I Quit Church — Now I’m Closer to God
My Dad was a church pastor so I grew up in the church system. I attended two services every week for most of my life, and felt guilty when I didn’t. When I do the math in my head, I estimate that I have attended over 4000 church services. That’s a lot of sermons.
But, I’ll level with you.
I reckon that 3990 of those church services made no difference to my life. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many of them, but as for lasting impact and change, and real emotional and spiritual growth well… it’s sad to say, the church didn’t really contribute all that much.
Two years ago, I gave it all up — organized church that is — not my faith in Christ. As I reflect on these past two years, I think there are ten key lessons from my post-church experience that have helped me be able to say today, I think I’m closer to God that I ever have been before. Here is what I have learned:
1. We should not outsource our faith
Often in churches, we defer to the pastor, priest or minister to do our spiritual homework for us. We rely on them to read, interpret and deliver the word of God to us in a form that is both palatable and entertaining each week. They do this with varying degrees of success. Preaching became like the Uber-Eats of Christian faith.
However, Christ came to be the one and only mediator between us and God, enabling us to have complete, unfettered access to the divine. Perhaps we were uncomfortable with this level of freedom and so we reduced the access the general population had to God, by appointing men (yes, usually men) as intermediaries between us an God once more. We go to them for a word, a prayer, spiritual guidance and advice, neglecting the fact that Holy Spirit is given indiscriminately to all who ask. We outsourced our faith. How ironic.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for spiritual leadership, but not at the expense of personal responsibility for one’s own faith. When you walk away from the church, you are forced to engage with the Bible and, indeed, Christ for yourself.
2. God can be found outside the walls
The church likes to draw a line between the secular and the sacred, but I discovered something wonderful when I left the church behind. God can be found almost everywhere. There is a little verse in the book of Ephesians which declares that God is over all and through all and in all. Now that I have de-cluttered my spiritual life, this has become my daily reality.
God is in the gentle breeze as it caresses my face, the sun as it warms my skin, the laughter of my children, the first mouthful of a delicious meal, the stories that people tell, the music that I listen to — even the secular music. The church does not have a monopoly on the sacred. The sacred is all around us and able to be freely accessed by all. It cannot be contained by walls.
3. God can speak through anyone and anything
In the Bible, God spoke to people in many ways. He spoke through the wind, a burning bush and even a talking donkey. Now, if God can use a donkey to deliver his words, I don’t understand why anything or anyone else cannot speak divine truth into your life. At what point did we decide that a person needs a Bachelor of Theology or a Masters of Divinity to deliver divine words of wisdom? Any old ass can do it.
If you listen really closely, you will find the truth speaking to you through many things, and many people. Not only do Christians not have a monopoly on the sacred, they also do not have a monopoly on the truth.
4. Authentic relationships don’t happen in crowds
Churches often like to label themselves as being “like family.” To be fair, it certainly can feel like family at times. However, what I discovered when I finally left is that many of your “brothers and sisters,” never speak to you again. Some of them don’t even notice you’re gone. I’m not suggesting that there is malicious intent behind this — although I wouldn’t rule it out either — but it does go to show that, in reality, most of the relationships we have with church people are friendships of convenience. You are not really friends because of some unbreakable spiritual bond, but more likely because you happen to go to the same building at the same time each week.
It highlights a truth to me. Authentic relationships don’t happen in crowds. Many churches, to their credit, try to run small group networks as part of their ministries but many people slip through the cracks. It is possible to attend a large church for a long time and never form any meaningful relationships. However, I want to be part of a community where your absence is noticed. These days I still gather with other believers — in much smaller groups — where authentic relationships are impossible to avoid. It is my new church.
5. People are made in the image of God
The church loves to define who is “in” and who is “out,” usually by an often unspoken set of behavioral expectations that include things like church attendance, not drinking or cursing too much, putting money in the offering plate and generally being a nice person. I call this, “performance-based religion.” Real transformation is an optional extra, but as long as you exhibit the right behaviors, you’re assumed to be “growing in your faith,” by default anyway.
When you walk away from the church and start making friends with people who are not part of the ‘in crowd,’ you discover something wonderful. You learn that there is inherent value and beauty in people who are not part of the ‘in crowd.’ You discover that you can learn from them as well. You see the image of God imprinted on the life of every human being, not just the elect. In fact, you learn that non-Christians are just a nice as Christians and, in many cases, nicer.
I’ve become friends with people who I might not have otherwise associated with — people of other faiths and people from the LGBTIQ+ community, for example — and they are all lovely people. It’s ironic that even though Christ was happy to be seen with the marginalized, that Christians like to stick to their own kind.
6. Some of the things the church demonized are actually alright
I have a confession to make. I never really drank alcohol until I left the church. I grew up in an environment where drinking alcohol was frowned upon — if not stated explicitly as a sin.
After I left the church, I had a drink with some friends, to drown my sorrows and discovered something amazing. It was not that bad. It didn’t descend into debauchery and needless sinning. The world kept on spinning. Since then, I’ve come to love a social drink with friends and, to be honest, found that it fosters an environment where people are more relaxed, open and honest.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some things that the church vocally opposes that are reasonable enough. However, there are a bunch of other things that the church opposes that have no Biblical precedent or a very loose one at best.
7. Sundays are now a Sabbath
Sabbath is a God-ordained day of rest. It is one of God’s best commands! Take a day off! Have a rest! Put your feet up!
It is ironic then that Christians went and filled it with so much religious activity, that it became downright exhausting. The effort required to drag myself out of bed on a Sunday morning, put on a brave face and try to get three reluctant children ready for a church service that were mildly opposed to attending anyway, was disproportionate the potential reward.
On the other hand, sleeping in on Sunday mornings is good for the soul. Going out for a picnic as a family is unifying and edifying. Catching up with friends for a drink in the afternoon is a glorious conclusion to a fabulous day of rest.
Rest is spiritual and I’m loving having my Sabbath back.
8. I’m free from the stigma
I felt so guilty when a friend at work asked me if I went to church and I said, “No!” Even though this is the truth now, my whole life I was told this was akin to denying your faith — kind of like Peter denying Jesus before the rooster crowed.
However, many people carry unhelpful preconceived ideas about church-going people — a lot of them unhelpful. Bible bashers, flat earthers, Trump-supporters, hypocrites, homophobic, judgmental — I could go on. A lot of these labels are self-inflicted and probably deserved. However, there are plenty of church-going people for whom these labels are manifestly unfair. Still, labels stick.
When you do not go to church, you are free from the stigma of these labels. In fact, people are kind of fascinated by the idea that you could be a believer and not go to church. When you tell people the reasons why you left the church, along with the reasons why you won’t leave the faith, it is a powerful combination. This leads me to my next point.
9. I’m helping others rediscover their faith
I have discovered that there are many people like me — former church attendees. In fact, according to Barna, most people in the USA who call themselves Christians, no longer regularly attend church. It makes me sad that many people cannot see that the problem is not with Christ, but with those who purport to represent him. They have thrown out the baby (Jesus) with the bathwater, in a sense.
I want people to see that it is possible to have a faith in Christ, without being part of organized religion. I started a podcast for people who have faith, but don’t go to church, and I was amazed at some of the messaged I received from people. Here is one example:
I hear the same story over and over again. So many people have a faith in Christ but struggle with the institutionalized church. Helping people who have this struggle is a joy for me.
10. I am healing from the hurt
I don’t think the church did it on purpose, but I am deeply wounded from my long association with the institutionalized church. I know I am not the only one. All those years of struggling and striving to somehow evoke the blessing of God over my life by behaving and performing in particular ways, took its toll on me: The decades of putting on a brave face, a forced smile and a thin veneer and niceness, just to mask the brokenness inside. I wanted to believe in a God who indiscriminately loves me and accepts me for who I am, but the underlying message of the church seemed to be, “You are a wicked sinner and you need to get better.”
Now that I am free from the burden of performance-based religion, I am learning to embrace a far greater truth. I am a beloved child of God — no strings attached. I do not require my own children to perform to me. I would rather them come to me in honesty. When they stuff up, I am angry for the briefest of moments. Then the anger is engulfed in love. I am only human, yet loving my children is mostly effortless. How much more so for God?
Will I ever go back?
There is a quote, commonly attribute to St Augustine, that says, “The church is a whore but she is still my mother.” This is how I feel. In spite of all the pain and all the hurt, I won’t disown the church completely. The Church raised me from childhood. She did teach me many things. In many respects, She did her best.
But, I cannot stomach the church as it is. It needs to change and I’m determined to be part of that change. I am exploring new ways of doing church mainly centered around the idea that the real church does not need buildings, political leadership structures or priests to mediate between us and God. It just needs genuine people who simply love other people, and love God a little bit, would love to love Him more. That sounds more like a church that I want to be a part of.