The Internet is full of articles about why you should go to church this Sunday. I've read a lot of them, and a few of them make some good points.
But I think a lot of those articles are lacking hope. I think that God is active in so many ways in the world outside of churches, and when we panic over attendance, we're likely to miss out. I don’t think that shaming or badgering people into a certain expression of Christianity actually builds up the Body of Christ.
When I stopped going to church, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come back. I left with enough faith to know it was what I was supposed to do at the time, but unsure where leaving would take me. I had to trust God.
It was scary. But I’m grateful I did it.
Here are four reasons I'm glad I left church:
1. It gave me space to think.
Before I quit church, I was overwhelmed with church activities. There was a Bible study on Mondays, Community Group on Wednesdays, serving at the College Ministry on Fridays, book studies on Sunday afternoons, community service days on Saturdays, plus the regular services on Sunday mornings, where every couple of weeks I made coffee for an hour before. I felt badly that I wasn’t doing and giving more. This isn't bragging; this is admitting to you that my struggle with shame and perfectionism manifests itself in ridiculous religious over-commitment.
I felt a constant pressure to join more groups or help with more projects through the church in an effort to sustain spiritual momentum, but instead, it just slowed me down. Like, to a complete halt.
Busyness doesn't always equal health or spiritual growth. For me, it usually indicates the opposite.
I'm an introverted thinker, which means I process (and write) long and slow and alone. Plus I'm a human, so I also have those limitations on how much I can pour out without being totally drained. I charged ahead through every week until I was gasping for air, and it was unhealthy. Taking Sunday services and a few other activities out of my schedule helped me breathe.
And breathing is useful for growth of all sorts.
2. It was unpopular.
Sometimes I’m a little too driven by other people's opinions about my life. I'm sure I'm totally the only one who deals with that, right? Oh, good.
I finally realized I was just going to church so people in church, in my family, and on the Internet would think I was a good person.
I'm not sure about you, but most of my community, friends, and family are Christians who value regular church attendance, and I knew they wouldn't like my absence. But, because we're all so busy, I could just vaguely list off my weekly plans and everyone assumed they include church, too.
It took nearly six months before I talked about it. I was worried about losing my positions as a Good Christian Woman, college student mentor, and public writer and speaker about faith. I panicked when someone would say they hadn't seen me around church in a while, but would always brush it off somehow. It worked because we're all so busy.
I was afraid everyone would be worried about me, judge me, and think I was losing my faith. I was scared people would try to shame me to go back or tell me to just try harder, when trying too hard is what burnt me out in the first place.
Some people did.
And I learned more about healthy relationships because of it. I learned to accept other people's voices without letting them rule my life. I practiced terrifying things, like boundaries and being honest. I learned that respecting other people’s opinions about my faith or me doesn’t always mean obeying them, and that no one gets to define or critique my relationship with God more than God and me.
But some people didn’t react like that, and I learned that many of my relationships were more trusting and resilient than I thought. I learned that there are many people in my life who will listen to me and be with me, even if they didn’t understand.
3. It strengthened my faith.
I found I had more energy to pray when I could go for a run on Sunday mornings instead of sit in a pew fighting for my breath. I talked with the owners of my favorite coffee shop about their plans for supporting neighborhood development instead of just throwing money at another project overseas and feeling good about myself. I practiced being vulnerable with the students I mentored, rather than just giving advice.
I realized that church does not have a monopoly on spiritual growth, community service, social justice, Scripture, or God.
I practiced listening to a variety of religious and non-religious people share their meaningful stories (which always seem to be about God, you know?). I explored Christianity outside my Evangelical Protestant experiences.
I began to wonder, and wonder seems very much like worship.
My faith grew because I encountered a God who cannot be contained, not because I found a cooler church.
Even in the stories written by the Israelites in the Old Testament, God is frequently at work in the lives of people outside their religious and ethnic boundaries. This is where we get the stories of Rahab and Ruth, of God showing up in the wilderness to Moses, and of the odd tale of Jonah sent to preach to the powerful enemies of his people.
God shows up in church, but I think she also appears in so many other places and ways. Being away from church heightened my senses to notice.
4. It was my decision.
Ultimately, I stopped going to church services on Sundays because I decided to stop going. It wasn’t because I’m a Millennial who can’t commit, or because a church wasn’t cool enough to keep me entertained, or because my heart is deceitful and selfish, or even because someone on the Internet wrote an article convincing me one way or the other.
I stopped going because I didn’t want to go.
You can call that selfish if you want, but I do not know how to live out my faith and life if I am not being honest. And honestly, church was hurting me. I decided I would rather live with integrity before God than keep pretending that I was okay.
Quitting church reminded me that spiritual growth and being attentive to God is my daily work, not just the job of my church, pastor, or friends. My faith is not the responsibility of anyone else.
Ultimately, healthy Christian spiritual practice involves a lot more listening to yourself and dialoguing with the Holy Spirit, rather than just following the rules.
Leaving church altogether gave me the confidence to listen to myself, to walk out the next bit my own story, and to know that when I went back to church, that would be my decision, too.
I actually did go back to a church this summer, and it’s been amazing for my spiritual growth. Not because I was strong-armed into it, or because church is the only place for growing, but because I trusted the mysterious process of God in that, too.
I have hope that God is with us beyond what we can even imagine.
So, if you want to stay in church this Sunday, I'll see you there. But if you need to go, go in peace.