Strangled by the Church

Strangled by the Church May 28, 2015

autopsy: “an eye-witnessing,” from Modern Latin autopsia, from Greek autopsia “a seeing with one’s own eyes,” from autos- “self” + opsis “a sight”

credit finalwitness
credit finalwitness (CC 2.0)

Let the autopsy begin.

From the time I was a junior in high school (around 2001) until about four years ago, I attended an ABC-USA church in the small town where I finished out my secondary education. It was one of the first churches I had ever attended where my father was not the senior pastor (by which I mean the only pastor – we were almost always in very small, mostly rural churches with no other pastoral staff), and it was also one of the few churches we’d attended that had anything like an active youth group.

It also had a contemporary worship service, unlike every other church I’d ever attended, and a bandmate of mine (did I mention that I used to play in Christian bands? another time, perhaps) was involved in the worship team. It just so happened that I was able to jump right into that, even before we technically started attending.

Since it was still a relatively small church, there were plenty of opportunities for me to jump into the ministry of the church. At first it was playing in the worship team and singing in the church choir. Then it turned into filling in as pianist for the church’s traditional service.

This progression didn’t happen all at once. When I got married, my wife and I moved a short distance away and tried to find another church. Our hunt only underscored for us how much we missed the community we’d had when we attended our old church before we were married, and we ended up back there after only a short time away.

By this point, my deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic was in full gear, and in 2006, it was clear that I was about to take on a bigger role. Our church’s music minister had been suffering from cancer off and on for a few years, and the illness had started to progress again. He and I had had conversations about that year’s Christmas cantata, and I recommended that we try to put together a program ourselves. He liked the idea – and my enthusiasm, I think – and let me sort of take the reins, even though he had been directing the choir at this church for longer than I had been alive.

He had fully intended to help me put the program together, I think, but by the end of August, he was gone. And as his protégé of sorts, his baton fell to me.

So I did. And I did the following Easter’s program as well. The choir was now mine, at the age of 22, and eventually I was planning and directing virtually all of the music for the church, all without any official designation or title.

At a certain point, I got a little bold and asked if I could give the message for a Sunday evening service – a lesser-attended service, so with less pressure both for me and for the senior pastor (so he might allow me to do it). He said yes, and I gave a sermon on having a more intellectual faith, with material heavily cribbed from J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God With All Your Mind. I apparently did well enough that I was asked to fill the pulpit on a handful of other occasions.

While all of this was happening, I was searching for answers of my own. I had started blogging the year before in the course of trying to put my beliefs in order, and I was finding a variety of differences both theologically and politically with the church. The former I could sort of gloss over somewhat – American Baptists generally hold a strong importance on the priesthood of the believer – but the latter had started to nag at me. Leading up to the 2008 primaries, the senior pastor was whispering about supporting Mike Huckabee, and while I wasn’t quite as progressive as I am these days, even I could see through Huckabee.

Not everything was whispered, though. It was still a conservative enough church that I found myself sitting through sermons with denunciations of homosexuality, abortion, evolution, and secularism – all of which I was either questioning or had already decided in the opposite direction.

And I wasn’t always quiet. I wrote more than one letter to church leadership about things I saw in the church that I thought they had been too passive about. The only time I ever got a response was when I attached a resignation to it.

I really should’ve known then that there was something fatally wrong, but the senior pastor came to me and swore up and down that he welcomed questioning. I think I believed him in part because I’d invited him to attend a lecture by J.P. Moreland once, and the drive to the venue and back afforded us time to have conversations about trying to engage more intellectual issues as a church.

These future intellectual discussions never materialized. Nor did the feeling of openness that I was promised when I decided to turn my resignation into a request for a brief hiatus, after which I resumed all of my duties in ministry.

Six months after, we left that church, satisfied that there was nothing else for us there.

By all rights, that shouldn’t have been the case. We had great relationships with many of the members of the church, and there have been few places where I’ve felt that our children were as loved. Some of the people I have respected more than anyone else were there. Just recently, one of my choir members (and yes, I still think of it as “my choir”) passed away after a long battle with cancer, and even though they represented basically everything that drove me out of the church, I found the emotions still welling up in my chest.

But there is a limit to what fondness and affection can overshadow, especially when it feels like that affection is contingent on conformity, on not rocking the boat, on not expressing doubts.

So we left, and a year or so later, my faith had flatlined.

Cause of death: Strangulation with a short rope.

I’m sure that someone will jump in here to say that my experience was just one bad experience, that other churches and congregations really are open to questioning. I’m skeptical. Maybe these elusive places exist, like some sort of ecclesiastical Terabithia, but I’ve talked to so many – both formerly religious and currently religious – that confirm what I’ve said. It wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just this one church.

But my friends, let me tell you: I can breathe again. And that is an excellent feeling.

Rest in peace, my former faith. May your memory keep me from ever being so constrained again.

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