READER: I want to start by saying this- I’ve been sitting on this for a long time and there are a lot of you who won’t like this. I don’t speak it for you. I speak it for the folks who have left the church- specifically the evangelical church- who are feeling confused and alienated and ashamed. That’s who this is for. I make zero apologies for it.
From the moment that I emerged from my mother’s hoo-hah and into the world, I was part of the evangelical, non-denominational church. Growing up, we sat on the left side of the church in the second row. Everybody knew that those were our seats. Visitors somehow knew, too. I don’t know who told them. Probably angels.
When I got older, we were at a different church. Still evangelical, different row. I was in upper junior high now, approaching the peak of my coolness, so I sat in the back with the boy that I liked and my rebellious friends who were actually goody-goodies but who occasionally whispered ass while we all giggled, hoping that nobody would hear lest we go to hell.
For college, I skipped the formal education and went straight to a full on holy-ghost-anointed bible school, learning next to nothing but genuinely having a great time. Do I regret that experience? Not at all- some of my greatest memories and friendships were because of that place. It’s also where I had my first kiss and got drunk for the first time, coincidentally on the same night, less afraid that I’d go to hell. Bible college is still college, folks.
When I got home from college, I interned at a few different churches, ultimately ending up a MMC- mini mega church- in metro Detroit. I spent the next 10 years of my life there, up until I was 33 years old.
Jesus died when he was 33 years old, right at the peak of his ministry. I walked away from the evangelical church at 33 years old, signally a sort of death. One that, if we’re being honest, did significant damage.
I honestly don’t know what took me so long. My views on religion had been shifting for awhile, and the focus that the leadership possessed felt so different than mine. I wasn’t a pastor and I was a woman (I mean, I still am. This blog isn’t that juicy) so I often felt like maybe I was just wrong. Maybe all of the feelings and nudges and weird kicks in my stomach that I thought were little moments of this doesn’t seem right were actually just me not being submissive or not understanding the hierarchy of leadership. Because if there’s one thing that I was taught and learned quickly about lead pastors, it’s that they’re not wrong.
So, I ignored myself. I ignored my intuition and my gut feelings and all of the moments spent in my office feeling a little nauseated and chalked them up to me truly not understanding the ministry and the vision for the church.
But there was one thing that kept bugging me- one thing that kept coming back to me.
We weren’t willing to admit that we were human.
I remember the first teaching that I ever heard about prosperity. I was taught that Jesus was rich, and that he meant for us all to be rich. That if we were doing the right thing, tithing enough, and had enough faith, then we would be rich. And not just like rich in love or rich in faith, but like rich rich. Like Kylie Jenner self-made-billionaire rich.
So, I spent the next few years having good confessions. Confessing that I was rich. (Lying) Confessing that I was going to be prosperous (Hoping) Confessing that my bank account was overflowing (Psychic-ing)
But after reciting all the verses and watching a lot of Joel Osteen and tweeting so many spiritual things, I still wasn’t rich. In fact, I was really struggling. I was taking home a couple of hundred bucks a paycheck and stopped tithing because there wasn’t enough money to pay my bills. I started again when I was called into the pastor’s office so he could ask why I wasn’t tithing. He said I was stealing from God. So, I tithed again, choosing that over paying my bills. My credit score dipped below 400. My parents had to support me. I felt shame.
After that came healing. I had to be rich, but I also had to be physically healthy. And if I was sick, it wasn’t because somebody had literally sneezed on my face at Kroger, it was because I had unconfessed sin. We weren’t allowed to say we were sick. It was a bad confession.
So I didn’t. I would walk around, near death, snot-filled kleenex hanging out of my nostrils, telling people that I was healed in Jesus name. I didn’t need nyquil. I was healed. I didn’t need to go to the doctor’s office. Faith covered that. I was healed, I was healed, I was healed.
But then I had to have 11 surgeries in 6 months. And god didn’t heal me. I prayed, but I still had to have surgeries and take pain meds and pretend I was okay. I was ashamed. I couldn’t think of any sin in my life that was causing it, but there must be something. So I would lay awake, saying things like, “God, please forgive me of any sin that I can’t think of.” And then I would wake up the next day, totally sinless- like seriously more spotless than a freaking baby angel lamb- but still requiring tons of medical attention. I felt shame.
Then one day, at like 24 years old, I met a boy. I liked him a lot, and we had sex. And I felt horrible. Like truly- I felt disgusting. Because what kind of person who loves Jesus has sex? Who would do such a heinous thing. So I told my church leaders. I tried to remove myself from leadership. I knew that I wasn’t worthy of the office of the Lord when I was living in perpetual lust. I remember when I felt like I probably shouldn’t wear my purity ring anymore, because I wasn’t pure. I had let everyone down simply by losing my virginity. I felt shame.
Prosperity, Healing, Purity. The pillars of the evangelical church. The very tenants that formed the entire institution. Everything I did was based off of these three things. I was taught to be the most super-human version of myself: the version that doesn’t get sick, has tons of money, and has literally zero sex drive for anyone besides my future, opposite-sex partner but only AFTER we are married.
But I didn’t just have those expectations for me: I had to hold my friends to the same level of superhuman accountability. We chose accountability partners and drilled each other on purity and tithing and unconfessed sin and all of those things, not out of a place of empathy but out of a place of making sure that everyone was still robot-like, perfect whiter than snow sheep.
Somewhere, in the midst of loving god, I forgot that I was human. And I blamed myself for so long, but then I realized that I didn’t forget…it’s that I was never given an option to be human.
I had to be perfect. Like Jesus. There was no room for anything besides that. Don’t get me wrong- there was ample alter space to confess my sins and be made clean again- but the walk of shame to the front during the sinner’s prayer doesn’t feel great.
Where was the empathy? Where was the acceptance of the ugly stuff? Or not even the ugly stuff- the normal stuff.
I get sick when people wipe their snot on me. I struggle financially, especially around Christmas. I crave sex and all of the stuff that comes with it. And that doesn’t make me someone who lacks faith or self-control or the other fruits of the spirit that we are reminded of at weddings and True-love-waits conferences.
It makes me human. It makes me Leah.
Jesus didn’t hang with the perfect people. Partly because they didn’t exist, but mainly because he was too busy hanging with the gross ones. The sex addicts and the poor people and the sick ones and homeless ones and sin-filled ones. He rolled his eyes at man-made perfection. He found it repulsive and laughable. He condemned it at every turn.
And somewhere down the road, the evangelical church that I knew forgot that. They strove for perfection and beauty and everything-just-so and forgot how to be humans. They forgot how to be allies. They forgot…we forgot…how to just love people without asking them to change.
Even more than that- we asked perfection from people without offering them help. If you want a man to tithe, support him financially. If you want someone to not get sick, turn the freaking heat up a little bit in the sanctuary, MY GOD. We, in our attempt at perfection, crippled others attempt at every turn. We expected super-human christianity while knowing it wasn’t a real thing.
We have asked people to be someone they aren’t so that our church is full of people who make us look good.
I’m sorry to those who I demanded perfection out of in the absence of empathy and love. I’m sorry that I offered it once I thought that you were good for it.
I’m sorry to me for forcing myself to grasp at unattainable goals. I’m sorry that I didn’t say, “I feel like ass” when I was sick. I’m sorry that I believed that God would be mad at me if I didn’t tithe.
I knew I could do better. And the first thing that came with that was relearning what it meant to be a friend and an ally. I had to change my relationship with shame and guilt. I had to let go of the narrative that god was mad at me. I had to change how I viewed myself and others:
As humans first. Humans only.