I don’t go to church anymore. And yes I’m a millennial. And while reading this article I realized just how horrible my spiritual predicament has become. Because nothing in that article applies to me.
The reason I don’t go to church anymore is I can’t. Due to anxiety…and theology.
I know I know. Anxiety, that sounds pretty millennial. And I guess it is but I don’t think millenial “anxiety” is exactly the kind of anxiety I’m talking about.
I was raised overseas as the Children of missionaries. My parents are good people. Sadly like most missionaries they are also deeply troubled people. Emotionally and spiritually troubled.
Without going into the details these ills were passed on to me. And in order to live any kind of “normal” life I will probably need to always be on some kind of meds and probably always be in some kind of therapy. This is no great tragedy. And I honestly think the main reason therapy is ubiquitous in the west is because personal pastoral care seems to have taken a huge nose dive in the last two centuries. And when it is present it’s done with moralism not holy flourishing as its goal.
In any case an MK’s life feels like non stop church. It’s a Total War of religion on your senses. I went to a Christian school K-12. Every semester we had a Bible class. On top of that my father is not only a missionary but a professor. He earned his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. So for as long as I can remember my father was either in Seminary or we were on the “Mission Field.” And if you’ve ever been in Seminary (or really any Grad school) you know that the entire family is in attendance. Seminary especially takes over family life because usually there are no grants or funds. Especially at Evangelical seminaries. So Seminarians with families usually have to work 80 hours a week. Seminary is a full time job and then they have to work another full time job to support their family.
Like I said, my entire life was religious. Everything we did was Christian. Even when it wasn’t very Christian…it was still identified as Christian.
And after I graduated from HS I decided to attend a Christian University. And after that I decided to go to Seminary.
Everything was Christian
So basically until I was almost 30 everything in my life was Christian. And I’m not complaining about all this religion. Every year I see some way in which I was privileged and benefited by this tidal wave of Christianity. But eventually it all came apart. Because of a “church.”
My wife and I had not really found a church to belong to. For the first few years of our Marriage we always went to a Church on Sunday. Except for the occasional Cowboys game, which I still count because of Tom Landry.
And there weren’t any reasons we could give for our lack of belonging. In hind sight my wife and I are both introverted loners so we usually don’t feel like we belong anywhere. Also we didn’t make much of an effort, partially because we’re loner types. We eventually realized that church involvement is a choice. So we picked a very local church and became members. We got very involved. And that involvement led to abuse.
Not the kind of abuse you’re gonna see on The Keepers (which is an excellent show, awful in content but wonderful in execution). In fact a lot of people probably couldn’t experience what happened to us as abuse. Because not everybody struggles with codependency. But I most definitely do. And I had no idea because I had never come across the concept of emotional dependency before.
I now see that’s because my family of origin (FOO) is codependent. My therapist describes it as an undifferentiated ego mass. Basically my FOO is a mess. This is not uncommon amongst families in any kind of ministry. And yes of course everybody has to fight their FOO to some extent (not where the band got their name sadly) but codependent families are particularly hard to deal with because I didn’t think anything was wrong until I was 30. Then all the pieces fell into place.
So because I’m codependent I latched onto one of the Pastors at our church. Bonding with someone is very tricky for codependents. The codependent doesn’t really have their own identity, so they try to get identity from some one else. And it’s easier to accomplish this with someome who has a very strong sense of identity. And no one has a stronger sense of “identity” than a narcissist. Or what maybe even more dangerous the total lack of humanity we find in socio and psychopaths.
Bound to a Psychopath
And so I bound myself to a man who may very well be a sociopath. Maybe I will make the case for that elsewhere, but for now just realize he was disturbed. I found a pathologically manipulative emotionally infantile adult to become my “pastor.”
I didn’t see the emotional abuse because like all abusers they try to hide the truth from their victims. But it happened every time I spoke with this person. It’s really like joining a cult. There’s lots of talk about the “others” and how we’re so open minded, blah blah blech.
In any case some issues came up at the church doctrinally and I attempted to address them privately. And this is when I saw the truth. This is when my pastor took off his mask and showed me that the only thing he cared about was himself. And like most codependents I knew something was wrong, I knew something was off. But it’s like being an addict. You decide not to think about it because you need the thing, whatever it may be.
Without going into the details once I started to see this horrifying truth I set up appropriate boundaries, and really the only appropriate boundaries for any abuser is just separation. And you can’t really belong to a church when you are separated from the pastors. It took about a year but we finally just stopped going. We dropped out of everything and gave up.
We started looking for a new church, but I simply couldn’t do it. All my desire and energy for church was gone and it was replaced with paralyzing anxiety and depression. Sadly I watched this happen to several other of our old church members for basically the same reasons. That church was toxic. But I kept trying to make us go somewhere for church …and I just couldn’t.
Finally I Gave Up
I finally gave up the day I sat outside The Church Chuck Swindoll founded many decades ago, a place I knew I could trust, a big church I could just disappear in if I wanted to…and I could not get out of the car because I was paralyzed by anxiety. I was by myself that day because my wife often has to work weird hours. And I just sat there in the car and finally admitted that something in me had died.
And it wasn’t faith. There’s no issue with my faith. At least not intellectually.
Part of it is stuff like this from the Federalist article I cited above:
“On Sunday mornings when they want to sleep in, my kids sometimes ask why we have to go to Mass. I tell them: To worship God. That’s the primary reason.”
That’s really unbiblical theology. I’m not trying to pick a fight with papists or anglos. I’m a Baptist and I’ve been in every kind of church you can be in, and they all basically believe the same thing. Church is worship.
But that’s false. The word church means a gathering. I call it the expectant eschatological gathering (I think I stole that from Moltman or Pannenberg or some other pretentious German theologian) because it prefigures the millennial reign of the Messiah that is the footstep to the final eternal consummation. The reason it prefigures only and reflects as a mirror darkly the future to come is that the church suffers, but it suffers outside of racial categories. In some ways this is the primary purpose of the church to suffer for the sake of the nations. St. Francis, Padre Pio, & Mother Theresa embody this Pauline idea perfectly. The life poured out for those who are still lost.
In his letter to the church of Colossi Paul wrote:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body — for the sake of his body, the church — what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”
Nothing lacks in the Messiah’s suffering except it’s limitedness in time & space. See this excellent sermon by John Piper for a fuller defense of this concept (starting around minute 23 and on if you’re looking for the exact verses). But it is the very limitedness of Jesus’ sacrifice that actually necessitates and gives purpose to the Eucharist. But Paul is speaking of his sufferings extending the Messiah’s sufferings to all. And he isn’t saying he’s doing this for Evangelism.
He’s doing it for the gathering. He’s serving the gathering with his sufferings. And that is the point of the church.
Paul’s Idea of Community
An expert on this subject Robert Banks wrote:
“One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of ekklesia for his contemporaries, whether Jews or Gentiles, must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to “worship.” Not once in all his writings does he suggest this is the case. Indeed it could not be, for he held a view of “worship” that prevented him from doing so. This is crystallized in his plea at the beginning Rom 12: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And it’s still puzzling to us today. Most Christians are still going to church to placate the God(s) and show them how thankful they are for our blessings. You can do that at home. In fact Yeshua recommends you do it that way:
“But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
But really Paul’s view and Yeshua’s was that true worship is all of life. There is no sacred and secular. You worship God in your every day life. Worship is not cultic ritual based religion for Paul rather it is the cosmic grain of the universe. Go with God’s grain and you worship, go against and you don’t.
So then what is the church?
“The purpose of church is the growth and edification of its members into Christ and into a common life through their God-given ministry to one another.”
In other words you know those lists of spiritual gifts? Those aren’t really technical “gifts” or offices. They’re examples. That’s why they aren’t uniform. Anything you can provide to the other believers at your Yeshua based gathering is a spiritual gift. Food, money, cars, teaching, expertise, dentistry, online publishing, etc these are all ministry.
And the simple fact is that I really believe I cannot provide anything to the gathering anymore. That’s not true because there are loads of simple ways anyone can contribute, but something broke inside me and it was broken by the gathering itself. I still worship God, on my own and with my life. But I had to do what the writer of Hebrews said not to do: “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.” But I think if we look closer it isn’t really saying that it is always sinful to stop attending church. I think the point of this verse is not to try to keep abused and unhealthy persons from leaving for a time. I think the main point is in the first half of the verse: the body is supposed to spur each other on and mutually support and uphold each other. That did not happen at my church. The opposite happened. When we left it was like we had died. No one cared, there was no follow up, no one wondered why we left. It was obvious why we left.
A church failed me, a gathering failed me. But because I have not given up on the verse that comes before those verses I have faith that God will bring me back some day to serve and be served.
“And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy.”
As the song says “till he return or call me home here in the power of Christ” I’ll huddle and cry until in God’s good time I can stand again.
If I leave you with anything in this post I want it to be Jesus’ words:
“I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This verse is more profound than it seems. It’s from Matthew’s Gospel which is the most Jewish of the 4. And the statement is I am. Yahweh means I am.
Yahweh with you always.
The name Immanuel means God with us. That is one of the titles of the Messiah. It means God tabernacles amongst Israel. He is with his people. And this is ultimately accomplished in Yeshua. God is with us always. No matter what. No conditions. His presence is always available and near. And he is not afraid of our tears, or our sins, or our shame. He has despised them all and said come to me as you are.