"My name is Latebloomer, and it has been three years since I have been to church."
At first it was uncomfortable to quit doing something that was an ingrained lifelong habit; however, as some point, the weekly discomfort of attending church significantly surpassed the temporary discomfort of quitting. I just don't belong at church right now. I may never belong there again.
Church is not a place where I can learn. In fact, I can't remember the last time I learned something new at church. After all, I was raised in church; I've heard and read all the stories hundreds of times, from innumerable perspectives, with every possible church-approved application. Really, only so much can be said when a pastor is limited to speaking devotionally out of one ancient book, especially when the pastor is also socially obligated to keep the Bible safe and dependable in order to protect the favorite beliefs of the church members.
The things that I now want to learn about the historical Bible, the context in which different parts were written, and the intended meaning of many controversial passages? I will never learn about those things in church. The ways that different verses have been interpreted, re-interpreted, or misinterpreted based on the culture of the people who were reading it? I will never learn about those ideas in church. The challenges of translating the Bible into different languages and trying to keep the intended meaning rather than the exact wording? I will never learn about that in church.
Church is not a place where I can experience genuine emotion. A church service is structured to be a series of communal emotions, triggered mostly through musical cues. The repetition, the chord progressions, the rhythm, the synchronized clapping/movement, the key changes--they are all designed to bring up specific emotions or attitudes such as joy, humility, confidence, and resolve. People say that they experienced God during the church service if they experienced a particularly strong emotion at the "appropriate" time. What they don't realize is that a lot of work went into creating the right conditions for that emotion. The number of hands raised in worship directly correlates to order of songs, the skill of the musicians, and the skill of the sound mixers in the back that day. It seems strange that God needs so much help in emotionally connecting with people.
For me as an introvert, I actively resist feeling or displaying emotions on cue. I used to try. I sat in the dark corner in the back or church and closed my eyes to shut everyone else out. Nothing. I even tried the "fake it till you make it" approach. Nothing. Nothing except guilt over being emotionally out of sync and apparently less spiritually attuned than everyone else.
Church is not a place where I can experience genuine connection with others. There's something about walking through the doors of a church that subconsciously triggers most people to play a role, the role of "Christian in church." There are certain topics that are avoided, certain attitudes that are buried instead of acknowledged, certain spiritualized vocabulary that is preferred, certain styles of clothing that are preferred, and social pressure to act loving even while silently judging people. There is even an art to sharing prayer requests, praying out loud, and praying silently, and there are socially unacceptable ways of doing all of these. It's hard to see the game when you're still in the middle of it, but it exists and it certainly makes real human connection very difficult to achieve.
Churches are often aware of this problem, and desperately want people to feel connected, but their approach is often just to increase the appearance of connection. A prime example of this is the tradition of interrupting the church service with 30 seconds of greeting as many people as possible. In my experience, the "meet and greet" tradition is really more like "meet and greet, awkwardly forget all the names, and then never speak again." I'm sure it works nicely to stop a visitor from saying later, "I went to that church, and no one even spoke to me," but it doesn't do much more than that because it misses the heart of the issue: the desire for inclusion, acceptance, and real relationships.
In my experience, church "connections" do not progress to friendship outside of church, and in my opinion, the main reason for this is the lack of authenticity in the church social scene. Believe me, I have tried really hard to belong in the various churches I've attended regularly, and that effort has required a lot of vulnerability from me as an introvert while providing no benefit. I have spent countless hours attending church services, participating in small group Bible studies, volunteering for church-based ministries, and going to occasional church retreats. Is it just bad luck that in my life today, I do not have a single meaningful relationship that was formed in a church setting?
The worst example of my apparent social failure also happens to be my most recent experience with church. Shortly after my husband and I got married, we started attending a weekly home Bible study of about 12 people. For 18 months, we rarely missed a day, we participated in the discussion, we shared prayer requests (sometimes tearfully), and we made an effort to remember other people's requests and help them when possible. Then, for just one month, we couldn't attend because we were in the middle of buying a home, packing, and moving 15 minutes away. It was slightly disappointing when no one offered to help us move; however, we were both shocked and hurt when not even one person from the Bible study group bothered to rsvp for our open-house party two weeks later, and no one ever contacted us again.
Experiences like that can really damage a person, especially a socially-insecure and introverted person with a lot of church baggage, like me. I would certainly believe that something was seriously wrong with me if it weren't for the meaningful friendships I was able to form with non-Christians at the same time that I was failing with the Christians. And those non-Christian friends have been incredibly generous, patient, kind, supportive, and fun, and they are still an important part of my life today.
Eventually, I realized the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Why was I wasting one of my precious weekend days every week? I spent my Sunday mornings in church, learning nothing, feeling all the wrong feelings, meeting no one. My head was groggy; my back ached; then I came home to spend my Sunday afternoons depressed and far away from God.
After almost a year without church, I got pregnant. My husband and I briefly considered giving church yet another chance in our lives, for the sake of our future child. After all, I thought, "Who will bring casseroles when I have a baby? Isn't that a part of church culture that I want to keep in my life? I've delivered the meals; now it's my turn to receive them." We even tried a few churches, but we just couldn't force ourselves to play that game again.
When our little baby was born, our non-Christian friends celebrated with us and helped us with meals.
I used to feel sad at the thought of my child growing up without a good church community, the kind I always wanted to have. Now, I have trouble with the thought of sending my sweet little boy into Sunday school to learn about truly horrible things that are not appropriate for children. I don't want him to think about human sacrifice, torture, murder, genocide, and God's anger, not even in simplified kid terms. Even the subtle church-culture messages worry me now: I don't want him to get used to the lack of economic, ethnic, and lifestyle diversity; I don't want him to grow up with the idea that Christianity is only done "right" by middle-class white heterosexual Republican families.
I would love to hear from others who have come out of fundamentalism and are raising children with or without God; how are you handling church and religion with your kids?