I started attending church as a newborn in the early 90s. I grew up there. My church was small, family oriented and tightly knit. My church family felt like actual family, and not only because my actual family made up nearly half of the congregation. I remember going to Sunday school, hearing all of the core bible stories, singing congregational hymns, performing in Christmas programs, and attending youth group regularly. I would estimate 2-3 times a week for about 17 years to be my attendance record in church.
For the most part I can honestly say that church was a happy and comfortable place for me. I felt safe there for a long time. Although it was one of the few things I had ever experienced in life, I enjoyed being there. Aside from spending time at home and going to school and dance class in a small town, church was pretty much all I knew. With that said, it should not come as a surprise that I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the age of 8, and with all the wisdom of an 8-year-old decided that I wanted to be baptized. This is where it started to get messy.
My church had a program called “children’s church” that was led and supervised by volunteers within the church that were members. It was basically a program for children who were too young to sit still during and comprehend the pastor’s sermon but were too old to be kept in the nursery. We mostly watched Christian videos and movies and occasionally did bible-based activities and lessons during that time.
I can’t remember exactly when the disorder started. It would have either been on a Sunday night when I would have had to listen to a sermon (as children’s church was only a Sunday morning thing) or when I was eventually old enough to stay for the full Sunday morning service. I’ll preface this a bit further by saying that my church wasn’t always charismatic, fire and brimstone fear mongering all the time, but sometimes it was. I remember hearing a sermon that basically planted the information into my very young mind that there was a place called hell where bad people who sin and either haven’t heard of God or choose not to believe in God would be sent after Jesus returns, and will be tortured there for eternity. Being as young and impressionable as I was, I heard this, believed it and was petrified. I didn’t understand how a God that loved us and sent his son to die for our sins so that we could have eternal life with Him would threaten us with that kind of punishment. I also didn’t have the wherewithal to ask any questions about this so I just took it at face value. That unfortunately led to a religious anxiety and form of OCD which I now know is referred to as scrupulosity. The thought of myself or any of my loved ones going to hell simply because we committed a sin without repentance or didn’t accept Jesus properly terrified me to the point of losing sleep at night and obsessively praying that we would not be sent to hell.
I won’t go as far as to say that I was fully raised by the kind of evangelical fundamentalism that has recently earned a terrible reputation, but there were certainly aspects of the theology that was followed and preached on that perfectly aligned with that. Aside from being threatened with hell fire, I was also left under the impression that being born a sinner made me innately bad, and at serious risk of having to suffer eternally. This deeply affected my confidence early on in life. It just made me feel worthless and evil and I fully believed that I was. I didn’t fully grasp the concept that God loved me for a really long time, so my relationship with God was not what it should have been.
I still can’t put my finger on the reason I never brought up my questions and concerns to an adult that I trusted. I guess it could have something to do with the fact that I was raised by one of the “Because I Said So” generations…. and I’m not solely talking about parents. I don’t recall having much of anything ever explained to me as a child by an adult in any environment. School, church, anywhere. I almost feel like we were just expected to swallow everything we were told as if it were gospel truth and never question it for any reason. Questioning was considered “talking back” and was disrespectful. I’m remembering that now.
One aspect of the struggle I was going through was entirely my fault. Before I went to college I was a very lazy student. I never wanted to read about things I wasn’t interested in, I turned in homework assignments late and procrastination was my best friend. This is how I was with my Bible as well. I didn’t study it. I would read it occasionally and either not understand it or get bored and quit. I relied solely on other people to teach me about it. Maybe if I had heard more from First Thessalonians, I would have taken the initiative to learn on my own and “test everything” but my only motivation for belief and obedience came from the fear of that ultimate punishment, which in my opinion is incredibly unhealthy. I don’t believe that God meant for our relationship with Him to be a toxic one that only exists because of a threat. Even so, I loved Jesus and I still managed to enjoy and stay plugged into church until I was 18. I know that I cherry picked a lot of what I had learned about God and the Bible, holding onto the beautiful things I loved and ignoring the things I didn’t understand that made me uncomfortable and anxious. I might have been able to do this because my faith was all I knew, and at the time had never been shaken.
Moving into my college years – the first one was typical. I lived on campus and remained pretty sheltered from the world for the most part. Having grown up in a bubble, almost entirely sheltered from the world and surrounded by likeminded people, culture shock was bound to happen at some point after moving away from that environment. It started slow, but sure enough the longer I lived away from home the more exposed to the world I became. In hindsight its kind of funny to think about the culture shock I experienced, having only moved one hour away from home and still being in the bible belt. It’s not like I moved to Los Angeles or anywhere similar, and yet there was still a massive culture shock that occurred, and I wasn’t prepared for it. One small example of this is the fact that I had never in my life met anyone who was openly homosexual, openly atheist, or even openly a democrat (lol)
The real trouble started when I began meeting these people who were nothing like me. All of a sudden I found myself in class with them, working with them, living with them, and they weren’t afraid to ask me very personal questions about my proclaimed faith. I had no answers for them. My old youth pastor explained to me that this was because I had been “surviving on my parent’s faith” and that I needed to find my own. This entire situation was oddly traumatizing and motivating at the same time. I began studying scripture independently for the first time in my life and feeling really overwhelmed at the thought of having wasted so much time previously by not studying scripture and feeling like I had twenty years of bible study to catch up on, all while the secular world was breathing down my neck and asking me questions that I didn’t have answers to.
So where did I land? Here. I’ve seen God work in my life in ways that cannot be explained. I don’t believe in luck, coincidence or magic. I can’t even attempt to believe that life is meaningless, that all of creation has no creator, that there is no such thing as good or evil, that once we pass away we’re gone forever, because none of that works for me and none of that is biblical. I’ve experienced depression, deep feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and existential dread, all of which were triggered by spiritual confusion and lack of biblical knowledge. But after that, after discovering that I have the ability and freedom to think for myself, after changing my mind on so many things and still being unable to lose my faith in God, I realized that contrary to some of my athiest acquaintances opinions, I’m definitely not brainwashed. Why would I pretend to believe in something that I don’t actually believe in? I wouldn’t. I’m not pretending to have faith that I don’t have. I know what Jesus did for me on that cross and why he did it. I don’t just believe it, I know it.
I will admit that there are churches out there that are successfully scaring people into a relationship with our Savoir and causing a lot of emotional trauma and confusion in the process. To that I’ll just reiterate the importance of testing everything. We need to always remember that our God is big enough to handle our questions, our doubts, and even our anger. I’ve learned that hesitation is not appropriate when it comes to those things.
I unfortunately know a lot of people who openly mock and slander Christianity. In my experience with these people, many of them surprisingly claim to be very ‘spiritual’ and regularly engage in what I consider to be silly ritualistic activities such as praying to the universe, meditating with crystals and doing lots of psychedelic drugs, all while claiming that God doesn’t exist (without having any way of intellectually proving that) but then they turn around and ridicule me for sitting in a pew on Sunday. I’m not very easily offended but that deeply offends me. If people don’t want to accept the love of God, I’ve already taken a cue from God not forcing us, so I won’t try to force anyone either. I was called to love and serve, to bring honor and glory to His name with every movement that I make on this earth, and that’s what I hope to always be found doing.