Engaging the Recovering Christians

It was sometime in 1987, I think, when I got a very strange phone call. I actually thought it was a prank. At the time, I was a very progressive Christian pastor in a very conservative area in Southern California. I had been interviewed in the newspaper a few weeks before and had already received a few crank calls and some pretty nasty mail from some outraged conservative Christians. But this young man sounded very sincere. He wanted to know if we would consider hosting a Fundamentalist Anonymous chapter in our church. I had never heard of the national group and figured no one in the church had heard of it either, so I asked if it would be possible for me to meet with him. I wasn’t certain how anonymous this had to be. I assured him that whatever we discussed would remain confidential.

The next day, the young engineer who worked at a nearby aerospace office, stopped by the office. He was nervous at first but seemed to relax as he told a little bit of his story. His family had been “missionaries” in the U.S. for a fundamentalist Christian church. His father was a very domineering man who basically disowned his son when he went to a “liberal” university instead of the Bible College supported by their small denomination. The young man had a hard time socially in the university because he did not seem to fit. He had a very difficult time with a “western civilization” class he took his freshman year. His discomfort changed to curiosity, however, with the encouragement of a couple of his friends. He then took every class on religion and philosophy he could fit into his required course work and somewhere along the way he said, “I suddenly felt like I had been lied to all of those years.”

For the next ten years he went through periods of anger, distrust of people, “cold sweat” fear and periods when he would go back to the church of his youth and end up feeling terrible. And then he was introduced to an FA chapter where he lived in the Midwest and found it very helpful. When he took a job in Orange County, CA he began to have anxiety attacks and realized he still needed a support group. That was when he agreed to help start a FA chapter at the UCC church where I was the pastor.

The group only stayed there for a few months. He explained that too many of the potential participants were uncomfortable meeting in a church, even our ultra liberal one that had been the target of the conservative Christians since its founding. I was sorry they did not stay. I would have liked to have stayed in touch with this young man. It was the first time that I knowingly came across the terrible pain and damage that ultra-conservative religion can cause in individuals. It would not be the last.

For the next two decades I counseled uncountable numbers of people who shared their stories of psychological, emotional and even physical abuse in the name of religion. These folks of all ages shared stories of growing up believing that they were impure, were incapable, were worthless, were dirty, and sinful. It was only through their clinging to the belief that through the sacrifice of Jesus, they could avoid more suffering both here and in the hereafter. Sadly the vast majority of people who shared their stories were either women or gay men.

Anitra L. Freeman has published a paper on fundamentalism and writes about traits that fundamentalists use to maintain psychological control over members.

• They insist on a rigid hierarchy of authority. The more extreme the group, the more authority is concentrated in one central figure.
• The group, and the authority figure(s) within the group, withhold or bestow love to control behavior. Misbehaving members are cut off from communication.
• They magnify current social and individual evils and dwell on the “innate wickedness of man.”
• Sexual “immorality” is often their central cause.
• They promote a Truth which is superior to all other truths because it is absolute and unchanging.
• They promote distrust of one’s personal judgment, being subject instead to the given truths of the group, the judgment of the church as a body, or the proclamations of a central authority figure.
• They are apocalyptic, foretelling an imminent and horrifying future which only the faithful will survive. Any disaster in the news is magnified as “a sign of the apocalypse.” (http://www.anitra.net/activism/fundamentalism/psychology.html)

The emotional and psychic damage that occurs when some one becomes involved in these kinds of communities can be extreme. Reading first person stories of people who have gone through these experiences can be very hard. It is clear that the damage is often deep and great and frequently the damaged person has no place to go. There are no rehab centers for recovering fundamentalists.

Over the last three years I have received somewhere between three to eight books a month from publishers that want us to write positive reviews to help market their books. I have been surprised by the number of these books that have been written by people who have gone or are going through a difficult transition from an ultraconservative upbringing to a more open understanding of their religion or an outright rejection of it. They write about the challenges of discovering what they thought was the infallible truth that is no longer true for them. Often they believe that they are “progressive” because they no longer believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but they retain some very orthodox beliefs. Others reject religion all together.  Some are angry and some are not. It appears that the level of rejection and anger has more to do with how long and at what stage they had held their religious convictions before something changed their perspective.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, mainline church growth experts were suggesting that the growing ultra conservative, mega church phenomenon might be a good thing for the dying mainline churches. They assumed that these new Christians that were flocking to the mega churches would matured in their faith, using James Fowler’s hierarchy of “Stages of Faith.” As some point they would ultimately become disenchanted with their religious perspective, would leave the mega church and find a local main-line church to continue growing in their stages of faith. The hope was that this would result in a natural growth in our older churches. This has not proven to be the case.

Yes, mega churches tend to have big back doors and suffer even greater losses, on a percentage basis, than most of our mainline churches in our transient society. However, studies have found that only a small percentage of these ex-mega-church-Christians show up in our mainline churches. The vast majority simply stop going to church. They often become part of that growing segment of our society that self-identifies as “spiritual but not religious,” now one of the fastest growing groups in our country. Some researchers are wondering if progressive Christianity is going to be skipped by others who now identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Philosopher Ken Wilbur and Father Keating have a discussion on this topic in their new DVD which can be ordered through the TCPC website.

So how do we progressive Christians share our perspective so recovering Christians can hear us and actually get excited about the progressive path of Jesus and what our churches have to offer?

The first thing we will have to do is learn how to create more joyful, interactive, and spiritual Sunday celebrations. It will mean making changes that many long term church members will not want to make. But ultimately, we have to ask ourselves how long can we hang on to the past. We have a lot to learn from these conservative churches about telling our story and for the most part we are not getting it. We have to discover and implement more effective ways to communicate the progressive message in different ways and through different media that fit our contemporary society, particularly if we want to attract young adults.

We will also have to learn to share our powerful message with more clarity and substance. Do we really believe that following the teachings of Jesus will really change a life? Has it changed yours? Can we explain why our progressive faith has so compelling and important to us that we think it could be for someone else? Until we know what we represent, we represent nothing.

Are we willing to be patient with recovering Christians who are still struggling with guilt and holding on to beliefs that you may feel are archaic? This is where unconditional love and compassion must enter into our practice. Are we more concerned about winning a debate than we are about sharing our positive story? Can we build up someone who does not think like we think or believe what we believe?

Are we willing to take the time to educate ourselves about our faith so that when we are asked to have a conversation, we actually know what we are talking about? In other words, do we always have to say, “You need to talk to my pastor.”

We are sharing a message of love with people who have been taught a message of fear. We are trying to communicate about a great mystery with people who believed only in absolutes and dogmas. We are telling a story of inclusion to people who have been taught only about righteous exclusion. We are trying to demonstrate boundary-less life to some who have believed in the security of separation. We do not have an easy task. But there are a whole lot of searching people these days, who may be ready to let go of the life raft they have been hanging on to for a long time but are uncertain about where they can go. It would be nice if we could at least provide a search light that might illuminate another way for them to navigate “the sea of infinite mystery.” *

*Karl Rahmer

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