(As is often the case, talking about church is a tough subject for me. This was an especially vulnerable blog for me to write but I don't get to blog often these days so if I felt strongly enough about something to write it, I figured I should post it too. Graciousness would be appreciated more than ever on this post. Thanks!)
A few weeks ago, I was part of a discussion online about church anxiety. In the course of the discussion, they genuinely asked those of us who had fear about going to church to share why that was. I responded that I didn't have fear of going to church anymore but shared what I remembered fearing in the past.
Well, turns out I was being overly optimistic and the reason I hadn't been fearing church was simply that I hadn't been going to church. Despite the fact that I felt like I was kind of supposed to attend church out here in California, all the fear and anxiety has come rushing back whenever it comes time to actually do it.
But at least if I'm going to be besieged by fear while attempting to attend church in my new home state, it'll give me an opportunity to continue to work through the question that had been asked of me: Why do I face so much fear at the thought of going to church?
The answer I gave at the time was certainly a piece of it, but I now realize it was just a small portion of it. I talked about being afraid to be myself in front of other Christians, particularly in connection to my struggles with depression and anxiety. While that's definitely part of it, I am now discovering a bigger piece of the puzzle:
I don't trust Christians to accept me as one of their own.
I consider myself a very strong Christian. I believe firmly in the teachings of Christ. I take the Bible very seriously. I affirm the essential tenets of the faith about salvation through Jesus alone. I attempt to surrender my everyday life to walking with God and not just pray or talk about him occasionally. I seek out God on my own outside of church and trust him to take care of me. I know my faith is strong, I know my desire to live in faith is sincere, and I know that the core of my identity is found in following God.
I doubt the evangelical Christians I know would claim I wasn't a Christian at all. But in the evangelical church, there are "strong Christians" and "not-strong Christians," and I seem to nearly always fall in the "not-strong" category.
I've been told my faith and walk were weak for all kinds of reasons, both by folks at my own church and folks at other churches. These reasons have included not wanting children, liking Rob Bell's writing, not voting Republican, listening to Eminem songs, not interpreting specific Bible passages literally, not going to church every week. And even when it's not spoken out loud, I know that sometimes it's being thought -- and I'm not just being paranoid, I know it's being thought because I was, in a sense, taught to think and feel that way when I was part of the "in" crowd, growing up in the church. I'm pretty sure if you had asked me in middle school or high school what I thought about people who did all those things I mentioned at the start of this paragraph, I'd say something like, "Well, maybe they're not walking with God at the moment. I'll pray for them." I'd never have meant it maliciously or judgmentally, but in my mind, the lines were clearly drawn, and those outside the line couldn't be let into the "solid Christian" inner circle until they gave in.
The moment when I realized how heavily this was weighing on me happened a few weeks ago, when after attending the same church two weeks in a row and going to one of their midweek home groups, I was contemplating skipping church one Sunday because I felt miserable and overpeopled and under no circumstances wanted to speak to anyone. I asked Jacob if he thought that would be OK, and he told me I could do whatever I wanted to do.
"But now that I've gone there twice and expressed interest, I feel like I'm obligated to go, and that not going will reflect badly on me," I said.
"It won't," he said.
"But that's how you can tell the good Christians from the backsliders," I said. I'd said it as a joke about church culture and didn't know it wasn't until I realized I was crying.
My Christian peers talked a lot as teenagers about making our faith our own, but as I grew up, I learned that meant doubting things that I'd been taught and studying through them and then sometimes coming to a different conclusion than I'd been taught. Never a conclusion that I thought was very far away from where I started, but apparently it was far enough away that I started feeling more and more distant from the evangelical church I grew up in. It's important to note that I never felt distant from the God I grew up with -- I always felt like he was walking with me on the journey and listening to me and guiding me and when I landed on something new, I never felt like he was looking down on me for not having the exact same doctrinal stance as my home church. I felt like even if I was wrong, he was like, "OK, well, you and I are still good, so keep walking with me and we'll get this figured out eventually and you'll be stronger for it in the end."
I trust God to have enough grace for me. Just not Christians, apparently.
At the home group I went to a few weeks ago, they asked me to share a little bit about myself and my faith, and I found myself uncertain which parts of my faith story I was supposed to share and which I wasn't. Would my time in NLDC count against me, where probably 75% of my ministry teammates spoke in tongues? What about my time in the Lutheran church we'd just come from in Indiana? Could I mention my fondness for the progressive church folks that don't like to be labeled much but would include writers like Rachel Held Evans and Samantha Field and Zack Hunt and (still) Rob Bell? Could I talk about the lessons I learned in each of these groups and how they stretched and challenged my faith to make it stronger in the end, or would I immediately be suspect because of my association with them? I found myself couching my phrases in careful language like "I learned a lot" which could, in a sense, protect me in case I had uttered one of those red flag words I found so easy to spot in my more active churchgoing days.
And this is why I am afraid of going to church. Because I know in so many churches, even ones that try not to do this, there is an unspoken mental checklist that I may not meet, and if I don't check off the boxes, I'm immediately in the "outer circle." And frankly, that's where I feel I kind of ended up at my home church growing up -- or I feel I would if I was honest about what my faith looks like these days. When so much emphasis is placed on having the right doctrine (as is the case with a lot of the more evangelical churches), it just takes one wrong move to end up on the "and, God, please help show her the truth" prayer list. And I don't want church to just be a place where people pray for me that I'll "get back on track with God" -- I want it to be a place where I can share the lessons I've learned and the thoughts I'm having and not be immediately corrected.
I'm sure some of this is unfair. I suspect the Christians who have read this far in the blog would jump in and say, "We would never think like this!" and they probably wouldn't. But I also know that when I was a regular churchgoer, I would have been the first to insist I didn't either -- and I did, it was just subtle enough that I didn't realize it until 10 years later after I'd moved away from where I was. I'm sure not everyone is as prone to judgment as I am (that tendency is still there, I'm just better at recognizing it and keep it in check). But the amount of times I have had my faith or my love for God criticized for something that I viewed as nonessential leads me to believe that I'm certainly not the only one.
I would like to find a way to get past this fear. Maybe reimmersion is the only way I'll get past it and I need to suck it up and keep trying to go to church even when it makes me nauseous with anxiety. Maybe I need to spend more dedicated non-church time with the Christian friends of mine who I do trust to be wonderfully gracious, and remember that if these people exist, others do as well. Maybe it's almost entirely depression/anxiety-related and will be something I deal with my whole life.
I genuinely don't have an answer for this. I don't mean to simply shift the blame onto others and say "It's your fault, you're all so vaguely generally judgmental and you should all change everything for me." Because I know that's a little bit what this blog sounds like but it shouldn't because I know that's a terrible answer. I'm still just very, very slowly sorting through this, and I've just unlocked a tiny piece of the puzzle, and I haven't really gotten to the part where I figure out how to respond. But for anyone who was wondering, anyone who was thinking, "Why in the world would someone be afraid of church?" ... well, here is one reason.