This piece should really be called, Why I Left The Church (Then Went Back Because I Realized It Was All A Matter Of Perspective), but making you cringe in horror or raise your brows in interest was too good of an opportunity to miss LOL.
I’ve heard so many of these stories over the last year – of people being fed up with the institution of Christianity – that I thought I’d tell my own story, and share what I learned from the experience.
So here it goes:
I don’t know how you grew up, or what your parents’ preference was for suitable activities or weekend plans, but in my house, Jesus was King. That meant that almost anything and everything we did was centered around Christianity and the Church. By the time I was four, I knew every Don Moen and Ron Kenoly song by heart, and my Show-and-Tell in first grade was me teaching everyone how to sing a christian song in one of my local dialects. (Of course, they didn’t know it was Christian, but you know, sometimes Kingdom strategies require covert techniques and infiltration lol). I remember my sister and I being taken for prayer weekly, because one of my sister’s legs was supposedly shorter than the other (she could never tell herself lol), and while you all sat in the car listening to Barney on repeat, what played on repeat when I was in the car was the cassette recording of a prophecy our pastor had made over me in the middle of his sermon. I still remember it to this day.
Now, before you jump to conclusions, my family was not Christian in a cult-ish, wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap kind of way. My dad was actually always pretty liberal in treating us more like friends than creatures he created to do Christ’s bidding lol. If we had questions about our faith, or why we did what we did, he didn’t just give us a ‘because I said so, you heathen’ response – he actually answered them. He even let us participate in Halloween (albeit the fact that my sister always dressed up as a Bible and I was always a woman on her way to church lol). By age 8 I probably understood more about Christianity, the supernatural, and the workings of Jesus than most adults who attend church do. But yes, church was and would always be a non-negotiable in my house. Yes, you might be gravely ill and too weak to get up, but my father would gladly carry you to church – where else would you find your healing????
Fast forward to moving to Ghana and finishing up middle school, I got heavily involved in the youth ministry at church. Just to illustrate how deeply involved I was, I remember there was a day when my father – Sir Church-A-Lot himself – sat me down and complained that I spent way too much time in church. I’d go to church on my own to pray almost daily. My friends and I would go back to our old middle school, lead morning devotion, pray with students, and evangelize at least 3 days a week. Look, I’m not sure what exactly came over us in that season, but we were so gung-ho for Christ that we would go anywhere, do anything and say anything that we felt he was calling us to. I was the very definition of souled-out.
But there was a flipside. As much as I loved Christ and my faith, there were things that just didn’t settle with me about my church experience as I grew older. The girls were treated very differently from the boys. The same people sat at the front of the church every single Sunday without fail – as if they had purchased their seats at a price. People who were supposed to be leaders were acting contrary to their callings. Friends were called out for holding hands, and someone was always trying to cast a demon out of someone for the littlest offense. There were days I barely wanted to move, because someone would point out to me something I was doing wrong – what I said, what I was wearing, how I was thinking, my actions – and I would begin to feel less than and unworthy of being a Christian. Being a Christian for me took a fast dive from freedom to feeling bound and confined and never good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, my experience during that time and my growth in that community are the very foundation on which my faith is centered today – it was not all bad. It was actually mostly good. But like so many of these ‘Why I Left Church’ stories, I could not reconcile what I read in God’s Word and knew about His heart with what was happening around me. In fact, it got to the point where I became skeptical of everyone and everything in the church. And it didn’t matter whether it was my church, or my father’s church (because we attended two different ones at the time) or a friend’s church – they all did things that seemed to contradict the very Word they were trying to propagate. It all seemed like a lot of feel-good action – jumping around and shouting and speaking in tongues – but no substance.
So once I moved away from Ghana and could make my own decisions as to where my Sunday mornings would be spent, I stopped going to church. I even stopped calling myself a Christian because I hated being grouped with others who took the name in vain. As far as I was concerned, I had faith, and that was enough.
This is the way most ‘Why I Left Church’ stories go: You love God, grow up in church, then you experience some sort of church hurt, or you see some hypocritical stuff, and decide you just can’t vibe with it. You call yourself spiritual and not religious – meaning you believe in God and in His son, but you really just can’t get down with the corporate body meant to represent him because in your opinion they’re doing such a horrible job at it.
I’m with you. I get it. I’ve been there. But can I just be honest with you and critical of my past self?
Leaving church was the worst decision I ever made in my life.
As someone who spent 18 years of her life in church, followed by 5 years out of it, I can tell you that my life, my heart, my spirit, and my hope were never more distorted and messed up than they were during those five years away. Like the prodigal son, I got sick of the status quo and just wanted to try doing things my own way, only to realize that life with my father – who could be a little overbearing atimes – and with my messed up hypocrite brother was faaaaaaaaar better than life on my own. Christ said that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16). Trust me when I say that when you live outside of the community that comes with Christ’s church, the gates of hell prevail a WHOOOOOLE lot lol. There were so many things, people, wrong choices, heartache I could have avoided if I had the community that I have now standing beside me and helping guide me.
I get it. You expect your church leaders to know better. You don’t expect them to be chauvinist or sexist because that’s not God’s heart. You expect them not to lash young men for getting girls pregnant, or ostracize women for having children out of wedlock. You know the church is for the sick, and not the perfect.
But if you know that, why do you expect perfection? Why does weakness offend you so?
Trust me, in my lifetime, I have seen it all when it comes to church. I have been skeptical and questioned it all. To say I do not disagree with the leadership of my church, or cringe when my pastor makes certain decisions, would be a lie. If I’m being all the way honest, I am actually dealing with some church hurt right now and haven’t been to church in 3 weeks. But am I going to stop going to church for the rest of my life? Heck no. I wouldn’t dream of it. I’ll be back next week.
You don’t stop working altogether when you read a report and find out women get paid less than men for the same work. You don’t stop going to the movies because you realize Hollywood is sexist. I have a friend who despises Chris Brown for what he did to Rihanna but still can’t help singing along to some of his songs – cos let’s face it, he might be a douche, but he makes some really good music! If you go to a grocery store, and you don’t find the plantain chips you like, you don’t say, oh, I’m never going grocery shopping again. You either find something else you like and buy that, or you go out and find the store that has the darn plantain chips you like! Same goes with church. Quitting because you don’t like some of what goes on there is short-sighted, and for a lot of us, has been detrimental.
I get so sad when I see people giving up on the Church. I get it. I feel the tension myself. But the Church wasn’t conceived by man. It is the very vision and heart of God. Christ’s mandate was to build his Church, and you can hardly call yourself a Christian if you’re not aligned with that.
I know what you’re wondering: How did you do it? How did you go back to church and stay there for the last three years? How do you reconcile what you believe with some of the things you see in the church that are contrary?
Here are a few answers I have worked out to some of the ‘Why I Left Church’ narratives that I have had in my own life:
“You don’t need Church to be a Christian.”
You can’t do Christianity without community. If even Jesus – the son of God who was God himself – needed community (a band of dimwitted misfits if we’re being all the way honest) to walk out his purpose and fulfill God’s will for him on this earth, what makes you think that you can do without it? In fact, God Himself is a community of three. This road was not meant to be walked alone. You cannot do it alone, and if you think so, you’re only deceiving yourself. The premise of our faith is fellowship – with God and with our fellow men – because it is only in fellowship that we grow more Christ-like. Hebrews 10:25 cautions us:
Let us not stay away from church meetings. Some people are doing this all the time. Comfort each other as you see the day of His return coming near. (NLV)
“My Pastor does and says things that are wrong according to the Bible – I cannot follow him.”
You’re not supposed to ‘follow’ your pastor. Your Pastor is not your God. Pastor Paul says something controversial and suddenly you decide this Church thing is not for you. You see a pastor engaged in a scandal and suddenly he is the devil incarnate. You don’t like the way your pastor calls for offering, so you stop giving. Trust me, I’ve seen and heard pastors do things that would make your toes curl – I should be the first person to race out of this church thing.
But guess what? Your pastor is in church because he’s sick too. He is also struggling with his own demons and inconsistencies. He cannot lead you to wholeness – he can only try his best in his own weak state to point you to the One who can.
Throughout the Bible, the men who did the greatest things for God, who slayed giants and conquered kingdoms and were called men after God’s own heart, are also some of the most despicable chauvinists and murderers you’ve ever heard of. It’s evidence that God doesn’t use perfect people, because perfect people don’t need Him. He uses that which is broken, so you can never be confused as to who gets the glory.
The moment you stop looking to your leaders to always say and do the right things, you’ll find that the fact that they don’t and are as human as you are and yet called to such great things can be insanely refreshing.
“The Church is sexist.”
Life is sexist.The workplace is sexist. Our culture is sexist. Are you going to quit those too? What you see as sexism in the church isn’t the heart of God – it’s the manifestation of man trying to explain God in his own understanding. The church is God-ordained, but still very much man-made, and it is hard to keep culture out of it. The Bible from an outsider’s view is probably the single most sexist piece of literature ever compiled. But with an understanding of God’s heart, you see that at every turn, the Bible is a redemption story for women in a patriarchal society too.
A man being sexist is not an excuse to give up on the institution that Christ gave his life to build. If every feminist left church, how would we ever expect things to change? If anything, it’s why we need more women leaders in the church – to rise up and contend with man-made notions of inequality being guised as Biblically-sound. And there are SEVERAL churches with women leadership, and who respect the power of women to lead and inform God’s people.
“I don’t agree with some of the practices at my church.”
You won’t always agree with your church. I like to imagine myself privy to the discussions (probably more like arguments) that ensued between Peter and Paul about their very different approaches towards the gospel of Christ. But in spite of frequent disagreements, Paul admonishes the church in 1 Corinthians 1 to look past these differences:
For I have been informed about you, my brothers and sisters, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are quarrels and factions among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you says, “I am [a disciple] of Paul,” or “I am [a disciple] of Apollos,” or “I am [a disciple] of Cephas (Peter),” or “I am [a disciple] of Christ.” Has Christ been divided [into different parts]? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul? [Certainly not!]
I am the girl who has an opinion on EVERYTHING. But I have learnt it is not always beneficial to share it. I don’t always agree with my boss on every detail, but I still work for him because I agree with the mission and vision. I don’t always agree with my father but I’m not going to quit being his daughter – I know his imperfections don’t stop him from loving me. I don’t always agree with decisions made or actions of my leaders, but if we can agree on one thing, and that one thing is Christ risen, and propagating that message, then all else is just semantics.
There’s no such thing as a perfect church. Church politics will have you pulling your hair out (luckily I’ve been spared this since I wear a lot of wigs). Churches have their quirks and dysfunctions just like families and institutions and organizations. You have to find the ones you can live with and get used to them.
“I don’t see why I should give to this church of my time and resources when I get nothing back.”
You have to determine why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for. The Bible says in everything you do, do it as unto God and not man – because your reward comes from God. We don’t do things because we expect things in return. You’re not going to church for a pastor. You’re not tithing because you think your pastor is going to manage the funds properly instead of buying himself a Rolls Royce. You’re not serving because your pastor said so. You’re doing it because that is what Christ has required of you. What happens at the back end is between the person stewarding the church and God.
That one child you teach in Sunday school doesn’t care about church politics – he just needs to know the love of God. And if you can give him that, then who really cares how many offerings are taken at your church? Yours is simply to obey and do it because the Master has need of it.
“My pastor is always asking for money.”
Guess what? Churches need money to function. I have worked in a church so I’m well aware of all the many expenses. That building didn’t fall like manna from heaven. The pastors and staff don’t subsist solely on the quail they find running around their backyards. As you sat in your comfortable chair and listened to the band, and watched the worship team in their cute little robes and enjoyed it, did you think that all just came down from the sky? Running a church costs a lot of money and unfortunately churches are not government funded.
There isn’t a church in the Scripture that was not built and expanded from the generous giving of others. In fact the church in Acts was known to give everything they owned so that everyone’s needs could be met and the gospel would be advanced. You might think your pastor asks for money a lot, but sometimes the problem isn’t too much asking, it’s actually a lack of giving. You complain that the Sunday School facilities are not nice, and yet you have never tithed a day in your life. If everyone tithed and gave the way God called us to give, I can bet you that the majority of pastors would not even have to ask at all.
The Bible says God loves a cheerful giver. If you are not cheerful about it, don’t give. It’s that simple.
“This church just doesn’t fit my faith.”
Not every church is for you. This is one I realized recently. There are different churches for different people at different stages of their faith that serve different purposes.
I think this is best illustrated by the story John Mark, the man who wrote the Gospel of Mark. When Paul began his ministry alongside Barnabas, he refused to take John Mark along with him because he felt he was a deserter. Barnabas took Mark under his wing and he and Paul went separate ways. By the time 2 Timothy comes around, Paul is asking for John Mark to return to him because he is now ‘profitable to [him] in ministry’. What Mark needed at the beginning of his Christian walk was a Barnabas – someone skilled at raising up new believers. When he became more mature, what he needed was a Paul – someone who would help him become a leader himself.
Instead of leaving the church as a whole because you don’t feel like it fits your needs or beliefs, you have to find the church community that will help you grow in this season if your life. So shop around. No church will have every single thing you want – but you can find one that has enough of what you’re looking for to feel like home.
“The church doesn’t belong to me.”
You have to take ownership of your church. You don’t pray for the church and yet you are the first to jump ship when things don’t look right. You don’t talk to your leaders about the things you don’t understand or ask questions about the way they do things, and yet you’re the first to criticize. When you have ownership in something, you do everything in your power to help it succeed. You will give to meet its needs.
“This church does almost everything contrary to the Word of God – I can’t dismiss that.”
There are bogus churches. The church is an institution and has its inconsistencies like any other. Yes, there are people who start churches as money-making ventures. But you don’t date one frog then swear off men altogether. No, instead, as you meet more and more potential suitors, it gets clearer and clearer the things you are/aren’t looking for in a man, and you can make a more informed decision.
Don’t let a couple of bad churches or practices at a church turn you off of the point of church – community. There is a church out there for you.
“I don’t feel like I’m getting what I need from Church.”
You have to work out your OWN faith. You cannot live solely on hearsay. You cannot live solely off of what the church gives you. As much as God has community and direction and instruction for the church as a collective, He has direction and instruction for you as an individual. And the church can’t give you that. That you need to work out on your own. You have to have your own relationship with Christ in addition to the guidance and community that comes with church. If you try to live solely off of what the church feeds you, you’ll get frustrated because you may never get everything you need.
“My Pastor only cares about getting new members to fill seats.”
Well, yea, that’s kinda the whole point of this church thing. The biggest bubble burst you will have in this walk of ours is to find out that it isn’t about you. The point of the church is not to serve you as a seasoned believer. The primary function of the church is to get people connected with God, and there are billions of people out there who have never had an encounter.
When Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, he says the shepherd left the 99 at home to go find the one missing sheep. We are the 99 at home. We are not lost. We are home. We are OK. And yet we are upset that Pastor Paul is always going on evangelism mission and is never at service, or that all he does is work on getting more people to join the church. We get annoyed when he recycles a message, not realizing there might be one person in the crowd that day who hasn’t heard it before, but needs to.
So maybe – just maybe – when your pastor is asking you to invite people to church, he isn’t just looking for more people to cheer him on or larger coffers (because Lord knows we need them to advance the Kingdom). Maybe he wants more people to hear of the saving Grace of Jesus. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. We are found. We will be fine if we don’t get a seat at our favorite service because we understand someone else needs it more.
“I don’t feel like I’m growing anymore in the Church.”
You need to understand the principles of spiritual growth.
Our faith is one that requires a rebirth of sorts – meaning you start off as a spiritual baby who needs to be fed. Then at some point, you start to feed yourself – your parents provide you the food, but you have to cut it up and put it in your OWN mouth. Then, when you grow old enough, the free food stops the same way it did for the Israelites when they entered the promised land. You have to go out and get your own food. And THEN, there comes the time when you become mature enough to feed others.
In the same way, there will come a point in your walk where it will no longer be enough for you to sit in service and be fed. The only way you will grow is when you start to feed others. There’s so much I’ve learnt about myself and about God simply by writing about Him and working in babies and student ministry and telling others about Him that I never would have gotten on my own just listening to my pastor preach. Serving became the vehicle through which God began to teach me new things.
Stop simply sitting and waiting to be fed. Get up and serve and feed others. It’s really not about what you want and need. It’s about doing God’s will: bringing more people to Christ. There’s a reason the Bible says ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and all other things will be added to you.’