All the Ways Christian Education and the Church Have Failed Me
I’ve held this in for so long. Now let’s talk.
Spirituality and I have never harmoniously gotten along. Religion and spirituality have practically covered every single part of my childhood, adolescence and even most of my current adulthood. And yet, despite that church has been something I almost completely avoid. I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to go to those Christian marriage groups. I don’t want to go to Bible study and I don’t like discussing my beliefs with people who do. Based on my 20 plus years worth of experiences in religion, there’s not much anyone can say to me that would make me excited much less want to go back to church. I realize that everything I’m about to say may hurt or offend or even cause “the Lord to speak to you to reach out” to me, but please bear in mind these are my experiences and my personal opinions. I don’t want anyone to try to explain them away or make excuses for the behaviors of the individuals mentioned. Any attempts to do so will be politely ignored. That being said here are the ways that Christian education has failed me.
It Put the Fear of God in Me
When I was growing up, I went to a Baptist school near my house. It’s the place where I was exposed to religion. It’s also the place where I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. The reason why I did? I was afraid to go to Hell. I remember that day, too. I was in preschool. All the kids were sitting on the floor listening to our teacher, Mrs. Burney, use a green felt board to show us, with little paper cut outs of Jesus and the Devil, how He died for our sins and we needed to repent in order to be with him in Heaven. Otherwise, we would go to Hell where there were eternal fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth. After I found out what gnashing meant, I was horrified. I didn’t want to go to Hell. I wanted to be in Heaven with my family. So that night as I was going to bed, I asked my mom if she could help me ask Jesus into my heart so I don’t have to go to Hell. After we said the prayer together, I felt as though a spirit had actually gone inside me. After that, I thought I was set. I remember going to sleep and that was it, right? Not quite.
Though I don’t remember if this was something told to me directly or not, I remember, very distinctly, a moment when I was about five years old. I was trying to read the Bible outside of school since Pastor Smith had taught us we should read but not just because we had to in school. So I tried doing just that. I can’t recall what I read but I remember the message I got from it: God is always watching you. He knows every thought you have and will ever think. He knows about everything you do and everything you will ever do. Everything. I cannot tell you how terrified I was in that moment. I can feel myself shaking as I type this. Did God watch me all the time? Even when I was alone? He knew about everything I thought? Even the bad ones? And He had the power to punish me? After that, I tried not to think of anything. I tried to pretend God didn’t exist. If I didn’t believe He existed, then maybe He would stop following me around to try to get me in trouble for my own thoughts. This series of “logic” followed me for a very long time. It set the stage for me to think of God as this terrifying authoritarian being in the sky that was just waiting to punish me. And even when I heard differently from the other teachers, I didn’t believe them. None of it made sense to me and I thought they were inconsistent.
It Encouraged the Notion that I Can’t Truly be Myself
Stemming from my paralyzing fear of an all powerful God who gave His Son for me so I had better listen to Him, an idea formed. If God could see me, hear me and read my thoughts, I would give Him fake things to read. If anyone asked me a question, I would give them answers I thought God wanted to hear. I was extra nice to people because I thought God would want me to be nice. He would never know what I actually thought of everyone, what I actually wanted to say or anything else. So I put on an act. I figured this would be the perfect plan to get God off my back. If He saw I was doing good, maybe He would leave me alone but still let me into Heaven. As laughable as this is, even to me now, I stuck with this idea for quite some time as a kid. The idea to ever truly be myself was too dangerous for me to try out. So the real Johanie went into hiding for good.
But that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t able to be myself. As anyone who has grown up in a church is bound to recognize, they aren’t exactly too keen on any ideas that aren’t backed by the Bible. It’s also not the most accepting of ideas that criticize God, Jesus, the people in the Bible or really anything about the church. There’s very much a “this is the way things are” mentality. As someone who likes to analyze what I see and hear, this was very challenging for me. For the most part, I can float from day to day without really paying much attention to the logistics. I mean, who can honestly analyze every single thing? But when I did find something I disagreed with and either expressed it in my assignments or to a teacher or even a fellow peer, I rarely felt that what I said was being heard and understood. Or if it was, I got lectured into changing my opinion. As a result, I learned not to express what I really thought. If you don’t know what a person truly believes, you don’t truly know who they are. I’m still like that to this day.
The Church Confused Me
A lot of the confusion I had and sometimes still do have is both with the message of the Christian church and the behavior. The message that a lot of churches would like to put out is that everyone is welcomed no matter who you are or what you do. But, as I’m sure many people who have given the church a chance in the past know, that’s not really the case at all. Most churches are homogeneous in appearance and, arguably, in nature. Everyone believes the same thing. Everyone looks the same. Everyone says the same things. There’s very much this sense of if you disagree with the norm, you will stand out. As I got older and learned through inductive Bible studies, the writers of the Bible were all very different people. The gospels, for instance, have Matthew who was a tax collector. Mark was just a teenager when he started following Jesus. Luke was a physician. John, the one Jesus loved, was a fisherman. Yet with all these differences, they all believed in the same man and essentially all preached the same message. I still find that astonishing. If that’s how Jesus’ followers used to be, I didn’t understand why, in my church, they all seemed the same.
Not only did it baffle me that everyone seemed the same, but they also didn’t seem very consistent. A lot of my peers would go sing worship in front of everyone in school praising God but then in class would put pubic hairs in people’s water bottles. They would come across as so nice and sweet on stage but once they stepped down, they were snooty and rude. Or some in the audience were the first to raise their hands but after chapel, they would brag about their carnality and debauchery. Not just my peers, teachers too. I understand we can’t all be nice and sweet all of the time, but when you are one way on stage and another way off, there’s a serious problem. What I never understood about this is the continuous choice to live a lie. If you didn’t take what you were preaching about or singing about seriously, then why do it? And on top of that, why judge other people? None of it made sense to me.
Christian Educators Meddled in My Relationship but Had No Effect in Helping It
Nathan, currently my husband, was once my very first boyfriend. He and I were each other’s first everything. First relationships can be awkward, confusing and especially exciting. So in such a fragile and impressionable state, all Nathan and I needed, if anything, was support and openness from the adults around us. But more specifically, the adults that claimed to care about us. Near the genesis of our relationship, I was picking my brother up from Sunday school. His then teacher, Mr. Linenberger, who didn’t even know me, came up to me and asked me why I was dating Nathan. I remember being really annoyed and confused as to why he would ask me that. I was never even his student. So with a vague but honest answer, I said: “Because he’s nice?” Mr. Linenberger nodded his head and said “Yeah, he’s nice. What else?” By this point, I was getting really frustrated because I didn’t see why I needed to justify my relationship to him. I ended up saying “Because he listens to me?” This man actually followed me and kept asking “Why else?” I had had it at this point and I called over my shoulders “My parents are waiting. Gotta go!” I will never forget that experience. It was completely inappropriate and none of his business who I was dating. I was angered even more when I found out he didn’t ask Nathan anything.
I wish I could say this was the last instance I was questioned by someone. It certainly was not. Another incident happened one day when Nathan and I were sitting outside of the school’s cafe. Two of the ladies from the church joined us. After some talking, Nathan went inside to buy me a grilled cheese sandwich, as he always did. Then one of the ladies, Annika, turned to me with a surprising amount of sass and said: “Why are you with him?” I was caught off guard by her question and actually felt the need to explain myself to her. I think it had something to do with how aggressively she asked me. I didn’t like Annika anymore after that. No one had ever asked Nathan why he was with me. This is something that had angered me for so long. To this day, I don’t and will probably never understand why so many people felt entitled to my private relationship. Why so many church members so rudely demanded details that were not theirs to know. And when they did find out they kept calling it a “friendship.” I’m pretty sure you don’t write romantic poetry about your friends.
The last and final instance came from my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Lynn. In a petty attempt to separate Nathan and me, someone from that class told Mrs. Lynn we were holding hands in class and that it was “distracting.” Mind you we sat in the back of the left side of the room so the only people who were most likely “distracted” were people who sat directly across from us. And, from what I can recall, they weren’t the type of people to get easily distracted by something as innocent as holding hands. Regardless, she called me in for lunch one day and told me that Nathan wasn’t really a good guy. He didn’t do his school work and didn’t pay attention much in class and other things I already knew. She then told me “I’m not calling him a loser, but-” and proceeded to describe how much of an irresponsible and lazy person Nathan was a.k.a. a loser. She was telling me this because “the person living in the house may be blind but the neighbors ain’t.” Her words. I remember sitting there trying to see why in God’s name she was telling me all this as if she was entitled to lecture me, a girl she knew nothing about on a relationship she knew nothing about. After she spoke to me, she spoke to Nathan and basically told him the same things which he completely ignored. Both of us did.
I understand why she felt she needed to say something to me. I can understand why everyone felt like they had a right to my life based on the culture in the church. But I want to say this now and be done with it. If any of you are reading this, your behavior was completely unacceptable. It was none of your concern who I decided to involve myself with back then and it still isn’t now. I only wish I would have told all of you this to your faces when I had the chance.
The Church Policed My Sexuality
This is a bit of a three part problem. First let me say when Nathan and I were in high school, he was a very handsy boy. He was and still is a fan of PDA and I had to tell him many times that I wasn’t comfortable with that. He tried to adhere to my wishes as best he could, but he wasn’t always very good at it. And, of course, I participated in it as well. Or at the very least I would let him carry on with his behavior to a degree. He was my first boyfriend after all and I wasn’t totally sure what I was doing. So the next step the church took was, in my opinion, the right thing but what they said to me wasn’t. As a result, I got called into the principal’s office to get a talking to. Who I ended up talking to was one of the pastor’s wives. She told me that the reason I was being called in was because Nathan and I were too affectionate in the cafe and it was making the workers uncomfortable. Totally understandable. She then went into a Biblical discussion about how Adam didn’t save Eve. Eve saved Adam from loneliness and she was his helper. Ipso facto, the woman has to save the man from…temptation, I guess? That part wasn’t very clear. I took in everything she said because I thought we had done wrong. And after some time away from her I realized she was basically telling me I needed to save Nathan from ungodly temptations. I was the one who needed to remind him of the scriptures. In other words, I was responsible for what he was doing. I, unfairly, carried that responsibility for some time before I realized how stupid and nonsensical it was.
There was another woman who did something similar but in such a rude and unChristian way: Mrs. Garcia. I don’t know what this woman had against us but I remember almost exactly when it happened. We were on a mission trip to L.A. to help out the homeless along with other people. Mrs. Garcia was our adult supervisor who, in a moment of coolness, took us to the this really cool train station downtown. Nathan and I were in the same group and as we were running through the train station like in the movies, he held my hand and we ran together. The next day I showed up for this trip, Nathan and I stood together because I thought we were in the same group as the day before. In front of everyone, Mrs. Garcia loudly and obnoxiously said she was separating us because we were too touchy. Not only was it so rude it was also tacky. She could have just as easily done the same thing without being such a jerk about it. Ever since then she randomly appeared wherever Nathan and I were “catching us” doing something wrong. Once she even told us that God must have been bringing her around us to tell us to stop. What did we do to cause her to say that? Nathan and I were sitting next to each other, facing opposite directions with our arms linked. God must have been real upset with me. She really should have been less worried about someone else’s kids and more worried about her own.
They Told Me to Save Myself for Marriage but Didn’t Prepare Me For It
I don’t know what it is about Christians and marriage but everyone is all aspiring towards finding that perfect person God has set aside for them. And Christian educators are big on pushing that agenda. I’m not against it by any means but where the fatal flaw lies is to save yourself for marriage and to be “pure” and have “pure thoughts” until marriage yet no one ever teaches the ins and outs of a successful marriage. Some of those including communication not only with God but with each other, learning how to argue, feeling safe to be oneself with the other person, learning how to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than what you are hearing and, of course, sex. The other components are more or less touched on in most sermons but sex is something almost completely avoided or only talked about with respect to the consequences. My sex education in high school was only taught in the biological sense with one day being dedicated to sex from a “real woman’s” perspective. Everything else and I mean everything else was about saving yourself for marriage. Being pure physically and mentally so don’t give in to those sexual thoughts you have and focus on the Lord. For lack of a better explanation, I tried to be as sexually pure as possible. I didn’t masturbate and whatever thoughts I did have on sex or whatever feelings that came up, I tried my best to ignore. So then my wedding night came and I thought, “Oh, boy. This is it. Finally, I get to experience what everyone was talking about.” But…my wedding night was not nearly the amazing and sacred and special night that all those chapels and all those pastors and all those teachers promised. In fact, I was disappointed at just how big of a lie I believed for so long. I was told all I had to do was wait and I would get my reward. Well, I did wait and my reward was the most bitter feeling of disappointment and betrayal. I remember crying several nights after the wedding night because I felt stupid. Why wasn’t sex going as smoothly as I thought it would? Why weren’t our nights filled with marital bliss like everyone said they would be when this moment finally came? I kept saying to Nathan “Why didn’t they tell us what it’s really like?”
My current relationship and sex life with my husband are wonderful. Not to say we haven’t had our ups and downs because we have. But the journey on how we got there had nothing to do with what church or our schools taught us. I do believe that God put us together and I genuinely think that because of God we have stayed together and learned to work through our differences. I am severely disappointed that an institution that claims to have the best interest of the children they oversee wouldn’t have honest conversations about something so important. Marriage was something I only heard about in the adult chapels which, if you’re going to tell teenagers to wait until marriage to have sex then why can’t we talk about sex in marriage? Why couldn’t those teachers tell me about what the wedding night would actually be like or what the first year of marriage would be like honestly? They sold us and other kids who actually listened to all the purity stuff a lie and they continue to do that. May I also say, all the tools my husband and I use to get over arguments did not come from anything we learned in school. It came from being in a relationship together. It came from experience and counseling. Non-Christian counseling, mind you. The very counseling we were warned about.
They Showed Me a Hyper Unrealistic View of the World
In school, in class, in the church, I remember hearing about “the world”. For anyone who doesn’t know, that means everyone who isn’t a Christian. Christians (American Christians to be specific) seem to have a big problem with the world. The world is portrayed as this very scary horrible place where people will crucify you for your beliefs. People will try to change your mind and make you do evil things that you don’t really wanna do so you have to hold fast to everything you’ve been taught. Better yet, don’t even associate yourself with these people. Only be surrounded by like minded people because “bad company company corrupts good morals” and so on. There’s a clause to this, however, you can hang out with people who aren’t Christian but you should always be trying to teach them about Jesus. You don’t really love them unless you’re trying to save them. Well, I believed all of this my whole life and I’m not trying to shame anyone if this is still what they believe. What I am saying is, this, based off of my experience, is a gross misrepresentation of what the world is actually like.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not this worldly girl who has traveled a lot and is some sort of mage. But a singular particular experience really made me see things through a different lens. When I was in college, my vacation days were different than my best friend Jessica’s. So one day I asked if I could visit her college. She said yes and I was elated. I’d finally get to see a secular college. (a word I kept using and she had to ask me “What does secular mean?”) She had been to my school. Hell, we had grown up in the same elementary school so I knew she would be familiar with a Christian school. But what I was in for was a completely different experience. Not only was her campus so much bigger than mine, the people there were so different. Immediately, I could feel a difference just in the atmosphere alone. Everyone at her college was so real. That’s all I kept saying. “The people here are real! They’re not trying to impress anybody. Everybody is just being themselves.” I couldn’t believe it. I asked her about what they taught about religion and she told me Christianity was taught in addition to all of them. There was no religion that was favored over the other. And those classes weren’t even mandatory but major specific. I felt like my brain had been busted open. A place where no one cared what you believed, let you be yourself and even explore other religions without judgment? What was this? When I returned to my own college, I was disappointed to just how different it was from the experience I just had. That was the first time I wished I had chosen instead to go to a school like Jessica’s.
From there I slowly became interested in diversity. What do other people believe in? How do other people interact with the world around them? What did people think of Christianity? I started reading and watching things that talked about Christianity from a different perspective and came to find that a lot of people had the same problems with Christian education and teachings as I had. Not only that, they made interesting points about the flaws in Christian doctrine that I never questioned or even noticed. I remember once when I was in a Christian Worldview class my teacher Mr. Jahnkow made us write in journals that he would read and grade. In one of the entries, I gave some of my honest opinion, something I rarely did without shrouding it in either lies or vague truths. I said that sometimes I’d like to be an atheist for a while just to see what it would be like. He wrote in my journal that those were dangerous thoughts and to be careful. I remember being disappointed and annoyed because yet again when I give my honest opinion. It’s never understood or even discussed. Now, however, I’m sort of taking on that role. I didn’t like the idea of a faith being so weak that just hanging out with someone else of opposing faith could cause you to abandon your original faith. I think being around people of different beliefs, as frustrating and annoying as it is, can be a very good thing. Instead of always preaching to other people why they should believe what I believe, why couldn’t I just hear them out and asses both beliefs? How can a seed become a plant if the roots never have to struggle to get out of the shell? Just as the church criticizes people for just doing what the culture demands without ever asking “is there more?” the church should accept criticism because they do the same.
Spirituality and religion are still things I’m trying to figure out. I have wanted, for such a long time, to be the perfect Christian girl while also struggling to have opposing opinions about the faith. The church isn’t perfect. I know that. The individuals mentioned aren’t perfect. Despite this, the church has given me some really wonderful gifts that I cherish to this day. I cherish the belief in a God, my husband, who I wouldn’t have met if we both didn’t go to the same Christian school, my friends that have come out of those places and for keeping me out of trouble. I am grateful for that. As angry as I am with the church and my schools for their misdeeds I understand and know that these people wouldn’t have pushed these beliefs so hard if they didn’t think what they were saying was true and in the best interest of all involved. I’m just here to tell you it’s not always that the youth are being stolen away by the temptations of the secular world but perhaps by the torment of such a rigid system of beliefs.