Friday, February 4, 2011

When the Church is No Longer a Refuge: Why I Decided to Leave American Evangelical Culture

I sunk lower and lower into my seat. When I had arrived, I imagined that the unforgiving wooden pew and lack of air conditioning would be the most uncomfortable things I would encounter that evening. Now I would gladly replace every piece of furniture in my house with these very pews if this would just stop. I glanced around and my heart broke even further as I noticed the heads nodding in agreement with the preacher. A few people throughout the congregation were softly proclaiming “Amen” as the words kept flowing from the pulpit. Each one was a knife slicing to my very core.

“Maybe I’m wrong,” I thought. “Maybe I need to listen more carefully. Maybe he’s not saying what I think he’s saying.”

So I listened more intently, trying to focus through the fog of pain I was making a futile attempt to suppress. I hadn’t misheard. The words were exactly what I’d thought they were.

“We rely too much on psychologists, psychiatrists, and drugs. Depression…Schizophrenia…Bi-polar…Anxiety…”

“Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it. Please stop.” I continued to silently pray. And that’s when the fatal blow came.

“…Post Traumatic Stress…We are not relying on God with these issues. We need to stop turning to psychologists and turn to God.”

I wanted to scream. I wanted to make him stop. I wanted to let him know the destructive power of the words he was speaking. I wanted to tell him that he had no idea what it was like to struggle with trauma and have people in the church constantly telling you that if you were really trusting God this wouldn’t be happening. I wanted to tell him that he had absolutely no idea what it felt like to seemingly have your brain rewired in a matter of minutes. I wanted to tell him that sermons like this would make some people feel rejected by the church and ultimately by God. But I didn’t. I sat there frozen to the cold, hard, wooden seat glancing at my watch and hoping that the assault was almost over.

 After twenty minutes, which to me seemed like hours, he reached his conclusion. People around me were still smiling and nodding. The service wrapped up and we were dismissed. I saw a number of members greet the preacher and thank him for the wonderful and convicting sermon he had just delivered. I just hoped to reach the door before anyone stopped me to chat. I grabbed my coat and exited as quickly as I could. I didn’t pause until I was in my car with the engine running.

That’s when all the emotion that I had been holding back suddenly broke free. The tears were unstoppable. I felt absolutely crushed. Regardless of what had happened, people kept reminding me of the importance of attending a church, so I kept trying. But this continued to be the result. I was always taught that the role of the church was to bring healing to those who were hurting. So, that’s where I turned. I had quickly learned that by “those who were hurting” what most churches seemed to mean were unbelievers, teenagers that attended youth events, anyone encountered on a missions trip, and anyone else that would make for a good photo op or board meeting agenda item.  This sermon had only confirmed the harsh lesson that I had been learning over and over again: the majority of churches within American Evangelical Culture were completely unable and/or unwilling to help people work through long term psychological/emotional/mental issues. And in many cases, they denied such issues even exist.

I prayed that no one would suddenly go off their medication based upon that service. I thought of the generation of young soldiers that would be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom who would return with mental health issues. I thought of young women working through the shame and trauma of rape, as well as countless other scenarios that could lead to traumatic stress. How would the church respond? And what can be done to help make sure this doesn’t keep happening?

I didn’t have any of those answers. Instead I just kept driving, because I wanted to get as far away as possible from what I’d just experienced. I turned up the radio trying to drown out the echo of his words and raced towards the safety of home.

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