility that those within the church seek to impose on me. The church doesn’t own a monopoly on spiritual growth. Any return to church is derived from the understanding that my desires aren’t the only ones to consider in a relationship. I love being a husband and father more than anything else and that love overrides my own trepidations about the church.

I will always love the church as a foundational element to my past that provided a launching platform toward greater discovery. But we simply aren’t compatible anymore. I need a place that seeks truth rather than protects a static interpretation of it. I’m leaving cognitive dissonance behind.

For those of you who find peace in the church, may you continue to find hope, grace, and love there. But for me, peace lies elsewhere.

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32 thoughts on “Leaving the Church Behind

    1. My parents said the same thing when they first got saved and started going to church….. there was more genuineness at an AA meeting then in the church.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Reblogged this on Grace and Stuff and commented:
    This guy speaks volumes about why he left the church, and by extension, why church attendance everywhere is declining. The Church cures people with sterilized rituals and bleached messages. Jesus used mud and spit. Can we get a little authenticity here, please?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Church attendance is not declining “everywhere.” The Korean Church and African American Church is still growing.

      While the writer makes salient points, part of his issue is that he has assigned privilege to his experience, and seems to posit that there are no other faith communities/experiences already doing things he says he wants the church to do. I’d challenge him to sit in the back pew or balcony of a Korean Church, a Chinese congregation, a traditional African American Church, a Latino faith community, an Episcopal Church, or in services like Jazz Vespers and Taize BEFORE casting a vote to leave the church. A lot of what he wants is already being done. Too bad for him that he feels the need to sit in the woods instead of sitting amongst the sistahs and brothas.

      Like

  2. Well put. I have been outside the church box for over 8 years now, and without question, these have been the best years of my life in terms of spiritual growth. On the two occasions I had to attend church during this hiatus, I left after the show was over wondering, “why do they continue to do this week after week?” There is so much more to a relationship with Jesus and with his followers. SO MUCH MORE! I applaud you for your bravery in stepping into the unknown. That’s the best place to be when walking in intimacy with the Father.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are the church. Every believer is a member of the body. The head is Christ.
    Your just walking away from an organization. These are just modern franchises.
    Seeker sensitive movements. No Blood, No Lamb, No Salvation. Find yourself in
    the Word of God. Seek His will and you will find everything you mentioned in your post.

    Jesus(Yeshua) said He is the Way, The Truth, The Life., not the church.
    The Church doesn’t bring life the Messiah does.

    Listen to Ravi Zacharias he is a great thinker.

    http://rzim.org/let-my-people-think-broadcasts/is-there-meaning-in-evil-and-suffering-part-1-of-2

    https://www.youtube.com/user/rzimmedia

    Like

  4. I want, I want, I want.
    Institutional church has really messed you up. (It messes everyone up.) Run from it and don’t look back. (I left 2 years ago.)
    I highly suggest you read a book called “re imagining church” by frank viola, to help give you some perspective. Peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re stepping through a period of “detox” it seems….we’re similar minded. … (strangely enough our church gathering was/is called the journey. ..hmmmm) Our constant prayer is simply fovused on being useful in making Him known/expanding His Kingdom – by loving Him and loving humans

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to hear. While we stray from time to time, I’m primarily concerned about the conversation you are speaking to in several of your posts about the church, what it is, and the way we wrestle with it (or its imperfect incarnations) and ourselves in relation. More details and an email address over here: http://after.church/about-church/

        Regardless, keep writing. You have a great voice. – Patrick

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good thoughts Tim. I feel much the same way you do about church life. I was on the verge of church burnout when I was a pastor of a church that had chewed up and spit out 5 pastors in 10 years. Then, I saw a miracle that happened more in spite of than because of my leadership. That dysfunctional church became an authentic community through which Christ became incarnate in our life together. It was, in many ways, like the community you long for. But, as you assert, many churches seem more artificial than authentic, more about programming than people. There are, albeit few, churches that embody a glimpse of the divine in their life together. And, here’s another thing to consider, if the Christian community was perfect God would not call pastors to help communities of faith align with the values of a kingdom not of this world. Praying that the journey will lead you to places where you can encounter the beauty for which you long. Lenny

    Liked by 1 person

  7. First, I get shock and detox…believe me. I can empathize/relate with much of this.

    Second, I couldn’t help but be curious about “closing a church” and doing so because of money. I just can’t shake the feeling much of what you expressed is tied and rooted to that. What do I mean? How does one “close a family?” No amount of money in the world would disconnect me from my family. It’s impossible to close. Next, i don’t know but much of what I read felt binary…do this or do that. I kept wondering about “third ways”. The church is out of money so either keep going or close up. What about serve her for free and downsize to the point of free? This might inform everything else. Just some thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on Affairs of the Harts and commented:
    Hey, everyone. First of all, I want to apologize in advance for the adult language in this post. However, I’m posting it today because it just says so much that I feel about church these days. I spent several years serving in a church as a worship leader and secretary/cleaning person and then because I moved in with my husband before we were married, I was brought in front of the church and humiliated so much that I couldn’t stay there anymore. You know, I still had something to offer to the church and would have stayed if my pastor had allowed me to quietly step down from my leadership position like I wanted to. Instead, he played on weaknesses (self-doubt and lack of self-confidence) to basically force me out. He didn’t have to do that to me. I was willing to let my position in the church go, but he chose to humiliate me instead. It still hurts because for so many years, they were my family and said they loved me no matter what. I’ve tried to go back to church a couple of times now, and I just can’t stay. This post expresses some of the reason why I can’t. What is truly sad is that I tried going to a liberal church and even joined the board of the church. However, when they realized that I still believed in God, I was ostracized even there. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m unlikable or something. I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that this post said it all to me. Thanks for reading!

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  9. I think some good friend of yours needs to call you on your bullshit. You sound like so many guys I know who when the woman of their dreams breaks up with them they go on a bitter rant about how horrible all woman are. You say you don’t want a consumer based church than you list more “I wants” than any group of people could ever meet. You are a consumer dreaming of a church that acts only like you want it to act.
    The church is made up of broken people, they just happen to not be broken in the way you want them to be broken.

    Like

    1. I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think the “wants” of exhaleinexhile are perfectly reasonable. They are essentially what I was looking for, and I found them in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). For me they met all my “wants”. They may not necessarily suit exhaleinexhile, but somewhere there is a group that will feel like “home”.

      Exhaleinexhile, There is life after The Journey. I’m sure you will find a new place, inside or outside of church, that you can call your religious home.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Cliff while you may interpret this rightfully so as a bitter rant, you should be asking yourself what & why caused this man to be bitter towards the “church” atmosphere rather than Judge him for his expression of feelings.

      The analogy to a girlfriend in highschool dumbfounds me. This bitterness was not caused by the secular world which we as Christians can expect since following Jesus comes with persecution, but by those self professed Christians who are calling themselves leaders.

      Yes Jesus scorned His disciples at times when they did not understand or could not see the bigger picture, but should we as Christians expect such persecution from those we call brothers and sisters in Christ?

      I do recall the disciples bickering, but I never recall them persecuted eachother. Jesus on the other hand received countless persecutions from His own Jewish people and others alike, but being the man He was bore it and then even died for those same people.

      Tim is a man like you and me. He has emotions and he has ideas. Sometimes writing helps works things out, sometimes we write things we may not even agree on in a few years when our position and stances change, but to call him out for his “bullshit” when he’s being the realest person here and acknowledging that Christianity today needs to be fixed only shows that you are part of the problem and not the solution.

      If you really felt this way maybe you should stick to the scriptures where it tells you to approach your brother alone, then in three, then in front of anyone, instead of calling him out all over the internet about he personally feels.

      Maybe you should have asked him why feels this way an offer him words of encouragement, just as Jesus with all the sinners he encountered. Such as the woman at the well…I guess Jesus could have laughed and called her a gold digging whore, but He obviously didn’t.

      Just as Tim views may change and become less bitter, I so hope your attitude and views towards others change to show a little compassion when someone is down.

      Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves back up.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Jeff, I find much to like about both your content of thought and style of expression. As a retired elder (ordained United Methodist Pastor) who’s shared your same love of the Lord but dislike for the church, I liken the church to a bride walking down the aisle more in love with herself than with the groom. At times we pastors can’t help being caught up in an obvious divorce between Jesus and His bride. But we can choose, when this happens, who to then live with. Sounds like you’ve placed yourself in custody of your Dad with only occasional visits to your Mom’s place, at least for now. If so, congratulations!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you for this. I have felt this way for much of my adult life. My family has done its best to “guilt” me into going back to a “church” that doesn’t accept my personal wisdom and research regarding spirituality and the Bible. I too have grown past this but, too love the foundation it gave me for without growing up in the “church” … I wouldn’t be where and who I am now.

    And, I am pretty happy with me and my relationship with God.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. My first career background as a psychotherapist who spent hundreds of hours over the years doing marriage counseling gave me a sense of serving in my second career pastoral ministry as a marriage counselor called by Jesus to help save His marriage with the church. Seemed reasonable to be at the time. Worked hard at helping the church fall back in love with Jesus. Didn’t happen. Kicked myself for a while until seeing that as a pastor in this dysfunctional family with an adulterous wife, I was really in the role of older child trying to fix Mom and Dad so they wouldn’t get divorced. I can’t be my parents marriage counselor, nor should I feel guilty if they break up. As Hosea dealt with Gomer, so Christ will deal with his own adulterous bride without calling me to “fix” things. Jesus, after all, is the real expert at dealing with adulterous women. All I have to do is refrain from throwing stones, tempting as that is.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I a former pastor also walked away about a year ago. I still go some Sundays but invariably come away irritated and crochety. Sometimes I fear I may never go back because I’m nowhere near finding a spiritual community I can actually relate to. I’m in South Africa by the way. Please keep this going. It speaks to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. For many of the reasons expressed, I too walked away from the church for a time. I sought the heart of God on most of these matters, on and off for over 15 years. What I discovered was a lack of personal investment from the leadership and a lack of personal investment from the members. That the worldly consumerism that has killed the heart of servant hood in the church. The church not having people to serve and contribute, resort to paying people to get the job done. The heart of the consumer is not the same as a committed servant that expresses their commitment to God with their tithe. Therefore, without the financial resources the church fails to produce the production level the consumer is looking for and they end up not being able to compete with a larger church style presentation. So the big churches get bigger and the smaller churches close up. Sounds like big box stores against the small Mom & Pop businesses that I wish were still around to treat us like people instead of cattle in the stalls of an electronic self serve check out! This leaves no opportunities for people to serve or step into the very reason God created them for. To fulfill their Destiny.

    I am convinced, not only for the need for authentic church body relationship, but also for the non performance style church that is willing to seek God first and lay down the current model of church, think outside that box and let the Holy Spirit lead them into the undiscovered country of God!

    After over 15 years of helping other churches, and my resistance to the organized and earthly or man structured church model, I spent the better part of 2014 seeking God for what He is looking for from His church to walk in. It drew me into writing a document which I now use as the outline for a new church plant that my wife and I have started. I believe God has shown me why we are all so disappointed in the church as it currently is but we must also realize that God is in the business of restoration. He wants to raise up a revitalized body like prophesying to the dry bones and you will see something not seen before.

    I believe there are a multitude of genuine Christians out there just like all of you that Love God and desire to be in relationship with other believers, without the politics and control of ungodly church structure. People that want to serve God in a church that will help them discover their callings and purpose and that the church body would make room for them without the fear from insecure leadership. I believe God is restoring to the church, leaders that will mentor people into spiritual maturity that will release people into their full potential with God.

    I hear and feel everyone’s pain and I’m asking you to rise above the spiritual environment that would consider you undesirable because you resist the current church model and let God use you to set a new standard. To become an example for others to follow, but to do it within a body of believers, not outside the fellowship of the brethren. For if you do that, you may miss wonderful opportunities to make a difference. I encourage all to find a place of belonging that you can call home and be committed, not hop from church to church. And not voice your disappointments or philosophy’s of how you think church should be or not be. The bible says a faithful man (or woman) is hard to find. Some things never change. But you can choose to engage God and engage His people with His love and not your love and watch Holy Spirit use you. Yes you as an individual, bring the presence of God into people’s lives, cutting through all the church crap or dung as Paul said. Yes you can be used by God outside the church but revival in the heart can be contagious to others that see God ‘s love pouring out of you like heaping hot coals on the heads of the religious ness of the current church culture.

    I am once again returning to the church with a renewed vision and God given passion to see people just like you guys move eb and flow in the true nature of God’s Spirit to ignite a spontaneous combustion in the body of Christ, bigger than what is described in the book of Acts! Out of hearts of forgiveness and a God given desire to see God’s people set free from this, we can be instruments of God to usher in change.

    I too was discouraged but now God inspired. I wish all who would read this were close enough, that I could have face to face time with you to express way more than I could ever type on this page. My hope is that, if nothing else, I have caused you to think outside the box and seek His Kingdom and His righteousness so that all that he has for you would be added unto you.

    If any of you are in Canada, I’m the Pastoral Leader of The Father’s Vineyard in Limehouse, Ontario.

    I am looking for people that have experienced what you are agreeing with here, and believe what you believe, that there has to be more to church than this. It is my desire to discover and see exactly that. My God is big enough to do it, if only we will take action and believe! I trust this will be received by all of you as from someone that has known how you feel and is expressing God’s love to you in this message.

    I don’t normally write in blogs. But our worship leader sent this to me and I felt compelled to respond.

    God Bless,
    John P. Adams

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jesus came to declare the Kingdom and men made “church” out of it! While I sympathize with your plight, I rejoice that you are walking away from “it” and moving toward Him. Thoughts and prayers are with you as you journey on. Keep your peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Cliff while you may interpret this rightfully so as a bitter rant, you should be asking yourself what & why caused this man to be bitter towards the “church” atmosphere rather than Judge him for his expression of feelings.

    The analogy to a girlfriend in highschool dumbfounds me. This bitterness was not caused by the secular world which we as Christians can expect since following Jesus comes with persecution, but by those self professed Christians who are calling themselves leaders.

    Yes Jesus scorned His disciples at times when they did not understand or could not see the bigger picture, but should we as Christians expect such persecution from those we call brothers and sisters in Christ?

    I do recall the disciples bickering, but I never recall them persecuted eachother. Jesus on the other hand received countless persecutions from His own Jewish people and others alike, but being the man He was bore it and then even died for those same people.

    Tim is a man like you and me. He has emotions and he has ideas. Sometimes writing helps works things out, sometimes we write things we may not even agree on in a few years when our position and stances change, but to call him out for his “bullshit” when he’s being the realest person here and acknowledging that Christianity today needs to be fixed only shows that you are part of the problem and not the solution.

    If you really felt this way maybe you should stick to the scriptures where it tells you to approach your brother alone, then in three, then in front of anyone, instead of calling him out all over the internet about he personally feels.

    Like

  17. For those wounded, it is hard to find grace again. Hard, but not impossible. Slow, but not impossible. Judge where you are in that journey by how long and how well you can stand the company of your enemy.

    Like

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