Religion is a touchy (and huge) subject. We fear dissention, judgment, defensiveness, and all other negative reactions to or consequences of stating a belief that alienates other ideologies. Shake all that weirdness off your back before continuing to read this post, because I am about to address my personal experiences with God, church, and Christians I’ve encountered.

Christianity has been the most directly influential part of my life, but I rarely speak- much less write- about it. Why? Because my crossjourney has been unconventional, extreme, painful, negative, and at points, embarrassing.  It has also been positive, lifesaving, comforting, and uplifting. I’ve never wanted to speak of what I’ve been through because much of it revolves around mistreatment and poor leadership from the church in which I was raised. Talking about what happened in that church doesn’t sit well with me because I in no way think that the large majority of members harbor poor intentions, controlling tendencies, or mean spirits. I also don’t want my story to reflect poorly on God, in whom I fully believe and trust. Whether you’re reading this as a member of the church to which I refer, an ex-member, or have no idea what I’m talking about, I hope you keep in mind that my intentions are not to blanket an entire congregation.

Legalism seeps into organized religion because churches are made up of people. And people are inherently sinful. We mess up. We are not perfect. We easily become prideful, hypocritical, and selfish. For Christians, this is the whole reason Jesus existed- to nullify the unavoidable sins of human nature. Why are we surprised that churches make mistakes and at times hurt their members? After all, a church is nothing more than a body of individuals- and no individual, even a church leader, is exempt from poor choices.

I grew up in a nondenominational church my mother joined in 1991. The church was an international, evangelical movement with radical practices to ensure that its members followed the Bible’s commands. With what I am positive started with the honest objective to separate themselves from “Sunday Christians,” my church quickly lost sight of grace and love. Instead, deeds and rules became the focus.  Many of the members wanted nothing more than to love God and humbly live for Him, but a culture of extreme accountability, harsh rebukes, and guilt-driven requirements led to the suppression of those good intentions.

I went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, bible talk on Mondays, and devotionals on Fridays. I met with my discipler (a person older in the faith assigned for accountability and mentorship) once a week. I participated in prayer groups, bible studies, quiet times and everything in between. If I befriended anyone outside of the church, I was told that I was being sinful unless I convinced them to join our church. Dating was to be only within the church, given permission from leaders. I had a dress code that included t-shirts and shorts at the beach, was constantly hounded to confess things that I did not necessarily feel or do, and felt pressured to alienate myself from anyone not within the church. These constraints and expectations were intended to keep us away from temptation, but only fueled people-pleasing, rather than God-pleasing, tendencies. I wanted so badly to delight God- truly- and was trained to do so by adhering to mandates of church leaders.

My mother never succumbed to raising me with a controlling hand, so none of these rules were of her making. My father was not part of the church, so naturally he did not enforce (or support) the legalism either. Eventually, my mom chose to leave the church in order to marry my stepdad- a man of extraordinary faith who the church did not permit my mom to marry since he was not baptized within their congregation. Her faith was not shaken by breaking ties with a man-made church, but my brother and I continued to attend since neither of us wanted to lose the world in which we lived and found comfort. After all, we distinctly separated ourselves from “the world” (non-members), so leaving the church would mean finding ourselves in unfamiliar, vast territory. My mother did not want that anxiety placed on us, knowing that the fragile teenage psyche could be easily devastated if rejected by the only community it’s ever known. Thus, she let us forge our own spiritual paths with God and this church, trusting in Him in a way I never appreciated until years and years later.

My older brother left the church after his first year in college. A rising senior in high school, I was told over and over how “strong” I was for being the only one in my family “left.” People who leave church are called “fall-aways”- and I was surrounded by them. Towards the end of my senior year, I remember telling my discipler that I wanted to move to NYC to pursue musical theatre, but was met with disapproval since my career passion was “too self-indulgent.” Mind you, a brilliant friend of mine in the church at the time wanted to go to medical school, but was told to pursue a less demanding academic track so that he could be trained for church leadership instead. Anything that was not about the church was considered wrong. Following the advice of church leaders, I accepted my admission to Christopher Newport University and focused on how I could best serve God through the campus ministry.

The summer before my freshman year at CNU, I was being rebuked for something I had done wrong (admittedly…after all, I was 18 and human), and for the first time, felt a twinge of “wait…is this actually how I should be treated right now?” The woman verbally punishing me for my sin asked “What do you think about all of this?” when she finished her spiel. I said, “I know that you’re telling me this out of love, and I just want to repent.” I meant it. I vividly remember her saying, “You know what, Shannon? I don’t even know if I’m doing this out of love. But I’m doing it because it’s right.”

Wait, what?

I chalked my initial offense at this statement up to the fact that I was being prideful. I had sinned, so who was I to focus on someone else- particularly my spiritual superior- doing something wrong towards me?

Despite other small instances nagging the back of my mind (ex: being told not to sing my prayers as I enjoyed doing because that relied too much on loving the sound of my own voice…here I was thinking I was given my voice to praise Him…?), I entered my freshman year with a strong desire to become a campus leader and bring as many people to the church as possible. A few months into my first semester, I met a sophomore guy who, well, I liked. I invited him to church and he became a member, but we secretly started dating since the church did not approve of our relationship (he was “too young of a Christian”). The lying and deceit to keep our relationship under wraps only spiraled into more and more sin until I couldn’t take the double life any longer. Just when we were on the brink of being exposed (my best friend had a hunch that something was going on), he and I confessed to everything.

It escalated quickly.

First, we were instructed to have no contact whatsoever until the church decided how they would handle the situation. In my boyfriend’s case, they called into question whether or not his conversion was legitimate. For me, they had to decide if I would be “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated from the church) since this was not my first offense. For two weeks following our confession, I met with leaders to be rebuked, questioned, and challenged. Leadership decided to tell the entire church body of my transgressions (based on Matthew 18:15). When reading that scripture, keep in mind that I still wanted to live for God and most definitely was listening to the church. But that’s a different matter.

I sat in front of everyone I knew as the leader behind the pulpit called me out by name and said that I’d been “immoral.” Immoral=had sex. Me in the audience=virgin. I swallowed the blow and decided it didn’t matter since only God was important. I needed to be humbled in front of the church. This was good for me. A few days later, I sat in a room in CNU’s Student Union and listened to a leader tell me over and over how stupid I was. “Shannon, you’re just stupid! You don’t lie and have a secret relationship unless you’re stupid. It’s one of the stupidest things anyone can do. You are stupid!” Super productive language. Among the countless meetings, only two or three people showed me any love or compassion.

Three weeks after the initial confession and plenty more cases of harsh guidance, my (ex?) boyfriend texted me to simply say that he was having a hard time. I didn’t know what he had been experiencing in those three weeks, but I figured if it was anything close to what I had, he must be pretty low. Without thinking, I responded “I’m really sorry.” After I pushed send, it hit me that I’d have to lie about sending that text if I didn’t want to be disfellowshipped. The whole point of confessing was because I didn’t want to lie anymore. I had one of two choices: Leave by force or leave on my own.

I wrote a letter to my roommate (a church member) and to the campus leader, then left town for the weekend, not wanting to be around for the reaction. I received emails and voicemails saying, “We know you’re with [ex-now new-boyfriend]. What is wrong with you?” along with an array other choice words. When I returned to campus on Sunday night, my roommate had moved out since she could no longer associate with me. A fall-away. I’d known her since I was eight.

Within the next few days, the only people I had ever been close to in life defriended me on Facebook. I later found out that a random married man in the church who I barely knew had messaged everyone on Facebook telling them to defriend me. Why did he care so much? Honestly, as I look back, it kind of creeps me out. Anyways, on top of losing all of my friends, I was scared of God. For nearly a year, I was convinced that a mailbox next to me would explode and I’d die and go to Hell. I thought that God hated me for leaving His church. I believed everything the church had taught me about fall-aways- and now I was one of them. Unlike many people who leave the church, I did not lose faith in God. I believed in Him. I just thought I was going to suffer eternally.

The members of the church sure didn’t help that notion. Ten days after I left was the Virginia Tech massacre. My ex-discipler- a campus leader and pastor’s daughter- texted me to say that it could have been at CNU, it could have been me, and I would have gone to Hell. I was terrified.

My boyfriend and I stayed together for about two years after leaving the church. I joined a sorority and an all-female a cappella group in order to develop new friendships. The women I met in those organizations showed me more unconditional love than I’d been taught in the 15 years I attended the church. I could trust that they weren’t talking about me behind my back under the pretense of “how Shannon is doing spiritually,” I knew they’d love me even if I left their organizations, and they forgave me for all of the things I did wrong.

Time went on and I became less fearful, but I also bottled-up a lot of my turmoil surrounding how I’d ever feel loved by God again.  I chose not to think about Him because I figured my demise in Hell was inevitable unless I returned to the church- and I simply did not plan to do that. Here and there, people popped up in my life that inspired me to accept God as loving and forgiving rather than jealous and wrathful, but I couldn’t fully get past the fact that these Christians did not belong to THE church…were they just watered-down and emotional followers? I grew up never trusting anyone’s faith outside of the church, so grasping outsiders’ hearts for God was far from easy.

After six years of no involvement with any sort of fellowship, my mother’s battle with cancer brought God right back to the forefront of my mind. Her faith during her five month ordeal was extraordinary. No one in the room with her during those last few weeks could deny God’s existence. Even my family members who were agnostic or atheist started believing in God because of the Holy Spirit that surrounded her. Awe-inspiring does not begin to cover it. Though my faith had never completely disappeared, I could no longer live without addressing it. When I held my mom’s hand as she passed away, my first thought was that she was meeting God at that very moment. How could that kind of comfort be ignored?

Over the last year and a half, I’ve slowly but surely refocused my life around God. It did not happen overnight, and I most certainly do not consider myself a “strong Christian.” But maybe that’s a term from my past that needs to stay in my past. I am a Christian. Period. I believe in God, strive to live within His will, and trust in the sacrifice of Jesus to cover over my multitude of sins. Mul. Ti. Tude. That’s for sure. I do not take advantage of His sacrifice, but in accepting my need for it, I think I fully understand its magnitude more so now than ever before. I know that my deeds are not what save me- it’s Jesus and my faith in Him. Yes, my deeds should reflect my faith, but that does not mean that I’ll never give into temptation or that I need to self-loath if I do. As my new spiritual mentor (dare I say…discipler?) recently explained to me- I am as pure as snow in God’s eyes each moment I repent and ask for his forgiveness. It’s as simple as that [snap!]. Again- this is not something of which to take advantage, but a concept that demonstrates how open God is to accepting our love and showering us with his own.

I am grateful for my time in “the church.” In it, I developed the foundation for my faith, learned the scriptures, stayed out of way more trouble as a teenager than had I been “normal,” and made amazing memories with people I still care deeply about. One of my best friends is still a member- she even had me in her wedding despite some protests from members who disapproved. I’m telling you, many affiliates of the church are wonderful, Godly people. Most importantly, I absolutely know that my involvement was for the greater good of my relationship with God, and that is something I can and will never regret.

A quick snapshot of my life now: I attend an awesome congregation in Northern Virginia that is full of people with deep beliefs and convictions. A woman whose faith and love reflects that of my mother (that is some high praise!) is my spiritual guide, and I am grateful for her every single day. She never berates or condemns me, but challenges me in areas of my life that she sees need to be more hinged on God. I know that she prays for me and trusts in God to will my actions, not in her own wisdom (though she has a stunning amount). I have friends that are both believers and non-believers, and I love them all equally. I love singing- mostly at karaoke these days- and drinking wine (Jesus turning water to wine is by far my favorite miracle, obviously). Guilt sometimes threatens to plague me, but with each day that I pray for God to remind me of His love and grace, that guilt is slowly turning into pure gratitude. All in all, I’m happy. Not because I give into doing whatever I feel like, but because everything in life has led me to a place where I get to lean on a perfect, loving, and forgiving God who will never leave me or forsake me. And as my mom said in her final hours- He is good. All the time.