I don’t know if I expect anybody to read this. It’s probably more for myself than anyone, to try to make some sense of the last 25 years of my life. It sort of draws on that classic genre of Christian literature called ‘spiritual autobiography’, but not exactly that either. Maybe a ‘spiritual but no longer religious autobiography’.
It isn’t the genre of ‘church leaving’ book I’ve become familiar with, where the author/subject grows up in a deeply religious home, usually part of some group that mainstream western culture considers a bit unconventional. It’s not that I escaped my parents’ polygamous religion where I was married off at age 13 as the eighth sister-wife of a man who was old enough to have witnessed the advent of igneous rock. We weren’t part of a church that rejected medical treatment aside from prayer and the ‘remedies’ prescribed by a remote, yet mortal leader. My parents’ marriage was not arranged by an earthly authority and solemnized in a baseball stadium with hundreds of other identically dressed couples who had never met their life partner until they exchanged nuptial vows.
There is nothing salacious or scandalous in my early religious upbringing, and so nothing from which to escape. There is not even massive abuse or misconduct of the predictable kinds involved in my journey out of the church. It’s been a long, slow process of parting ways—and both much easier and much more difficult than I would have thought.
It is, however, a decision—painful, but one that I believe needs to be made with firm resolve and a careful explanation. For that reason, this is sort of like Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It explains how I came into the church to which I dedicated twenty years of my adult life, and why I can no longer continue to relate to that institution in ways that are good for me. What was once the center of my life no longer has a hold on me.
It’s also not a matter of ‘life got busy, with kids and career, and I just don’t have the time for Sunday worship, tons of committees, and activities.’ Church was my life for a long time, and I tried my best to make it my life for the rest of my life. I offered my life to the church in the most authentic way I could, and that offer was largely rejected. When it wasn’t rejected, it was not well-used.
And yet, there is a lot that I think is good about churches, and I would be unhappy to see the world devoid of them. I might even want to visit occasionally throughout the next 50 years of my life. But I think church-as-it-is has stopped being useful to me, and for the time being, it seems as though church-as-it-is is not very welcoming to where I am.
Will I go back? I don’t rule it out, but it will be on different terms. In my early fifties, I am not the same person who was confirmed in my late twenties.
I think the mainstream churches are in desperate need of change, and not the way the ‘congregational development’ and ‘church growth’ experts are claiming. I think the voice of those who, like me, are living with one foot and three toes out the door, is one that institutional religion needs to hear loudly and clearly.
My story is uniquely mine, but I also know I am not alone in this spiritual step. I invite anyone to share some of their own reflections.