A group of students requested people to write letters as to why they left the Church. Most times I discuss my leaving Christianity, and I have only briefly touched on not going to Church.
First of all, I would emphasize there is nothing that any Church, or the Church system as a whole did incorrectly. It is designed to minister and give guidance to those who believe as it does, OR to provide information to those who do not. I neither believe as the church, and I already have more information than they can provide.
It is like swimming in a pool of acid. There is nothing wrong with acid; it does what it is supposed to do. There is nothing wrong with swimming, either. Just because they both exist, and perform their function correctly does not mean they should mix.
I had good experiences with people in my churches, and some bad experiences. Similar to every other endeavor in which we have a large group of humans together, there are some people we like, and some we do not care for as much. Some friendships develop, and other relationships fall apart.
Perhaps some history as to the various churches I have attended to give the proper background.
I started to go to church when I was six weeks old at a country Baptist Church. (If you were from Michigan, I could regale you with the pedigree as to the sister church(es) and parent church, and when the church split from the organization and the entire history of how the church came into being. Because that is what we did as Baptists—split and kept track of who split from whom.)
My parents served in various functions including Deacon, Deaconess, Sunday School Teacher, Sunday School Superintendent, Janitor, Maintenance, Youth Leader, Missionary Committee, Building Committee, Finance Committee, Search Committee, Committee to create Committees and Awana Leader.
We truly defined the adage of “If the church doors were unlocked—we were there.”
Our weekly itinerary could easily be:
9:30 a.m. – Be at church to prepare building (move tables, etc.) for Sunday School.
10:00 a.m. – Sunday School.
11:00 a.m. – Church
12:30 a.m. – Stay after to clean up (see “9:30 a.m.”) or if there was Communion, help mom by gathering and washing the little cups.
5:00 p.m. – Orchestra Practice
6:00 p.m. – Youth Group
7:00 p.m. – Church.
8:00 p.m. – Occasionally a youth party afterward.
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Awana
6:00 p.m. - Dad went out visiting.
6:00 p.m. Prayer Meeting
7:00 p.m. Choir Practice
7:00 p.m. Deacon/Deaconess Meeting or Committee Meeting
Friday & Saturday
Typically off, so if we had another youth get-together, it would be on these nights.
We did the Easter Morning Church Breakfast, Vacation Bible School, Summer Camp, the Thanksgiving Service, the Christmas Eve Service, and the New Years Eve service in which the Pastor tried to preach until the bell rang at midnight.
That was my church until I was 15 years old. It was the only life I knew. Yes, the sermons were typically boring. Sure, we occasionally had “youth revivals” in which we vowed to never listen to Rock-n-Roll or play cards or go see movies ever again. (Hey! It was a different time, O.K.?)
Growing up, our church bought property and materials, but the congregation volunteered time to provide the labor to build it. (And some particular Deacon/Deaconess’ volunteered their children as well!) It seemed as if every Saturday we would go “work on the church” by sawing, nailing, painting, carrying, sweeping, cleaning, raking, mowing, planting, re-planting and everything a 9-year old boy hates to do at his own house, let alone a church. (Although on the plus side, my friends were in the same boat as I, so if we quickly got our work done, and avoided an adult’s eye, we got to play together more than if the church was not being built. See? Good and bad to everything.)
To me, going to church was like going to school, or avoiding chores. It was what one did. I knew there were other kids who did not go to church (we saw them at V.B.S. once a year) and if anything, I felt sorry for them. Church was where your friends, your associates, your socialization happened. Parts were dull but parts were a blast.
We moved when I was 15. You know you are a BFIC (Big Family In Church) if they throw a potluck dinner as a “Farewell” for you. We received such a dinner.
Another church was recommended to us in the area in which we moved. We had our dinner on Sunday. Moved on Friday/Saturday. And we were in our new church on Sunday. Didn’t miss a week. That first Sunday, my parents struck up a conversation with the Pastor, and we were invited over for Lunch.
In no time at all, we had the same itinerary on a weekly basis. My Parents were Deacon, Deaconess, Sunday School Teacher, Sunday School Superintendent,…(you get the picture.)
I attended this church for 14 years. The first Sunday evening of that first week, I met the girl who would someday marry me in that Church.
My life continued as before. Friends, youth group, interesting trips, summer camp—what I presumed was typical for a church-going teenager/young adult.
If there was any first “hiccup” in my church attendance experience, it was in my first year of college. I attended a Baptist College. We were required to attend weekly services at any church in the area, and the Resident Advisors were obligated to do a “bed check” every Sunday to make sure people were at church. (The city of this college was very conservative, so there was nowhere else to be but church on a Sunday morning. If you weren’t in the dorm, you were either wandering the streets lonely or in a church.)
I was getting my first taste of freedom. No parents. No chores. A standard freshman-never-been-away-from-home kid. The last thing I was interested in was getting involved in a church. There was too much to do! Since I had to work to pay for college as it was, I quickly volunteered to cook Sunday breakfast/lunch.
I did so throughout my college years. Ahh, but they caught me another way. See, the college also had chapel 5 times a week. And as a college student, I was smart enough to figure out that WE were getting brighter, but the speakers seemed to stay as uninteresting. We stayed up late, debating philosophical points of C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaffer, and the next day would be smothered with a local pastor giving a sermon about how we ought to love our neighbor. (But not too much! We were frisky college students, remember!)
I would love to lie here, and say I started working lunches as well to get out of chapel, but unfortunately, the lunch crew started after chapel was finished. No luck there.
To confirm you attended chapel, a person “signed you in” at the door. My roommate and I (see how I just shared the blame? He He) paid off the person with food (college student equivalent of prison cigarettes) to sign us in. Eventually, as with all well-laid out plans we got caught. Well…actually we were caught for something else, and our signor-inner ratted us out, fearing impending doom.
Thus we were reduced to only being able to sneak out half of the time. As our college minds were expanding and bursting with new information, and exploration, and fascinating concepts, those weeks trapped in chapel taught me there were two speakers—those that could apprehend the audience’s attention and those that treated us as already captured. The latter were by far the more prevalent.
Due to my chapel (and other) escapades, the college did not give me the option to return. My second college only had chapel two times a week (and an easier system to crack) which was far more palatable.
I returned to my home church as a “young adult.” That is the in-between of “college age” (although it always included the college age) and “young marrieds.” If I was to pick out the years of church-going that I enjoyed the most, it would have to be this time.
We were too young to realize you can’t know everything, yet too old to accept on face value what others told us. We would debate and study and engage on subjects as stupid as angels on pins to as essentially pragmatic as how far can you go on a date.
The inevitable occurred. Where there were once two “young adults”--like a caterpillar, they morph into one couple in the “young marrieds.” I started teaching Sunday School and small groups. My wife joined the nursery committee.
If Disney transformed my life onto celluloid, it is at this point Elton John would break out with “Circle of Life.” We were becoming our parents.
Some friends switched to a more liberal style (although as conservative teaching) “Willow Creek” type church and invited us along. We went and never looked back. Loved the more openness, loved the people, loved the church. Again, we became small group leaders, and workers within the church.
Unfortunately, we moved, and distance became a problem. We visited a local church, enjoyed the style, the programs and the pastor. In what was to be the last real church I ever participated, I became…a Baptist again!
We taught Sunday School, helped out on the programs, and there was talk of my becoming a deacon. Did I hear Elton John again?
It was at this time that I began to interact with atheists, and my deconversion process took place. I resigned, without reason, my position as a Sunday School teacher. (Would YOU want your 4-5 year old being taught by an atheist in Church?) I feared what I said would be inappropriate or offensive within our Sunday School, so I kept my mouth shut.
Whereas before, I would ask questions, and be engaging, and bring out verses, and challenge the poor Sunday School teacher to the point of tearing out their hair, at least I kept the class interesting! Worse, I had near perfect attendance. Now, out of fear that I could no longer stop, and it seemed such a façade to debate how to resolve Paul with Jesus, I dared not open my mouth.
People notice that sort of thing. Rumor has it (as churches are great at “rumor has it”) the teacher thought I was mad at him. We switched classes.
The new class was fascinating.
Teacher: AIDS was sent by God as a punishment against homosexuals.
Me: [whispering] But, but, but, can’t I—
Me: [whispering] But what he said—
Teacher: And the Holocaust was a punishment to the Jews for killing Jesus.
Me: [whispering] Oh, but I HAVE—
Me: [whispering] But that—
Me, quietly banging my head on the chair in front of me until I reach blissful unconsciousness.
There was talk that this fellow was hoping to get the Pastor’s job when he left. We switched churches to the last church I attended. Another Willow Creek Style.
This was a large church, with numerous services (4) and I could easily get lost in the crowd, and never cause a fuss. If only that was my style…
Week after week they asked the crowd to join a small group. (If you know Willow Creek, small groups are HUGE.) “We have a small group for everybody--even you! Just fill out the card and we will get you set up.”
All right. Let’s test that theory, shall we? I sent in a card that said something like this:
“I am an atheist. I attend this church, as my wife and children attend, and I have attended church all my life. I would like to take part as much as I can. I have deconverted from Christianity, and am very-well studied. I have no interest in becoming a Christian again. I understand why I would not make a good Sunday School teacher, but is there somewhere I could plug in?”
I would have paid real money to see the look on the face of the people who that card was passed to! About two weeks later I get a phone call:
Jim (not his real name): Hi, I am Jim. A small group leader.
Jim: It says here you are…a…
Jim: Yeah. Right. And you want to attend church?
(I could see that fact was a little hard for Jim to wrap his hands around.)
Jim: Well…see…I lead a small group for “seekers.” I don’t suppose…you don’t seem…I mean…are you still seeking?
Me: No, Jim, I am not. I am willing to listen to new information, of course, and I promise to keep quiet, but I am looking for a place to join.
Jim (curiosity getting the best of him): Do you mind my asking the biggest reason you are an…atheist?
Me: Not at all. There are a number of reasons that cumulate into why I am. There is not one big reason.
Jim: But if you had to pick one, what would it be?
Me: That the Bible is clearly a completely human work, and there is nothing supernatural about it.
(With a Christian, that is always the easiest place to start.)
Jim (getting his dander up): It is not as if the Bible floated down from heaven on strings of gold!
Me: Well, you have to admit, that would be a pretty good sign of supernatural intervention, wouldn’t it?
Jim (nervously chuckling): Yeah, I guess it would at that. Any way, we have a class for people that are looking to become Christians. We even have a Jew! (said proudly) But we are not…really…we…uh…I don’t think this is right for you.
Jim: We are currently reading Ravi Zacharias—have you ever heard of him?
Me (internally sighing): Yes. He recommended all atheists, including myself, commit suicide.
Jim: OH! Oh! We don’t want you to do THAT. Listen, there is a fellow that used to be an atheist, too. Maybe you should contact him.
I met with the “atheist” (actually a theist who was formerly not a Christian, but as close as they could come to finding a real atheist). He said he looked forward to our next meeting. Apparently that will be in the next decade, ‘cause I haven’t heard from him since. I tried “skeptic’s night.” I started an e-mail correspondence with the Pastor. Who informed me he was better served talking to people who “really” needed his guidance.
Eventually I was informed that there really was NOT a place there for me. I was offered to sit in the service and keep my mouth shut.
And I even did THAT. Until one Sunday…
If you know anything about Willow Creek churches, they like to have skits. Plays that have to do with the sermon. Imagine a dining room table. Enter a woman stage left. It is physically impossible for you to imagine TOO much over-acting in what followed:
Woman: A Spoon!................A Fork!...............A Knife!
To get the mental image, the Woman would grab the utensil in question, literally thrust it into the sky, clutch her chest with her other hand, and gaze up at that spoon with such rapt admiration you would have thought it was Jesus himself coming down from the sky. She held this statuesque pose for a long enough time we could have drawn a picture of her standing there, breathlessly waiting what was about to be said. “A Spoon!”
Then, she grabbed the next hapless implement from the table, dropped to her knees and cradled it like a baby. Holding this position for about as much time as it takes to balance a checkbook, she finally graced us with the prose we so desperately ached to hear. “A Fork!” Finally, having exhausted her prowess as an actress, she snatches the last item, holds it in her other hand, repeating the same thrusting/clutching movement, but only to the other side. By now, much of the audience realizes they have time to go get a cup of coffee before the next words will be uttered, and we painfully listen to silence before…“A knife!”
Woman (again): A Spoon!................A Fork!...............A Knife! (with the same repeated motions)………..isthereroomformeatyourtable?
The last part was said so quick, we assumed someone had whispered in her ear that at this rate, we would still be sitting there waiting for this skit to end.
Apparently not. Apparently this was how they intended it to be. Enter a man stage right.
Man: A Spoon!................A Fork!...............A Knife! ………..isthereroomformeatyourtable?
Same crazy gestures. Then, in staccato bursts, they machine-gunned words back and forth:
Man: I am a slave
Woman: I am a boss
Man: I am homeless
Woman: I am rich
Man: I am poor
Woman: Is there room for me at your table?
Man: I am Black
Woman: I am a Jew
Man: I am White
Woman: I am Young
Man: I am Old
Man: Is there room for me at your table?
As they speak they are alternating grabbing their chest and flinging their arms as if they are in the throes of some deep anguish. As if this was the most important speech ever given.
I am beat red. I am holding my sides, sealing my face, thinking of anything but how horrendous this thing was. My eyes are squirting tears, as I am squirming in my seat, trying not to burst out in gales of laughter. And then they hit me:
Woman: A Spoon!................A Fork!...............A Knife! ………..isthereroomformeatyourtable?
Right back to the same over-acting! I am in uncontrollable giggles, and am starting receive shocked/disgusted looks, as if I was laughing at a funeral. Oh, come ON! Yes, they were serious, but this was terrible!
After 10 long minutes in which I pulled every muscle in my chest and sides in attempting to keep my composure, it was finally over.
Then the pastor started to preach. His sermon was on how we should be more hospitable. O.K., innocuous enough. But he went on to tell the story of how some Pastor made it a point to invite parolees, fresh from prison, into his house, knowing that Jesus would protect him and his family.
That was it. The combination of this ludicrous, childish, horrible play, followed with the blind belief in a person that, even if he lived, has been dead for almost 2000 years and isn’t protecting anybody, was too much.
All week long (at that time) I was involved in debating how we know whether Jesus lived, what we know about other historians, the development of the word “Nazarene,” the use of the gospel writers of midrash to create tales of Jesus, and interesting, deep, fun study. To be reduced to “Don’t worry, Jesus will protect you” at Church—my poor mind couldn’t do it.
It was like studying Calculus all week, and then every Sunday having to sit through, “2 plus 2 is four. 4 plus 4 is eight. 8 plus 8 is sixteen. 16 and 16 are thirty-two. 2 plus 2 is four. 4 plus 4 is eight…”
Simply put, church is not designed for me. A very good friend told me that Sunday services “cater to the lowest common emotional denominator” and I found that to be true. Since it was the only thing left I could do in a church…I left.