Thoughts from Former Churchgoers August 31, 2009

Thoughts from Former Churchgoers

nakedpastor recently spoke to several friends who have left the church.

Their statements about church sound like things I’ve heard from a lot of atheists:

  1. When they’ve been gone from church for a while and return they are all shocked by the strange lingo that people talk. It is a coded and getto-ized language that no one else understands but insiders.
  2. When they go back more than once, suddenly there is a huge feeling of expectation that weighs down on them. They know that if they commit at all, they are going to have to meet certain expectations.
  3. Although few admit it, shame is an important and powerful tool used to keep sins, weaknesses, struggles and differences concealed.
  4. One quickly learns that although indulgences ended officially many years ago, money is still an effective means to earn rank, privilege and allowances within a community.
  5. One discovers almost immediately what the belief system to be embraced is. Critical and inquisitive thinking is generally not welcomed.

Those are the first five. Another five are on his site. (He later added thoughts on what he would like to see from church communities.)

Some of the commenters are current Christians who agree with the list. In fact, I know many pastors who would agree with the list.

And yet, the bad habits live on…

For those of who who left the church a while ago but have returned on an occasion or two, what did you notice the more recent time around?

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  • the few times i’ve been back to a catholic service the thing that jumped out at me was: while in the middle of the ceremony for worshiping their omnipotent god – the creator of all things seen and unseen, the One who has blessed them with eternal, everlasting life – the church passes a basket for money.

  • Sarah TX.

    I definitely identify with Item 1 on this list and some from the extended list, especially, You are expected to grow only if it enables conformity.

    The coded language is a big turn-off for me. I’m well-versed in the lingo, having been raised in a mainstream Presbyterian church, and now it looks too close to cultural brainwashing. If it’s repeated 7 times 7 times, it must be true, right?

  • JT

    #3 is used by virtually all Christians when they greet a fellow church member with the common greeting “We missed you on Sunday.” which means “Why weren’t you in church Sunday?” It would be interesting to see how church attendance compares among adults living say more than 50 miles from their parents and those living closer. I’ll bet shame keeps significant numbers of those living close to where they grew-up rolling out of bed early on Sunday morning.

  • SaraS

    Item number 10 on his page leapt out at me:

    Even though, if you keep going, you feel you are being knitted into the community, there is a strange feeling that there is something conditional about your acceptance and membership.

    I grew up in a non-churchgoing, atheist home, but started attending church in my teenage years due to the influence of my sister, who was influenced by one of her friends.

    At the time, I was socially very unhappy (bullied at school, few friends, etc.) so going to the church events and finding all these “friends” ready to embrace me seemed great…for a while. I always had the uneasy feeling in the back of my mind that they only wanted me there as evidence of yet another soul they saved. There was also an unpleasant feeling about how they regarded my family – as though they had “rescued” me from an abusive home. My parents are far from perfect, but they really didn’t deserve that.

    In college, I attempted to get involved with some of the campus religious groups (such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship). That feeling that they only gave a damn about me because I was a body sitting in the room during bible study intensified. Especially when I contrasted this with my actual friends that I made on campus — people who were of variety of faiths. I really wanted to connect with the IV crowd, but it really did feel like my acceptance was conditional.

    That was the start of my return to my atheist roots, where I happily remain today.

  • Sarah TX.

    Also, I always thought that church service should be more like going to an AA meeting – sure, a plate gets passed around to pay for renting the space, but no one is on salary and everyone is welcome, no matter how often they shower.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “<iOne quickly learns that although indulgences ended officially many years ago…”

    No, No, No!

    Pope Benedict, in his efforts to take the Holy Roman Catholic Church back to the Dark Ages, has restored the practice of granting indulgences to those who make pilgrimages to religious sites. There is no money involved of course, that would give the appearance of corruption. Coincidentally, the Vatican now runs an airline which takes pilgrims to religious sites.

    Hot off the press:
    Indulgence Granted During Celestine V Year

  • It’s a good list for examining the effects of an insular religious community on its members.

    I go back once in a blue moon with family members for big occasions like my brother preaching at his church or a wedding, funeral, or graduation (yes, these can happen in sanctuaries too). I’m considering going as a fly-on-the-wall atheist observer and simply recording my thoughts from my perspective without anyone else there expecting me to “come back into the fold” or something else equally frightening.

  • Kate

    When I was much younger, with my experiences at bible camp, and sunday school, it was all very straightforward: Read bible verses, how to apply those verses to our daily lives, how great god was, and sing songs glorifying Jesus.

    Lately however, it is all much subtle and overlain with “coolness”. I even saw a Star Wars themed bible summer day camp. They seem be going the route of pop culture, and slipping the “Jesus approves of this! See Jesus is cool too!” thing in. Seems much more sly, and therefore, malicious to me. Sneakily sliding religion into things which should have nothing to do with it.

  • @Reginald, and others who don’t realize it…this pope was head of the Inquisition until his elevation to pontiff.

    And yes, the inquisition still exists. Only the name has changed to protect the guilty.

    From the catholic website. Scroll down to historical summary and, right above that, past and present ordinaries.

  • Chas

    On vacation with my parents last year where we went to a Catholic mass in a small MN town. Just as I remembered: groggy, catatonic crowd muttering their lines and singing sleepily.

    The only time there was any sign of line was just after communion where many tried to sneak out early.

  • Peregrine

    The odd occasion that I end up going to mass, usually for weddings, or whatever, the only thing I notice is that the songbook changed. I used to be in the choir, so naturally, we had just about every hymn memorized. Then they changed the hymn book. The melody is still the same, but the words have changed.

    That’s about the only thing that stands out. Everything else is the same.

  • JulietEcho

    @SaraS: I grew up with parents who both worked for IVCF and have had tons of friends and mentors growing up who are IVCF members or staff. There is *definitely* a sense of conditional love in groups like IV. You have to be swallowing their mantra and doctrine wholeheartedly, or else be “seeking” and upset about any loss of faith. Anything else is unacceptable and makes you an outsider.

    I have virtually no friends left (unless you count the facebook version of “friend) from my IV childhood/early college years, and I ended up feeling like we speak a different language and live in different cultures – which is pretty close to true. The basis behind all the relationships in such circles is the shared beliefs, and a shared passion for those beliefs. Lose the beliefs, and you lost the circle, period.

  • JulietEcho

    I also wanted to add:

    The two church-identifiers that I associate with openness, friendliness and community that happily includes non-church people are Catholic (American, usually mostly culturally Catholic) and Methodist (again, all liberal, pro-gay-rights crowd). I know there are plenty of scary, more fundamentalist Methodists and Catholics out there, but I don’t tend to run across them in the Midwest US.

    As a non-believer, I was also part of a Quaker meeting for awhile and loved it. I know many Catholic, Methodist and Quaker people who aren’t tied up in weird vocabularies or interested in whether you share their religious beliefs. It might still be weird going to one of their services if you’re not a believer, but outside the church, they’re much more accepting and kind, in my experience, than members of the other denominations I’m familiar with.

    (The worst offenders I’ve found are evangelicals, “non-denominationals,” and Calvinists, many of whom seem incapable of having a conversation about the weather without evangelizing or working religion into the conversation somehow).

  • @Judith Bandsma – thanks for that info!

  • Jon

    As they say, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Churches are certainly not perfect. However, at least Christians (particularly the calvinists and non-denominationals that JulietEcho mentions) are the ones that are looking for answers in the right places.

    Atheists, thinking they know everything and thus paradoxically creating a God of themselves, would do well to learn from these Calvinist and non-denominational types (the all liberal, pro-gay-rights crowd won’t be able to help you that much).

  • AnonyMouse

    You know, I really can’t say anything too bad about the people in the church I grew up in – at least, nothing that I’ve figured out after apostatizing. They don’t evangelize, but for the most part they are very welcoming to anyone who is interested in joining – in fact, one of the most recent “converts” is a guy who divorced and remarried several times. It’s a big no-no in their circle, but they accepted him without too much of a hassle.

    They do talk about religion a lot, but that’s to be expected – they’re always trying to perfect their understanding of the Scriptures (stuff that is written in the Bible, for the non-ghettoized).

    Now, complaints?

    They can’t sing. I mean, seriously. You could have these guys singing “We’re A Happy Little Band, Hallelujah” and they’d sound like you put them on heavy narcotics. It’s more moaning than singing.

    They’re insanely cliquish. There are somewhere between five and ten families that attend the church. A handful of these – the largest families, whose members have known each other from the time they were small children and whose children have known each other from the time they were small children and whose grandchildren will probably know each other from the time they are small children – comprise the “inner circle”. Or the “popular kids”. Call it what you will. These guys hang out together, go out to events together, and otherwise have a good time. The remaining families – those who only have a few members left in the church and have somehow failed to ingratiate themselves into the inner circle – are basically social outcasts. If they’re lucky, they’re friends with a handful of members in the inner circle; everyone else they know is an outcast like them. Their kids? Forget it, man. The other families’ kids want nothing to do with them.

    Funny… I just noticed that “outer circle” families tend to lose more members to “the World” than do inner circle members. I wonder if their clannish behavior has anything to do with this.

    Anyway, in case it isn’t obvious, I’m one of the Outer Circle kids. I was friends with exactly two other kids, both of which were OC and one of whom is my cousin. At least I can say that these were true friends – my relationships with them never had anything to do with religion.

  • ChameleonDave


    Troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll.

    It would be good if there was some way of marking these posts as not part of the discussion.

  • Deck the Halls with Trolls of Holly…
    Troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll, troll.

  • Bob

    I find the degree of projection among creationist trolls and atheist-bashers pretty quizzical. How else to explain the leaps of illogic – should one have no use for gods or prosletyzing, one ‘obviously’ wants to convert others to atheism and worships Darwin/Dawkins/self as a replacement God. Some minds are so gristled and rutted they can’t grasp someone not worshipping, not badgering others over one’s conscience. And contrary to Jon’s assertion, atheists are pretty up front about not knowing it all. Few atheists claim there are no gods, just that there isn’t enough evidence to make claims of gods believable. I guess some people are so insecure in their faith they have to battle strawmen and troll. Why else would they be so thick so often?

  • tamarind

    Well, my boyfriend and I went to a Mormon church service for about 45 minutes for my niece’s baby blessing. We’re both ex-Mormons, and that was the only time we’ve ever been back to a service.

    I was uncomfortable, creeped out, and glad to have my little nieces and nephew to distract me. My boyfriend, who had a more painful experience leaving Mormonism, was depressed the rest of the day. I felt guilty afterwords for asking him to come.

    My family seemed genuinely thankful that I went… but I imagine they have no idea just how emotionally suffocated I felt.

  • medussa

    @ Bandsma: I didn’t know this detail about Ratzinger, pardon me, the pontiff. But I was growing up in southern Germany when he was the archbishop of that area, and it was common knowledge that he supported nationalist policies under Hitler.

  • Tizzle

    I went to a church recently (actually with a bunch of queers to show our presence to a loud mouth hateful anti-gay minister in my county). It was a different denomination than I grew up with, but not dissimilar. The way he talked around our presence without actually saying ‘look at all the scary gays’. I spent the whole service imagining which of the singers and ushers were gay and how quickly I could stumble them. Very much like the last couple years I went to church for real.

    I also just went to a wedding and was surprised by how Christian it was. I was frankly disappointed, but didn’t show it. At least the pastor was a woman, and a relative of the bride, so I knew why it was the way it was. I somewhat blatantly did not bow my head when they prayed, and looked around at the audience.

    I find myself a little too shut-off by church type events and I don’t think I am able to see them with an open mind. I come away from them trying not to bitch, basically. I get creeped out.

  • Silvia

    Sorry to go further OT, but I’m quite interested by this :

    But I was growing up in southern Germany when he was the archbishop of that area, and it was common knowledge that he supported nationalist policies under Hitler.

    Ratzinger’s Nazi sympathies are quite often claimed among atheists also in Italy (where I come from), but I’ve never seen any convincing evidence of this. Given that he was a child or a young boy for most of Hitler’s rule, and apparenlty his family were not fervent Nazi supporters, I find it difficult to formulate a strong judgement on is stance on Nazism at the time. So, is there anything said or done by him later that indicates (however obliquely) his support for Nazi policies? Something like that might be more likely to be known locally, like where you grew up, because it would be very embarassing should it be known nationally (in Germany!) or further.

  • JulietEcho

    Oh man, speaking of awkward moments involving pastors preaching against gay rights…. I attended a wedding this spring of an in-law whose brother (another in-law) is gay. She and her husband chose a pastor who repeatedly emphasized how marriage was between a MAN and a WOMAN and how God created ADAM and EVE as the ideal couple, etc. etc. It was awful. I felt terribly for the poor brother, who was a member of the wedding procession! He’s out, too, so there was no excuse about not knowing.

  • cambot

    I quit going to my parents’ church around the age of 15, and didn’t set foot in another one for over a decade. What struck me the first time I went back was how unbelievably dull the service was. The sermon seemed to be little more than a self-help presentation with some points being supported by Bible verses quoted out of any meaningful context. All I could think was that these were people who claimed to have a personal relationship with an omnipotent being, but who seemed to get nothing more out of it than Chicken Soup For the Soul.

  • Carlie

    I noticed that myself when I started attending church again after a lack of a few years. I hadn’t changed my views on religion at all in the meantime, but was struck by “Huh. This sounds…weird. And kind of stupid” upon returning.

  • JJR

    I was raised mainline Presbyterian but it never stuck because my Dad was a science teacher and biblical miracles always struck me as ridiculous. The Presbyterians of my childhood were mainly about trying to be a good person, even if others aren’t always nice to you, etc…very little talk of sin, hell, or any of that “heavy” stuff. It was ok, but I eventually got bored. When I hit pueberty and began to realize Christianity’s attitudes about sex were f*cked up, I quit going to church or its youth group. It’s not that my Church railed against it per se, but I got the impression any sex talk made them VERY uncomfortable, and I began to find out about preachers like Pat Robertson, et. al. who DID harp on it.

    A few years ago I was dragged back for a Baptist service (my then wife’s former childhood church in Louisiana) and struck by how much singing there was and how little bible teaching compared to the Presbyterian church I grew up in. I was also dragged to a Methodist Christmas service in rural Missouri. Both at the Baptist service and the Methodist one, listening to the pastors’ sermons was tedious, and both men ended up saying things that were so profoundly stupid/ignorant that I wanted to get up and walk out. The Methodist service offered communion but I stayed in my seat (I was the only one who did).

    When I lived in Houston I sometime attended the German-language services (mostly Easter & Xmas) of Christ-the-King Lutheran, in Rice Village, because I speak German and it was an interesting linguistic exercise, and because they played lots of J.S. Bach.

    Later on in the ‘burbs of Houston, I attended some UU services, but only because the Fort Bend County Green Party had disbanded, and the UU’s were the only forum left for any kind of progressive thought and socio-economic justice activism and discussion in my area. I only came for their Adult Discussion Groups when the topic was of interest to me, and I usually gave their actual church service a pass, though it was ok the few times I stayed. I knew a few members of that UU congregation who were also active in Atheist/Humanist groups in the greater Houston area.

  • I would just like to simply and publicly apologize for how the “church” has failed in so many area’s. I am a Pastor and I am fighting hard not to be like what is mostly described in this discussion.

    My heartfelt desire is to stop talking about what it means to be a Christian and open peoples eyes up to living it out. The problem I see through out most of the discussion is that people are judged, left out, or just plain ignored if they don’t conform to the “church”.

    Jesus was the opposite of all of this. He loved the prostitutes, the outcasts, the sinners, the lost, the broken, and the unloveable. That is why most of the religious scholars of his day hated him. I fear the church on some levels has strayed back into being just like the religious institutes that Jesus went against.

    I just want everyone in the discussion to know, that I am sorry for your experiences. If you have questions feel free to comment and I will get back to you. There are Christians out there that are trying to break these molds, build relationships, and reflect what Jesus was truly all about.

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