Leaving the church [but not really]

Photo by rbrucemontgomery on Flickr

Photo by rbrucemontgomery on Flickr

Joe and I are starting a cult. 

Just kidding! But that is what I am afraid that some people will think we’re up to.

The thing is, neither one of us can stomach going to church anymore. Both coming from evangelical backgrounds, we’ve struggled with major guilt for not going, and for not wanting to go. We’ve flitted around several churches for years, trying to get involved, hoping that our deep wounds would heal if we just sat there politely, standing when the pastor instructed us to, and smiling if anyone looked our direction. 

This was an ill thought out plan. Now we’re dealing with wounds on top of wounds, which have festered for years. Both of us have deep resentment toward church, for different reasons, some of which overlap.

So walk away, right? Forsake the religion of our childhoods and start over. Atheism is so hot right now, and so is Zen Buddhism. Many of my friends, even the ones I met in Christian college, have left Christianity altogether. While I can’t say I haven’t been allured by this option, there’s something stopping us, and it’s not fear. It’s Jesus.

We’re not ready to let go of Jesus. 

With the new year before us, I’m excited about the changes ahead for my family. We had the obvious epiphany a few months ago that we won’t get better until we start to talk about this stuff. So we are. After burying the hurt for years, we’re broaching it often, talking and listening and praying for each other. Our families got earfuls around the holidays. My dear friend and I – who is dealing with much of the same stuff – have written essays to each other over text messaging, processing our thoughts and delayed reactions to stuff we were taught 10 years ago, stuff we’re finally seeing as toxic. 

One such text message conversation (which we have dubbed #textmessagetheology) revolved around the Christian philosophy that was forced on us in our teen years – namely during missions trips with Teen Mania Ministries – that dating is sinful unless you are dating your future spouse. They told us that if you date someone but ultimately do not marry that person, you essentially are having an affair with somebody else’s future spouse. They taught us that with each relationship we enter, we give away a piece of our heart that we can never get back. I think this thought may have been made popular in evangelical culture by the 1997 book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris. 

My friend tells me that this rigid thinking paralyzed her from dating not only in her teen years, but through the bulk of her 20s. Now approaching 30, she has only recently begun to enjoy casual dates without feeling like an adulteress. While the teachings didn’t quite have the same effect on me – I had a couple boyfriends before Joe – I know they contributed to my picture of God as a video game programmer who will only bless you if you are following his very specific and blueprinted will for your life.

Just in the last few years, after detoxing from those teachings, I’m able to see that God isn’t a formula. That relationships can be meant to be for a lifetime, or a season, to teach you something about yourself or the world. That our capability to love is infinite and our hearts are not like an economy of an apple pie with slices that you give away forever. This is not to say that some relationships don’t leave you hurt or damaged, because they do. But telling teens that they are being adulterers if they date someone who doesn’t end up being their spouse a practice in manipulation and a grasp for control. I am finally calling it out for what it is. 

So this year, as I process this stuff with family, friends and my faithful readers, Joe and I have decided to start a gathering…group…dare I say church? Or a “Listening Circle” as Emily Maynard writes about today at A Deeper Story

For now, it’s a Thing We Haven’t Named, and at this Thing, which we will host in our living room, we will meditate on scripture and share our stories. So far, we are the only two members – but I’m officially inviting all of you who read my blog to join us on Wednesday nights. We do not have all the answers, and if you think you do, we don’t want you around. Kidding, sort of. All I’m trying to say is don’t come looking to us for a prescription for your life because we don’t have one. What we can offer though, is a safe place to seek Jesus together. 

Just from the tiny bit I’ve shared on this blog, I know I’m not alone in the journey. So please, if you can relate to any of this post, comment or message me. I think part of our healing necessitates us to reach out to others in similar spots.



  1. Lauren on January 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Yep. I was taught the same thing, not by my family (my dad was super supportive and awesome), but from a youth group I attended in junior high. I eventually ended up in a much better faith situation in high school, but those thoughts stuck with me and snuck up again through friends and acquaintances in college. I read the book you mentioned. I thought that dating was all about the future spouse and especially believed that any physical relationship within that relationship was sinful.

    And then I met my husband. He wasn’t raised that way. He dated a lot. And as much as I hate to admit this, guess who is the more emotionally mature, reasonable one in our relationship? My husband.

    I think I’m supposed to write that I’m happy that my second boyfriend was my husband. I am happy that I found my husband, absolutely! But I do wish I had dated more.

    Excited to hear about your gathering! Sounds like a great project!

    • creatingmom on January 6, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      It’s funny you say that Lauren, because my parents never projected that kind of thinking on me either. It was stuff I learned at youth group, teen conferences, in Christian dating books, etc. I don’t know why I felt compelled to follow it.

      Surrounding the whole kissed-dating-goodbye belief is this hyperbolic thought that a relationship not ending in marriage is a tragedy. I really believed those leaders that told me any boy I dated before my husband would be a threat to my future marriage. The reality is, Joe and I talk about our exes now and then for a laugh, but neither of us feel threatened or jealous or cheated by each other’s past relationships. If anything, those failed relationships taught us about ourselves and shaped us into better people.

      I passed up many opportunities to date because I was so caught up in the courtship philosophy that I believe I missed out on some of the fun of being young and single.

      Thanks for sharing. It helps me feel like less of a freak that someone else has been there.

    • Deb Cunningham on January 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Applause……you are not leaving the church, you are the church. So happy to hear the work that God is doing in your heart in desiring fellowship God’s way. If you have a chance check out Frank Violas books Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church I believe you will be encouraged and the pieces will fall into place. You are a member of a royal priesthood and Christ is head so open your doors and enjoy Christ reigning in your home.

      • creatingmom on January 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm

        Thanks Deb! So weird you mention Frank Viola because I just stumbled on something he wrote as a guest on another blog. made a mental note to read more of his work, and now I’m make sure to. Thank you for your encouragement. I am excited to see what happens.

  2. Laura on January 6, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    When I was a young teen, the pastor of the youth group I sparingly attended was preaching on dating, and essentially how it was sinful because typically when you date it means you’re attracted to someone, and if you’re attracted to them, you’re probably lusting. It breaks my heart when I look back on those days and when I wonder how many kids today are getting the same kind of speeches. In my experience, the church has a specia way of taking a natural and typical experience and making it sinful and shameful.

    My favorite was when this pastor used an illustration to show us how dating people other than the person we would marry would ruin us. He took two pieces of paper and told is that one piece represents you and one represents your boyfriend/girlfriend. He glued them together, symbolizing a relationship, and then tore them a part. He showed us the bits and pieces of paper left over and stuck to the other paper and told us that’s what happens when you break up. Pieces of you are left with him/her and vice versa. He did it a few more times with other pieces of papers until all that was left was scraps. Ruined. Worthless. It’s quite the image. Very sad that this is being preached to young kids. You’re ruined if you have any relationships other than your spouse. Stuck with me all these years. I wish I lived close enough to come to your group.

    • creatingmom on January 7, 2014 at 12:00 am

      This made me so sad to read, Laura, but I am glad to know that I’m not alone.
      I remember the construction paper relationship illustration now, and I had totally forgotten about it until you brought it up. Sometimes I wonder if we just grew up in frenzied evangelical times, and leaders now preach a more balanced message and help teens foster healthy friendships with the opposite gender. Perhaps they leave the whole issue of dating in the hands of the parents to decide what boundaries are best for their own children. Perhaps?

      But something tells me this is still happening at churches youth conferences around the country. I wonder how many kids have married the first person they dated, in college or whatever – not because that person was their soulmate, but because they were terrified of becoming that piece of construction paper. Thanks for sharing your story and jogging my own memory. You have come a long way.

  3. Michelle on January 6, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Got here via the post on A Deeper Story, which I so resonated with. I also share quite a few aspects of your story as well. The Listening Circle or your Thing sound like something that would be so life-giving to me right now. Wish we were in the same place (not sure where you are, but I’m in NC) or that I could find something like that here. Best of luck in processing and growing and not giving up on Jesus.

    • creatingmom on January 7, 2014 at 12:09 am

      Oh man, yeah I’m about 3,000 miles away in California. Bummer, because I’d really love to connect. I guess we’ll have to do our life-giving over the lovely interwebs. Thank you for the encouragement.

  4. unkleE on January 8, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I’m a much older person, but I encourage you in what you are doing. My wife and I have tried to follow God and he has led us into and out of churches several times in our 47 years together. I think we are only sometimes called to try to change the way “big church” is done; more often I think we are called to get on with following Jesus. God’s blessing on your lounge room get-togethers! 🙂

  5. Andrea on January 9, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Hey! Found you through the Weds link up! This is a fantastic post and I appreciate your honesty and sharing of your heart. I thought I became a Christian a couple of years ago before my husband and I got married, but we both fell out of it for multiple reasons. I’ve felt kind of lost and confused when it comes to Jesus and faith…I’m looking forward to reading more from you and am adding to my bloglovin’ feed so I can follow along. -Andrea 🙂

  6. Nancy on January 24, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I’m so looking forward to reading more on this topic from you! I love your discussion group idea…If we lived closer, my husband and I would be there in a heartbeat! As someone who has been in the church since the day I was born, I can relate to a lot of this. For me, much of my life has been about blindly accepting what I’ve been told by people “older and wiser” and not searching out answers for myself…I’m working on that but it’s a hard habit to break! I love that you’re not letting go of Jesus – He is the only truth and will reveal himself to you as you seek. I hope & pray you will find what you’re looking for…and I’m looking forward to searching along with you!

    • creatingmom on January 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

      Thank you. I’m glad you want to hear more, because I have stories burning inside me to tell, as I’m sure you do too. It feels so good to finally search on my own, like you said. Wish you did live closer.

  7. sgn15 on July 13, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Carly, I am so happy that I randomly came across your blog. I grew up in a charismatic non-denominational church and you describe it perfectly in many of your post when talking about the church you grew up in. There are many friends that I grew up with in that church that have left the charismatic movement as well and we talk about how we sometimes forget that we are not alone in growing up in churches like that…Our church was one of the only charismatic type churches in the area so it was easy for us to feel that way.

    With all that said, this post really hit home as after leaving (right before college) my childhood church I began to really question my beliefs and would not even think about going to church. After a few years in college my girlfriend (she grew up cooperative baptist) and I thought we would begin to find somewhere to attend so we could get involved with a community. We tried a lot of the “hip” churches that have the cool music, coffee shops, and causal dressing (basically churches like I grew up in, but without the screaming, dancing, etc etc..). All of these churches were a lot calmer than the one I grew up in, but my skin would just crawl when I attended them…Mainly would feel this way with the concert type performance in praise and worship. Something was just still missing for us. After my girlfriend suggesting we decided to switch it up a bit and attend a very traditional/high church United Methodist Church. We fell in love the first Sunday, especially me. The church I grew up in would use the word “tradition” as an evil word to describe the people and churches that were not on the same level of Christianity as we were (Sigh). I loved every aspect of the service…I loved the traditions (like saying the apostles creed together) that had been done for years before us as you know that you’re part of a community that has done this very same thing for centuries throughout Christianity. I loved that there was actual order within the service as I find that comforting since life through the week can be so hectic (as you know charismatic church services can just be down right chaotic)….So for me, church is somewhere that life can seem peaceful and for one time a week like there is order in the world we live in. Then of course most importantly, there was a great theology based sermon from the pastor. The sermon had depth (and each sermon still does) and was focused on a point. Thinking back (and having a girlfriend that is working on her masters in Theology at Duke University) I noticed many pastors I heard growing up would not have a theology based sermon and their sermons would jump all over the place instead of being focused. Lastly, we fell in love with the United Methodist Church because of their foundation. The churches founder, John Wesley taught/lived Grace and the church still teaches this today (I’m sure some do not). One thing the UMC believe is taking sabbaticals and really taking a Sabaoth sometime during the week. They believe in pastors taking long (month or longer) sabbaticals to spend time with their families and to rest. They believe in taking a Sabaoth anytime of the week to just relax and breath. I love this aspect because I believe people get so caught up in doing “church works” that they just wear themselves down…It also is nice to not be judge if you miss church.

    Wow, my apologies for writing so much…It was not my intention to do that or write an infomercial for the UMC. Haha

    I guess your story just feels so familiar that I wanted to let you in on my recovering journey. You and your husband might have already tried attending a high church/traditional church (episcopal, presbyterian, and UMC) and it isn’t for you, but if you haven’t you might should try it as it has been refreshing for me (I realize it is not for everyone though).

    You might have already read this, but this is an interesting article that talks about millennials returning to churches, but it isn’t contemporary ones. I believe a big reason for this is because how accepting a lot of these churches are. Also, our generation wants a sermon that has actual real theology in it.

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