My Spiritual Deconstruction: Part 2

[This post is a follow up to Part 1 which I posted last year, you can read that here first if you want to get caught up.]

Onward and Upward

When I was twelve years old my family moved to a new town a few hours away where we didn’t know a soul. It was the fall of 7th grade for me. Now I don’t know about anyone else, but I was pretty much the walking definition of junior high awkward. I am positive that I’ve blocked out a lot things that would make me incredibly uncomfortable to talk about. 

Of course when we moved we had to find a new church. I can remember visiting a few before landing in a non-denominational new-ish church (less than 10 yrs old at the time). They met in a converted commercial space in one of those sprawling office parks with warehouses attached. You know the kind with a self-storage on one end and a pest control place on the other? I remember this feeling strange and exciting to me. The idea of church plants and building campaigns were completely foreign to me. 

The senior pastor was a silver haired, over-tanned, charismatic preacher who’s teeth were too white and suits looked too expensive. His wife was a financial advisor by trade, equally over-tanned and perpetually smiling, eyes wide, never seen in anything but a skirt suit (maybe slacks at the church picnics). My parents pretty quickly became involved in multiple ministries. 

90’s Youth Group Kids

I can’t remember much about my first night at youth group. It all blends together and it was too long ago. By the time I started high school, the guy who was the youth “pastor” seemed to have wound up in that position by accident. I recall his story of how he went to school for business, had never been to seminary, but the consensus was that made it even more amazing! He was fulfilling this crazy “calling” to be a youth pastor with, to my knowledge, zero qualifications. In fact I’m pretty sure he just needed a job, and there happened to be an opening. Because the old youth pastor (who was his brother-in-law) was getting divorced. But hindsight is 20/20 or something, right?

Our band of misfits called a youth group was a mixed bag of kids who grew up in church, kids who were invited by their friends, and kids who were forced to go by their parents or relatives. A few of those kids have remained my friends to this day. Some I stayed friends with for a long time but eventually lost touch. Out of all of them, there’s one I’ve had conversations about deconstruction with as an adult? And it’s safe to say that none of the rest of them know my actual opinions about the church now… 

{So if any of you are reading this, well, hi! I’m not trying to throw any of you under the bus, or assume what your memories or beliefs are as a result of that phase of life.} 

Something I should sneak in here real quick: did I mention my parents were volunteer youth leaders? They had worked with teens in church most of my life and that didn’t change once I became a teenager. This made for a tricky dynamic. My friends LOVED them. Most all of them called them “mom and dad.” This was great but also made it difficult for me to connect with friends on that deep angsty level thats so important for adolescents. I often bounced from friend to friend, with hardly any constants that remained throughout the years.

When I think back to those almost 6 years of my life, I feel like there are two distinct perspectives I see it from: that of nostalgia, where my brain has chosen to compartmentalize the positive memories (there are a few); and that of objective disassociation, when over the years its become increasingly easier to look back at the weird stuff (that I thought was totally normal at the time) and see how so many things were inappropriate or theologically a hot mess. 

The Roots of Religious Trauma

At age 14, on a regular youth group night, we were shown A Thief In The Night, which thoroughly reinforced any rapture anxiety that had already become common place in my subconscious. There were dramatic plays depicting battles between angels and demons. Stories of supernatural miracles, where God intervened for the faithful were very familiar. Musicals every Easter acting out the crucifixion and resurrection, where once again I endured the emotional and psychological mess of watching my own dad portray Jesus*. (*I had watched him do this in my elementary years as well. Also, a quick side note: to the best my knowledge my dad never offered up his white Jesus look-alike services but was asked to portray Jesus and agreed to. He is the most humble human being on the planet and without a doubt saw it as an act humility on his part, not one of power or control. That’s not his jam. He takes his faith very seriously, and never had ill intent. Yes, impact and intent are equally important here, but these kinds of expressions of faith were normal to him. No grudges held here.) 

With all this fear of the end times and glorification of the crucifixion, I came out on the other side as an adult with: (1) a serious avoidance of Easter all together, (2) a strong dislike for physical violence as entertainment of any kind (I was totally traumatized by Fight Club), and (3) a constant underlying fear of Christian-ing wrong because I did not want Jesus to come back before I could grow up and live my life.  

There were plenty of things that I questioned in real time too. Our church was not short on the drama. My parents were each on the church board at different times, the result being they’ve said they’d never do that again. The second youth pastor I had left wrapped up in a scandal, and we went over a year without anyone leading. I think I was 15. And together with another girl (who was 16) planned youth group every week. There was some adult in charge supposedly; who I just remember had no place being in charge of the spiritual growth of teenagers.

By the time the church hired a real youth pastor, I remember feeling burnt out, disappointed, bitter and just plain over it. So when that new youth pastor pulled me aside at winter camp that first year with us, and asked me to lead a small group of younger teen girls I was befuddled. Me? I wasn’t spiritual enough or wise enough or important enough. Looking back I think he could tell I was in a funk and was just trying his best to pull me out of it. And I was grateful for that.

Experiential Faith

But as time went on it got harder to keep it together. I liked this youth pastor, but he and his wife were pretty tight with my parents. And that was kind of uncool, for a teenager. I was wary of trusting him with anything too important. Ironically though, when I was a senior in HS, he was the one who convinced me I should apply to a 4 year college. To get out of my parents house and get some healthy separation from them. (That 4yr college was an over-priced, west coast, private christian college that I only spent one year at; more on that at a later date) 

At some point that same year, was the moment I knew I was “called” to something. To this day it’s probably the only spiritual moment in my life I don’t question. And it’s funny because I can’t even tell you the exact date, I just have a vague idea because I can remember it like a picture or a movie in my head. I was 17 years old. I can tell you it was during a Sunday night service (that’s when the real hardcore altar calls happened, you know) and the house lights were up. Which now sounds strange, but I don’t think it was cool yet to spend 3/4 of a church service in the dark. And when a pastor (you read correctly, I don’t remember which one, that part was insignificant I guess) asked people to stand up if they knew God had called them into ministry, I stood. 

Let me be clear: I had never stood for anything. I was the kid that had asked Jesus into her heart when she was 5 years old or some nonsense. I had never rebelled and then felt I needed to “rededicate my life.” Because I didn’t have some dramatic story of “falling away,” I didn’t feel as though I had any testimony to give. So, I had never stood for anything. I had never gone down to the front during an altar call to be prayed over. I always felt whatever my troubles were, they were too trivial to be prayed over, and God would think I was just doing it to get attention. 

So when I stood that night, it felt beyond my control. Like my body knew something my mind didn’t. But I was sure as I was about anything else. That the sky was blue and the earth was round. And to this day, no matter what turns my life took at any point after that, whenever I came back to a church, I would inevitably be reminded of that night. I would inexplicably be tapped for something; some small group to lead, some children’s ministry project, even a paid staff position I wasn’t looking for and didn’t need. 

It is what it is.

Maybe I’m naive for thinking these things were all connected. Or thinking the Divine would even bother sending me cryptic messages through white male pastors with questionable theology. But there are some things I still, just, believe. I touched on this more recently while recapping experiences I had at Evolving Faith in Denver earlier this month. And I’m sure its something I’ll continue to unpack and write about as time goes on. 

Regardless of my experiences being good, bad, or in between; they have helped shape who I am today. In a lot of these memories all I can sit back and say is: It is what it is. Maybe that’s the part of me that’s still numb. There are certain events, stories, etc that when I think about them they still make me angry. They still make me feel betrayed. Lied to. Manipulated. But I think the older I get the easier it becomes to use those feelings for good. The good of those still stuck inside. Or those who also walked away and feel alone or abandoned. 

Everyone deconstructs in phases. And each of us in their own unique way. I’ve come to learn this over the last couple of years, and if you’re interested in more on this concept I highly recommend this article by Mike Philips.

If you’ve read this far, I applaud you. Being vulnerable enough to tell this part of my story does not come naturally for me. It’s taken a lot of time to build up the courage, while holding space for the complexities. So with all sincerity, thank you. Thank you for holding this space with me.

[One final note to my fellow wilderness dwellers: Do not allow people from any part of your past tell you that you remember incorrectly or these things didn’t really happen, for the sake of their own egos. Own your truth, it’s yours and no one else’s. No matter how hurtful, painful or inconvenient that truth might be for someone else. This is a crucial part of being able to live your life free from the burdens we carry from our past.] 

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