This is the first in a series of posts examining my own experiences of leaving church and later returning to Christian faith and practice as a sort of case study, to see what can be learned about why people leave churches and why they come back. I’ve been stewing over this idea for a while, but it has been triggered by comments about church growth earlier this week.
We are told people are leaving the church; young people, especially, seem to be prone to leaving. It’s tempting to blame this on liberal habits, or antiquated worship styles, or secular intrusion into Sunday mornings, or on highly mobile lifestyles where people don’t feel attached to a particular local neighbourhood.
In this post I am not going to attempt to address those factors. Instead, I want to write about my experiences of church as a child and teenager, and why I decided in my late teens to reject the church and faith in which I was brought up.
From my background you wouldn’t expect me to be someone who left. I was baptised as a baby. My mother was a church organist, and I heard my first hymns before I was born. My father was not a regular churchgoer, but throughout my childhood I attended church regularly: my stepdad was a military chaplain, and for most of each year I lived with him and Mum. I wasn’t just another warm body in the pews, either: from an early age I was involved in singing in church choirs, and when I was old enough I would read or take part in services in other ways (lighting candles and so on). I believe in God and have no memory of a time when I did not.
Why did I leave, then? This isn’t an easy question to answer.
My relationship with my stepdad was difficult and painful despite our efforts to understand one another. I’m sure this made it easier for me to seize upon any difference of presentation between home and church, or any inconsistency between what he practised and what he preached, as rank hypocrisy. As an adult, I can see that even a saint would have disappointed me: the situation was such that any human error was transformed into a grave wound. But I cannot pretend it didn’t have any effect. It did.
Lack of stability in other church relationships
Military chaplaincy meant that for most of my childhood we moved every few years to another city. Most members of the congregations at the churches I attended did the same. Rather than growing up within the nurture of one local church community, by the time I was twelve I was on my fourth church. I didn’t have a lot of adults who knew me well, who could acts as mentors or role-models in matters of faith. When I started to get to know people and like them and even trust them, we would move again.
The “Preacher’s Kid” problem in education
As The Minister’s Daughter, and also as a child praised for intelligence who took a certain amount of pride in knowing the “right” answers in any context, I had little opportunity to ask questions about faith and doctrine. The problem was not that I wasn’t given satisfactory answers to questions about, for example, the Trinity: the problem is that I had nobody to ask, no context where I could ask without being seen as rocking the boat. Confirmation preparation was no exception, but in any case it was with my stepdad and all I remember from it is memorising the Lord’s Prayer (which I’d already done) and the order of the books in the Old Testament (I’ve since forgotten). I still wonder what would have happened if someone had sat down with me and explained what went on at the Council of Nicaea.
The “Preacher’s Kid” problem in pastoral support
This problem extended to pastoral support. I remember one “youth church” session as a teenager where I spoke of something that had been troubling me. I was taken aside afterward by the youthworker and told that it wasn’t a good idea to share things that my parents might find too personal. She was right, and of course I saw the point immediately. I don’t know whether any effort was made to provide some alternative pastoral support, or recognise that maybe I needed a space where I could just be myself, not The Minister’s Daughter. I do know that after that, I didn’t really open up at church. I went through the motions, so as not to appear imperfect.
Lack of Christian identity or practice outside of church
At home you would scarcely know we were Christian. There wasn’t a lot we did that was different to the increasingly secular society around us. I don’t remember family discussions of things like giving to charity or praying; I was taught a bedtime prayer when I was very small, but after about age 5 or 6 I was left to my own devices with that. We did say, and later sing, a rote grace before supper when we were eating together, which was relatively often. We usually had pancakes for Maundy Thursday. My stepdad would fast on Good Friday and Holy Saturday sometimes, but usually did this by going to bed and sleeping through as much as he could. Our Christmas and Easter rituals at home would be hard to distinguish from a secular family having a tree and gifts because trees and gifts are fun and special and pleasant. And that’s pretty much it. It wasn’t a household where we prayed together about concerns, it wasn’t a household where we read the Bible together or on our own or talked about God or Jesus, it wasn’t a household where faced with a problem we would look for a Christian perspective. Our churchmanship wasn’t one that commemorates saints, which meant no saints’ days or namedays, though I was vaguely aware of St Cecilia. Church was largely something we did on Sundays.
Unhelpful exposure to other Christian denominations
I was raised in the United Church of Canada, which is a liberal and inclusive Protestant denomination. Christians I knew at school or in the neighbourhood sometimes seemed more committed, but also usually authoritarian in some way. I learned to avoid the topic of Biblical literalismwhen talking with school friends from certain churches. On visiting a Catholic friend (the middle of nine children) and being invited to join the family in praying the Rosary, I declined, uncomfortable with the little I knew of that tradition. The internet wasn’t a formative part of my childhood, and even in my teen years I didn’t find significant resources on faith there. It seemed like there was a tradeoff between commitment to Christianity, and any kind of autonomy of thought and practice. I’m sure Protestant misgivings or misconceptions about Catholicism (“We don’t pray to Mary and the saints”) and liberal misgivings about conservative forms of religion (“we’re not like the Bible-bashers”) which were in the background of my upbringing didn’t help.
All of these factors interacted. Church became a weekly performance, saying and singing words I couldn’t identify with, little pastoral support or appropriate education beyond the actual content of services, disconnected from my life the rest of the week. I went for the music, mostly, and because not going would have been making a fuss.
When I left church and Christianity, I didn’t give up on God and religion. Somehow through all of this I always believed in the existence of God, of some sort of higher power. I left looking for something better: some way of engaging with the Divine in all we do rather than just once a week, some community where debate and argument would be encouraged, where what we do would be more important than appearing to believe the right things. I loved the story of the Exodus but couldn’t get my head around the Trinity; a favourite schoolteacher had been Jewish. And then I met a rather special boy online and he was Jewish, and that made Judaism seem more attractive. It was as good a place to start as any. So when I left home and went to university, I didn’t look for a church to go to. Instead, I started keeping kosher.
When I went back home to visit family, I didn’t go to church. It was ten years before I started to come back. I’ll write about that return in due course, but my next post in this series will be about the intervening decade.