Why I left the Church . . . and found my own odd way back

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I left church when I was 11 years old. It didn’t feel like church had a space for me. I was an antsy kid who liked creative activities. I loved Sabbath school, but when kids turned 10 in our church they would go to a different Sabbath school where they would study the Bible and sit and read nicely.

I wanted to stay with my younger friends who got to do the fun stuff. For the first time I felt expectations from church—to behave a certain way to fit in. I didn’t like it, I felt unwelcome, so I stopped going.

I avoided the Bible or any religious topic at home—it was just a recipe for conflict in the house. My dad told me not to trust anyone or anything (especially church people). But Mum invited me to come with her to church every Sabbath. While reading The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, I recognised the themes from the stories I’d heard as a kid. Jesus being a lion made perfect sense to me. I caught a glimpse of the implications of Jesus dying on the cross for the first time when I saw Aslan walk into the camp of Queen Jadis to take the place of Edmund. Aslan could have easily taken her out, but that wasn’t the point of his mission. Edmund was me and I needed fable to comprehend salvation and the great lion had to sacrifice himself to restore the deep magic of Narnia. I started reading the Bible in secret.

I’m not saying “start a fantasy book club in church”, although maybe that’s not such a bad idea. What I am saying is I believe God meets us where we are and for some people that is not in church.

When I was 14 my friend dragged me along to youth group on Saturday nights. I expected to sit and cringe, but the leader was wonderfully creative.

She told the gospel through arts and crafts, made it relevant and would illustrate Bible stories and talk about them in abstract ways. No question was too big or stupid. Some questions got answers, some didn’t, but we felt safe to explore our faith like we were all on this great big adventure. She was not afraid to answer our questions with “I don’t know.”

She had worked in Côte d’Ivoire, Africa, and introduced us to mission work. It gave church purpose. I don’t know if I would be in church today if it wasn’t for that youth group. Young people are particularly susceptible to hypocrisy and many people don’t feel they are safe to ask questions or share their views in church without being judged. I was fortunate to find a nurturing environment where my curiosity was encouraged.

I didn’t get baptised until I was almost 20. Making the decision to publicly declare my love of Jesus was connected with a lot of anxiety. Because my parents were polar opposites when it came to faith I felt if I chose to join church I would side with Mum and if I left I was on Dad’s side.

It wasn’t until I was able to let go of those debilitating thoughts and realise that my decision to get baptised had nothing to do with my parents and everything to do with my own life and Jesus loving me first, that I knew what I wanted to do.

I asked my pastor to baptise me without telling my parents about it until that morning, when I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

It was a great day. My dad was somehow moved to tears when I came out of the water and he hugged me. Dad usually never cried and he never hugged me. It was as if the shackles were taken off my feet and for the rest of my life I would dance in celebration because now I was untouchable, free and I had my place of belonging wherever I went—my church community.

I think everyone has to figure out for themselves what their spirituality looks like and how it changes as life happens. You can’t simply take someone else’s faith and adopt it as your own.

Church should be about community. We need community. But when people get self-centred and focus on becoming perfect, they are less likely to hang out with people who are different to them. This can happen anywhere; church can become an isolated bubble, but church needs to burst every bubble.

People who don’t know how to relate to other people have a dangerous problem. We can’t be scared to reach out our hand because we’re afraid the receiving hand will pull us down from our high seat.

Western Australian pastor Marcos Torres from The Story Church Project highlights a huge problem in one of his podcasts, saying, “[Church] people are more willing to go to war than sit down and have a conversation.” This is an unhealthy culture and we cannot accept it in church if we want it to be healthy place.

Church is meant to be a place for broken people to come and be healed. I think that sometimes people become good at pretending they are healed when they are not. When people are acting selfishly or out of fear, that is not from God. With freedom we can choose to be self-centred and strive for our own perfection, success and enlightenment, or we can be selfless and useful to others. [pullquote]

God is love; love is selfless and fearless. Young people need to feel unconditional love. Astrid Lindgren, one of my favourite children’s book authors, once said, “Give the children love, love and more love and they’ll become decent people on their own.”

Victor Hugo wrote, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” And Jesus said in Mark 10:14,15, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

What do little children do? They come with an awful lot of questions, wonder, curiosity and unconditional love. They are unapologetically themselves. Don’t shut them out; embrace them. Explore with them. Never stop seeking and loving.

Luke 11:9 says, “Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”

When I listen to other people’s stories of why they left the Church, I can’t always blame them for leaving. If the young people are seekers there is nothing to worry about because they will find God eventually.

What we should worry about is whether or not church provides an environment where seeking is accommodated and questions and thoughts are welcomed and encouraged.

No-one is perfect, however much they pretend to be. If you are reading this and someone acted badly or said things they shouldn’t have in a space where you should have been safe, loved and looked after, I’m so sorry it happened to you. It is understandable that you feel angry, upset and hurt. Please be encouraged that God is complete and perfect love.

I don’t believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church or Christians in general have a monopoly on what is good in this world or that haystacks will be served on all Sabbaths in heaven. I think we have lots to learn from people of all religions and walks of life.

Be gentle with people. Love them. Listen to them. Heal them. Pray for them. Laugh and cry with them, all while keeping your eyes unapologetically on Jesus. And maybe they’ll find themselves coming back to church.

Linda Edorsson, originally from Sweden, is an Avondale communication student who recently completed an internship at Adventist Record.

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