I Left the Church: Until I Had KidsSarah Stewart Holland
Church and I had been on a break : a ten-year-long break.
I truly believed it was a permanent split. Apparently I was wrong, because for the past several months, I have been taking my children to church.
I grew up in a Baptist church. For most of my childhood, it was a wonderful experience. I look back now and realize what a gift it was to grow up in a community like that. I felt supported and loved. I felt like people were rooting for me. I also learned values that have stuck with me my entire life: forgiveness, charity, and compassion, to name some.
However, somewhere around adolescence things changed. After I joined the church youth group, the message shifted from one of support to one of sacrifice. Instead of being a creature of God fearfully and wonderfully made, I began to feel like I was a disappointment who never did enough to make God “happy.” We were constantly pressured to sacrifice more for our beliefs. We were asked to give up secular music, time outside the youth group, even dating. But no matter what I did, I never felt good enough. I didn’t feel loved and supported. I felt inadequate and pressured to be someone I was not.
Suddenly, the emphasis wasn’t on empathy or love but guilt and judgement. The church that had once brought me such joy now filled me with dread and pain. In college, removed from the insular community that had defined my religious beliefs for so long, my small doubts turned into a complete lack of faith.
For the past ten years, I thought and talked and read a lot about religion, but I never felt the need to go back to church. I can’t honestly say there was something missing in my life. There wasn’t. Like an increasing number of Americans, I didn’t see regular church attendance as essential to spirituality or my growth as a person.
Then I had my son.
All those issues I had sorted out no longer seemed so neatly sorted. How could I introduce him to religion? Did I even want to introduce him to religion? My painful history with the church was decidedly not his problem, but at the same time, I wanted desperately to protect him from just such an experience.
We recently moved from Washington, D.C. back to my hometown in Kentucky. Honestly, if we had stayed in D.C., I’m not even sure this would have been an issue. But we didn’t stay there – we moved back to the Bible Belt, where one of the first things people ask is, “Have you found a church home yet?” Avoiding religion in this community is not really an option.
I do know families who have chosen not to attend church. They allow their children to go with grandparents or visit occasionally with friends. That doesn’t seem quite right to me either. I have several close friends who grew up in religious communities but didn’t attend church with their parents. Even though they went with friends occasionally, they said they always felt isolated. I don’t want that for my children.
It also doesn’t seem realistic to expect children to explore these issues on their own. Plus, how much will they even want to explore religion when our absence sends a clear message: Church isn’t something we value and you shouldn’t either. And while my doubts are far from resolved, I do believe church is valuable, especially for children.
There is a video – now famous in my family – in which my seven-year-old self stands up before the congregation and expounds on what my church means to me. For several minutes, I talk (and talk) about how I love to sing at church and how I feel loved when I am there. To me, what I say is not the revealing part. What is truly amazing is that someone handed a fourth grader a microphone and told her: “What you have to say is important to us. Please share it with everyone.” It was a powerful message and one I have never forgotten.
There are few arenas in our society where children can learn the sacredness of certain places and how to be respectful in those places. Growing up in church, I learned a sense of duty. Church was important in my family, and we went even when we didn’t feel like it. In church, I also a found a group of mentors and role models. Adults who weren’t my parents but whom I could trust and talk to when I was having a problem.
It’s more than that though. Long ago, I started rolling my eyes every time Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” came on the radio. But if I’m being honest, I still tear up every time she sings the line, “Promise me you’ll give faith a fighting chance.” I want my children to do just that: to give faith a fighting chance. Just because my faith has taken a beating doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a shot in the ring. And if I don’t introduce them to religion honestly and openly, someone else will.
What does this mean for my family’s future? I can’t predict that. But what I can say is that right now, every Sunday, we go to church to figure this out together.