The recent news about abuse and exploitation happening in megachurches has touched on some nerves and got me thinking about some of my own experiences. I was not part of a huge church like Arise. I experienced some harmful teaching about sex and relationships, some stigmatising reactions to mental distress, and some theology (of patriarchal white Christian supremacy) that I now reject. I was not in a space where there was pressure to tithe, exploitation of interns, a narcissistic church leader demanding devotion. In addition, a lot of the trauma I experienced was not within the church. Nonetheless, I did experience harm in a church context. It has been helpful for me to write this out, to make sense of some things. This is not just about a particular parish, because my experience of the Church when I was a teenager included visits to other churches with friends, church conferences and music festivals, Christian Fellowship at school, prayer groups, etc. Content warning for sexual abuse and mental distress. If you are needing support, my previous post has some information I hope might be helpful for anyone going through similar struggles.
1: a solemn written or spoken declaration that something is true, especially one given in a court of law.
2: a public profession of religious experience. “Every time you tell the story about how you came to have a personal relationship with God, you give honor and glory to God, and He is pleased with that. That story is your Christian testimony: the story about how God has changed your life through a personal relationship with Him.”
…not the testimony that I was supposed to give.
I sometimes joke that becoming a Christian was my teenage rebellion – the only thing that would shock my parents. I am an only child, and an only grandchild on one side. As a child I was surrounded by love, and there was always someone with time for me. My family are not religious, but they brought me up with a strong sense of values. We planted native trees and joined my grandparents in marches for peace and a nuclear free world. My parents both worked for a scientific institute, and they encouraged me to explore the world with care and curiosity.
I didn’t really have an impulse to rebel, but perhaps it did have something to do with adolescence, individuation, identity exploration, hormones… Oh, yeah, it started with a girl. She was bubbly and happy, and sure, I had a crush on her, but I also wanted to be like her. When she invited me to her (Pentecostal) church, of course I said yes. Going to her church was like nothing I had ever experienced. Everyone was so passionate and happy, and they were so excited to have me there, and the music! It was overwhelmingly emotive. I felt joyful, and excited, and I found myself crying. People came gathered around and put their hands on my head and shoulders, praying for me, and I felt so special.
My parents didn’t even know that I was queer at this point, but they knew the church I had gone to campaigned against the new law bringing human rights protection on the ground of sexuality, and they were not OK with me associating with homophobes. I was banned from going (the time I snuck out and went back was the only time in my life that I was grounded) but, because my parents believed in freedom of religion, they wouldn’t stop me from going to church at all. The Presbyterian church that my grandmother went to as a child seemed like a sensible option. If only my parents knew what it was like in the 90s.
I threw myself into evangelical Christian life: Sunday services, youth group, bible groups, singing in the worship team, and being rapidly inducted into a totally different world view. I was taught that the bible was written by God to tell us how to live our lives, and there were clear rules about right and wrong, good and evil, holiness and sin. Because of Satan’s trickery in the Garden of Eden, humans were born sinful, and the only way to be saved was to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. He died for me, personally, and he wanted to have a deep relationship with me. We were in the midst of an ongoing cosmic battle between good and evil, winning souls for heaven or hell. We Christians were not of this world, we were set apart, waiting for the time when Jesus would come back and destroy the world, taking us to paradise. If you were not with us, you were against us, and against God.
Taking all this passion and drama to another level was the soundtrack: the music, which shaped the experience of worship. Songs repeated over and over so that they were easy to learn and sing with your eyes closed. Some lyrics were sentimental love songs about intense devotion and reinforced the expectation that worship would result in a personal encounter with God. “Jesus, lover of my soul… I love you, I need you, though my world may fall I’ll never let you go…” “You’re softening my heart to the knowledge of Your love… I surrender to you.” Other songs gave us a sense of power. “We will rise to take this nation, We have come to take this land, We will rise, We have come to take a stand. We aren’t fighting flesh and blood, We are pulling strongholds down, We will fight, We will see this battle off.” Chord progressions chosen for an emotional response, repeated and gradually swelling, swept us into an ecstatic trance. People became so overwhelmed with joy that they fell backwards “slain in the spirit,” or spoke “in tongues.” It became like an emotional fix, I wanted more. It was exciting, we were special, and we had the answers to everything.
Well, almost everything. There were a few things that I found confusing. Although I was told that God could change people’s hearts if I prayed for them, I knew on a deep level that my rational, scientifically minded parents were never going to enter this world. I struggled to believe that they, and many of our friends, would go to hell. Some people in the church told me having atheist parents was a trial sent to strengthen my faith. Some of them told me I shouldn’t talk to my parents because they didn’t understand. I couldn’t talk to them anyway; I knew that they would find all of this ridiculous. I started to withdraw from them, throwing myself deeper into a different world from them, but it made me feel miserable. I was told that God hates lukewarm Christians, we had to believe in God with all our minds and devote our selves completely with all our heart. If we prayed to God, he would strengthen our faith. So, I prayed for God to give me faith, crying in my room late at night, but it didn’t get any easier to believe.
Another stumbling block came with the teachings about sex and relationships. Sex in a heterosexual marriage was good, anything else was bad. I was attracted to multiple genders, but it didn’t feel like something bad, something I was being tempted with; it was just part of me. When Christians said they “loved the sinner but hated the sin” I couldn’t figure out how to separate my experience and identity – where exactly was the line? It felt like the hate was towards me. When I was taken to a pastor to drive out the “spirit of homosexuality,” it felt like they were trying to destroy something precious. Fortunately, I have never been homosexual, and I like to think that my invisible shield of bisexuality protected me from the prayers.
Because we were meant to be waiting for marriage, nobody was talking to us about healthy relationships, consent, or sexual safety. We learned about purity, and women honouring their husbands, but at the same time some of the young people defined sex as vaginal intercourse and engaged in other sexual acts, feeling slightly guilty but also virtuous about restraining themselves from “going all the way.” It was in this confusing context that I first experienced someone using my body for sexual gratification without my consent, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. It felt like something wrong – had I sinned for not stopping it? But it wasn’t “sex” by that definition, so what was it? It was years later before I understood this as a sexual assault. I didn’t talk to the adults at church, because I felt ashamed, but I didn’t talk to my parents either, because I felt so far away from them by that point. I felt yucky, I got tummy aches and started missing school. It felt like something dark had taken hold inside my body, and I was just a shell around it.
At church services, instead of holding my hands in the air and singing, I curled up and cried. I wrote friends letters about how dark my life had become, and people prayed for me, but it didn’t seem to change anything. One time a friend took me to a different church with a visiting preacher. Somehow, I ended up at the front, with people praying for me to be released from demons. I felt the preacher pushing on my forehead, and as I lost my balance, strangers caught me and then held me on the ground. I was crying and asking for my friend, but they told me he couldn’t come to me. Eventually I did the same thing I had learned to do to get through frightening situations: I escaped from my own experience. I still had awareness of my body and could sense the world around me, but it felt far away, as though I was under water. This event didn’t bring me any release or healing, but it reinforced my sense that there was something horrible wrong with me.
I don’t remember any conversations about mental health, and I’m not sure if we had a concept of it. There was a belief that Jesus could heal and perform miracles, and that we could drive out demons that were troubling someone. The prosperity doctrine was also pushed: If we had enough faith God would make us happy and fill our lives with good things. In this world of good and evil, light and dark, miracle blessings or demonic possessing, how could I make sense of my experience? I read the bible, I went to church, I prayed and prayed, but it felt like darkness continued to gnaw away inside me.
I had some good friends at church, who didn’t talk about hell or demons, and who were patient and supportive towards me. I’m so grateful that they were there and they cared. Despite the kindness that these friends showed me, it was the judgements from others that got under my skin, the negative messages that cut the deepest. Other friends seemed to give up on me; I wasn’t behaving how I was meant to as a good Christian. A few treated me with contempt. The girl who had “saved” me seemed to want nothing to do with me.
I guess there were multiple reasons I drifted away. I’d never been able to reconcile some of the dissonance, intellectually or on an emotional level: my family going to hell; queer relationships being sinful; disregard for environmental concerns because this world was going to be destroyed… none of this made sense to me. I think the main reason I didn’t keep going though, was that the evangelical church had not been able to offer anything that helped me in my distress. In fact, the black and white world view and all or nothing teachings were making me feel worse. To continue to survive, I had to search somewhere else for what I needed.
Eventually I did find my way back into a church, but this time a Progressive Presbyterian parish, where we don’t believe in heaven and hell, the devil, or creation and resurrection stories as literal events. We do find, alongside the weird in the bible, there is a lot of inspiring stuff about justice and radical inclusion. It has been fascinating to learn more about the authors of theses texts, and how we can understand this literature in the context of the social, political and religious systems of their time. We gather at church to reflect, renew our energy, and support each other to do the stuff that matters. I have learned about hope as an action; the ways we intentionally choose to work towards creating a more justice and inclusive world.
I also found art therapy, which helped me to start to see the darkness for what it was: the harm that had been done to me, and the shame and stigma that church teachings had reinforced. It has been a long journey, and I am still learning to watch for warning signs that the shame is taking a hold again. Reflecting on the struggles I went through as a young person, some days I feel a lot of grief. A lot of the trauma I experienced was not in the church, but I can’t help thinking I might have responded differently if I had never walked through the doors of a Pentecostal church. If it wasn’t for the love and acceptance from my family, the values I had taken to heart when I was younger and couldn’t shake off, and the friends who didn’t give up on me, I don’t know how things would have ended.
From time to time the emotional scars still tingle. I feel grief, sometimes, because I know there were many losses along the way, and my journey could have been so much easier. It didn’t end then though, that’s what matters. Somehow, through all the dark, messy, confusing places, love and hope has carried me through.