This year, I'm making a point to attend the Wednesday Lenten prayer services. I don't know if prayer service is the right term, but it's probably the closest. These aren't prayer services in the way most Evangelicals would think of the term. They have a format closer to a regular church service and contain a scripture reading, music, and brief sermon. But their overall focus is to drive you towards prayer and contemplation, providing a period of silence for both. Last night's service was a service of darkness and light, with a candle procession. It was beautiful. But what has stuck with me most was the focus of the sermon the pastor gave.
As I've mentioned, Lent is a season that focuses on forgiveness. It is a time when we seek to forgive and learn what it means to be forgiven. During last night's sermon, the pastor (who is the youth pastor) told the story of a youth camping trip in which one young boy fell behind during the canoe portage as he struggled under the weight of the pack he was carrying. The pastor went back to find him and offered help. The stubborn young man gritted his teeth and stated "I can do it." As he slowly walked with the boy, the pastor asked "What will it take for you to let me help you? What do you have to prove?" He said that at that point he realized that this wasn't just about the pack. It was about all the struggles in this boy's life. It was about being the smallest, being bullied, being overlooked, etc. It was about all the burdens that he carried from the difficulties in his life. The pastor used this as a springboard to exhort the congregation to consider what burdens they are refusing to let go of, even when they are too much to bear.
It really made me think. As with anyone who has been hurt by the church, there are definitely areas in which I struggle to forgive. It's been beneficial to focus on those this Lenten season. (It's one reason I don't give anything up for Lent. I know that I would use the act of giving up sugar or TV to feel as though I was observing the season while I was actually avoiding the difficult act of forgiving those who've hurt me.) But as I started to think about what the larger burdens I carry from my painful exodus from Evangelicalism, I realized that there was one I haven't been acknowledging.
If I am truly honest with myself, I have to admit that the most difficult thing about my time in American Evangelical Culture is that it destroyed my self confidence. I don't mean that in a overly spiritual way, as in it humbled me not to rely on myself so much. I mean it in the sense that spending so much time their made me into an extremely insecure person. I don't know if I can fully explain it. And I don't know that I'm aware of the reasons for it myself. I don't think that this is the effect on everyone, but I also don't believe that I'm the only person who experienced this result.
I've mentioned before that I think A.E.C. (especially Conservative Christian College culture) usually has the result of leaving those within it with only two options: to dive in head first and continue to immerse oneself in it or to cut ties and try to establish you life outside of it. I obviously chose the latter. I can't say for sure why I feel like a more insecure person after being there, but I do have a few theories.
Here are a few of the things that I feel contributed to my growing insecurity.
Loss of a sense of identity - When you are at a place like Conservative Christian College or immersed in youth group culture or anything similar, you are constantly told that your identity lies in Christ. I don't disagree with this. But the way in which Christian culture defines what that means, may differ from your own understanding. You hit a point where you may feel too secular for the Christian circles you left, but too spiritual for the secular world you live in. It can be confusing.
Mean girls and cliques exist in Christian circles too - If you've ever spent any time in a high school youth group, you've probably been told repeatedly of the importance of being surrounded by other believers so that you will be encouraged. I'm going to let you in the secret they don't tell you. There are some extremely discouraging people within many Christian circles. Although, I have great, loving, and encouraging friends from my time there, it can also honestly be said that some of the meanest people I met were fellow students at Conservative Christian College. They would make fun of people, mock others' appearances, lie to people, look down on them, etc...just generally be mean. I even had a roommate that I caught joking about how everyone else in the school would understand if she killed me, because I was annoying her. It really wasn't better than anything I'd experienced growing up. In fact it was much worse. I mean, some of the people I hung out with in high school were non-religious drug users and I feel confident saying that the majority of them would agree that that crossed a major line. (She never did apologize, but instead reminded me that I shouldn't be so hurt, because it was just a joke. I hold no grudge against her and wish her well, but for obvious reasons do not keep in contact with her. Last I knew she is a pastor's wife who constantly makes posts online about things like the spiritual dangers of reading Harry Potter.) If you are slightly naive, as I was, the fact that you may encounter people who rival the nastiness of a jr high cafeteria environment may surprise you.
All the additional requirements - My freshman year, I took a drama class. One of our group assignments was to write and perform a short skit that expressed some concept of Christianity/faith. I was lucky enough to have some like minded students in my group. Rather than doing a gospel presentation (seriously, how many times can one watch a white boy extend his arms horizontally look longingly towards the crowd as if begging them to be saved?), we wrote a skit about a girl who has just become a Christian and what she encounters from other believers. From what I can remember, the basic gist of the skit was that this girl is walking with her backpack at school and encounters other Christians. The script went something like this:
Christian 1: Hey! I heard you became a Christian that's great!
Girl: Yeah, I know. I'm really feeling good about it.
C1: Yeah, but you know, I am a little concerned. I think the shirt you're wearing is somewhat low cut. Christians need to be more modest.
*C1 places a brick into the girl's backpack
Basically, it continued like this with other Christians reminding the girl that she shouldn't attend certain concerts or read certain books, etc. Each time they did, they placed a brick into the backpack to symbolize the weight of the burden they put on her, but adding all of these extraneous requirements to the gospel.
When you hear people constantly questioning how other Christians could do that, listen to this, watch that, or read this, you feel as though you will always be scrutinized under a microscope. It can feel as though some are just waiting to pounce on any shortcoming they find. Yet, since these are almost always extra-Biblical requirements, you never knew just what list you were supposed to live up to.
Judgements - On a closely related note, all that leads to judgements. I know, I know. This is a touchy claim to make. I have yet to meet a Christian who will admit that they are judgemental. As much as they talk about how they regret that some Christians are judgemental, no one ever seems to be able to admit to the judgement. So, I'll be the first. In the first few years I became an Evangelical, I was judgemental. To those I judged, I am extremely sorry. I cringe thinking of how often I heard people say something to the effect of "I'm not judging you. God has already judged you in the Bible. I'm just pointing it out." The frequent judgement and condescension of anyone who thought/believed differently was heartbreaking. If you've spent any time in American Evangelical Culture, I'm sure you've heard the phrases "I just don't understand how anyone can be a Muslim/Hindu/Democrat/Atheist/etc" or "I just don't get how anyone can believe in open theology/ghosts/allowing women to be head pastors/Arminianism/etc."
Those are the major points that come to mind. Overall, it's hard to be secure in your own identity when people are constantly telling you what you need to change. They claim that it is the Holy Spirit who changes people's hearts and minds, but they have no problem trying to take over that task. In many ways I don't like what that environment did to me. Even more so, I hate that I allowed it to do that. It's taken me years to start feeling comfortable in my own skin again. I'm getting there. There's absolutely nothing godly or Christlike about Christians who treat others cruelly or condescendingly, so it's a shame that so many people feel that way when they are around Christians. It's entirely contrary to the life the Christ. As Ghandi said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."