A few years ago, I gave up the ghost of trying to find a church where I belonged. Too many Sundays had been spent bored or alienated staring upwards waiting for a service to end. I tried a few denominations, none of them inspired me, although a few had some sparks that kept me returning.
Many times I found myself slipping into the back of a church like an addict trying to reclaim a high that I had lost somewhere along the path of leaving my teenage years. Almost always, I left unfulfilled. Conversion to another religion or to atheism does not seem to be the answer for me. While I find a lot of wisdom in studying other religions, deep down inside I do not have what it takes to convert. My relationship with Christianity is too entwined in who I am. In many ways it is unsatisfying, in many ways it is lonely, but it is my love and it is soaked deep into the bottom of my heart in such a way that it could not be extracted without removing the essence of who I am.
The warning churchgoers gave me before and after leaving the church was that belief is like a hot coal. You need others to keep the fire alive and one coal taken out from the furnace exposed to the world quickly goes cold. There is some truth to this, but perhaps not the same truth that was intended by those who warned against leaving the church. In the last few years, I have had periods of abundance and periods of emptiness in my spirituality, but those periods were not necessarily correlated with my attending of a church. If anything, there is a correlation between spiritual abundance and finding space for spiritual thought, spiritual exercises such as meditation and prayer and spiritual discussions.
It has become necessary to instill some discipline into my spiritual life now that the structure that church timetables is not available to me. If I am not careful, I can slip into a superficial lazy mode that coats my life in an under-appreciation of how sacred it is to be here. The somewhat unclear impact of church services on my spiritual growth has now been replaced by the somewhat unclear impact of books, blogs, podcasts and conversations with those of like and unlike convictions.
In some way it was a little disappointing that no bolt from the sky struck me when I left the church, no voice thundered from the clouds. Nor did my life did spiral into an uncontrollable web of sin. Life continued on as before and when Sunday night creeps up on me, some weeks I am able to reflect back on a week well spent, others on a week wasted. More or less what had come before.
There have been many rewards from setting out on my own spiritual path and leaving the church behind. It is far easier to explain my own beliefs not only to others, but also to myself. I no longer feel the shame of being aligned with those who drag the name of Jesus through the filth of bigotry and discrimination. Change and growth is easier, because it no longer happens in the straight-jacket of having to change in one particular pre-approved direction.
But I wonder what impact having children would have on a believer like myself. I see the value of teaching a child to have a sense of community. There are not many activities that we do in the modern world that gives us a sense of belonging to a larger community. The comforts of modernity allow us to shop from home and to be entertained in our own living rooms. For many people it is only in visits to movie theaters and sports stadiums that they get a sense of belonging to a group larger than their own family. The rituals that churches offer are also invaluable for marking transitions to different phases in our lives. What better way to publicly acknowledge the new responsibilities that come with parenthood, than to mark that shift with a public christening? Adolescents also have their transition into adulthood marked with a ceremony that gives them a sense of a new duty to others. I don’t have alternatives to these components of church life and as my own life changes I may find the need to return a church. One can’t help wondering that if these observations are true for raising a child, should they not be true for me too?
In writing this I do not intended to either encourage or discourage anyone to leave his or her own church. Church attendance is in and of itself not what determines the quality of one’s spiritual experience. I would however encourage anyone to become more like themselves and any decision taken should have as a criteria whether or not this decision makes one more or less like one’s true self? The specifics will depend on each individual and their own circumstances.
In my case for now, I will say that leaving the Church has liberated my beliefs and improved my spirituality. What a seeker finds depends on the attitude of the seeker and not on their geography.