Saturday, July 23, 2011

Does Church Turn You Off God?

About two years ago I started attending a local church on a regular basis. That isn't to say I wasn't seeking a relationship with Him long before that time. As a child I paid attention to God because He was a mysterious, magical being that, like Santa Claus, was creepily watching everything I did. As a teen I suffered paralyzing existential anxiety and turned to (a seemingly deaf-mute) God with big questions about the meaning of life and my place in it. As a young adult I became intrigued with New Age spirituality, yoga and the mind-body-spirit connection. I also attended the occasional Catholic mass or Protestant service. Meanwhile, I had formed a few close friendships with Christians and I was in love with their love for God. Their faith made me thirsty for my own intimate relationship with the Divine, but their churches turned me off.

Surely the God of the universe was infinitely more complex and unknowable than the Sunday school version we were being spoonfed. Those who claimed to know God and His nature often struck me as naive or ignorant in the sweetest possible ways. Not only that, I sensed a cloud of unreality hovering over the Christian subcultures I encountered. Where were all the broken, desperate and needy? Everyone looked pacified, generic and sanitized. If they spoke at all about serious struggles (addiction, domestic violence, depression, etc.) it was in the context of a testimony about their transformation. On several occasions I heard preachers share about God's healing powers but no one around me looked like they needed to be healed. They kept their wounds well hidden. When did the church become a spiritual country club for middle class do-gooders and socialites? Going to church was like watching an ABC Afterschool Special; it felt lame. It didn't inspire me into a deeper relationship with God. If anything, it underwhelmed and disappointed. Or, it felt forced. Much like a person who invades your personal space, the Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? spiel was desperately awkward. It certainly didn't fan the spark of intimacy that was developing between me and God. It was all too much, too soon.

I was highly suspicious of the prosperity gospel, although I wasn't familiar with that term at the time. I just knew that many churches promoted Jesus as if all your troubles (health, finances, etc.) would melt away if you trusted Him. If only it were that simple. That message is a much loved lie. Truly following Jesus involves carrying your own cross and being a willing participant in your own crucifixion.

Another thing that bothered me as I straddled the line between heathen and Christian was that the relationships between the 'saved' (them) and the 'lost' (me) often felt tainted by agendas or expectations. I can remember feeling like everyone was wearing a Jesus mask and trying to sell me something. I often felt more like a project than a friend. I doubted these people had any interest in remaining my friend if I didn't eventually cross the line -that gulf of belief that separated us. I wondered how long their interest would last. They appeared to care more about leading me to Jesus than me as a person. (I have to add, the longer I stayed in the church the more blurred that line between the lost and the saved became.)

But you know what I've realized? Not everyone in the church is faking it. There are many genuine people who, once you get to know them, will surprise you with their experiences and candor. And yes, there are those who do have simple, straight paths and rather boring stories but does that mean they are any less deserving of our time and attention? Does that mean they have less to offer? It seems to me that prejudice can come from both directions. Those who share struggles aloud and claim to be "keeping it real" are sometimes more critical of people who appear to have it all together than vice versa. Yes, there are those who are severely wounded but work hard to hide their dysfunction and there are people who preach fear and hate disguised as God's plan. But aren't they the saddest cases of all? Their egos are like iron maidens preventing God's love from getting through.They need the kind of love and patience that is rarest of all.

I guess what I'm trying to say is the church community is much more complex than it appears on the surface and it is to our benefit to keep an open mind when we encounter people who don't think about or worship God in the same ways we do. For a long time my knee jerk reactions kept me isolated from the living body of Christ. It took a few years before I realized that I was being just as arrogant and judgmental as those I claimed to be separating myself from. Don't get me wrong, I realize not everyone will feel comfortable in every church and that's okay. But I think it's important to keep looking until you find a community of believers who will help you grow spiritually and support your journey in an authentic way. We come together to challenge and encourage one another, to learn patience, sacrifice and the art of cooperation. We teach one another what love really is and we do it intentionally. No church is perfect, but when our goal is to serve most churches will suffice. A large group with a common goal is much more powerful than the will of any individual.


Skeptigirl said...

Those plastic veneers and salesmanship we put on hurt others and ourselves. Your fear of them not wanting to be your friends anymore if you rejected the gospel was real and coming to the realization their friends are only trying to convert them is an awful blow to many. I have been told by some Christian gurus that being in the world but not of the world means not hanging out with the sinners unless I am there to convert.

Pippi said...

I think I've passed the point where church has the power to turn me off God. The problem I keep running into now is having my growing discoveries about God turn me off church. And since I don't want to fall into the isolation of no fellowship (I was raised in that camp and it was unhealthy and bred cult-like doctrine), I am finding myself looking more and more for like-minded Christians, something that until recently wasn't a big priority for me.

jss said...

I used to think of being saved as having your hand stamped. Ok you can get into the carnival now. Ok you can get into heaven now. Ridiculous.
It was in my darkest days that I was attending what passes for an evangelical church around these parts. I was about as low as I could possibly get and everyone around me was singing joyous songs to God, exuberantly thanking and praising him for life and all it did was leave me wondering what the hell was wrong with me that I didn't feel that way. What was wrong with me that I didn't have that 'thing', that 'part' that allowed me to accept Jesus as my lord and saviour, instantaneously and magically freeing me to throw my hands in the air and praise Jesus for all he had done for me.

It would be a long and irate post for me to describe all the ways that I think the Christian Church fails it's constituency. I will simply say that I have come to a place where I simply don't buy it, don't feel I need it and, if truth be told, don't want it.

Michelle said...

@Skeptigirl - That mentality, of converting rather than investing in a real relationship, is self-serving I think. I've heard people talk about all the lost they brought to the Lord as if they were winning souls like trophies. But where are these people after the alter call? I bet they don't have a clue. Luckily, I haven't come across anyone like that in my church.

@Pippi - That's a good point. I'm at a place now where I'd still be in a relationship with God even if I never stepped foot in a church again, but for some people it is the first place they will visit when they feel the longing and if they get turned off it may take a while for their wounds to heal enough for them to regain the strength to continue searching.

@JSS - Your description made me cringe. I feel very uncomfortable in churches like that. I've been to a few and they were all Evangelical. (Whatever that definition even means anymore.) Sure, we sing songs of praise during worship but we don't pretend not to have issues. (Even, gasp, after entering into this new life with Jesus.) I think we are a very healthy, honest church and I give a lot of credit to our pastor who is leading with his eyes wide open. It's refreshing. (But rare it seems.) Unfortunately, I think you are right -for the most part, to date, the church has failed in it's mission here on earth. It's not without it's merits but it doesn't yet get a passing grade. I think the whole institution needs an overhaul -to be shaken up and propelled out of its comfort zone.