Is Fear Keeping You in the Church Pews Every Sunday?
Why the Need for Community Keeps People in the Same Church That Hurt Them
If you've followed me for some time, you know I was raised Southern Baptist. I navigated my way through many churches, including progressive ones, until I finally landed in an evangelical/pentecostal church. The last day I walked out of those church doors, I was terrified of the spiritual wilderness awaiting me. Now, looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. However, it was a complex decision. I know it is a challenging choice for many of you. There are many ties bonding you to the church, things like family, community, memories, and/or our faith.
If you grew up in the church, there's no denying that your experience plays a part in your decision to stay. You might be able to put your finger on specific examples of how your church hurt you or left you feeling neglected. It wasn't even intentional; it was a place where people weren't as open to talking about their struggles and made mistakes along the way.
But for some, leaving the church isn't simply a matter of walking out the front doors. It could mean losing family members—or worse—losing their identity (which may have been built around being part of this particular spiritual community). The fear of loneliness is pretty real: at the end of the day, we all desire community.
It's easy to take the good with the bad when you focus on relationships over spiritual abuse and corruption. Religion is a social institution, so even if it does not honor your best interests, it still offers relationships and community. You may find yourself in a church that doesn't care about your well-being or any of its members' well-being as much as it cares about its own agenda. For some of us, the church may offer at least one person who genuinely cares about you as an individual human being. So, it can be tempting to bury the questions, the worries, and the trauma while you latch on to the people you don't want to lose if you were to leave the church.
Leaving the church isn't simply a matter of walking out the front doors for some people. It could mean losing family members and friends, your job, your home, and your physical health. For those who did not choose to leave the church but were forced out by its teachings and culture, it can be even more difficult because they are now ostracized by their community—a loss that is often devastating and painful. For those questioning if staying is truly your path, knowing how these ostracized individuals were treated adds to our fears of losing the community we've built.
The fear of loneliness is real.
I'm sure you can relate to this fear of loneliness. At the end of the day, we all need community.
Many people may have that internal voice saying, "I have to stay because I am afraid to be alone!" Sometimes that's precisely why we stay in churches and relationships that hurt us—we don't want to feel lonely anymore.
The fear of loneliness is more potent than most people realize. You might have left one bad church but not another because you felt it was better than being alone or not having any friends. Or maybe you stayed in a toxic relationship because at least someone loved you, even if they turned out to be an abuser? Or perhaps you still work for an unsupportive boss who doesn't treat their employees right (or treats women unfairly) but leaving would mean losing your job and having nowhere else to go.
The fear of loneliness is a powerful emotion. Narcissists all operate similarly—isolate the victim so that they rely solely on the abuser for their social or spiritual identity. As sad as this is, the reality is that church leaders often use the exact same tactics to keep people obligated to the religious institution and away from those who might see through the abuse.
Once we decide to leave, finding ourselves alone and navigating the spiritual wilderness can feel foreign and even more lonely than the place we came from. But the spiritual wilderness is a place where we can find ourselves again. It's a place where we can connect with others the church has hurt. It's where we can rebuild our lives and faith if that is what we choose to do.
It's a place where we can heal.
If you're wondering how to move past the loneliness you're feeling in the spiritual wilderness, here are some suggestions:
- Be patient with yourself and others as you process your emotions regarding your experience(s) at church or in ministry settings.
- Remember that one step forward doesn't mean everything is suddenly fixed; sometimes, there are setbacks along the way, meaning it's crucial to remain committed to doing the work to deconstruct from the harmful theology that hurt you.
- Don't assume that everyone from your former community will welcome you back with open arms (or even tolerate your presence). It's okay if they don't!
- Remembering this may make it easier for you to decide whether or not it's worthwhile to seek out those old friends and acquaintances—and if so, when it makes sense for you personally (e.g., "I'm not ready right now," versus "Okay.")
The spiritual wilderness is a place of healing where you can establish your own spiritual connections and find your true path. In the spiritual wilderness, we can do the most work inside ourselves because we won't be distracted by the fear of not fitting in, speaking out, or questioning what is truly right.
Beloved, I get it. Leaving church is scary; it can feel like you're giving up on your faith. But you don't have to stay in a place that doesn't fit who you are or what you need. You don't have to remain in a church that hurts you or keeps you from being your authentic self.
Leaving church means knowing your story is valid, even if those around you do not understand or accept your journey.
My spiritual path was a long process involving years of trying on different hats in search of something that fit me better and then being gently nudged out of them again when they didn't work.
If you are considering leaving the church, I hope this post gives you more confidence and courage. Leaving church doesn't mean going to hell, or God will abandon you. It simply means it's time for change—and change is scary. It also may mean that it is time to reconsider your indoctrinated beliefs surrounding hell, God, and sin—any beliefs that may have been weaponized to control you.
Remember: You are never alone in your journey through the spiritual wilderness. So many people have been through similar experiences with churches, pastors, and community members who hurt them, but they've still found ways to heal their wounds and move forward with their lives with hope and healing.
If you are looking for ways to connect with others on a similar journey as you, consider my Patreon communities, where we have created a safe and sacred space to help you find healing and inspiration.
Whatever your journey, dear one, know this—it is never a mistake to listen to your inner knowing—your soul. Let it lovingly guide you on your spiritual journey. And if that means it's time to enter the spiritual wilderness, then trust the journey.
Love and healing will find you there.