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Leaving

It wasn’t easy to leave. The church was my family, dysfunctional as it might have been, and I was not eager to lose them. Fear was also involved. If bad things could happen to me while I was making a real effort to stay under God’s protection, what horrible things awaited if I openly rebelled and walked away? When I joined the church, I had signed a “covenant” where I promised, among other things, to speak to the leadership first if I ever wanted to leave. I dreaded that conversation. The leadership believed that they were able to receive very specific verbal direction (called “prophetic words” or “words of knowledge”) straight from God, not just for themselves but for those under their leadership. They believed that they were responsible for the members of the church, that God wouldn’t possibly speak to one of the members without first revealing it to the leaders, and it was the leaders’ duty to warn the members and discipline them if they did not listen.

My initial meeting with the leadership was brutal. I was told that I had been a failure there and would be a failure wherever I went, that I was not nearly as smart or skilled or spiritual or useful as I thought I was, that I would never find another church like this one, that I would wind up sick and possibly even die because I was outside of God’s will. Whatever pain I had experienced up until that point would be nothing compared to what was to come… and then I wouldn’t have people in my life with enough faith to pray for my healing/restoration.

They reminded me of all the mistakes I had made during my time at the church… and they didn’t have to make things up, because I had done some pretty stupid things. They reminded me that they had forgiven me even though I didn’t deserve it… so surely I owed a great deal of loyalty to the leaders — and to the group — and to God. Besides, I was serving in the church… and if I left, I would be hurting the work of God and forcing others to pick up the slack.

I felt guilty. It took more than a year for me to work myself into a position where I had the courage to even think about leaving again. And when I did, I tried my best to leave honorably and correctly, but it didn’t matter. Nothing I could ever do would be enough… and I should never have expected it to be enough. Looking back, I realize that there were only two ways to leave my church: in a conflict or in a coffin.

Despite all the talk (both in private and in public) about how important it was to leave a church correctly, I couldn’t think of a single example of someone who had done so. Everyone who left was considered suspect… and if a church member kept in touch with anyone who had left, that member was considered suspect. And since members were only expected to be friends with other members of church… leaving meant starting over again… walking away knowing full well that your “family” would be told lies about you… and they’d believe them, because they had to.

Ultimately, I accepted a new job in another state and left… without the support of the church leadership. It was an awkward departure. I still had close friends in the church. There were tearful hugs and promises to keep in touch, but I knew I was saying “goodbye” forever. Even if we did keep in touch, it would never be the same.

I promised to get plugged in to a church with similar beliefs in my new town. Thankfully, that’s a promise I didn’t exactly keep.

I wanted to stay in a charismatic/Pentecostal church, but I hoped to find one that wasn’t so controlling. I didn’t know what I wanted in a church, but I was absolutely clear on what I DIDN’T want. I wound up joining a large and much more mainstream Pentecostal church. It was completely different from my previous church. There was no pressure to join or stay or even attend on a regular basis. It looked like a safe place to go.

And it was safe. The church was definitely Pentecostal, but the supernatural gifts and miracles were rarely the focus of a meeting. Everything was done with excellence and professionalism. It was top notch. There were career musicians on the worship team. Nationally known guest speakers visited from time to time. They used drama and technology and elaborate sets to enhance the services. The messages were much shorter and more practical than what I heard before. The topics were “ripped from the headlines.” Often, there were social/political themes to the teachings, followed by a call to action. (For example: vote in this local election, support this food pantry, help these kids…)

The pastors were friendly and easy going. There were no major control issues here. They didn’t use “prophetic words” to try to direct the personal lives of the congregation. In fact, the pastors were so busy that they didn’t know very much about the lives of their members outside of church… and they didn’t want to know either. They weren’t shy about asking for money — and there were definite echoes of prosperity teaching involved — but they didn’t hunt you down if you didn’t give for a week or two.

There wasn’t the same sort of “exclusive club” feeling. They cooperated with other churches to organize big events in the community. They had a lot of positive press coverage. Marketing and Evangelism were interchangeable terms. There were many who volunteered their time, but paid staff members handled the bulk of the responsibilities. The pressure to serve the church just wasn’t the same. The majority of the congregation could just “show up” and enjoy.

There was something happening literally every night of the week. Cars were always in the parking lot. There were always meetings and programs — yet was difficult to build relationships. During the year or so that I attended that church, many of the staff and a significant percentage of the congregation left & were replaced by others. It was a huge revolving door. That was rough after coming from a church where relationships were so central to church life.

The worship time was powerful and emotional… but strangely empty for me. Even the supernatural aspects had lost much of their appeal. Somehow, it all seemed so cheap and plastic now. It was a warm fuzzy experience for the sake of warm fuzzies. If I was going to have a genuine close encounter with God, I expected that I would walk away forever changed. Here, it seemed like I was changing, but not for the better.

I began to wonder if the things I had loved about my previous church were inextricably connected to the things that I hated. Maybe strong relationships only happened in an environment of strong control. Maybe what I had grown to love so much back there wasn’t God at all. Maybe that’s why I felt like I was further away from God at this point in time than ever before.

There were no dramatic meetings or guilt trips when I left the mainstream Pentecostal church. I didn’t feel torn or conflicted about leaving. No one tried to shame me into staying. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone even noticed that I was gone. I was just… done.

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