May 24, 2008

Why I can’t do church any more

Posted in Bad Christians, Working through Life at 10:23 am by Matt Porter

I’ve been putting off this post for a long time, but it can’t wait any longer. It’s time to get this off my chest, not so I can feel better, but so I can move on in whatever journey this is. The tone of this post is admittedly harsh, for which I don’t apologize. What I have written is the result of what I have experienced of Christianity, and specifically how it has interacted with what I’ve learned in the last two or three years. I am not writing at or about any specific person or group or people; I am writing about the thoroughly broken system which controls access to God for the overwhelming majority of Christians. I don’t want to convert anyone; I’m not attempting to get anyone to agree with me; I’m not trying to provoke a mass-desertion at our next church service. I’m just letting you know where God has me right now. This is an FYI post, not an argumentative essay. Mostly. I think. Not too much arguing, at least.

I can’t do church any more.

I can’t keep acting like God is located in our regularly scheduled meeting in our building. Or in any regularly scheduled meeting in any building. See Acts 17. I can’t continue to act like I think Christianity revolves around going to a building three or four times a week. I can’t keep pretending that singing songs and listening to a half-hour lecture is worship, let alone that it’s the pinnacle of my week.

I can’t pretend to believe like the people around me. I can’t keep saying “We have a relationship, not a religion,” all the while measuring spirituality (mine and others) against a list of prescribed and proscribed behaviors. I can’t keep attempting to live in a way that gains God’s approval. I most certainly am done trying to keep other people happy with how I live.

I can’t keep apologizing for not reading my Bible through in a year, or for falling asleep during genealogies.

I can’t keep going along with the idea that life on earth doesn’t matter, and only heaven does. I can’t remain calloused to the real problems of those around me and say that Jesus is the only thing they need. I can’t say it doesn’t matter what happens to the earth because we’re getting out of here sooner or later.

I refuse to continue accepting that the way things have been is the way they should be, and that I have only myself to blame for not enjoying a victorious Christian life.

I’m bitter, and I’m fed up, and I’m tired of sitting back and shutting up, and I’m not taking it any longer. I refuse to accept that this nice, neat little system, this assembly line for turning out good little Christians, is in perfect working order, and that my failure to turn out properly is due to my rebellion and hidden sin and my refusal to let go and let God, and any of the other fifty convenient ways we blame those who leave church because it couldn’t be the system that’s messed up, now could it?

In short, I’m sick of religion. I think the whole victorious Christian life thing is a double-wide load of two hundred-proof bovine waste product. The endless Norman Vincent Peale-esque facade and upbeat challenges about all the little things we need to do to keep God happy make me alternately want to vomit or punch someone. The God who I’ve been warned will get my tithe out me one way or another is no one I’m going to worship, let alone love. At least Don Corleone didn’t pretend to care about the people he extorted money from.

I’m tired of attending a meeting to hear all about the terrible sins committed by those who aren’t in attendance, but nothing about those of the people who are actually there. I’m bone weary of being told that drinking, smoking, and cursing are forbidden in the Bible and that good Christians don’t do them. I’m even sicker of hearing that good Christians attend church (“every time the doors are open”), tithe, do faith promise giving, attend all church functions, hand out tracts, go door to door recruiting, and bring other people to church, and that people who don’t do those things are somehow lesser Christians for it (come on, we’ve all heard the Wednesday night crowd called the “core group” or something to that effect). I’m tired of dragging my tired butt to church for yet another Wednesday night service, only to see 3 people grading school work, 65 people doodling, passing notes, or otherwise staving off boredom, and maybe 3 people paying some attention.

I am tired of being part of a system that can’t get over how horrible sexual sins are (especially homosexuality) but can’t even see its own gluttony and gossip and materialism.

I’m tired of treating the Bible like a book on ethics, full of principles we should apply to situations in our lives.

I am tired of attending a meeting where we all act like anyone who attends a different kind of meeting is a heretic at best and still a damned sinner at worst (and we lay heavy odds on the latter).

I’m tired of having to act like taking a single word and looking up all the places it shows up in the Bible and reading those verses without any regard to context or literary form is a good Bible study.

I’m tired of having to pretend that I don’t think the Bible was written in literary forms.

I’m tired of having to act like I agree that every word of the Bible is true in an unqualified sense, regardless of the cultural, national, scientific, medical, or intellectual baggage which the writer possessed. In other words, I will not equate truth with accuracy. I will not buy into the statement “If any part if it isn’t accurate, then how can you know the part about the Gospel is true?” I refuse to accept that everything mentioned in the Bible is spelled out perfectly for us (although some things are pretty close), or that the Bible is a systematic theology. I will read the Bible as a book which reveals God to us in the person of Jesus. No more, no less. There is much about it I cannot and likely will never understand, and many of these things are frankly uninteresting to me. I do not care about the true meaning of the long-haired locusts in the Apocalypse or whether the rapture will occur before or during or after the tribulation or whether it will occur at all. I will not be drawn into doctrinal debate, save for areas dealing with the nature of God, Jesus, or the gospel.

I’m tired of doctrinal systems which are more important than the Bible, spoken ex cathedra from the pulpit as if they were the final word and declaring that there is no room for ambiguity or disagreement. I’m tired of every issue, even non-biblical issues, becoming a vital doctrine fundamental to the faith. I’m tired of marrying the Body of Christ to a single political perspective, so that pastors who believe in (for instance) global warming would never be welcome to speak in any fundamentalist church I know of, simply due to their liberal political views.

I will not accept that the King James Version is somehow preserved from all the flaws inherent to any human effort, while any modern version is not. Neither will I agree that the KJV is somehow the pinnacle in the history of scripture, sufficient in a way that the texts before it were not. The Bible™ did not arrive on earth sixteen hundred eleven years after the birth of Christ. The inspired Word of God was present on earth from the moment it was penned. The Holy Spirit neither was nor is constrained in his work by poorly skilled, inaccurate, or just-plain wrong copyists or translators, just as he is not constrained today by poor understanders. While I still feel some affection for good King Jimmy (I especially love the flow of the poetic language), I will not feel guilt for reading another version for clarity. Or just because I can.

I’m tired of being anywhere I have to act like I’m not a terrible sinner and don’t have a consistent struggle with any really really bad sins. I’m sick of being part of a nice clean little group of people who have all agreed to play this little game where we don’t have any bad sins, just little bitty ones every now and then, and we gasp in horror if we see someone who does have bad sins. I sick and tired of pretending that we have wonderful Christian community when there aren’t half of us who would all happily hang out together. I am fed up with the crap we put each other through to keep in good standing with each other, all with the understanding that one slip up might cost us our reputation.

I’m screaming mad that we say we have the gospel, but we put rule after rule after rule down on how we have to live, at least if we care half a rat’s backside about our reputation among our fellow church members. I’m even madder that we make excuses for our lawgiving by saying that good Christians wouldn’t want to do those things because it might hurt their testimony. My head is nearly exploding as I hear someone quote “Abstain from all appearance of evil” and make it mean “Stay away from anything that might possibly look like it could contain something that might be construed as evil.” (I know what I’m about to say is absolutely forbidden in all the churches where I used to be welcome, but here goes anyway; I just don’t care any more.)

Please look at the Greek. Please tell me why every single translation since 1800 has written that as “Abstain from every form of evil.” Please tell me why I shouldn’t roll my eyes when you say that those are devil-inspired translations hand-tailored to turn my children into bourbon-guzzling Satanists. Please explain how it makes a difference when the Greek word is the same in all the texts, regardless of which translation we’re talking about. Please tell me, now, how saying “Don’t mess with evil, regardless of what shape it comes in” is remotely the same thing as “Stay away from anything that I tell you is bad, and don’t question me or you’ll be showing your wicked sin-loving heart.” Please tell me how you reconcile the traditional fundamentalist use of that verse with the rest of the New Testament, especially the books of Galatians and Colossians and Romans 6-8. Please excuse me for completely rejecting that argument as balderdash.

I—and this is where I start to get really really really angry and lose control—I will not continue to act or think as though my failure to eradicate sin from my life is my fault. I will not endlessly beat myself up because I continue to struggle with the same sins I’ve struggled with since I was twelve. I will not hold myself a lesser Christian because I still want to commit those sins, or because I actually do commit them.

I will accept that my perpetual sins are a part of my personality, formed by a combination of how God created me and what I have chosen. I will not pretend they are not sins; but neither will I pretend that if I just read my Bible more, prayed more, fasted more, had more accountability partners, handed out more tracts, was more attentive in church, really cared about the lost, tithed 10.035% on the gross instead of 10.00000000% (rounding down) on the net, increased my faith promise, or personally led fifteen million people to the Lord, that I wouldn’t have the same desires. All that crap is do, do, do, do, DO! It’s all works to make me better, works to gain God’s approval, works to make everyone around me shut up about my sin and see what a good Christian I am, works to make my own conscience shut up, works to gain my own approval, works to make me want to keep doing works, WORK! SHUT UP AND WORK, FOOL! YOU’RE NOT WORKING ENOUGH! YOUR SINS MAKE THE BABY JESUS CRY!

I AM DONE WITH THIS. I am not open for reconversion. I have not lost my salvation. I am not a candidate for joining a different denomination. I have already read that verse you want to show me, and I’m not buying that it means I need to (fill in the blank). I am simply not interested in playing this game any longer. I’ll spell this out so it’s really obvious where I stand:

I am a broken person. I can’t do anything to make God love me any more or any less. I can’t do anything to lose or gain his favor. And I am through trying. No more pretending to be what I’m not or trying to be what I can’t. I want to know and love God. If he wants me as I am, I’m here. If he wants me as a good churchy-person, I’m not interested.

That includes being through with going anywhere I can’t follow that path. For the time being, after I move, I am done “attending church.”

Why the quotes? THE CHURCH IS NOT A BUILDING OR A PLACE, NEITHER IS IT A PARTICULAR GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO MEET. Why the caps? Because we say that all the time (well, the first part anyway), but we don’t believe it. Trying to “go to church” is like trying to “go to Porter.” I am part of the church. Where I go, the Body of Christ is going. The church cannot be limited to a certain place or group of people.

This does not mean that I have dumped Christianity. If you’d like a brief summary of what I believe, feel free to look here and here; I am quite content to allow those statements to speak for me. Neither does this mean that I’m never walking into a church service again. I’m willing, even likely, to do so at some point (although not necessarily frequently). What it does mean is that I’m not committing my family, my time, or my resources to a particular congregation.

While I’m sure I’ll have multiple opportunities to address any concerns both online and in real-time, let me mention right now that I do not want to “go it alone.” I do not want (and I do not think it healthy) to go without Christian fellowship. That said, Christian fellowship does not have to occur at church (for that matter, it rarely does, unless you’re talking about before and after the service when everyone is talking).

I have absolutely no idea how all this will work out. I can tell you two things about the trip, though:

1) It’s lonely. There is absolutely no one I mean no one to talk to about this besides my wife, and she’s suffered through enough rants in the last two or three years to meet her quota for life. Imagine sitting down with (pick a random person-of-high-standing in your church) and saying, “Hey, just wanted to let you know what I was thinking. I think the whole system through which we mediate Christianity does more harm than good. It teaches people to conform outwardly, it trains them to rely on an elite leadership for their spiritual development, it dulls spiritual discernment by quenching healthy debate and discussion through its lecture format, it concentrates power among a few (typically extroverted or type A) individuals, it equates worship with actions (singing/praying/preaching) instead of with an inward spirit, it artificially limits the involvement and gifts of its members by insisting they conform to a few pre-determined ministries, it encourages people to act only in ways that gain the approval of their peer group, and it discourages change and initiative. Oh, and it views questions as threats to its authority, which is presumably God-given, so there really shouldn’t be anything that could actually threaten it. And there were some more things that I’m sure I’ll remember as we talk.” Yeah, I can so totally come up with a big list of people who would be able to sit through that list without deciding I needed immediate church discipline. Yep. A big list. Real big. The reality is that anyone who expresses the slightest discomfort with any aspect of the status quo becomes a pariah. The only hope for that person is to find someone else who feels similarly. And woe unto them if they’re both members of the same church—they’ll find themselves kicked to the curb for sowing discord faster than you can blink. So the safest course of action is to shut up and convince yourself that no one else feels the way you do, that you’re completely to blame, that you really have it all wrong and everyone else is right and you’re just a bad Christian unlike all these good Christians around you who think everything should just stay the same. Until you can’t take it any more and post it all on your blog for the world to see. At which point you become an outcast anyway.

2) The organized church system had better figure out what to do with people like me. I’m not in the first wave of rats to jump ship, but I am certainly not in the last. I am amazed and grateful for the people who came before me who have had the courage to talk about what they went through and how they survived it—they had no encouragement, no one to tell them they weren’t alone, no one to say they weren’t losing their minds or their salvation or their eternal reward along with all the friends, family, reputation, and security they were already losing. Now there’s a substantial portion of the blogosphere dedicated to helping people work through church detox and find God on the other side. Many cities have unofficial groups who help mentor ex-church members through the process. It’s happening frequently enough that there’s an acronym for it: CLB (church I left behind). And if the system insists on the “heretic” or “backslider” or “bad Christian” labels for everybody like me who wants to love God without loving the system, it is going to find itself in short supply of members in a big hurry. And the people who are leaving the fastest are those who used to be in leadership. The more leaders who leave, the more those who remain are going to find it difficult to think everything is fine just the way it is.

I’m not interested in changing the church system. There are people in it who really actually know God and love him and don’t buy into the system, but I can’t do it. I have to get away, get some distance, and find God through whatever path he has for me.


  1. Alexandra Swensen said,

    A STANDING OVATION!!!! I’m so there..and so done too. Thanks from the bottom of my heart for putting into word what I’ve been thinking and feeling for a few years now. God Bless You..and He does!

  2. Jonathan Morris said,

    I never really got to know you or anything, but I can tell you as a missionary/pastor’s kid who grew up knowing and playing the “good little Christian Missionary Kid act that I sympathize with what you are going through. I can tell you in my Christian struggles that I have tried the “forget church” approach (basically for your reasons), the “liberal Baptist Church” approach (thought maybe they’d be more accepting/loving) and the “church hunting-until-I-find-the-perfect-church” approach (bet you can guess how that went) and at the end of the day I have learned that the problem is simply that everyone else is just as wicked as me; even the leaders, and when they end up in a group, ie. church congregation, they do not magically become spiritual giants devoid of all evil and inspired to impart their principles without much if any Scripture to back them up. (Although they try) But, I think you will find that joining your new “church of the people fed up with church” (and I don’t mean any disrespect by that slogan) that you will find, that group is just as hypocritical, bitter, judgmental, un-happy, etc. as the “blessed church-goers” are. So, in the end, I have decided unapologetically just to be myself in a church filled with other wicked sinners just like me. (By the way, I don’t have ANY friends at church, not yet anyway.) The only difference is I am much happier knowing that when others sit around and judge each other or gasp that a woman dared to wear pants on Saturday when she comes to clean toilets it is isn’t for any other reason than because they like me are just plain old wicked people. God established the local churches as evident throughout the New Testament, but as I’m sure you know they were filled with the same judgmental, hypocritical, perverted sins and wicked attitudes as we must deal with today. However, God thought they were worth saving/correcting, so He inspired much of the New Testament to be written as letters to these churches. I wish you the best on your journey, I know that I am no better than you, in fact, if we sat down and compared sin I’d probably have you beat, but the beauty is that God doesn’t keep score, so I try not to either…as best I can. The only absolutely problematic thing with leaving church, is you cease to be able to be a good influence or a source of encouragement to the silent majority that probably feels the same as you. I am not advocating creating dissention or spreading bitterness in church, but honest conversation about what we as humans and wicked sinners-but-saved-by-grace-Christians really feel is probably the perfect blend of Chicken Soup for each other’s souls. As far as Versions of the Bible or complicated doctrines are concerned, I will not opine as it will do no good, but I will say I try I to be careful and not let Satan trick me into throwing the Baby out with the bath water. One final thought. I have involuntarily gone 7-8 months without going to church during two separate periods of my life due to deploying to Iraq and I can tell you did not do wonders for my Spiritual life. At least while sitting through boring genealogies, I occasionally had good morsels of Spiritual food to keep me from completely starving (cliché I know, but it has some truth to it at least in my experience). Well, I’ll stop now, and promise to pray at least once for all Christians and churches to better reflect God’s amazing love and forgiveness. The bloody, tortuous Cross my Savior was crucified to for me to one day enjoy Heaven for ever is enough to at keep me trying, searching for answers and being grateful for whatever I get out of this life.

  3. Matt Porter (Seriously) said,

    I have to admit I was googling my own name (Matt Porter) and stumbled on your blog. Even more interesting is the fact that I feel like you have written my own spiritual journey in your post here. It sounds like we may have grown up in similar situations. Maybe we were twins separated at birth? HA!

    I planted a church about a year ago with many of the same convictions you have. I think you’ve had a breakthrough spiritually. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

    Even more interesting…I am in the middle of sermon prep for a message this coming weekend and I was recounting my troubled journey as I was writing. I feel like you read my notes.

    Don’t know how you’d feel about connecting over email. I know you’ve got some frustration so no biggie if you’re not up for it yet. But I think you’re on the right track from what I’ve read here.

    I’m really curious where you are from and what denomination.

    Hope to hear from you!


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