Over a decade ago I left my rather effervescent evangelical Vineyard church because all of the people my own age (college age) had left. I was lonely and since many of my friends had either gone off to college or left the church altogether, I sought out a church that had an active young adult program. I stumbled upon a church that had one of those fancy new Evangelical names like The Planet or The Edge. I was immediately struck by how friendly everyone was. Immediately, I was part of the group. Going out to eat, small groups, outings, girl's nights. There was so much to do and I was invited to all of it. There was no one that I didn't get along with.
Which is why it took me a good month and a half to really start noticing all the stuff that wasn't right about this church. There was the music. Animated, loud, with a brass section, and teenagers bobbing up and down at the front. But then I started to really look at the words on the screen and quit singing altogether because the lyrics were terrible. Not only were they theologically crazy, but also just terribly written. Is it just me? I wondered as I watched people with their hands raised and the teenagers and young adults up front jumping up and down in time to the music. Then I learned that the pastor actually recruited young people to go up front and jump up and down and made it their job to get other people to join them. So it was more like a game and not so much like worship. Of course, the whole thing felt like a giant concert, a show with flashy lights and fog machines and lacking any real substance. I put my feelers out, but as far as I could tell, everyone was completely hung ho over the music.
Side note, the pastor also would praise people for sitting on the front rows, but I later learned that he required anyone who was in a position in authority at the church to sit in the first 5 rows. It was a requirement, which made it all the more weird when he talked about how committed they were for sitting up front.
Then there was the preaching. The pastor was a celebrity in the church. He was charismatic, remembered everyone's names, and spoke with conviction. But what was he really saying though? I began to call the offering time, 'mini-money sermons' in which he would wax on poetic about how if you "test God in this" you will see blessings. He never went as far as to say God would give you money, but he did promise that your bills would somehow get paid. I began to notice other things too. Like how he bragged about their previous fundraising efforts. "We bought the more expensive cushier seats because we knew that would matter and God provided." As if God actually cared about your butt falling asleep in an hour long service. He boasted of the building fund they had raised, but also used this as a jumping off point to insist that the church raise even more. I was approached three times about not giving more money and was questioned as to why I didn't tithe via credit card. "I just don't want you knowing how much I am giving," I said reluctantly. Add to this the fact that the pastor had clearly had no seminary or theological training as he was constantly getting facts wrong, misquoting scripture, and sometimes just saying stuff that was downright wrong. I tried to schedule an appointment to talk with him once about one of his crazier sermons and ended up sitting in a room with the associate pastor. I was not happy. "You don't want to talk to me?" he asked gently. "No offense," I replied, "But you didn't preach the sermon on Sunday."
Then came the youth group services and the women's groups where gender roles were strictly enforced, whether the girls realized it or not. "Let's go on a women's retreat," they cooed at one women's Bible study. "We'll talk about God, get manis and pedis, and go shopping." ummm....what about the girl's who don't like shopping, I wondered aloud. They looked at me like I had three heads.The men's retreat of course had a wide range of activities for their weekend: a high-ropes course, whitewater rafting, fishing, hiking, a bonfire, and a movie. I decided not to spend my hard-earned money on a stereotypical ladies trip that I knew I would hate. A week before the retreat they announced that they had added some more activities: a high-ropes course, a movie, and hiking.
I was beginning to get peeved. I began openly asking questions about the churches money practices, the fact that we did absolutely no outreach beyond the church doors, and why the pastor of church had received absolutely no education in the thing he was doing. The replies were simple, "Stop being a malcontent. Our pastor is a man of integrity and the money is going to good places. We do outreach all the time. What do you think children's church is?
This was month three. I was about to move away though and so I stayed for a few more weeks in order to avoid rocking the boat. I left and no one thought anything of it. She moved away. Of course, she won't go to church here. I'm going to be honest though, at this point I was thoroughly convinced that I had made some lifelong friends. I was sure of it. While I worked on my Bachelor's degree, these friends came and visited me. When I came home to visit we always had a party. I went on vacation with one of the families. Became friends with one girl's brother who lived near me.
Then I moved home. I had had a few years to think it over, more life experience, and went to an amazing church up North and I simply couldn't go back. That was the end. My "friends" fell into two categories: 1) Those who knew what my issues were with the church (because they asked) and were such fanboys of either the church, the pastor, or both that they would no longer speak to me OR 2) Those that just assumed that I still lived up North (even though we were Facebook friends) because I couldn't possibly move back and not go to church with them. When I run into the first set, they usually pretend not to see or recognize me. Weirdly enough, they do bump into my family and will say things like, "Tell her I said hi." Call me yourself...you still have my phone number. This hurt me deeply and has made me wary of making new friends. "Sooo," says set number 2 when I bump into them, "Still living up north huh?" Umm....no. And I haven't for, let's see, 8 years now. They always look a bit startled by this, but quickly move on.
What does all this mean about my deconversion process? I would say that this was the first time I attended a church where I not only was catching the theological problems of the Bible, but was also becoming aware of the constant manipulation that exists in many churches. I got a bit or a reprieve from that when I moved away because the church I went to up north really was one of those mythological ones where they are genuine in their call to action, actively worked in their community, shepherded by pastors who were open and honest, and full of people who wanted to make a difference in their communities with no God strings attached. But I see it every week when I go to church, to the point that I actively avoid the sermon. Sometimes this means writing in my journal instead of taking notes and sometimes it means skipping church altogether. These days, I pretty much only attend church on the days that I am volunteering. I can't stand it anymore. I can't stand to listen to a man who tries to convince his captive audience that if they want to have a better relationship with God they will not only come to church themselves, but they will bring their friends. I cringe at sermons where the pastor talks about ISIS and his solution to the problem is that we should just pray because what else can we do? I don't know, volunteer with an interfaith ministry? Or find ways to serve alongside the Muslim community to dispell myths and encourage community? Every song feels like a mindless chant. And the fact that I do not feel comfortable in my church to speak out against the modest culture that promotes body shaming or to speak up for the LGBTQ community is telling.
I'm tired of the bullshit. I'm tired of the manipulation. I'm tired of feeling bullied by believers to be for and against what they are for and against. Most of all, I'm sick of churches doing nothing week after week, huddling within their walls on their cushioned seats, more worried about raising funds and electric guitars then they are about the hungry and sick sitting right outside their doors. Hurray for the ones that are doing it right and shame on the ones who aren't.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.