When Leaving Your Faith Feels Like Leaving a Toxic Relationship
Why the spiritual but not religious movement is growing
There was a time in my life when I would have despised the person I am now. That sentence was hard to write because packed in those words is a lifetime of living as a judgmental, arrogant Christian who took pride in my membership in the exclusive, closed-minded club of Christianity.
The one-of-many problems was that I wasn’t aware of this. I thought myself a humble servant of Christ seeking the approval and favor of my pastors by espousing the “one, true religion” to anyone who would listen. If they didn’t heed my words, I simply put them in the “doomed to hell” file in my mind and prayed earnestly for their souls.
At the height of my Christian piety, I worked tirelessly on church committees, rarely missed a church event, held positions of leadership and volunteered for Sunday School activities. I was also in my church’s “ministry school” for a short while.
The facade of my faith begins to crumble
But the facade of my faith began to crumble as the exhaustion and frustration set in from all the years of my trying to be a good Christian. For far too long, I had witnessed hypocrisy, gaslighting and downright abuse from church leaders that was often dismissed with “even God’s people are human,” and we should support our fellow church-goers and leaders for the “glory of God.”
Toward the end of my days as an obedient, submissive member, the floodgates opened when I took a good, honest look at how manipulation and control were being disguised as fellowship. Even that “ministry school” proved to be nothing more than a faux “pastor in training” program taught by volunteers with no pastoral or seminary training or credentials. Ordination was a moving target bestowed upon select candidates at the whims of the lead pastors.
I’ve often said that I can now see that I was on the path to becoming a deconstructed, unchurched Christian long before I recognized it. However, because my religious indoctrination was so effective it was impossible for me to see that I was slowly but surely becoming what I despised.
It may sound outlandish to hear that the very thing to which I was deeply devoted became the catalyst for leaving my faith, but it is indeed true. I am not alone in my deconstruction from Christianity, because the data shows that people have been leaving church at a steady pace for decades.
Leaving your faith is like leaving a relationship
Like a relationship where love may have existed but crumbled under the weight of one partner’s selfish, narcissistic behavior, many of us took great risks breaking free from our religious heritage. Christianity was so intricately woven into my identity that the fear of not knowing who I’d be without it kept me firmly seated in the church pews.
That is, until one Sunday. After listening to a sermon on obedience that seemed oddly directed as a personal message to me, two congregants — independent of each other — came up to me after service and said, “I think he was talking directly to you.” If the content that inferred blind loyalty to church equaled loyalty to Jesus wasn’t disturbing enough, linking the pastor’s words to my life was the final act of spiritual gaslighting I couldn’t ignore.
The fear of completely losing myself in this toxic environment became greater than the fear of not knowing who I’d be outside of church, and I stepped out of those doors for the final time, knowing I’d never return.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d never return to church altogether. But after attending a few different ones, it felt like I had put the tiniest bandaid on a large, gaping wound that toxic Christianity had left in me. It was then that I realized that wherever I was going and whoever I was becoming would not be found inside the institution that was the source of my injury.
I’ve shared about my time in the spiritual wilderness [here], so I won’t go into those details.
The spiritual-but-not-religious people are here to stay
My leaving-church-forever experience is not unique or even uncommon. The SBNR group is one of the fastest growing sectors of spirituality. The data clearly shows that this is not a passing trend. The numbers grow each year and we are here to stay.
The reasons people leave church varies and is contingent upon the source. For example, Christian-centric data will focus on the behavior of church leaders or people becoming distracted with “worldly” priorities as the primary causes. However, data from reliable, non-Christian sources tell a whole different story.
People share that their primary reason for becoming SBNR is because they no longer hold the same beliefs as their church or their beliefs have evolved to the point that they no longer feel connected to the religion of their heritage.
While that may seem wildly different, they are actually two sides of the same coin. The Christian focus on the failings of church leadership creates the illusion that if leaders change their ways, they’ll keep people in the pews. In reality, a person’s evolving faith cannot be coerced into submission when the system has lost its power to do so.
Why did I leave church?
That is certainly my story. I retell it by sharing aspects where I collided with church leadership in the past. I do this to help others see that no one in authority has the right to spiritually manipulate them into forced obedience. Effective and compassionate leaders would sense the changes rising within you and accompany you on the journey of your evolving faith — even if it meant leaving church.
But that is counter to what the vast majority of them are taught. Increased membership means increased tithing, and increased tithing means more funds to use at their own discretion.
My exit journey began long before I found the courage to spiral away from it. I had been secretly reading books and attending workshops about alternative theologies that pushed back on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Even when I was deeply devoted to my church, I snuck into the back of another local church to hear Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose books had been a lifeline for my awakening soul.
The outward expression of that evolving faith manifested as tension because the church could never hold who I was becoming…and who I was becoming would never be satisfied in a belief system that demanded adherence to a dogma so rigid that to live outside of it condemned you to eternal damnation.
And I no longer cared. I had grown to the point that the fear of this eternal damnation had little power over me. I was beckoned into the spiritual wilderness to let go of who I once was, heal the wounds I carried from those toxic experiences and dive fully into the realm of spirituality outside the construct of religion.
“Just because church hurt you, don’t give up on God”
Church leaders who continue to hyper-focus on singular events are basically moving deck chairs on a sinking ship. They refuse to see that when given a safe space to authentically stand in their truth, people who left willingly share that, although church may have harbored bad experiences, the reality is that they simply outgrew the rigid dogma of fundamentalist Christianity.
I see them every day in my comments when I share a video speaking on my own journey. “Ok, you were hurt in church.. then find another one. Don’t give up on God!” The assumption they make is that my spirituality is contingent upon my church affiliation that also mandates my beliefs in the Divinity. Neither is true, and for many of us on the SBNR path, being released from fear-based theology also released us from literal interpretations of scripture and the need to define deity through the lens of religious belief.
Proud to be a “None”
Pew Research Center contributor Michael Lipka titled a report he wrote “Why American “nones” left religion behind.” The word “none” represents the SBNR. I like the simplicity of “none,” because for many of us, our existence requires no other structure than this. Church leaders still attempt to categorize us using language their followers understand. Our response: we vehemently reject being labeled as having a weak faith or a doubter’s mind.
It isn’t we who are weak in our spirituality. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done to become a better person and contribute to the good of the whole has been done after leaving church. I would counter that church leaders who are trying to control the narrative and hurling these meaningless accusations at us as the ones who are weak in faith.
When I discovered that leadership at my former church had even gone so far as to write letters to area churches “warning” them of the possibility of my attendance, I was deeply hurt but somehow not surprised. I’m grateful for the one church leader who was brave enough to tell me about it. It gives me hope that there are good people still inside Christianity.
It would be a few years later before a wise mentor pointed out that my response to finding out about those letters — which was to do nothing and simply continue on my healing journey — showed that I had already attained a level of spiritual maturity that those who wrote them would never know.
I cried, then I smiled, because I knew she was right.
That is the wisdom of an awakening soul, the one that called me to experience the Holy outside the construct of my religious beliefs.
I’m so glad I answered and now walk with the “nones.”
For even though we may not know one another personally, we are growing in numbers, and we are drawing upon the strength of this unofficial anything-but-religious community that is beginning to arrive.
Here is where the healing begins, and love truly reigns.
And I’m honored to be here.