I worked at a church for 18 years … 18 years of Bible studies, services, ministry and leadership. It has now been over a year since I’ve attended a church service at the building I called home. Two decades ago when I went through a Celebrate Recovery Step Study, there was a woman who was in recovery from church. I thought that was an off-beat reason to enter into a recovery program, but it makes perfect sense to me now.

“Unchurched” was the Christian buzz word in the hallways of the church I worked at. We were trying to pull the “unchurched” into church, debated how to reach the “unchurched” , celebrated when an “unchurched” family showed up in church and prayed for those lost “unchurched” men, women and children.  I am now one of the “unchurched” and for now am perfectly OK with that status.

I stepped into the church after my mother’s death, which was profound on many levels. In those final moments when her heart was still beating and the lungs still drawing for breath it was physically obvious that her spirit, the entire essence of her being had already left her cancer battered body and that provoked questions … big questions.  Upon returning home I began seeking answers and the church seemed like the best place to get answers.

I don’t know that I got the answers I was looking for, what I did get was a head full of more questions.  So I asked, and I read, and I listened, and I practiced Christianity.  In the early years of my new and growing faith, my behavior resembled the behavior that used to scare me away from churches and the Bible.  I felt the need to slather everyone around me with my new enthusiasm for Jesus with expectations that they too would see the light and jump on board with me. How could my friends, family and strangers not see the truth?!  That brand of evangelism felt like an ill-fitting pair of shoes that you continue to wear even though they hurt your feet.

Eventually I took off those tight shoes and returned to the familiar and comfortable bare feet that allow me to feel everything I step on or into.  Jesus washed the bare feet of others and allowed others to wash and perfume his own bare feet, taking those sandals off was a radical act of humility and love.  The longer I spent inside the walls of the church, the more I felt like an impostor loudly proclaiming the truth while wearing shoes that were giving me blisters, when what I really longed for was the quiet barefoot Jesus.

Working in ministry for money is not for the faint of heart, it has the potential to really, really mess with your spiritual life.  The inner office wing was filled with regular people like me, some who tried to mask the pain of walking in shoes that no  longer fit. There were times it did not feel like a safe place to be unsure, to question or to disagree with what was being taught as concrete scriptural truth.  We all had real life problems going on and my impending separation and divorce after 20+ years of marriage was a big one for me.

My experience of going through a divorce as a very visible leader in a church was an eye opener.  I generally experienced one of two things, complete avoidance of the topic OR the need to quote every scripture related to marriage that could be found, meant to encourage me to stay in a place that was no longer working. Neither was very helpful.  I knew the biblical stance on marriage, I’d been wrestling with it for years. I actually had the pastor tell me my divorce was “awkward.”  Divorce isn’t awkward, it’s really quite tragic.  I did not take divorce lightly, and I now have great compassion for other families that are drowning in those deep waters.

I appreciate the lessons the mountaintops and valleys of leadership taught me.  And there are steadfast and inspiring individuals whose unwavering faith continue to be a lighthouse.  It is my time in the wilderness, barefoot in the sun. What an adventure it is to discover God, to practice love, kindness and tolerance outside the confines of organized religion.  I take deep breaths, choose my words carefully and think about God a lot.  I still believe in a higher power, I need something outside my finite body to cry out to and be grateful for in this lifetime.

I sometimes walk my dogs past the church on Sunday mornings as the congregation files through the newly landscaped entryway and I smile and say hello to familiar faces.  Some have asked if I am in “fellowship” anywhere and while I am in fellowship all the time I know the real question is, “Are you going to church?”  The answer is “No” and often the response is that they will pray for me, and I wonder what exactly their prayers will be. I don’t tell them that I can always use more grace, forgiveness, and gratitude.

To those that are happily embodied in the life of a church, I applaud you and will be slightly envious of the joy that it brings to your life.  Maybe there will be a day that organized religion brings that same solace to my life but today I am headed out into the world, barefoot on rocky ground.

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Keep Looking Upward,

Hillary D.

10 thoughts on “Unchurched Church

  1. The Church is the body of Christ. Though there are many hardships, one fact remains. If you are hurt by and therefore leave the “true” church, you must ask yourself “was I there truly for God or for man”. Going it alone is just like a sheep who leaves the flock

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    1. Nathan,

      I understand the bigger picture you’re presenting but this is an example of the language I struggle with! Just because I am not in church on Sundays does not mean I am “going it alone.” My life is full of people who share my beliefs, only share some of my beliefs and don’t believe anything I believe to be true and they all teach me something every single day.

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  2. Thanks for posting this Hillary. I get it. I really do. Especially after experiencing a messy transition from “the church” we’re both very familiar with. My beloved wife has stated recently, “I really understand why people leave the church after the pain we experienced…”

    After reading your post, this one popped up in my inbox so I read it as well: http://www.transformingcenter.org/2017/06/what-kind-of-church-are-you/

    Seems that you’re not alone. Most Christian leaders–including myself–and others end up here… wrestling with the question, “Is the current way we “do church” really what Jesus had in mind?”

    I’ve watched really good people, like yourself, go down several different paths: some go the route of angst, others the path of apathy, and still others get filled with animosity.

    I’d love to welcome further conversation on this topic… if you’re willing.

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    1. Tony,
      I can’t speak to your journey in the church all I have is my personal experience as a faithful servant, member and as your employee. There are not many things I know for sure, but I can honestly say that I will never work in ministry for money ever again. Those two pathways create a dichotomy that makes it far too easy to lose sight of what we’re really supposed to be doing, this I know to be true.

      You are a smart man, and I know you must understand the leadership choices that were made to those who became successful church members AND the “good people” who fall away. Angst, animosity and apathy have all had their place in my healing process but are not places I linger for long … life is far too precious to spend much time in those realms. Working in a school these last 4 years have been eye opening. Every day I am faced with kids who are in poverty, struggle with thoughts of self-harm, are reconciling their sexual and/or gender orientation, have drug problems, are hungry … the list goes on. It is where I prefer to be and thrive, in the trenches with humanity finding our way together while practicing kindness and respect even though we may not see eye to eye.

      As my favorite prayer reminds me, I am “reasonably happy” in this life. It is not without its challenges but I am healthy, emotionally stable, mentally strong, and spiritually seeking and as always, open to continued conversation.

      Be Well,

      Hillary D.

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  3. Hillary,
    After being kicked out of a church for questioning the idolatry that was happening within the congregation for the pastor, I was deeply hurt. Like you have discovered, our faith is not based on the church, our faith is based on the unconditional love of our Creator and His son Jesus. My wife and I recently re-entered another church in the community and many wounded people from other churches are there as well. We are happy there, but my faith is not determined by the people there. I am part of the body willing to serve where the Father leads. The fellowship is good, and it is nice to be with a body of believers again. We were without a church home for almost 2 years before we stepped in the door of our current church. Before those 3 years with what was developing into a cult, we had been out of church for almost 3 years. We found both breaks produced much spiritual growth, and realized we needed to share with others “in the faith” sometimes even more than those “out of the faith”.

    May God continue to bless you on your journey as you take the time to grow deeper in Him through your study of His Word and prayer life.

    I understand your contemplation on working and living off the tithes of others. I have difficulty with this when I have seen pastors live lavish lives while they coerce the poor and struggling in their churches to give their 10%. This is based off the old system of feeding the Levite class who took care of the temple. Now, with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the born again are the temple and the priest class has been replaced by the Holy Spirit, so tithing under Jesus’ instruction was for the poor not for a priest class. I have digressed; it’s the system in which we live today.

    You are speaking a truth and a good lesson that everyone who goes to church should think about. Are the “churched” being true to their Father in Heaven, or are they attending church for selfish reasons?

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