I can already imagine people getting their hackles up about how spending less time in your church will be catastrophic and wreck your faith.
But if you, like me, have been hurt by the toxic doctrines, The abuse. And just plain old meanness that runs rampant in many churches…
Walking away from the church to find God probably makes total sense to you.
Because when we are deeply connected to a church that proclaims they’re deeply connected to God, it’s really hard to determine who is hurting us.
Are we uncomfortable because God trying to shape us and mold us into His image? (Because that happens and it’s NOT usually a comfortable process.)
Or is it people trying to maintain order within the toxic system that gives them more power?
Before we get any further, I think it’s important to get really honest about how faith isn’t always comfortable, Sometimes spiritual growth really challenges us. And often there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s unrealistic to expect that every day Christian community will be all shiny happy people-ish.
This conversation is focusing on much deeper pain than the normal ups and downs.
We are talking about the church hurts that have nothing to do with God. Things like physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse at the hands of church leadership. Or church sanctioned racism. Nationalism. Xenophobia. Gender bias. Homophobia. And anything else that teaches some neighbors are less worthy of our love.
Sometimes you have to take a step back from church when what is being preached and modeled by leadership ties legalism, racism, and hate to “being a good Christian”.
Perhaps you’ve also noticed some of our churches promotes allegiance to the religious structure and her leaders more than seeking God. Like when you are taught that we live under grace, but shame and exclusion are the primary motivation tools of your faith community. (Oh hello evangelicals, is that you?)
Taking a step back from the toxic system that promises to help you connect with God, will actually help you connect with God.
I believe a vibrant body of believers, AKA the church, is 100% part of God’s plan. But I have seen zero evidence that God calls us to be part of an abusive church. Or one that hurts people to protect their own power at all costs. And then turns around and says it’s God’s will.
There is, of course, a risk of completely walking away from God because it’s easier than rescuing your faith from all the toxic stuff. There’s certainly a risk of losing faith, but it’s not the guaranteed outcome that church leaders make it out to be.
The truth is we all have direct access to God and it isn’t the church, or the church leaders, that provide that.
Staying in toxic religious environments also creates a risk of losing faith. How many people do you know who show up every Sunday out of duty or ego? How many “churchgoers” have completely given up on having a personal connection with our Creator?
So if the weight of toxic religion is crushing your faith, take a step back and focus your attention on Jesus.
Not the church.
Or Christian politics.
Definitely not the latest church scandal.
Not all the things church told you to do.
Just find Jesus however you can and let Him lead you back to God. Because Jesus will always lead you back to God.
Here are a few additional tips that will help you find balance when your heart is longing for God and at the same time something inside is screaming “WALK AWAY”
1) Get some space between you and the toxicity.
You’ve got to take your hand out of the fire if you want to the burn to heal. COVID has made this a little easier because most of us have had fewer face-to-face church gatherings than ever before. But it has also made it easier to silently fade into the background and be totally disconnected. Even from the good parts of your faith community. So pick and choose wisely what you want to give your energy to.
This might even mean getting distance from certain relationships. Do you have a wise friend who always listens, even when you ask really messy questions? Stay connected. Or do you have a friend who always listens, but is so deeply embedded in the system that is hurting you that every piece of advice wounds you more? Take a break.
2) Avoid isolation.
At the same time, don’t cut yourself off from human contact. Make a point of connecting with the people who are steady and consistent in your life. If you are part of other communities that are less oppressive than your church, lean on those for a time. Embrace family members who are loving, supportive, and committed to seeing you flourish. Even if that means they have to challenge their own beliefs about God.
3) Use that empty space to rest first.
As tempting as it may be, don’t immediately fill up the time you would spend in your faith community or related friendships with other activities. Pause. Give your body, brain, heart, and soul time to breathe. It’s natural to want to avoid or numb pain, and busyness is a really popular (and sneaky) way to do just that. However, healing comes from leaning into the pain. And from seeing what needs lie at the root of it. So give yourself permission to rest, feel, and begin to heal.
4) After resting, then wrestle.
Take your hard questions to God. Don’t be afraid to let all of your emotions flow. Finding a community of women asking the same hard questions you are asking will normalize the way you’re challenging toxic religion. (The Unfolding Community is is a great one!) Read books and blog posts by people who have broken away from toxic religion without completely losing their faith.
Above all else, just find Jesus and let Him lead you back to God.
Angela J Herrington, MA, LSCC is a Life and Leadership Coach for Christian Women at AngelaJHerrington.com , founder of Broken Beautiful BOLD online women’s ministry, and Christian feminist activator at WildSacredHoly.com.
Angela is a spunky Gen Xer who creates sacred spaces for vulnerable exploration. Her specialty is helping Christian women untangle themselves from limiting beliefs, toxic religious culture, and all the ways the enemy tries to keep them small. She holds a BA from Indiana Wesleyan and a Masters in Leadership from Wesley Seminary. Her graduate research project focused on leadership development and opportunities for Gen X women in the US church.
Angela and her unique online ministry were featured in Lyz Lenz’s 2019 book God Land: Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. She also has been published in Hope for Women and HOPE is Now magazines.
Angela is also a Lark’s Song Certified Life Coach who reaches hundreds of thousands of women in 40+ countries each month on Facebook, IG, Twitter, Pinterest, and two blogs. She is Director of Communications for Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy, a women-led organization dedicated to engaging, empowering, and equipping women to lead in the church.
Angela is also a wife, mom to 6, and proud resident of Marion, Indiana with her family when they’re not traveling the US in their RV.