I’m participating in Addie Zierman’s syncroblog for her newly released book When We Were On Fire. This book is about Addie’s experience growing up in the evangelical fervor of the 1990s, the pains she endured while being “on fire for Jesus,” her journey into alcoholism and disillusionment, and her slow journey back to a God who loves her.
This book is beautiful. It’s not bashing Christianity or the church. Let me be clear about that. It’s simply sharing a story of disillusionment and healing. It’s simply sharing a story that many, many of us resonate with about growing up in the church.
I was healed reading this book. It helped me on my journey of processing my own church hurt. It helped me start finding words to the feelings I’ve felt for so long. It brought me nearer to a gracious, loving God who is bigger than church hurt.
Just please check out her book. It’ll change you.
So that’s why I’m participating in this syncroblog, a thing I never do. I’m that excited about this book. :)
Now, I did grow up in the 90s, but my church hurt experiences happened more in the 2000s, so…oh well. I think I can still share my story. :) (Some of this is taken from a blog post I wrote about church way back when Identity Renewed first started. But a lot of this is brand new stuff).
Growing Up in The Church
During high school, my sister and I attended a girl’s small group at a youth leader’s house every week.
Every week, the girls laughed and joked around, talking about anything but God, while the youth leader sat and tried to reason them out of their bad choices.
Every week these kids told me I was perfect, laughed at me, and made fun of me for being homeschooled and for being “sheltered.”
“I went to a party last night that was sick,” one girl would say, smirking at me from her seat on the tanned leather couch of our small group leader’s living room. She’d looked at me with a condescending arch to her eyebrow. “But you’re perfect. Haven’t you ever done anything wrong?”
And yet I wasn’t perfect. I was just too shy and scared to show them how truly imperfect I was. I was homeschooled. I was not “normal” by their standards. And yet, I was dying inside. I just wanted friends. I didn’t want what my parents wanted, which was a very sheltered life. But the teens at church judged me for my parents’ rules. They labeled me perfect. They laughed at me and my “goodness” so many times.
Inwardly, I seethed. I just wanted so badly to be bad.
To fit in at youth group.
My sister and I began doing all sorts of things behind our parents’ backs. I could lie with a completely straight face. My heart was empty, filling the bottomless void with anything I could find in entertainment, on the internet or the television, in dark music and deception.
I did anything I could to try and be as bad as a sheltered homeschooler could be.
All the while, I felt the farthest from God I’d ever felt, alone and despairing.
All the while, we were laughed at or ignored by kids whose parents forced them to go to youth group every week, just as ours forced us.
And I hated myself because I couldn’t be what they wanted me to be…
Someone who was watching R rated movies all the time and listening to any kind of music I wanted to, and sleeping around (or at least making out with whoever), and making fun of everyone, etc., etc.
Yet instinctively, I think, I knew that this wasn’t for me. No, I wasn’t trying to be perfect. But deep down, I knew I wanted God. I wanted Him so badly. So no matter how hard I tried to be bad for the youth group kids, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be like that.
So they rejected me again and again.
I felt so alone at church.
Because I wasn’t bad enough.
It got to the point where my sister and I dreaded going to church. Yet how were we supposed to explain this to our parents? One Wednesday evening, it exploded. Although I was usually quiet, I couldn’t stop myself this time. There was no way I could express my hurt except through teenage angst. “I don’t want to go!” I yelled at my dad and mom as we stood in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner. “Youth group sucks! Why do we have to go?”
My parent didn’t understand. Good Christian teens always wanted to go to youth group, right? They demanded we continue to go. So we did.
Why, why would anyone want to follow God if this is church? I asked myself again and again. Yet somehow through all my questions, I knew He was the only answer.
* * *
In God’s faithfulness, during my sophomore year in high school, He led me to a group of Christian young people who were actually loving and safe. This happened through a homeschool group in the area.
They weren’t trying to be preachy and holier-than-thou. They listened to secular music and watched secular movies. They were pretty normal in appearances. Yet they also didn’t laugh at me for being quiet, for having stricter parents, for being “sheltered” and “perfect.”
They read J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and a myriad of other things. They liked having deep conversations about God, faith, life. There was an imagination and care and depth to this group of teens that I have never, ever found again in any other setting ever.
And I felt safe. I felt accepted. I felt loved.
It was these teens—completely outside of the church setting—that began to show me what God truly was like. Who began to break through my quiet, despairing shell and bring the real me out. The imaginative, laughing, creative, adventurous girl I truly was.
No, they weren’t trying desperately to be bad.
They weren’t pretending to be perfect, either.
And that’s what made all the difference.
So when God called to my soul during a Christian camp my parents made me attend the summer before my junior year, I finally responded.
Although the church had let me down, He loved me. He’d given me friends I could trust outside of a church setting. He’d given me a safe place. He’d give me a place where I began exploring myself, my creativity, my dreams.
* * *
When I went off to college, I was terrified of committing to a church because I didn’t want to be hurt again. But good Christians go to church. Every Sunday, I would strap on my Sunday best like armor and march myself to church. Eventually, I picked one and settled into the weekly routine on Sunday mornings. People in this church were friendly and knew my name. One summer, a girl around my age asked me to go the summer college group Bible study.
“Maybe—I’ll see,” I stuttered. But every week, I had an excuse. I didn’t go one time that whole summer. It wasn’t until the next summer that I realized how much pain I still had from church. How often I felt sick when I stepped into my church. How often I wanted to hide in the bathroom stalls and make sure I didn’t really talk to anyone.
I didn’t quite fit in at that church, either. They were all extremely nice people. I even keep in contact with some of them. I have nothing negative to say about any of them. They didn’t stab me in the back or reject me or laugh at me.
Yet I was going through a lot of brokenness in college. A lot of heartbreak and depression and counseling and inner despair over how imperfect I truly was. A lot of realizing how attracted I was to abuse, and unhealthy relationships/friendships, a lot of people-pleasing and trying so hard to fit in with this cookie-cutter version of what a Christian was supposed to be…
Just a lot of confusion and darkness.
And I felt terrified of showing them that brokenness, because everyone at church acted so put together on Sunday mornings. Maybe they didn’t other times. I don’t know. Yet at church, everyone smiled and talked to each other politely. They just all seemed so happy and perfect, the women were all in these great marriages and so happy to have children. And I was so ashamed of my struggles.
Yet I just started feeling really alone. I was single. I didn’t have children. I was broken. I couldn’t plaster a smile on my face all the time. I was really uncomfortable with the main pastor started telling us certain issues were “gospel truth” when there are so many Christians who believe differently about certain subjects. When there is room for questions and grey areas and humility in matters outside the core tenants of the Nicene Creed.
I finally left the church and sought a much smaller, more intimate community. A little on the charismatic side. They let their women stand up and say things, even preach sometimes, and they were loving and let me break down in tears one time without acting as if it were a sin. They encouraged me and gave me a voice. They gave me strength.
Then I moved to Colorado, but I have fond memories of that little church of less than 40 people.
This journey has been slow and painful. There have been many wounds along the way. More questions and stumblings and wanderings than I care to admit.
This journey is not complete.
Let’s be honest here.
I still struggle with church.
I have always, always, always found deeper, more authentic connections with God and with other believers outside of a church setting. Outside of a church building with its activities and social structures and pastoral leaders.
I don’t know what it is about me. I just do.
Right now, I go to a woman’s small group that’s attached to a church I have been attending here in Colorado pretty regularly. I love those girls there. We laugh and have fun and are real with our past mistakes and pains. I enjoy these girls immensely. I love that I’ve found a community.
Yet it’s not really the church itself that makes me love it. It’s the people I’m in community with.
So maybe, in the end, that’s all church is supposed to be. People caring about other people. People studying God’s word, praying together, being real about their brokenness and pain.
That’s church to me.
It’s not the building or the Sunday mornings.
It’s not about a senior pastor who tells us all how to live and wants us to bow to his personal interpretation of the Bible.
It’s not about the worship leader who has a better worship style than the church across town.
It’s not about the youth group kids and how “on fire” they are for Jesus (or how much they truly hate being there and make every opportunity to show it).
Church is authentic community and love and hiking in the mountains and going out to dinner for someone’s birthday and tears and celebration.
Church is believers who come around you in the midst of brokenness and pain and honesty and grief and just help you wade along this overwhelming flood called life.
Church is about walking alongside stumbling people that you love and who love you.
Maybe that’s why a lot of churches in America are having such a hard time right now.
A lot of churches struggle with honest, real, authentic living together.
We’re great at preaching. We’re great at giving altar calls. We’re great at manipulating emotional responses out of people during worship. We’re great at politely smiling at each other from across an aisle during greeting time. We’re great at saying, “I’m RIGHT about this and totally theologically accurate, because the Bible clearly says so right here…”
But are we great at community and loving the wounded and those who are different than us? Are we great about being humble about theological issues that aren’t exactly the core tenants of what Christianity stands for? Are we great about getting out into a dark world and living alongside the world and fighting against the darkness?
Or are we just simply sitting in our comfort zones, in our holy little cliques, pretending we have it all together (when we don’t), and singing CRAZY loud with our hands in the air? (Because that’s all that matters, how we look when we sing, right?)
I don’t know.
But I still have a hard time truly wanting to be involved in church. Every time I do, I get this nauseating feeling in the pit of my stomach. Memories of so many rejections and hurts fly back into my mind. Memories of being alone. So alone. In the midst of so many people. Memories of being subtly told I’m a lesser person because I’m (single, a woman, broken, asking genuine questions, wrestling with God, tired, not serving like I should, imperfect, too perfect, homeschooled, fill in blank here____).
I’m sorry if you don’t like these thoughts.
I’m sorry if I’m not saying what you want me to say.
It’s just how my life has been.
I’m just being honest.
I’m still on the journey.
But God is walking beside me, holding my hand, letting me wrestle through my questions, giving me so much more love and grace than anyone at church ever did growing up.
I love God so deeply because of His faithfulness despite the church.
And I also recognize that the church is different than the Church.
The universal Church of Christians that has spanned centuries, weathered persecution, theological debates, schisms, political upheaval, and is still thriving to this day.
The Church that is made up of so many different cultures, denominations, theological beliefs, worship styles, leadership structures, etc., etc., etc.
That’s the Church I love.
That’s the Church I’m part of.
I think, in the end, that’s what really counts.