To all of my Christian friends, old pastors, respected mentors, leaders, teachers, and role models,
I am no longer a member of the Christian faith.
For many of you, I’m sure this comes as no surprise, as you’ve watched my journey away from my old faith with great grace and compassion. For some, this may be a more of a shock. After all, I’m only two years removed from being a zealous youth group kid who listened to Hillsong and attended every church event I could.
But it’s important for me to communicate my story now that I’ve fully processed the damage that the Church had ingrained in me since my early adolescence.
I started going to church regularly in the period right after my parents divorced; I was frequently bullied at school for my weight and my home life was often unbearable. Church was the only place where I was welcomed and received as an equal and quickly I made friends and gained a great deal of love and acceptance that I had craved for a long time. Church made me feel good. Worship made me feel good. Community made me feel good. For a long time, I credited this feeling to Jesus’ divine presence being made known tangibly, viscerally in my very life and dedicated my time and my energy to seeking this presence in all of the ways church taught me to seek it.
I soon didn’t know who I was without this feeling and I began to hate myself when I would put effort towards anything that wasn’t the pursuit of holiness. A middle school friend of mine told me that every time I sinned, God had to kill Jesus all over again, and my 12 year old self would sit in his bed at night and think about all the times that he had killed Christ that day, and despise his own existence because of it. The kids at school bullied me because I was fat, and I bullied myself because I wasn’t sinless.
In many ways I had an addiction. I was addicted to the condemnation of my own body, of my own heart that I thought came from God and I was also addicted to the self-righteousness that came from being a part of a community that told me I was special and chosen by God, and therefore superior to all of my classmates at school that didn’t have my drive for Godliness.
My junior year of high school, I had an English teacher that completely changed my life. She was openly atheist (ooooo scandalous), but cared for human beings in a way that I had not been exposed to before. In her class, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander about the horrors of mass incarceration; I read Coates’ Between the World and Me and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. My teacher and the discussions with my classmates awoke me to my own privilege as a Christian straight white male in a middle-class home and vastly broadened my worldview. For the first time in my life, I was finding truth outside of what my church was preaching on Sunday mornings. I felt very deeply that social justice was one of, if not the, main point of Jesus’ message. I was very affected by my own encounters with the stories and experiences of human suffering, and my views started to change. It no longer mattered to me what the Bible said, I saw in my own life the beauty and validity of people whose sexualities, genders, incomes, and skin colors were different than my own. Their stories and struggles were far more real and immediate than anything written in a book 2,000 years ago.
My church did not see it this way. I remember telling a youth group leader that I was a feminist and him laughing at me. I remember coming in to church one morning after watching the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting and feeling outraged and defeated at the 49 massacred members of the LGTBQ community, only to be greeted by American flags and our worship leader in cutoff blue jeans and cowboy boots singing God Bless the USA. I remember debating my youth pastor as to why LGBTQ people weren’t fully affirmed at our church, to which after some time he said “because Pastor says so.” No Biblical truth there, no verse. Just “because our pastor says so.”
My first approach to this dissonance that I felt was to use whatever privilege and platform I had to make some small change from the inside. My experience had been that the fundamental ground of this faith I was apart of was love and acceptance, because that I was felt before I believed in any of the theological tenets. I also thought that this love and acceptance I had been gifted for so long would continue, even if my faith in Jesus looked a little different from the mainstream view of my church.
This was not the case. Somewhere along the way, I realized that people weren’t talking to me like they used to. People in the youth group weren’t looking to me for leadership in the ways I thought I was worthy of. My efforts weren’t doing anything but pushing myself further and further away. The message I got instead was that the love and acceptance I received was conditioned on my theological uniformity with the rest of the church, a theology that I had already seen to be circumspect.
So I chose to leave the church, but importantly not the faith. Because my Christianity was the only thing that defined me, I needed to stay a Christian; I just had to find a new flavor. Progressive Evangelicalism worked for a bit. Progressive Christianity was a little better. Mystical Christianity worked best, but as soon I entered college, all of the strength I had to fight the system was drained. I was lost.
The brand of evangelical christianity I was raised in at its best does have beauty and does offer something good to the world. But more often than not, the forces of white supremacy, authoritarianism, sexism, sex shame, and homophobia compete to strangle any sort of freedom that people might feel from the gospel, and it chewed me up, spit me out, rejected me, and broke me.
I have worked hard these last two years to process the intense feelings of shame, guilt, self-hatred, and hypocrisy that the church left me with, and I am proud of the ways I’ve changed and the person that I’ve become. Leaving Christianity was almost as traumatic as staying in it, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I am so much more open, loving, and tolerant without the weight of the label of Christian dangling around my neck. My spiritual life now is rewarding and vibrant, and my personal identity is first and foremost focused on self-love. And without the fear of punishment or hell, I’ve encountered fullness and beauty in ways I could never have imagined.
I want to say that I do not write this with any sort of malice or anger towards the church or anybody in it who is part of my story. I do not write this because I want to make waves or call attention to myself. I do not write this because I’m still, in any way, invested in changing the church. I have long resigned myself to the fact that the systematic structures of the church that create suffering are far too strong for me to fight against.
I write this because I want someone who reads it to realize that their feelings of pain and trauma are valid. If you read this, and you’re struggling in the same ways I am, reach out to me. I’m here for you.
One final note: my journey has been hard, but my privilege as a straight white male in the church made it easier. My queer friends and my non-binary friends had it so much harder than me and suffered pain that I will never know. If you are still in the church, and this affects you in any way, my wish is that you would love, affirm, and learn from the strength of those whose lives and identities don’t look like yours.
Thank you for reading and farewell to my former faith.