When I Left the Church

A few years ago, I had my first panic attack. No, I wasn't reliving some traumatic childhood experience. I didn't lose a loved one or almost lose my wife and baby. I wasn't even having my blood drawn (which has produced similar results in the past).

I had a panic attack over thinking about taking a break from church.

As I blogged earlier this year (here), I have difficulty enjoying church. In particular, I started feeling more and more uncomfortable during worship services and unable to find a point of focus and reflection. So I decided to take a sabbatical from worship team involvement after a fourteen-year run.

But it wasn't enough to change what I was doing--corporate worship still felt awkward. My wife's final suggestion was to just stop attending for a while and take the opportunity for solitude. That's when it happened.

My chest tightened, my tongue stammered, and my entire body gave way to involuntary sit ups in the corner of our room. I couldn't not go to church.

It's one thing to take a sick day (which could be made up at a Sunday evening prayer meeting), but to intentionally take time away from any Hebrews 10:25 gathering of believers must be sin. If I had a problem with the church or God or faith or whatever it was, the best place to fix it was at church.

The more I rehearsed these platitudes, the more I began to realize that if my identity as a Christian was threatened by even the thought of reduced church attendance, then I was attending for the wrong reasons. I had an unhealthy relationship with church. So it was time church and I took a break.

I won't be offended if you think I'm a heretic. Honestly, I won't really care. Perhaps that's been the problem all along: I cared more about fulfilling a subculture's expectations than growing closer to Jesus.

It's like the newly-married husband whose wife expects flowers every week. Don't get distracted by the pettiness of such a request, just imagine for a moment the immense pressure this places on the relationship. It takes no account of financial crisis, family emergencies, even personal health.

It's an unrealistic expectation that is not inherent to marriage, but rather was imposed externally. So when that day comes that the flowers are forgotten, guilt-ridden anxiety is the only recourse. Because the young man has failed at his marriage.

Just like those weekly flowers, weekly church attendance is not inherent to Christianity; it is the imposition of a Christian subculture. And in choosing to take a week, month, dare I say even a year off from church, you're not failing Jesus, you're failing the expectations of those who care more about who will teach Sunday School that week than your spiritual needs.

The writer of Hebrews never added a frequency clause when he implored Christians to gather to encourage each other. And if encouragement is missing from your church experience, maybe a break is exactly what you need.

This is where I am now. I just don't care so much anymore what others think or whether I made a huge mistake in taking that break from church. Every marriage can use advice, even counseling, but ultimately my marriage is my business. And so is my relationship with Jesus.

Is that a dangerous ethic? Absolutely. Weekly formulas are certainly much safer than trusting day-to-day that you're not embarrassing your savior. But I would rather make mistakes with a faith I own than live with the anxiety of a borrowed one.

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