Surviving Church


I see all kinds of runners on Sunday mornings, people who maybe have had a childhood of showing up for Sunday School with scrubbed faces and slicked hair. People who maybe have drifted far away from what they thought was their faith, and so perhaps reason that it wasn’t their faith after all but only a pale facsimile of their parents’ guilt-ridden compulsion. And yet they often come back from their long runs, quietly sliding into the pews hoping for something like meeting Jesus but also hoping for nothing like not to be noticed or greeted. I often think that we all sense that there is meaning somewhere in the mix, a message of love and belonging that shushes the hollow tones that resonate inside you of you are alone, you are alone, you are alone. I often wonder if people like me are making it easier for them to meet Jesus, or are we just getting in the way with all our bells and whistles?

As a lifelong churchgoer, I have difficulty with the majority of Sunday morning church services I have attended. I am troubled by the non-participatory music. I am bothered by the practical advice that often stands in for a sermon. I long for more than a handshake and a smile from others. Yet out of all of these, what worries me the most is that too many of us, like thespians of ancient Greece, don brightly painted comic masks while we inside, we rot. These kinds of people are the ones who sing perfect harmony in the choir and then go home and beat their spouses. These are the kinds of people who hold out one hand of welcome but sharpen their daggers with the other, waiting for another back to stab.

It is a miracle that some of us survive a childhood in church. This is not because the church is any worse than any other organization, but because we are taught several times per week that following Christ—which most of us profess we do when we call ourselves “Christian”—leads to some kind of deep personal transformation and continued growth. And if that happens, we are told that the world around us also becomes renewed as God works with us in redeeming all aspects of it. It’s a grand vision that belongs to an all-consuming story, but all too often, life with other sinners wounds us almost to the point of no return. The lingering question that many of us have is that if following Christ is transformative, why does it seem not to make a difference to many people in power?

I often work with people with these kinds of stories. For some, it was not that being churched-up was altogether awful, it was just that what was presented as the Christian life was uninspiring and insipid.

The goal of psychotherapy for people with these kinds of stories isn’t necessarily that they make a grand return to the passionate faith of their youth. That, I think, is the work of pastors and concerned friends.  Even then, should one should return to one’s faith of their youth?  What might be even better is a mature faith that doesn’t instantly burst into flame like a wad of shredded newspaper, but maybe one that burns slowly and intensely like a charcoal fire. Most of all, what is needed for people to return to faith at all is the work of the Holy Spirit, who sometimes rushes like a wind and at other times whispers in a voice so small that you wonder whether you heard rightly at all.

People who have walked away from their faith will have reasons for coming to psychotherapy that vary according to the person’s goals for themselves. This may not include going back to church. For many, to go back to a church is to be slapped in the face with flashbacks of past traumatic relationships, betrayal of trusts, and outright abuse. In many cases, going back to the church in which people have grown up would be nothing short of calamitous.

I enjoy working with people who have a complicated faith. This is because there, in that wrestling, I see the seeds of genuineness. Authenticity may be a generational buzzword, but I think it is something that all people desire: to be, as far as they can, simply themselves.

Yet you cannot be a self you do not have, and being a self requires peacemaking with the traditions in which you grew up. It is not as though you need to go back the way you came, but in order to “move on”—as so many of my clients say they want to do—it is good to recognize the places you have come from and how they continue to guide the way you feel, think, and even act. Rejecting these traditions, even if they are only empty, means rejecting a part of your self-story. And when a piece of your story is missing, it becomes that much more difficult to compose a coherent narrative of how you came to be and where you hope you are going. What I hope for with every client I meet is that they begin to have a sense of “wholeness” in themselves that comes from learning to accept all that is within them.

As a Christian, what gives me the kind of hope that someone could possibly be at peace with all their inner parts? That they need not turn away in disgust from the things they think to be repugnant and unlovable? Only that if I take God at his word, we are seen with a profound gaze and still deeply and wholly loved, even when we have nothing but contempt for the parts of ourselves we wish we could lose.