Dear Parents, Here’s What Not To Do When Your Kids Leave The Church

She uses the voice that mothers use when they realise their child's perspective about the world is conflicting, when their lifestyle is no longer aligned to the vision they had for them when they were growing in their swelling bellies. It’s a deep-seeded longing married with a sense of mourning. “What did I do wrong? What is God trying to teach me?”.

In her loving pressure on Sunday mornings I can hear fear. I can hear loss. She is crumbling under the reality of her child’s rejection of religious faith. She is terrified that her baby girl may very well live out eternity in the fiery pits of hell. She tries, to no avail, to bring her back to church. She laments the conversations they shared about what she learnt at children’s church when she was small. She grieves for the loss of a joy her daughter may never know without Jesus.

Both her and her daughter think each other have got it wrong.

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This is a common story. Sometimes it’s with eyebrow-raising fathers, or disinterested sons. Sometimes with disapproving older siblings or conservative grandparents. Sometimes anger and frustration weaves its way into dinner table conversations when everyone is talking about their plans for the weekend. Often it resorts to tears, or someone slamming down a fork and storming off to their bedroom. It's just like any old family argument about dirty washing or dirty dishes except it's about faith in something that is often difficult for both believers and non-believers to comprehend. 

Many people have turned to me in recent months expressing the hardship they face at home when their faith no longer aligns to their parents.

Mothers and fathers, I want to share with you the many people who have suffered anxiety due to your questioning and disapproval of their lifestyle choices. Everything from no longer going to Bible study or a church service, to getting drunk on weekends and having premarital sex with a someone (who may not be a lover!). For some, Sundays are the worst day of the week and many have expressed their desire to move out of home earlier so they can live their ‘life of sin’ in peace.

I want to share a few words that were written in the extended response components of a survey I conducted recently about leaving religion. My purpose in this is to share with parents just how difficult it can be for their children who may be trying to break free from ribbons that have been woven around their bodies since they were very small, ribbons that tie them to you, to a doctrine they no longer agree with and to a loving community of people. These ribbons are comforting for some, claustrophobic for others. 

“I do think it hurt him [my father] and still does because he believes that myself and my siblings… are likely going to hell. I feel guilty when I do things outside of the Christian framework, e.g. sex before marriage, dating a non-Christian partner - we've been dating for a year and I still haven't told my parents!”

 “…My Christian parents who would be so heartbroken if I was to walk away from church. If it wasn't for them I would have left already. It's hard because I don't want to hurt them but at the same time need to live my life for what I believe.” 

“… I was upset about disappointing my parents. Quickly their disappointment turned to anger, which made me angry too. We fought a lot.”

“I remember seeing a Christian study book on a shelf at home, I nonchalantly flipped through it and noticed it had been filled out. In the little box underneath the question “what is your greatest fear?” my mother had scrawled “my children dying, my children not becoming Christians”. I teared up while reading this, because I knew the impact my decision was going to have on my parents.”

"I know my family all discuss my life privately which makes me sick. My parents express how my life isn't how they imagined it’d be, believe they own me & cannot accept that I have my own autonomy. They'd like to see my partner make a “real commitment" to me through marriage "before God" & believe our relationship isn't as authentic as theirs. My boyfriend & I however are happily unmarried & might be forever. It sits right with us."

I’m going to spend a quick moment talking about the presence of a non-religious partner, because this is something that a lot of parents are uncomfortable with and something a lot of young people find the most difficult to reconcile with their families:

-       Before you ask about your child’s partner’s beliefs, ask if they treat them with love and kindness. Faith is not a guarantee of loving treatment, read this if you think I’m wrong. 
-       Your child’s partner did not lead him/her astray and therefore should not be blamed or treated as a lesser a person. If your child is a young adult, respect their agency. Respect the immensity and strength of their love, which I argue is possible without Christ. 
-       By vehemently rejecting your child’s already-made decision to be in a relationship with a non-Christian, your child’s partner will never feel comfortable with you, and will find it difficult to appease the whole “Christians aren’t judgemental” thing. They will immediately associate your dismissal with the Christian faith.
-       If they’re already dating, welcome them into the family. I understand if you want them sleeping in separate beds under your roof. But if they are having sex, separating their beds is not preventing them from doing so. Separating them is simply preventing them from doing so in your house while you’re there, so don’t freak out if you find condoms in your son or daughter’s bedroom. They’re probably already feeling guilty about sex because of the teachings during their formative years. Sex is a beautiful thing, don’t shame them for it if they don’t believe in the reasons for abstinence.

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I have spoken to Christian parents whose children no longer attend church, and they talk about the shame and embarrassment – not necessarily of their children, but from others (usually childless) in the church who wonder where they got it wrong, why their kids have ‘fallen away’ or ‘gone off the rails’. It’s probably because they didn’t bring the Christian faith into the home, some would say, they just constricted it to Sundays and shipped them off to youth group with little communication at dinner. I bet they didn’t pray together, or read the Bible together. The church doesn’t focus enough on bringing Jesus home.

I feel bad that parents have to feel this shame as well. I guess it’s similar to the shame that a child feels at home too.

I don’t have a child, so I don’t have any right to stand on a box stuffed of arrogance and proclaim what you should or shouldn’t do with your child. But I will stand on a box stuffed full of voices of young people who are experiencing pain under your religious thumb. 

I understand the ever-present fear of hell and Jesus’s imminent return. I get how overwhelming that is, I used to feel it for my loved ones who didn’t believe in the resurrection and forgiveness of Jesus Christ as well. Your children probably used to feel it too. We get that there’s a fire coming and the smoke is here and it’s an emergency and you want to haul us out lest we burn to death. But you need to know that we can’t see fire and we can’t feel heat anymore. We’re numb. We’re floating out in a big blue ocean and the concept of fire burning here is completely unfathomable.

So how do you tell someone a fire is coming when they’re in an ocean?

I think that if your child walks away from faith, there should be room for celebration. Not necessarily for the rejection of faith itself, but what lies beneath that rejection. You have raised a young man or young woman who feels bold enough to think about the world and their existence for themselves. They aren’t simply lapping up the Bible on a Sunday morning with no regard for its context in the world. You have raised an independent thinker who questions what they have been taught. This skill is integral in the workplace and in relationships as well. Someone who doesn’t question can often fall into the hands of harmful people.

My parents are Christians, but they read my blog and support my journey. Why? Because it’s my journey. Because I’m seeking. Because I have recognised I have only been taught one story and I want to know more stories so I know I’m making the right choice. But I think I (and a lot of us with Christian parents) can be a heck of a lot more understanding of our parents’ fear of fire. While religious belief isn’t as easy and consumable as it once was, our parents are not ‘dumb’ or ‘ignorant’ for consuming it. They have been on this earth so much longer than us and often they simply want us to experience the joy they have now found. 

If you live with your parents and you haven’t had a conversation about this stuff I encourage you to. My parents extended me the freedom of discovering faith on my own accord, but the ability to talk to two Christians about my hesitations and doubts for a few hours in tears, to express the fears that I have shared in this blog has been immensely helpful. Any barriers that were there are well and truly torn down. And parents, if you aren’t ready to accept your child’s doubt, confusion and anger associated with being indoctrinated at a young age, you need to. Responding with Bible verses and prayer isn’t always the answer, because it’s situated in the context of the belief your child no longer upholds. Be a parent before you be a preacher. 

Don’t be afraid to let go and simply accept the adult they are becoming. Rest knowing that if it’s ‘God’s plan for them to become a Christian’ God will make it happen with or without you.

And I think everyone, both those of us with Christian parents and parents with children who are leaving faith, can all be a little more understanding of each other.

photo cred: lostslideshows

"Not All Christians" And Other Responses That Miss The #ChurchToo Point

The current discussion around domestic violence, thanks to the brave clergy wives who shared their stories on the ABC recently, has made the church publicly accountable for the ways they have failed the women in their congregations.

The #churchtoo movement on Twitter, has also ignited a number of conversations surrounding spiritual trauma and the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by members of the church, often in the name of Jesus. I've inserted some tweets below for context. Let these words break your heart.  

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Initial Thoughts:

Do any of these tweets sound familiar? Have you seen evidence of similar situations in your churches, in your youth groups? Can you see yourself pushing similar rhetoric (whether now or in the past) to the younger people in your churches as you lead them on their spiritual walk? Can you see the potential for misinterpretation, manipulation and outright abuse?

Before I go into the reactions and rejections of this public movement exposing church abuse, I want to say something quickly:

Christian leaders, are your 'relationship ministers', or 'women's ministers' or whatever you name them, equipped to handle people who come to them with a vast spectrum of experiences and pain?

Growing up, I was taught that if someone confided in me I was to pray and ask God to give me the right words (and then report it). I have faith in a God, but I don't trust God to deliver the right messages through people every time. Sure, He's capable - He's also capable of eradicating death, disease, poverty, dictatorships and natural disasters. The reality is, he doesn't. Sick Christians still need hospitals no matter how much they pray. Violent oppressors must serve jail time even though Jesus forgives them. Victims of trauma still need psychologists no matter how much you pray that God equips you with the right words.

As a victim of sexual assault I will not feel comfortable turning to a female minister who has no training and no experience of life outside the Christian enclave. I will pay someone. The tweets above are a testament to the need for professionals.

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Reactions:

I have seen a number of reactions to the public documentation of church abuse and religious trauma. I have seen it on Twitter, on Facebook and in my email inbox. Things like "not all Christians" and "well, the perpetrators clearly aren't real Christians" and "don't forget we all sin, no one is perfect!" and "stop outing the church publicly! You're harming God's bride!". Let me run through a few reasons these reactions are ignorant, selfish and miss the point entirely. 

1.     “Not all Christians” or "Not all churches"

Not all Christians are homophobes. Not all Christians are judgemental. Not all Christians are close-minded. Not all Christian leaders are perpetrators of domestic abuse. Not all churches are legalistic. Not all churches impose a linear framework for your life and not all Christians will reject you if you don’t follow it.

I feel that I have been as clear as possible in my previous articles that no, I'm not referring to "all" Christians and I don't believe religion is entiely harmful either. See: 5 Things The Church Gave Me.

Feminists see a similar response when they discuss the issues affecting women in modern society. Comments along the lines of "not all men!" populate the fringes, sifted amongst other both supportive and incredibly abusive comments (just ask Clementine Ford). 

I had coffee with my cousin the other day in Canberra. Her friend shared an incredibly relevant analogy recently that I think is perfect here:

If I am lying in a deck chair by a pool reading a book and a child is frantically running ‘round and round and round the pool and the lifeguard yells ‘STOP RUNNING’, I’m not about to jump up and listen to him. I’m not running, so I don’t need to act. I don’t even raise my eyebrows. Same thing.

Before rushing to defend yourself and your family of believers, stop and listen to what is being said. Before you tell me it doesn't happen in your church, ask yourself if you really know. Ask yourself how you would know if it was happening. Not everyone can speak. Not everyone knows the extent they have been wronged. 

In a church setting, your walls come down a lot quicker than they might at a club, or in a train carriage. You're more likely to put your faith in the goodness of humanity, especially if you've grown up around the beautiful imagery of the Lord's faithful servants. Christians are less likely to wrong you, right?.

When you’re young and full to the brim of 'child-like faith', you wrap yourself in the comforts of this safety net. In your trust, you are more likely have faith in the wisdom of whoever older Christian is leading you. I have seen the reality of this myself with an older male Christian in the church when I was a minor. While consensual, it was wrong. Everyone knew, nobody spoke. I didn't think it was wrong because I was so young and it was only after it happened that people expressed they were 'very worried while it was happening'. Didn't they have a duty to warn and protect their minors too? 

2.     “He mustn’t have been a real Christian”

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Stop distancing yourself from the perpetrators to protect your own ego. Recognise that the religion you subscribe to has hurt people in horrible ways, and that many of those people will never recover from that hurt. Prayer doesn't cure horrific memories. You will always remember. 

That person is the problem, but if that person claims to be a Christian and is using God’s word to administer or excuse his abuse, then the doctrine and the way it is presented in the church must be assessed. The fact that this is happening across the world and in such similar ways forces the church to question many of its fundamental traditions and the heart of its culture (which isn't always Jesus).

*The No True Scotsman fallacy is a kind of informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalisation from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. (thanks Wiki)

3.     "Of course there is sin! Man's inherent nature is to sin!"

This is more than a matter of 'man's inherent nature to sin', this is about a weed growing in the interpretations of scripture, flourishing in the pulpit. In the breeze of a poorly worded sermon or an ill-equipped leader, it will only scatter those weedy seeds further. And believe me, those seeds will grow on the path, on rocky ground and amongst thorns.  

4.     “Stop hurting the church’s reputation!”

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My blog, like these tweets, serves to criticise and call accountable the church for the ways in which it has hurt people. It started out as a platform for me to document the struggles I was having leaving organised religion and all the guilt that came with, and now it has morphed into a public space to document the words that many cannot. I am humbled by the men and women who have confided in me, and I feel a duty to present their words to church leaders, congregational members and yes, even those who have never been acquainted with religion. 

One thing my inbox has frequently seen, and one in which the #churchtoo movement has also seen, is well-meaning Christians desperately trying to convince those that speak publicly that we must slow down a bit because we are hurting the church's reputation. We are a stumbling block. We are preventing non-believers from considering Christ. A Christian friend of mine, who writes an awesome blog, said that she was approached by a Christian who said she shouldn't “share stories that don’t reflect well on the church” on her blog. Thankfully, as a non-Christian, I don't owe my allegiance to anyone and I can say whatever I want and the criticism I see I can take with a grain of salt. But not my friend. The community has the power to downright reject her if it wants. And for what? Exposing abuse.

For those with this belief, this ridiculous article might be for you: "The #Churchtoo Movement Slanders God's Bride - Stop It".

I'm sorry, when people are being abused and the church is not doing anything about it, naturally we will take to our keys or take to our screens to tell the world so the church feels like they have to act. What else are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when these problems are embedded across entire religions - not just individual churches? Pray? PRAY? Sorry folks. This is a systemic issue and there needs to be some damn pressure so that changes can be made. 

Christians shouldn’t feel like they have to protect Christianity when people are being hurt or abused. The Christian religion (and a number of other faiths) have been around for thousands of years. They have stood the test of time through every revolution, every war. Christianity will not crumble because some people speak out about their abuse because the religion itself is not abusive. Biblical messages are not abusive (if you look at the appropriate translations, historical context etc). Humans are abusive. Human interpretation can result in abuse. That interpretation can become culture which makes purity culture and the forgiveness 'hug your rapist' bullshit normal. Toxic doctrine must be exposed for the damage it has caused people. The tweets above, although they don’t represent what the Christian doctrine is at its very core, is an example of the way that man can twist and embellish and exaggerate God’s Word. 

 But how dare you try to silence the victim, rip the pen from their hands, force them to return to the place they have been abused and keep it in that toxic bubble. As Mpho Andrea Tutu said, 'you need vision from the mountains as well as clarity from the depths'.

For those arguing it is people that should be targeted, not the church, let me leave you with a couple more tweets:

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