Why I Left My Church One Easter
Feb 04, 2018 05:20AM
● By Bonnie Lyn Smith
It took me more than five and a half years to write this story, the one where my heart left my church one Easter. And even now, I am fully aware of the following:
- I left a building and a shepherd, not the people and not my true Shepherd. I still run a prayer group (going strong many years now) with wonderful women I met there. The Church, ultimately, is the Body of Christ, and I will never abandon her.
1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ESVFor just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
- I still love the people who remain, and I am keenly aware that they have their reasons for finding something of value there. For a few years, I did as well.
- None of this is to disrespect that particular church or shepherd. We are all God’s children.
But I believe this story has value. I hope you can have an open heart while reading it.
As Easter 2011 approached, I felt that sick feeling in my gut I had been feeling for years, really. Easter is a time to invite friends to church, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, to spread love to a world that needs it (yes, we should be doing that all the time, but people tend to seek a church out for Christian holidays).
But I had a major problem:
I couldn’t picture wanting to invite anyone to my church.
In my mind at the time, right or wrong: If they were already broken, they could break more. If they needed Christ, they would only find Him being beaten on a cross.
They wouldn’t necessarily get the message that His resurrection brought grace.
I agree that it is very important we understand He took on our sin. Our sin and what should have been our judgment placed upon His body are realities we must never forget, but every week I would crawl into the church seats needing the rest of the story and only hearing what a wretch I was. I didn’t mind the reminder, but I needed the part after the cross as well.
The judgment-only focus did not mix well with depression, anxiety, and abandonment already part of my history. Nor did it help a young mother longing to connect with a real, loving, compassionate God.
So, I knew it wasn’t a good sign when I begged my husband to go away that weekend with the kids. We could still attend church—just not our own. How sad is that? I’m not proud of that moment, but I needed the other half of the story. I needed grace. So to Burlington, VT, we went and worshipped and celebrated Easter with a lovely evangelical church there who took us in.
And that’s the day I knew I had to leave.
Truth be told, I did not leave until the following year: Good Friday 2012. Part of what I was waiting for was: sudden improvement, God’s peace to leave, a healthy church to be in so I wasn’t church-less, etc.
This is not me endorsing having a minor disagreement with church staff or a small issue of doctrine and consequently leaving for those reasons. I won’t go into all of mine. I still feel protective of the wonderful people there.
But, like anything else in our lives—our physical bodies, our minds, our diet, our leisure activities—we have to assess health.
You could ask if once I stabilized my own struggle with depression, would I have gone back? I sure loved the people, but there was never a moment I doubted my decision. Because when church is bondage, you cannot live in the full freedom of Christ.
(Again, I want to emphasize that others may not consider the same environment as oppressive. We each grow differently and are in different seasons of faith.)
This environment was a huge stumbling block to me because:
- I could not bring other people, and I am a feeler and someone who wants to help people heal. It was simply not conducive to that.
- There was no accountability for leadership.
- The shepherd was dealing with his own issues, and I truly believe he simply could not fully communicate a loving Father. It broke my heart for him in so many ways.
And while in my new church I found grace in action, there is no such thing as a perfect church since, as I said, the church is the Body of Christ, and this side of heaven, we are imperfect.
This article is more about checking the health of all parts of our lives, and that Easter, not wanting to take anyone I deeply cared about to church to meet Jesus was a huge red flag for me.
Would they have met Jesus there? Maybe. He was certainly the center of all services.
But my broken self at the time needed other broken selves to be loved into better spiritual health and not berated.
I learned a lot at the church I left. There was fantastic teaching (not really preaching, but teaching), the kind you find at a really high-caliber seminary.
The pastor was a man fully dedicated to God—just broken, like me.
There were good servants of Christ there—the kind, who unless you forced them upstairs to get some rest and spiritual food, would teach the children downstairs forever because they loved communicating Jesus.
This isn’t about a church.
It’s about brokenness. Witness. Loving our community with Jesus.
It’s about wounds healed, grace offered, and the only Shepherd who offers the true balm in Gilead.
Jeremiah 8:21-22, ESV
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?
I share this years later, with emotion under the full discipline of Christ, to let you know that if you can’t grow where you are, take these steps:
Self-assess: Are you the problem? Is there a wound in you replaying the old tapes in your head no matter which Christian community you are in?
Get counsel: Ask godly friends and mentors to weigh in. If you have to, seek Christian counseling for a time to work through the issues, especially if they go deep. If church is a trigger, running from it to another one doesn’t solve the trigger. Find out why the trigger engages in the first place.
Pray—and wait: Leaving a Christian community for another one is not only always the right answer; it shouldn’t be done impulsively. Pray and wait for God to lead with His peace—either giving you peace and providing a new place to worship or peace to stay where you are and stretch a little. Our discomfort is sometimes meant for our own pruning and growth. God can use any of it.
Read the Bible: This may seem like a no-brainer, but when we are feeling the emotions of the moment, how often do we go to the Bible first? See what the Bible says about what church life should be like (read the Pauline letters and Acts to understand the early church).
Identify strengths and weaknesses: Leaving one place for another almost always means forfeiting some good to get another kind of good. If, for example, you want a more engaged worship style, you may seek that in a church, but what if the new church comes with a weaker Sunday school program, no youth group, or a lack of pastoral care? Do your homework.
Make sure the new place is healthy: Court the new possible church. If, for example, you value multigenerational ministry, walk that out a bit by observing if children are important, youth valued, and if senior citizens are serving and engaged.
Pray: Yeah, I can’t emphasize that enough.
I did not feel “released” to a new Christian community for a full year after that Easter. And during that year, God had ways of preparing me and refining me. I learned to tame my tongue.
I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that in taking all these steps, I was able to have no regrets. It was a new season for our family to step into, and God reassured us in so many ways, including my own emotional healing. I chose to receive and "feed" at the new church for a year before engaging. Now, we serve actively, but jumping in with both feet upon arriving would not have been wise.
Our wounds needed to heal and not wreak havoc in a new church setting.
We chose to breathe in and out until we fell into the rhythm of how the church functioned as the many parts of the Body of Christ.
We wanted people to get to know us before they trusted us to teach their children, pray with them during communion, or run a focus group or Bible study.
I am thankful for both churches. They each had a purpose in the season we attended.
Whatever you do, if you are experiencing "church hurt," do not stop attending church. The Bible cautions us about that. It’s very important. We were created to be one Body and to have our faith encouraged by the fellowship of believers.
Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Author Bonnie Lyn Smith writes about mental health advocacy, special education, faith in the valleys of life, drawing healthy boundaries, relational healing, renewing our minds, walking with a Holy God, and much ado about grace. Join the conversation at Espressos of Faith.
She is the author of Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day and the founder and editor-in-chief of Ground Truth Press, a book publishing company.