4 Specific Things You Lose When You Leave Christianity
I know the exact moment when my Christian faith began to crumble. It was 2006, and I was a 30-year-old mom in a midweek Bible study about the Book of Revelation, the part of the BIble in which all hell breaks loose. The woman running the study steered the conversation to angels, a Biblical concept I took for granted, like the Immaculate Conception or the fact that there was a woman with the insanely stupid name of Dorcas. Between the verse about some angels having six wings with eyeballs all over them and the angel Michael fighting a dragon, a switch in my head flipped:
I didn't believe in angels.
Dragons were also problematic.
Once I realized I didn't believe in human-shaped beings from Heaven who could appear on Earth to pass along Godmail before hightailing it back to Heaven, a domino chain of disbelief was set in place. If angels no longer made sense as a concept, neither did the bad boy angel named Satan. After that, I couldn't make sense of Hell, miracles, a consistent version of Jesus' story, or original sin. For the next few years, I prayed that everything would fall back into place and that God would reveal a piece of the puzzle that would make my childhood faith make sense again. He didn't, so I made like the Anti-Journey and stopped believing.
It turns out I wasn't the only one walking away from the Christian church. Millions of American believers have left the faiths of their childhoods, and millions more who weren't raised in religious homes never joined, which is why the largest religious group in the United States isn't "Catholic" or "Evangelical" or "Muslims" or "Crossfitters." It's "Unaffiliated." There's an excellent chance you're in the same heathen boat. And if you're like me, you might be a little sad about it. Here's why:
You Miss Getting High On Worship
I have no idea why anyone thinks church is boring. In my experience, church was not a slog through old songs, tired rituals, or heavy-handed sermons; it was an addictive, engaging experience where I felt like I had a seat at the table with the creator of the Universe. My pastors were smart and likable. They did their homework and gave me something new to think about every week. I got to hear live music, and in the '90s people started lifting up their hands in services, which was really exciting. Close your eyes and lift up your hands after you read this article in your office. I promise it will be the most interesting thing that happens to your co-workers all day.
So I'm not kidding when I say that church was addictive. By college, I doubled down on getting more church in my life by going to a Baptist school. I found my way to some kind of service at least four times a week, not including school-mandated chapel, Old and New Testament classes, student-led Bible studies, or daily devotionals I did on my own time. My freshman parking lot was empty on Sunday mornings and full on Friday nights. Every day was like another day of church camp, and I FREAKING LOVED CHURCH CAMP.
True story: Outside of family life, I haven't found anything else that fun or important since. I haven't found a spiritual mission or a way to connect with the same people every week. I haven't even found a way to sing with a group, which it turns out was lowering stress levels the whole time. Brain scans of 19 Mormons revealed that their brains' reward centers went flippin' bananas when they were praying and having spiritual experiences. Personally, I wouldn't rely on MRIs from 19 people to assign such a salacious headline, but you do you, CNN.
Like love AND DRUGS?!?
Here's what's really interesting to me: A Buddhist person who repeats a mantra over and over can have the same brain activity as a Catholic person saying the Rosary or an evangelical worshiper singing a ten-word praise song for 20 minutes. As you get deeper into prayer, chanting, or mind-numbing singing, the part of the brain that controls sensory intake decreases. You lose your sense of self and feel like you're blending in with the Universe or feeling God's presence, depending on your cultural background and what you're going for. If that's not getting high, I don't what is.
It's been ten years, and I've chased that high with yoga (too expensive), meditation (really hard), jogging (too lazy), and wine (too lethal in big doses). My daily life is a real-time demonstration of the lyrics to Closer To Fine.
And by the way, do you know who invented the praise band and jeans-wearing, real-talking pastors of the modern casual churches? The same people who invented about a dozen other ways to get you high: hippies. When the Haight Ashbury scene started turning sour, born-again hippies repackaged Jesus as someone who could get you higher than acid and keep you going longer than speed. I haven't tried speed or acid yet, but I definitely think they were onto something about Jesus being a good drug.
You Miss Your Culture And Community
If it were up to me, I'd go back to church, full stop. You might be saying, "So go to church then, idiot." The thing is, that domino effect I described a few minutes ago wasn't a fun illustration to take you on my faith journey. The last domino was the cornerstone of my entire faith. Did I believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, that he died for our sins, rose again, and is coming back to Earth to claim his followers in the future? It took some years to confront it, but no, I didn't think the creed of my whole religion was factually true. It was a heartbreaking admission. And you don't just waltz into church and pretend like you aren't on board with everything everyone else in the room stands for.
Actually, scratch that. You can, and I did it for years.
After I prayed for God to flip the switch back so I could be a believer again and nothing happened, I kept going to church. Walking away from a belief system is as easy as rejecting the idea that two plus two equals five -- you confront the evidence and work with the aftermath. Walking away from a support system is a whole other ball of nope. As a kid, my church family filled gaps that I could never repay. They helped my mom with back-to-school clothes, doctor appointments, childcare, utility bills, babysitting, teacher conferences, flat tires, housing ... just housing in general, and getting me into college. And that was just childhood; as an adult, I had a whole separate church family who hosted my baby showers and brought me casseroles after my kids were born. I cherish every memory I have of the people I shared my faith with.
It's probably obvious by this point, but I haven't duplicated that environment outside of church. I cherish my co-workers, but I only see them in person every few years and none of them have made me a casserole, not even once. They're still pretty cool, though.
Leaving the church means walking away from an organized support system of people who care about you and want to see you succeed. But it's also a disruption in your culture. I might be the first person on one side of my family in three or four generations to stop going to church and not pass the faith on to my kids. Do you know the old gospel song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" The circle is a family of believers who will reunite in Heaven after death, and the song is sung from the perspective of a narrator leaving his mother's funeral. In my family, I broke the circle.
Speaking of music, think about every genre of music that was built in American churches. Without worship, there'd be no soul music, R&B, rock, country, or grime [sources pending]. The millions of us who left the Christian church are also shutting out a source of inspiration that's fueled thousands of years of art, and I feel really gross about it. By the way, here's how I really know I'm missing out on something important by not going to church: I know my Christian friends and family who read this article are going to add me and my family to their prayer lists. That's a huge deal, and I'm grateful and take it seriously.
You Miss Magic
The hook of Evangelical Christianity is that believers have access to the creator of Universe just by asking for it. You don't have to be rich, literate, clean, pretty, smart, or a non-murderer to talk to Him. God is for everyone. The idea of a personal God who can take away disease and reunite you with loved ones after death is intoxicating. Meditation kind of tries to get your brain to that space, but it's a ton of work. Jesus says, "Tell me your problems and I'll solve them for you. And if I don't solve them, it's for the best. Trust me." I've looked, and there's no equivalent to that kind of problem-solving outside of religion.
Nonbelievers, imagine that there is no problem that you can't walk away from because everything is in God's hands. Oh, you're unemployed? Pray about it. God is in control. He'll either help you find a job or not -- either way, He's in control. Are you depressed? Ask God to help. Whatever you're going through is happening for a reason. Are you sick? It's not God's fault, but he will get you through it. Elections aren't going your way? That's definitely the Devil at work, but we can pray about that because God made the Universe and has a plan.
If that sounds petty, it's not. The ability to hand over your deepest problems to someone else is Christianity's killer app, one that has absolutely no equivalent in the secular world. I don't even know if there's an equivalent in any other religion, but I haven't investigated all of them that deeply. Christianity doesn't promise your life will be easy, but it promises that someone is looking out for you, has your best interests at heart, and wants you to succeed. And even if there's no hope for your life improving, your entire eternity will be amazing if you just follow Him.
This is a warning: If you're a lukewarm believer considering calling it a day on your faith, know that the warm, gooshy feeling you get after asking God to take care of your problems is irreplaceable.
And the only problems I've confronted since my secularization are unemployment, depression, and this one time when I couldn't find my car in an airport parking lot in the middle of the night. I haven't faced cancer scares or crippling drug addictions or major traumas with my children yet. They're coming, I'm sure, because I'm a human and everybody faces death, sickness, violence, and tragedy at some point. I have no idea how I'll handle those things without God in my life.
(Side note: Christian friends, please don't pray for a major disaster to bring me and my family back to Christ. I've seen you do it. Also, I miss you and we're still friends.)
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You Miss Your Best Friend
When Bible Paul (of the Bible) said "Pray without ceasing," the people who eventually called themselves Christians took his instructions to heart. As Christians, we are told God has a pipeline not just to our verbal prayers, but also to the thoughts in our heads. We have the privilege of being able to pray in every waking moment. If you think a thought and then direct it to God, it's a prayer. Those instructions are liberating as a guide to speaking to God without getting on your knees and folding your hands at your bedside like a little child in a Norman Rockwell illustration, but they're also intense in the grand scheme of things.
If you're dead serious about praying without ceasing, you start to condition your internal monologue toward an audience of one. If God is listening, you can ask Him to help you find your keys, get to class on time, pass a test, find the right boyfriend. Also, if God is listening, you can confess your mental screw-ups in real time and ask for forgiveness. And you better be fast about it, because Jesus said that just thinking sinfully is as bad as sinning.
As I type this, I'm realizing the whole "God is in your head" thing might sound ominous and invasive to nonbelievers, but it didn't feel that way at the time. In fact, believing someone is listening to every thought makes you feel like you are never alone. And this was before the internet, when I really was alone for a good chunk of time. Actually, the internet is a good analogue for what having Jesus in your life is like. Suddenly believing God wasn't in my head or reading my journal or listening to my prayers was like suddenly finding out the internet is nothing but your mom echoing back the things you want to hear -- or worse, it's a different version of you. Giving up my faith was Fight Clubbing myself, and I'm not even totally sure it was worth it.
And that's the end of my story. If you were looking for a nice conclusion about finding comfort in science or reason or bullet journaling, I don't have it. Every step has been uncomfortable and weird, and I definitely wish I still believed the things I used to believe. But I don't. I'll let you know if anything changes.
Kristi will keep you updated on every second of her spiritual life and will listen to your stories over on Twitter.
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