Why I left the church

Like many of the kids I knew from growing up in “church school,” by the time I was old enough to make my own choices, I took a hike. I had had enough of being told what to do, what to wear, who to date, and to not dance, drink, or party.
(Especially because no one could ever really explain to me why it was wrong about it, since Jesus drank, David danced, and what in the world was really wrong with having a party?!)

Before I jump in head first, I want you to know a few things:

  1. This post could also be called, “Why I left the church…and came back again.”
  2. The reason that I am writing this story is primarily to warn my own heart, as a youth leader, to remember what being a teen and young adult was like. I’m inviting you into that journey.
  3. God has blessed me with a tremendous amount of healing in many of the relationships that were wounded by my path of rebellion and restoration, and I hope that this story honors that.

People are trying to figure out why youth leave the church. I’ve read accounts blaming everything from youth ministry programs to hypocrisy.  I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but here is my story. Here is my why.

I left because I didn’t belong.

Somewhere around 1999 when grunge was dying, FRIENDS were making us all laugh, and everyone was scared about computers crashing, I started a descent into a dark, doubting, questioning hole that is familiar to so many teens who grew up in the church. It was the year I started to drive and got my first job. What I found in that retail store was about to rock my world.

I grew up in what I like to call “The Bubble.” Maybe you are familiar with it- I went to Christian school, church 3 times a week, Christian summer camp, joined Christian clubs, went to Christian concerts, played Christian video games (no. really.), read Christian books, and to be honest, was a little scared of all the “unsaved, God-shunning, cold-hearted heathens who needed Jesus and were going to hell.” I love my parents and appreciate their efforts to lead me in a good path and into a relationship with Jesus. But I was wholly unprepared to walk into the world of working with non-Christians and (gasp!) talking to them.

I was so confused when I found that my new co-workers, who obviously did not attend church and took smoke-breaks, were SO. NICE! Nicer than anyone I had ever met in any Christian group. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel judged. I laughed as loudly as I wanted because no one thought women should have a “meek and quiet spirit.” This was the first step in my break from my church and from God- the unconditional acceptance of me, just the way I was.

Another contributing factor to my feelings of not belonging at church and other Christian groups looks silly to me know, but was painfully real during this time in my life. We were relatively poor. I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes. Even though this feels crazy even writing now, I started not wanting to go to church because I felt like I didn’t have anything to wear, anything that would make me feel like I belonged with the other kids who did wear nicer clothes. Again, I thank God for my hard-working parents who kept me clothed, fed, and in a private school! At the time, though, I couldn’t appreciate those things the way that I do now.

Lastly, I left the church and God for a period of time because of my own sin. I struggled with dating relationships. Some people struggled with alcohol or drugs or a love for money, but for me, it was my desire to control my own dating life. I couldn’t stand that any guy would be considered “off-limits” because he didn’t believe in God. I didn’t respect warnings to remain “pure” which in my opinion were very subjective and unclear anyway. So I left. Adios. I’ll do it my way. And I did.

I spent years of my twenties running from God and doing life my own way. I ended up depressed, confused, and angry. But in that entire time, God never left me. He gently, quietly, lovingly drew me back to Himself.  The first tool that God used to begin calling me back to Himself was, ironically, the first thing that had started my descent away from Him- a longing for real relationships.

What I found in all of the those “friendships” with the “nice” people outside of the church was an inability to enter in to real relationship. Real relationships are formed around Jesus (and food… but definitely Jesus!). Why is that true? Because real relationships exist when you step outside of yourself and think of the other person first. When I was looking for fulfillment in another person, I could never find it. Why? Because we are inherently selfish. Without God’s prompting to think of others’ better than yourself, people, without thinking, think only of “me first” (as I was- I was looking to get from these relationships, not give.). And ultimately, we only think of others first when we are experiencing the wholeness that a relationship with God brings into our own lives. We cannot give what we don’t have- love.

Eventually God brought my husband and I to a church in White Bear Lake, MN- Eaglebrook Church.  God used this place and a small group Bible study of women to solidify my return to living in His will for my life. I was still very angry when we landed at Eaglebrook. I hated churches and most of the people in them. I was there because a friend had invited and a group of her friends were cool and fun to hang out with. They made me feel like I belonged there.

Then one Sunday the Pastor challenged us to “quit complaining about the church and start being the church.” That began a new journey for me of knocking off the sarcasm and letting go of the bitterness I’d held for so long. My husband and I jumped in head first to serving at the church and that has made a world of difference in our lives. Our church is not perfect- no church is, but we have found a community of people that God has called us to serve and love. The amazing blessing is that they serve and love us back. God is so good. He has called me to help make others feel like they belong in our community, our church.

Since then God has also been moving in my heart to remove sin and build positive habits that grow my relationship with Him- and I have never been more at peace, more content, more filled with life. But those things may never have happened without me first experiencing the thoughtfulness of a group of broken people making me feel included.

How about it? Have you let imperfect Christians keep you from experiencing the amazing love of God like I did for so long? Do you include others when they come into your group of Christians, whereever that group might be? If you left the church (and came back or never came back), I would love to hear why!

Don't get distracted by all the beautiful people.

Don’t get distracted by all the beautiful people.


8 thoughts on “Why I left the church

  1. My husband and I are both first generation Christians with dark to light testimonies. It’s been hard to understand Christian kids and why they would struggle when they had it SO great compared to our upbringings, especially my husband’s. I’ve always appreciated when people are honestly raw, as you were in this post. I want to understand! I need to understand! I loved you as a struggling teen, I love you as a happily married momma. So thankful you are sharing your journey through blogging.

    • Thanks Mindy. Your acceptance and encouragment and testimony have been an instrument to seeing Gods love and to my healing. Its so interesting that you used “dark to light”. The summer that God really got my heart at SBL I claimed the verse in I Peter about being called out of darkness into His marvellous light. And I didnt really have a dark to light testimony at that point but I knew in my heart my own inner darkness. Dont really know where Im going with that but thought id share. 🙂

  2. Great thoughts Denise. I’ve always liked you because you were so real. Thank you for sharing your own spiritual struggles and journey so honestly. I have a background similar to yours as you know, and have struggled with some of the same things ( which you probably didn’t know.) I’m glad the Lord has gotten your life on track again, and that you and your husband have found a place to serve in a meaningful way. God is so good. Good thing too, because people are not good.

    • Thank you SO much for sharing. When I was going through it, I felt like I was alone in the struggle. Now I realize that my story is more common. That is one of my motivations in sharing my journey. God is so good. Amen!

  3. When we surrender to the Lord Jesus, it is amazing to see Him work in our hearts.
    Today I worked on the verse Hebrews 13:8 with my girls, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Always He IS Love. I am so thankful for His work in your life and that you are at peace in that.
    ps. I have always loved your laugh.

  4. It makes me sad that I wasn’t a better friend to you during those dark times. (and apparently “they” forgot to tell the Schouten sisters about being quiet…..=) But, I am so glad that God brought you back to a good relationship with Him – we do serve a faithful God. I thought MIndy’s comment was great – why is it that people with a darkness to light testimony don’t seem to struggle (in this particular area) as much as those who have a less dramatic testimony? It seems to me that as I teach my own kids, I need to teach the rules in love and tenderness (and forgiveness) but also teach the whys and reasoning behind the rules. Perhaps tip-toeing around “taboo” subjects and saying just because isn’t enough. What do you think?

    • Just based on my experience, I think communication about the way things really are in our world and interactions with unbelievers are essential for kids who grow up in a Christian home. BUT it is probably important to time those interactions and conversations in age-appropriate ways. That is something I have no experience in yet ;-).

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