Editor’s Note: Our third and last Conservative Christian minister in this series is “Preston.” Like many clergy who eventually leave, there was a lot that he really loved about his work.
Ask anyone why they believe what they believe about religion and you will get an array of answers. Predominantly, we believe because of where we have been raised. Simple enough, right? We may change denominations as we grow and develop our own religious compass. The variations are often so slight that they do not cause a significant rift in our family moral codes. We believe mostly because of the influences of our society. It’s common sense. In cultures all around the world now and in the past, we inherit the beliefs of our culture.
In the American post-civil war south, Evangelical Christian fundamentalism grew to be the widely accepted religion. Whether Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, non-denominational or any other bible-thumping inerrant preaching denomination, it’s accepted practice to adhere to a Christian affiliation or at least abide by Christian principles. Welcome to the Bible Belt — where Jews, women, gays, lesbians, “coloreds,” liberals, gun haters and fornicators all go to hell. And yes, I grew up entrenched in it, soaking in the Sunday morning traditions and working hard to abide by the Christian code.
In churches all across the south, it’s all about that invitation at the end of the service to accept Jesus as your Savior. It’s how we measure ourselves in God’s kingdom and weigh our importance in the ministry. What a feeling to sing the invitation hymn for the eighth consecutive time and finally see some poor rotten soul realizing he just managed to escape hell’s grasp! For this reason alone, for my entire life I felt the overwhelming urge and obligation to spread the good news of Jesus and live to see the day that one person would accept Jesus as their personal savior and not be eternally tormented by a devil’s hell.
I wouldn’t trade my years in ministry for anything. I made lifelong friends, witnessed genuine life changes and felt as if I were a part of the breathing, living organism of the church. As a youth minister, I led countless bible studies and helped mentor hundreds of young people. While in college, I worked briefly as a local missionary for our Southern Baptist Denomination. We were programmed to win as many children’s souls as possible, taking the enemy out of one child at a time through the plan of salvation. For six years, from high school through college and into early adulthood, I was part of a music ministry that catered to youth. We led concerts, revivals and all sorts of events. I really enjoyed it. We saw hundreds of people come to the altar. And years later, I completed my first Christian novel. It was a personal goal and one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had.
I have always questioned my beliefs, and I assume everyone has raised an eyebrow to their faith at one time or another. It’s normal. But there were times while in the ministry that I really second-guessed the words that came out of my own mouth. I believed them because I was supposed to believe them and because everyone else believed them. Gradually, I began to realize that the things I taught according to the bible were not consistent from church to church or from denomination to denomination. As a young minister, I found that to be quite confusing.
There were times when God and I didn’t see eye to eye on some issues, but as a follower of the faith, I knew it would be unspeakable to question the authority of God and his mysterious ways. I did my best not to live a lie during my years in the ministry. I honestly shrugged off my doubts and pressed forward because I felt I was supposed to. I studied hard and whenever I had doubts, I chalked them up as Satan’s constant probing of my thoughts to interfere with my trust and faith in God.
I don’t know what was the tipping point for me. There were many holes punched through my faith that occurred during many different chapters of my life. It didn’t all happen at once. But gradually the carefully constructed stack of cards I had built my faith upon gradually fell until I felt the only way to rescue my dying faith was to do a Control + Alt + Delete. It was necessary. I had to be honest with myself. Under the strain of my own self-respect and desire to be genuine, I started my spiritual reboot. It went something like this:
- Abandon cultural religious traditions that carry a heavy influence on belief systems.
- Step outside the circle of Christianity and view things objectively.
- Stop cherry picking the bible using Sunday morning sermon notes and topical studies.
- Read the bible without concordances, devotionals or the aid of a pastor preaching opinions in my ear. After all, if God is the inspiration behind it, ALL his creation should be able to understand its message. Read it as if it were meant to be God’s word for me.
- Think rationally.
I figured if there was a real God of the Bible, he would respect the desire to seek him out rationally instead of blindly following the masses into traditionalism or following simply because my parents did. I didn’t set out to prove or disprove God, simply to discover the truth. If there is a question, I will investigate it. I will look past any preconceived notion I may have and develop my own methods of testing, just as a scientist would. That’s what I did. At the risk of polarizing people who know me best, I began a two-year journey into the forbidden zone otherwise known as “Reason.”
For clergy, this journey of honesty is not easy. Despite what many in the church would like to believe, it takes more courage to come out and be honest with yourself and your family than to keep the truth hidden beneath the surface.
My own journey is still ongoing. The consequences left me divorced, my four children scratching their heads. I am a schoolteacher now with lots to lose here in the Heart of Dixie by being true to myself. So for now, I say thank you to those who have come out to the world and risked their reputations, relationships, and friendships for the sake of being true to themselves. Thank you for paving the way for others to follow.
“Preston” is a former Christian musician, youth minister, summer missionary, Christian novelist and apologist. He lives in the heart of the Bible Belt. He has four children and is a public school teacher and coach. In 2011 Preston joined the Clergy Project to find support in a community of current former clergy who share similar experiences.
*photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22280677@N07/3360302524/”>Svadilfari</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>
*photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelfordjames/3456974192/”>Rachel Ford James</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>