–Daniel S. Ferguson
Nearly every person I’ve ever met who has left the church grew up in church (so much for Christian upbringings). We’re not, from my experience, haphazard believers who wandered into the faith and wandered our way back out. We’ve been in this for the long haul.
Such is the case of a dear friend of mine, Kristina. She was in high school when I interned in student ministry at a church in Maryland some years ago. I met her somewhat late in her faith journey, but she was kind enough to share it with me today.
As has become somewhat routine, she begins with a disclaimer:
“Sometimes I’d ask the unanswerable questions about God, but I never questioned his existence.”
This is an interesting notion, because the Kristina I knew did question it. She just didn’t do it out loud. She, like me, had already learned, even at 16 years old, to keep her doubts to herself in most cases. I don’t remember well enough to know if she thought I was a safe person to whom to express her doubts. Perhaps my ministry there was simply too short-lived for that to have been a reality (or perhaps I was too consumed with wrecking that ministry to the ground, which I absolutely did). But all the same, by the time she was the high-schooler I met, her doubt outweighed her faith to a noticeable degree.
“At first I started to question the church because things went wrong in life, but shortly after they would always pick back up, so I knew that if anything at all, there was a higher power. But I wasn’t so sure the one we were talking about at church was the same one.”
And therein lies something interesting I want to explore. After all, she grew up in church like me (even the same denomination). Kristina seems to have a strong inclination toward the divine. She wants a relationship with God. She just doesn’t connect the God she hears about at the church with the God she wants to know. Why not?
“I realized that a lot of people [at church] claimed to be mature in their faith but still made really immature choices about how they thought of and treated other people.”
She specifies that she thinks the older generation in particular is disparaged within churches, but she quickly recognizes that she was rejected herself. She isn’t specific about what it was that set her apart, but she quickly started feeling edged out of church community. Like many teenagers, she tried to own that rejection as an identity and began to stand out on purpose.
“Once I started dyeing my hair and acting like the true oddball I am…I noticed that I was not, too, being treated differently, as if I hadn’t been a part of the church almost my whole life.”
It’s here that my heart breaks, not only because Kristina was socially rejected by the church that was charged by God to love her, but because her story is anything but new. She recognized that people were being rejected, so she questioned how far the love of the church went. Unlike many, Kristina still tried to invite others to church, even when she felt rejected herself. But, alas…
“I didn’t like the way a lot of the leaders acted towards me or people I brought with me who’d never really been in a church.”
This is when I remember most strongly the passion of the girl I knew. Even when she doubted, even when she felt rejected, she still brought people to church. Maybe it was because she just wanted a friend there to be rejected with. Maybe it was because she was striving to find some measure of hope in the length of her church’s love. I don’t know. But the fact that she brought others along to church at this stage in her journey is nothing short of amazing to me. I awe at her valor.
Ultimately, after Kristina left her high school church (the one I knew), she gave up on church altogether.
“Once I got into college I had completely realized that the only thing I didn’t like about religion itself were the people taking part in it and twisting its morals around.”
It was the church’s response to the LGBT movement specifically that turned Kristina off for good (at least so far). Interestingly, it wasn’t just that Kristina’s church rejected a whole community (although that might have been enough for her), it was that she still pictured herself as the child in church, trying to learn what God’s love was like, and she couldn’t quite rectify it.
“I knew that the pastors we had were a little too wrapped up in themselves and that no young Christian could grow in that environment, so I took myself out of it.”
It’s this connection between Kristina’s past and the futures of others that intrigues me most. Her passion hasn’t left her, not in the least. She still wants to bring others alongside her to the hope and love she knows God has for her, even if she is the only one to express it to them. That’s not at all unlike the missional nature of many churches I know, and I applaud it. There’s hope in that, and there’s hope in Kristina’s final words during this interview:
“I’m not going to let the imperfections of other humans dictate whether I continue to believe.”
She’s still so close to the Gospel in that sentence that she can practically taste it.