People in America are leaving Evangelical Fundamentalist Christianity in droves. Many are recording their stories and sharing them with #EmptyThePews to make a statement about how toxic the Church was for them.
Those who don’t get it (and who often spend time and energy trying to cover up abuse in the church and gaslighting those who experience abuse) blame it on our weak relationships to God, our undying love for sin, the incredibly tempting fallen world they’re so afraid of…
But honestly? We just don’t buy into the bullshit anymore.
Brené Brown says that “Faith without vulnerability creates extremism. Spirituality is inherently vulnerable. It’s believing in things we don’t fully understand and can’t see.”
I think the church has been in a perpetual vulnerability crisis for a very long time. They try to throw small groups and pancake breakfasts and camping trips at it, but it’s not going to make a difference.
Here’s why: To thrive, the Church depends on a delicate balance between the illusion that they can help you achieve a perfect life and reminders about your state of utter brokenness. It’s a marketing tactic as old as time. They sell you on the idea that you have a problem so they can sell you their solution.
But actual vulnerability, which is completely essential to have any semblance of community, is too messy. Not only does it make us uncomfortable, because it makes us face our own shortcomings and insecurities, it’s impossible to gain huge amounts of influence and make millions of dollars when people are being messy and real in your congregation. (And I openly challenge any reader of this article to show me a place that disproves that.)
So instead they say:
“Conform. Then we’ll love you.”
“Change. Then we’ll accept you.”
“Submit. Then we’ll value you.”
“Serve. Then we’ll let you speak.”
“Stop asking questions. Then we’ll let you lead.”
They try to force you into the Christian Lifestyle the moment you join. The push to perform is ever-present. If you’re lucky, you’ve got maybe 6-12 months to work out your shit and ask questions after you get saved and after that you’re expected to perform. It actually doesn’t matter if you look anything like Jesus as long as you look like you’re “living the Christian life” – which you’d think would be praying, reading your bible, and evangelizing… but in reality it just means showing up to church fairly often, speaking the local Christianese, and posting cute pictures of yourself and your boy/girlfriend or your spouse on social media with bible verses or vague ramblings about how blessed you are and how good God is.
And if they catch you slipping up, if they catch you truly questioning whether the bible is the Word of God, whether Jesus was actually God in the flesh, whether God gives a flying fuck if you have sex before marriage, or whether hell is a real place, they’ll eat you alive. (Or if you’re lucky, they’ll suddenly ghost on you and never speak to you again, even if you reach out to connect with them.)
This brand of Christianity has become an a thinly veiled capitalistic empire and I believe the entire framework of it is broken beyond repair.
We have been told to give our money, our time, our entire selves and identities up for a Church that refuses to call us family unless we change.
We are too insecure, too queer, too old, too poor, too ugly, too needy, too mentally ill… We’re not white enough, not middle-class enough, not straight enough, not submissive or assertive enough, not attractive or talented or young or fun enough…
Have you ever wondered why it’s so easy for them to disqualify us?
Because it’s extremely important that the Church keeps up the illusion that they’re doing good so they can keep profiting from our ignorance.
And if you’re really going to do that well, you’ve got to weed out all the people who want to show up and be a part of your community that make you look bad. So rather than lift up the broken and help the needy, they invite and promote the people who are really good at pretending they’ve got their shit together. The pretty, young, white, married straight couples with cute kids. The kinds of people who don’t make you uncomfortable when you see them on stage, or when they sit next to you on a Sunday morning. The kinds of people who, even in private small group settings, will dutifully shut down anyone who questions the Church or the Bible too much with a fake smile as they shift uncomfortably in their seats.
People who will willing submit themselves to a system that lets a few people who are nearly all middle-aged, heterosexual, cisgender, white men make millions, unchallenged, while claiming tax-exempt status and pretending that they’re successful because God favours them.
That pretends they are not simply running a business in which they profit off of people’s fears and need to feel good about themselves.
That guilt trips people into donating to these businesses, in addition to buying their products…lining their pockets while they claim they’re just “doing the work of the Lord”.
That gives leaders the audacity to claim that their wealth and status are a direct implication of their authority on the identity and character of God.
And that quietly suggests that these wealthy celebrities desperately need your money and your time. That you couldn’t possibly invest it in a better way than by giving it to these God-ordained leaders because they know what’s best.
It asks that you give everything you have to the one at the top who is already too famous to ever have time to speak to you, and whose employees and volunteers are tired of being faced with hordes of needy people they aren’t equipped to help apart from an empty prayer and meaningless platitudes that “it’ll get better if you just believe”.
They pretend that when they say “give all you have!” it’s an invitation to serve God and your community… not to simply build the head pastor a bigger house and a fancier church building with flashier lights and a more expensive sound system so they can continue their circle-jerk instead of offering genuine help to people.
And we’re over it.
Does this church do some good in the world? Of course. But the good does not erase the bad.
We’re done with the perpetual bait and switch, where the carrot is always held out just a little farther in front of your face. We have realized that a far more accurate message from the Church when we landed on their doorstep would have been:
“All are welcome…to give us far more than we will ever give you in return.”
And now we’re here. Outside the four walls of the church. Unsure of how to interact with the real world much of the time because we’ve been so incredibly insulated from it for so long. And we’re doing what many of us call “deconstructing”. We’re confronting the fact that we were deceived. No matter how much we gave, no matter how many times we let the church treat us like doormats, we were never going to get anything remotely comparable in return.
I’ve read that “there is only one language that people in broken systems understand, and that is power. The only way to successfully deal with a broken system is to walk away from it. It cannot be fixed from the inside by anybody but the system’s controllers and architects, and they by definition do not want to lose a single bit of the power they’ve clawed out for themselves.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve/2017/08/27/why-emptythepews-important/)
Many of us have turned our backs on the Church, or even God, because the pain is so great that for our own health we need to step away.
Others, like me, are driven to see this Empire dismantled, and have healed enough that on our good days we are ready to do something about it.
Do I believe a phoenix can rise from the ashes of the Church? Something that looks remotely like Jesus? Perhaps.
Should it? I’m honestly not sure.
Author’s note: I’m sure this critique could be equally applied to a number of other organized religions. Institutionalized religion seems to do more harm than good across the board. I’m focusing on Christianity because my experience with it is so deeply personal. Not just because of my direct experience but that of hundreds, if not thousands of friends and acquaintances who’ve been abused, manipulated, neglected, and betrayed by the church.
Beck Hanan is a super queer Jack of all Trades frequently trying to become a master of some. He desperately needs variety in his life…so he spends the majority of his time running or helping manage a smattering of companies, websites, blogs and facebook pages that are all quite different from each other.
He is passionate about advocating for people of colour, the LGBTQIA+ community, and women, among a variety of other marginalized and oppressed people groups, in ways that help push the conversation forward, though at times he is guilty of publishing angry rants on Facebook that he later wishes he’d sat on for longer before deciding to post them.
He is in the middle of a massive spiritual and religious deconstruction and identifies as an atheist, an agnostic, and a progressive Christian most days, often simultaneously. He lives in the Portland, OR area with his lovely wife Bre and their fluffy toy poodle Charles Wallace.
judith powell says
I love your article and so happy that there is a new freedom and concept of the God of Love emerging for us; albeit for you personally it has been through so much pain and attack. Although it has brought you such clarity and liberation and courage to speak out. I am also being liberated and freed to see the God of Love and the reality of who and what Jesus is teaching us. I first loved Jesus in the 1970s when I was ‘trying to be’ a health food, spiritual, guru but in reality was a drug and sex addicted hippy. What a mess I was in. Way back then, thank God, I found a booklet in a health food (not a Christian) shop about Jesus and who and how much he loved, and I fell in love with him for ever through that wonderful little booklet. I had no church upbringing apart from my Dad taking us to church occasionally after his Sunday pint of beer. Years later, having dragged my little boy through the dark world I was caught in, drunk, stoned, beatings, being strangled and raped by a ‘lover’ , going down a dark tunnel to die but somehow he took his hand off my neck just in time, my eyes had come out of my head. I can’t tell you how bad it all was, living in London squats, dealing drugs, dying over men leaving me, watching my asthmatic little boy suffer and aching to be far better for him. I was looking for (more) heroin when a Jehovah Witness friend told me to pray to God through Jesus (unheard of ) and I prayed all through that night, to God through Jesus, and my heart got touched all night by golden warmth, like heroin touches, but God gave me the real thing and I knew without doubt it was real. It took a long time, 15 years, to finally get drug free but Jesus was with me all that time, me and him alone, telling me to ‘give up my drugs and he would give me back my life’ I heard this message loud and clear. Finally got into Narcotics Anonymous and invited to a Pentecostal church in London, Kensington Temple. A few of us from NA went there and they kept saying ‘you are no longer an addict’. Our friend John was longing to hear that so he could use again and he died. We never took NA friends to church after that, but 2 or 3 of us stayed. Over another 15 or so years I began to realise that I felt so condemned in church and eventually left. I came to live in France and looked for other Christians, heard their anti homosexual message and left immediately. My friend gave me Rob Bell, Love Wins, and I realised that something wonderful and liberating was happening. I stood up for Rob’s book on the internet and got attacked by other Christians who told me I was a heretic ! with Rob Bell. I am so happy to believe what he believes and am finding more and more people who speak out for God’s Love: Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer among others. Seen the documentary ‘Hell Bound’ where it is so clear who stands for what. Thank God for this wonderful liberation and thank you for sharing yours it is so exciting, hopeful and reassuring to feel so surrounded by this Love. My name is Judith x
Aren’t you glad Christianity is a personal relationship and notg works. That’s what we bring to unite in unity u dear our one true God.
I’m glad that God loves everyone and will forgive all who place their faith in His son Jesus Christ. I’ll be praying for you.
Jeffrey Harlan says
While you have made some valid points, you paint with a broad brush. I pastor a church full of messy people, me being the chief of messiness. But my congregation in unlike most in that not only do we admit that we’re a mess, we embrace it and realize that we are all a work in progress.
We also realize that God desires us to not just occupy a building on Sunday morning, but to go beyond our walls and reach out to those who are addicted, homeless, hurtling and broken.
As a pastor, I teach the truth of Scripture but always emphasizing that while we are expected to live in accordance to God’s word, we are to never be on a religious high ground that is too high for anyone that doesn’t believe.
I believe in the church, but I believe that the church in general is not what Jesus intended.
Jill Pittman says
I am so happy to find this blog. For years I thought I was the only one who saw this whole system as a game that could only be won by the false. I spent 20 years of my life trying to please the evangelical God, only to be rejected because I ceased to do everything that the pastors wife told me. I was told that because I was a woman I needed to turn over all financial duties to my husband (which I didn’t). My bipolar son was told he was “child of the devil.” I contemplated suicide because I thought I was inherently incapable of being what they told me I had to be to be a Christian. Finally, I fought back and refused to believe their propaganda. I am still on the fence about trusting the Christian God. Thank you for showing me that my way of thinking has some value.
Wow Jill, thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. So glad you’re fighting back.
Beckett are you a trans? I get the inclination that you are… You said you have a wife but also stated you’re super queer…… I’m confused and I also get the feeling you’re confused about everything in general. I think you’ve got some wounds on you and you’ve taken a bitter attitude because of it.
Fundamentally I agree. The modern church has done some serious wrongs and particularly to homosexuals and just sexually confused people in general. I myself am still learning to let go of the shame and guilt I learned growing up in the church. I’m also learning to let go (I’m a heterosexual) of the sexual shame and confusion I grew up with, but this divisive and unhealthy social justice approach to life is just as bad. I had to also unlearn all of the neo-marxist propaganda I was fed in college. I used to run around saying the same things about patriarchy, white straight males, capitalism, etc. etc. Eventually you have to understand that this stuff is the same. It offers you some sense of refuge from a broken world, but like these fake churches it’s not real. It creates an us vs them mentality whereas Jesus asks us to love one another. The rise of this pseudo-social justice movement and the push-back from fundamentalists is a terrifying battle. I grew up in the church, but I left home for college where I enrolled in Sociology. The church made me feel so dirty and shameful that I hated myself, the social justice neo-marxist philosophy made me so depressed I nearly killed myself. They’re two-sides of the same coin and we need to throw that coin away.
The Quakers embrace the idea of the inner light, that the inner light of God exists within each of us. We should embrace it within ourselves and recognize it in others. Our inward experience of God should reflect outwards and this is far more important than espousing or religious beliefs to the world. They believe we need to trust our own experiences rather than that of others. Despite all of the distaste and scarring I have from my growing up in the church I never lost my faith in God. I just learned to see him differently and all of a sudden he’s called me back to the Bible and Jesus specifically. God and I were working together wonderfully outside of the church and my friendship with him has never been better. My faith says that facing the past is important and if this is where the holy spirit leads then that’s where I go. So, like the Quakers, I also believe that our faith is only strengthened by community.
In short, the church is messed up. Nobody spoke out more against the churches than Jesus, enough so that he was executed. Just don’t get absorbed into the trap that is social justice. It’s just as cancerous and does not lead to a better world, our faith and the manifestation of that faith do.