Life After Church, Part 1.

I don’t feel like a fundamentalist. I don’t self-identify as evangelical. But I grew up spending at least two days a week in the church where my mother and stepfather served as associate ministers. Our church was predominantly Black. The brick building had a blue awning that read, The Power of Faith Evangelistic Ministries. It was located across from the famed Pimlico racetrack, where the annual Preakness horse races are held. I was a member there from age 8 until age 16.

I finished high school attending a church that was something of a spin-off from Power of Faith. When I first started attending it, it was called Rock Church of Randallstown. It’s gone through about three or four name changes since then.

The two churches shared the same core beliefs and values, though their day-to-day management seemed to drastically differ, and among their chief commonalities were unspoken ideas that politics didn’t belong in the pulpit and ethical/moral ambiguities weren’t ambiguous at all. There were no greys. You were to ride for the side that was anti-abortion, pro-prayer-in-schools, for abstinence-only education, and anti-LGBT marriage. Often, no one bothered to even point out a specific biblical basis for these church-wide stances (though verses for some of these stances could be found). The fact that a spiritual authority — the pastor, a visiting preacher, a revival guests with a prophetic word — assured the congregation that these moral views were “in the Bible” tended to be enough for most of the members to go on.

Study of the Bible was encouraged. But questioning its context or attempting an interpretation other than the one being delivered in a sermon or class was frowned upon.

Faith was supposed to quell your need for persistent questioning. Right and wrong were cut and dried. There were no “But what if…?”s.

Growing up Christian and consistently church-going had its advantages. Sometimes—particularly during childhood—the simplicity of a “Because I Said So” existence is welcome and safe. I didn’t really care about the countless cases of “sin” that didn’t fit into any neat, succinct and pre-cut molds, formed in the year of our Lord, more than two millennia ago. I believed in “that’s just the way it is” as easily as I believed in “happily ever after.”

But almost invariably, there came a dichotomous moment within the church experiences of my youth group-attending peers: that moment when we chose post-high school paths. Ironically, it was our church that most fervently encouraged post-secondary education–though that encouragement came with no end of caveats. We were warned to be careful about what we internalized at our colleges, to vigilantly guard our faith against the probable attacks it would suffer in classroom discussions. We were admonished against taking the word of any professor who claimed to be atheist or agnostic (and it was likely that there’d be more who did make that claim than those who didn’t). And above all else, what we should immediately do, upon moving into any dorm far away was “find a good church home.”

Didn’t they know that, by advocating so diligently for education, we might learn how limited our childhood views had been? Didn’t they consider how seldom anything is ever cut and dried, black, white, or simple within liberal arts courses of study? Or were they so sold on the prospects of job placement and advancement that college had come to symbolize for the black community (i.e. “No one can deny a colored person anything if he got that piece o’ paper….”) that they didn’t anticipate the side effects of spiritual skepticism and overall jadedness?

The fact was: whether we went to the military, an HBCU, or simply some liberal arts school with absolutely no theological background or agenda, we all drifted into musings and pontifications far beyond the bounds of “Because They Said So.” We became known as a Post-Church Culture.

It was liberating but also daunting, as we often found ourselves neck-deep in conversations with peers who hadn’t grown up sheltered from the ethical and moral greys or the ubiquitous “what ifs”—peers who viewed us as naive and behind the curve when we began our stilted, elementary forays into the greys they’d been wading through and grappling with lifelong.

That is to say: the Post-Church experience is marked with countless instances when I feel totally green. I’m constantly self-conscious of the possibility that my socio/political/economic ignorance is showing.

By the time I finished college, I was no longer a member at either of my childhood churches, nor was I seeking to become a member of any other assembly. Nine out of ten of the former church attendees I knew were in the same position. Very few us shunned faith entirely in the aftermath of our questions and doubts; we were just in no particular rush to return to an assembly where our questions and doubts would fall on deaf ears.

So what will come of this post-church community, whose adult lives have been shaped by the haunting suspicion that things aren’t as irrefutable as we hoped and believed? It stands to reason that successive generations of upwardly mobile, Black-church-attending youth will have similar dichotomous moments–when it may become necessary to extricate themselves from the super-simplicity of their church’s dealings with a world where the stakes are constantly raising. Perhaps by then, we’ll find less polarizing ways to incorporate their post-secondary, Post-Church education with a faith experience that allows for the commingling of black and white.

21 thoughts on “Life After Church, Part 1.

  1. ksolo April 15, 2008 at 12:24 pm Reply

    beautifully written. i have struggled with the same post-church assimilation, having been raised both Pentecostal and Catholic (2 very stringent, ‘because i said so’ sects). fortunately, one of the nuns at my elementary school would always say, ‘by questioning your faith, you make it stronger’. My response was to continually engage those who were unlike me in conversations, and to delve into self-study of different religions / philosophies. After years of doing so, it has become increasingly easier to see the similarities in all faiths / practices… from devoutly Christian to rigidly atheist, even when the converssations between me and those of different walks become difficult.

    Each individual is a sage in his/her own right and spiritual tradition – I like to imagine this is how Jesus and his contemporaries approached discourse with each other. Each would speak the language of his / her own spiritual tradition, and each would depart with a stronger, yet broadened sense of that same tradition.

    k

  2. slb April 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm Reply

    ksolo- i know i few people who converted from pentecostal faith to catholicism (and vice versa). i always wonder what the draws are between the two sensibilities. one of my friends says she appreciated the rituals and symbols associated with catholicism (since pentecostalism is a bit less ritual/symbol concentrated and more impulse/”emotion-based”).

    thanks for your insights.

  3. quadmoniker April 15, 2008 at 1:50 pm Reply

    Thanks for this. I was never particularly religious but I grew up in an extremely evangelical community. I also have often felt totally green as an adult in dealing with some of these issues, though it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older.

    There was a guest on the Brian Lehrer show a couple of months ago talking about a study on the rate at which New Yorkers switch faiths, who is most likely to switch, and why. I’ve been trying to find it since I read your post. It was fascinating.

  4. slb April 15, 2008 at 3:16 pm Reply

    QM: I’d be really interested in reading that!

    I think ksolo’s right about there being more similarities than differences between faiths. I’m disinclined to switch b/c of that. Each has its drama and I still believe the foundational tenets of the faith I grew up with–even if I’ve broadened my scope to account for more of life’s complications.

  5. Steve April 15, 2008 at 10:00 pm Reply

    This was really good. One of these days I need to write something on growing up gay, extremely catholic and in Boston of all places..haha.

  6. aisha April 16, 2008 at 6:21 am Reply

    I finally did it.

    Have you found a church home yet?

    I’m not looking for one.

  7. struggling4air April 16, 2008 at 8:47 am Reply

    I really enjoyed reading your post today. I grew up in a holiness movement that from what i hear you saying was a lot the same. What is so different about the Bible and the Gospel story that we heard growing up is that it is packed full of people questioning Jesus about his saying and actions. Jesus never ignored them but answered everyone. The church is a place for people to feel safe asking questions and discussing the things of this world in response to the Gospel. If we cant ask questions at church where can we? If we cant wrestle with the Gospel with our Christian friends and leaders we’re going to be eaten alive in the world.
    I’m just a young guy. I’m 25 living in the Toronto area. I believe that if you’re looking for a legit worship experience, a Biblical worship experience and there’s other people in the same boat as you, create it. I’ll be praying for you. God Bless.

  8. zoecarnate April 16, 2008 at 12:13 pm Reply

    What a great post. There are more and more people today awakening to faith (even apprenticeship to Jesus) in a way that transcends religion. See zoecarnate for some bits I’ve picked up along the journey.

  9. Lyvonne April 17, 2008 at 7:34 pm Reply

    I happen to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. I grew up “religious” never really understanding my so-called foundation in the Episcopalean church. Entering college, I never expected to encounter Jesus Christ…but I did, and now I know that, through relationship (a key term), is faith established and salvation ensured. You can’t do anything in life “because ::enter authoritative figure here:: said so.” It has to be from the heart. In MY heart I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world and that didn’t happen until college. Do I engage in discussion? Yes, of course. But, I avoid silly ruminations. I thank God for knowing Him…personally. Be blessed!

    = )

  10. slb April 17, 2008 at 10:17 pm Reply

    We don’t obey the prevailing laws of the land “from the heart.” We obey them because someone called them laws and there are punitive consequences for any failure to obey them. There *are* things we do in life because an authority figure said so.

    Should establishing a “relationship with God” be one of those things? No. That’s not what the essay is about. It’s about coming to faith in an environment where *people* are enacting their relationships with God through their behavior. The fact is: you come to faith because someone shares the gospel with you. I don’t believe mankind is born “knowing God” (I could be wrong.). And if the people who “lead you to Christ” are people who can’t explain why any of the things they believe are true and life-affirming, other than to just say that those things simply *are*… because someone wrote them in what we consider our sacred text (i.e. they said so)–people who knew Jesus the man during his lifetime or people to whom an angel appeared or people who heard the voice of God through a burning bush, it’s fair and valid to feel alienated by the inability to apply logic to your beliefs.

    Hopefully, that utter inability doesn’t stop you from believing. But what if it does?

    Now, I anticipate a response like, “That’s why you’ve got to know Him for yourself.” And to that I’d say: how does one get to know God? Is it through prayer and bible study? Are you always praying and studying alone? If not, say you get to a scripture where you don’t understand–let’s say it’s in Leviticus. You ask the people you’ve congregated with to study, “What does that mean?” and they’re like, “It means xyz.” If their explanation makes sense to you, do you believe it? If so, isn’t that believing an interpretation of scripture because someone said so?

    Whether you believe your minister “from the heart” or simply because he’s your minister and you trust that his insights are grounded and godly, you’re still seeking guidance from a *person* and that person is encouraging you to obey God, because He (and he) said so.

  11. Ash April 20, 2008 at 6:02 am Reply

    I grew up Pentecostal/Holiness and I was the white Australian kid who always had to get ‘blacked up’ for the “Jesus love The Little Children’ routine in front of the church. now that was a surreal experience looking back, but in those days it as one of the more normal things I had to do.

    I tried going to Uni as a mature-age student, and I just hated it. I thought it would help me integrate, but in the Arts at least, it’s just another form of unquestioning fundamentalism. You find that out when you try to question it. I wish that life was simply about discovering the big wide world and everything magically works out, but for me that’s just Hollywood, and I mean that in the thoroughly derogatory sense.

  12. L VAZQUEZ April 22, 2008 at 6:01 pm Reply

    Greetings,

    This is my first visit to your blog! {waves}

    I have always been puzzled by people who toss away Christianity (not saying THAT is your case) because they encounter scores of churches who do not practice true Christianity. Because many ALLEGE to practice Christianity but do not is not a basis to reject Christianity. (Again, I am not saying THAT is your case.)

    As a minister, I do not claim to know everything and I do not claim to have reached perfection in my study of God’s word. If some people have been in church settings where the ministers who were teaching were NOT sound in Christian doctrine then they have a decision to make – challenge the doctrine being taught (after hearing God’s direction to do so) or to find another church where there is more of a willingness to be corrected so that God can receive the glory from the uncorrupted Word going forth.

    I meet many adults whose parents brought them into dysfunctional church settings as children and NOW they are resentful about the church and about church people. Shouldn’t the blame be on the PARENTS for continuing to be in that type of dysfunction to the degree that their children would develop a scorn for the Church?

    Lastly, I want to mention that there is a difference between “church” (a building) and Church (the body of Christ). Many who think they have encountered the Church – note the capital C – have really only been inside of a church.

    Thanks for letting me blow my trumpet!
    Minister Lisa Vazquez
    http://blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com

  13. slb April 22, 2008 at 8:13 pm Reply

    I don’t believe that the go-to response for people who’ve been hurt by a local church’s practices to scorn or resent Christianity as a whole, nor do I think the right response is to blame one’s parents, who’ve also likely been hurt by the same local church that hurt their kids.

    What *does* happen is that people become leerier and less accepting of random theology. People want things more fastidiously and intricately explained. They want their leaders to be held accountable, not just to God, but to those they serve.

    If they’ve attended churches where they haven’t received that, they’re going to become a bit more reticent about starting the process of visiting church after church looking for that.

  14. Brotheromi April 24, 2008 at 4:21 pm Reply

    “So what will come of this post-church community, whose adult lives have been shaped by the haunting suspicion that things aren’t as irrefutable as we hoped and believed?”

    simple,

    they will get old, have children, have a mid life crisis and come right back to the church and condition their children the same way they were conditioned.

    maybe about a good 10% won’t, but most will follow that path. Trust me, I seen it happen over and over. My father in law still claims that I will be coming back to church and that he had the same ideas when he was my age (he has been telling me this for the last 8 years).

  15. quadmoniker April 29, 2008 at 9:09 am Reply

    SLB:
    Found the study I was talking about in a New York mag article!

    “The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of its “Religious Landscape” survey in February and found that 16 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. The number is even greater among young people: 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now identify with no religion, up from 11 percent in a similar survey in 1986.”

    You can find details on their website, here: http://pewforum.org/

    More people switch from Christianity to unaffiliated or atheist, I’m pretty sure they said on the Brian Lehrer show. And people in New York are more likely to switch, I think. It was interesting.

  16. shanio April 29, 2008 at 11:54 am Reply

    I think I agree with Brotheromi. Isn’t this one of those cyclical things?

  17. slb April 29, 2008 at 12:12 pm Reply

    I can’t say whether or not it’s as simple as the “cycle of spiritual conditioning,” as I wasn’t raised by someone who’d grown up in church, had unsettling realizations about what went on at the church(es) she selected, left the faith altogether, and then hurried up and recommitted herself to her beliefs so she could raise me the same way she was raised.

    And I also haven’t completely rejected the Christian faith based on my concerns/problems with the way it’s been taught to me or practiced by others over years of observation.

    I like to believe that there are ways to navigate the disparities between what I was (erroneously) taught as a child/teen and how I choose to practice my faith as an adult. In so doing, I hope I’ll be able to provide any younger people I wind up influencing (my own kids or others’?) with a less jarring representation of Christianity than the one I had.

  18. ProDigit July 3, 2008 at 2:03 pm Reply

    Very nice!
    “What becomes of us…?”; I believe this is the challenge of the new generation. My grandfather fought in the worldwar. During the worldwar (as well as in many poor (financial)villages) food was very limited,and most people survived to eat much of the same food for extended periods of time.
    My reasoning is, that due to the lack of suficient vitamines,minerals, and nutrition the brain stops developing. That’s why many families, unless being rich enough to buy these variaty of foods, have less developed mind,and probably also not want to spend their energies on searching if what the pastor/priest is telling is the truth or not.
    They’ve seen parts of the horrors of hell; a war leaves a man with many questions, and often the only way out is the church.

    Today, I find myself as you; controversial in the church’s eyes.
    Not really able to comminicate with them.
    So what becomes of us..? Wel,a challenge for the new generation!
    We need to be wise, educate all that wich we lacked!
    If you got raised with a non loving father, who’d come home drunk, cursing, and beating; then be wise!
    Come home sober, blessing, and making your home warm and welcome for your wife and childeren!

    Don’t continue in the wrong ways of your father, but step into what you believe is right!
    And the only way to really believe what is right, is to start develloping a relationship with God, where you can hear God telling you all things that are truely good!
    Because everything that is good,and true, comes from above, from the Father of Light!

    If you miss friendship, then find a way to be a friend to others!

    With this, I hope I can be a help,and maybe a bit of a friend to you as well.
    Maybe this conversation will never grow bigger then what’s been said; but I believe what God said: Sow, and you shall reap!

    In your case you have learned many things. Try to see these things in light of the bible. Do they run parallel with the bible?
    And compare your knowledge to what’s written in the bible!
    That which is a definate match, teach that to your childeren!

    Giving them a high education is necessary! Though, don’t let them have it without knowledge of the bible!
    In a sence, the church you went to knows not much of physics, mechanics,economy etc…
    It knows (or supposed to know of) eternal life, Jesus, and of God.
    and that’swhat they taught you;even if they where a bit off here and there…

    Anyways, time’s up for me; time to go.
    Take care!

  19. Life After Church, Part 2. « PostBourgie December 19, 2008 at 1:43 am Reply

    […] (To read the first installment, written by slb, go here.) […]

  20. Life After Church, Part 3. « PostBourgie January 13, 2009 at 9:00 am Reply

    […] continuation of the series started by slb and […]

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