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After Church: Leaving
When we leave, God is still with us
Over the last year or two, I have read and endorsed many books on the toxicity of some churches and church leaders and the reasons folks have left, been othered, and have been forced to find a new way to community outside the church.
It’s heartbreaking to read these stories, but I think it’s essential for faith leaders today, spiritual directors, or anyone paying attention to the spiritual shifts in our society.
We must bear witness to the pain caused by American Christianity as well as the healing happening in some communities. We must bear witness to the stories of the othered if we want to acknowledge our wounds. This is a huge reason why I wrote Native, telling my own story about my experiences in the church and the lingering trauma it has caused in my own life.
For a recap, here are the 5 stages of After Church:
Widening (or exploring)
Trusting (or settling)
If you haven’t read about the first phase, recognizing, you can read it here.
I know I’m not alone in this journey, as so many of you have already publicly or privately shared with me, so thank you for being here.
We come here, to the second phase of After Church, the part where we make the difficult decision to leave. I’m holding space for those who have left, for those who are thinking about it, and for those who have no idea what to feel or believe. You are not alone.
So, why do we stay in certain spaces or enduringly committed to certain churches? I remember being worried about my children, that they were going to miss out on spiritual teachings if we didn’t go to church, while at the same time, knowing that what they were learning in those closed Sunday school rooms wasn’t teaching them what we truly believed about God, justice, humanity, and care.
I was believing what I was told, that there is no true community outside the church, and the fear kept me there.
They are valid, the fears.
And besides my kids, what about me? What if I’d lose everything and feel totally untethered? It turns out, that’s not what I felt, but it’s valid when we do feel it. I’d been some sort of church leader for nearly two decades, and honestly, that’s a problem, and even more honestly, I was tired of leading.
I became a “church leader” when I was probably about twelve years old. I started leading bible studies before school with a friend of mine, I was a pastor’s kid, I was in the church choir, I led worship at FCA in my high school, I was learning to play guitar and eventually became a worship leader at my church (and all the churches after that), I was preparing myself for a life in or around the church, and no one seemed to be slowing down my trajectory.
I see this now to be a sort of predatory behavior, especially putting young people up as leaders right away with no questions as to whether we are ready or not. Honestly, I’d probably find some way to lead somewhere, but the responsibility ushered on us at a young age is a problem. But there’s this allure there, don’t you want to lead us all closer to God? Don’t you want to be the one to open up your home and find favor with your pastors, parents, church leaders? Don’t you?
So my personal struggle, at every single church, for my entire life, was between being just another person or becoming a leader of some sort. How soon should I start singing with the worship team? How soon should we lead small groups? How soon should I introduce myself to the pastor?
It was a responsibility I thought I needed to carry, because I didn’t know anything else.
At the same time, church for so many years was so deeply about community for us. As with any institution made up of humans, it takes time to build relationships, we know this about ourselves. It takes time to feel safe and seen and held by other people. And in different seasons of life, we had that, true community and belonging, all while asking deep questions.
The community kept us there, kept us going.
But sometimes, even with the depth and beauty of community, we convince ourselves to stay despite all the warning signs popping up around us.
At the last church we attended, we were promised deep community, but it wasn’t quite what we found.
We were told that the church was full of people who sought after justice, and we found evangelism masked as such. We were told our voices matter, but the hierarchies were real. We were told that church spaces were safe for everyone, but it wasn’t true, especially for my LGBTQ+ kin and BIPOC folks.
I write about it in Native:
Sometimes when we go to church on Sundays, I take my Citizen Potawatomi Nation coffee mug with me. I often wear my beaded earrings and a shirt that says Phenomenally Indigenous across the front. As I drink my coffee out of that mug and listen to the worship band play song after song, I begin to question things: Should I have left my Nativeness at the door? Should I stop bringing my Indigenous identity into a space that doesn’t see or value it?
The white evangelical church in America has told us again and again that we must assimilate, that if we place our own “savage” identity alongside our faith, we are disgracing the gospel with our sin, we are idolaters who have no place in the church.
I grew up in a church culture that rewarded people pleasing, that punished those who asked too many questions, that pushed out those who seemed too angry or grieved too long. So as an adult, I’m finally asking all the questions I never asked when I was young. I’m wondering how, for all these years, the church has gotten away with so many oppressive acts toward women, Indigenous peoples, Black people, other people of color, disabled people, immigrants, those who journey with depression or anxiety, those who grieve, and those who are gender non-binary, transgender, or queer. Can we go to church and be angry? Can we go to church and be furious? Can we go to church and ask questions? Can we go to church and fight against what we believe is wrong within it?
By the time Native released in 2020, we no longer went to church. My rage and anger woke me up enough, and even though we’d been on a journey toward leaving for a while, it finally happened. We were finally done.
And with the questions and the rage came the realization that I didn’t want to be that worship leader anymore. Part of my decolonization journey was stepping away from that kind of leadership, becoming a writer, and asking what that journey would allow me to do outside the confines of a church body. It was a decision I needed to make for myself, and nobody else could make it for me.
I’m guessing that for a lot of us, it’s the rage that wakes us up. After being told that church is community, we’ve realized that sometimes it’s not. There are some beautiful communities out there doing the work of healing and care, and I know that, because I know some of those pastors, teachers, community leaders. I am grateful they are there to show us a better way.
But there are too many that are toxic and broken, who harm us again and again with no sense of responsibility, and as an Indigenous woman, I’ve seen too much of it. I’m still a faith leader, I still speak and write on these topics, but in my personal life, I need the space, and that’s okay.
I’ve seen people tweet opinions like If you don’t go to church, you can’t be a Christian. I don’t agree, but also hold that it’s more complex than that, our stories more layered and nuanced than that simple dichotomy. May we hold the complexity with one another, honoring our decisions, while acknowledging that community and The Sacred exist in spaces wider than we imagine.
I share this in Living Resistance about making that decision on whether to stay or go:
The question for many of us is whether to stay or to go, and it is always a complicated decision. Do we stay, hoping to change often toxic and abusive systems or institutions from within, sometimes giving decades of our lives to the cause? Or do we go, forging a new path, looking for a better way, hoping to God it exists out there and is waiting for us?
I cannot answer these questions for anyone else, but they’re worth asking so that we can understand what’s at stake, whatever we decide. I hope that those who choose to stay have the support systems they need, or at least know they are not alone. I hope that they learn how to be subversive, holding steady to the work of resistance, whatever it looks like for them. For those who go, I hope they find places that hold and cherish them for who they are, that give them space to dream about and build a better world.
So, let’s take a step back. We recognize the toxicity of the church institutions we’ve been a part of for long enough, or we simply know we no longer fit those spaces, so now what?
We meet with friends over fish and chips at the local pub and we try to work through this, piece by piece, asking questions we never intended to ask: Who is really welcome here? Is this what community is? Why is something missing? Where’s the Jesus we’re looking for? We pray and hope that we are making the right choice, read books and blog posts and stories from others who have had similar journeys.
So much of this particular decision is rooted in fear—fear that if we leave institutional church spaces our spiritual life will completely disintegrate, that we will fall into a deep dark hole never to crawl out again.
At least, that’s the picture they paint for us.
I’m not here to name all the different reasons people leave, because there are too many, and as we know, Christianity, like other religions, is diverse and fluid, and communities hold that fluidity differently.
We have to trust people when they say they are ready to go.
We have to trust ourselves when we know it’s time to go.
I don’t know if this is the hardest part, the leaving. It’s different for every person’s journey, and maybe the part after the leaving is the worst, the spaces of grief and loss, of deep questions with no real answers except the gut feeling that the leaving was necessary.
When we leave, we cut ties a lot of the time, and it’s painful as hell.
When we leave, we enter a liminal space.
When we leave, our identities shift and we lean deeper into our questions.
When we leave, we hold space for grief and hope all at once.
When we leave, we ask what’s next.
When we leave, God is still with us.
One more thing:
My children’s book comes out in 8 days.
It feels incredible and strange and a bit anti-climactic to even write that. The world is hurting, Autumn is flying by, and Winter’s Gifts is going to be out in the world, making its way to the hands of little ones, the first in a series of four books on the four seasons!
So, here’s my ask: please pre-order Winter’s Gifts for yourself and a few loved ones. Make it an early holiday present, or surprise them on Halloween when it comes out.
Ask your local library, independent bookstore, or even REI to carry it (yes, REI, I see you!).
Thank you for the love and support, always. Onward, together.
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