My “Empty The Pews” Story
March 29, 2021
As a young woman, I was also Wild At Heart, but unfortunately that story was reserved for men. Converted by Christian missionaries at 12 years old, I came of age in evangelical youth culture looking for an adventure that would be mine. There are many things young women can look forward to in evangelicalism—marrying a charming, godly man with a guitar who can pray with his hands up in the air, eyes pinched shut, on fire both by pure internal devotion as well as the bright spotlight beaming on the worship stage. Us Evangelical girls swooned over that shit. We could marry such a man, look to him to be our spiritual leader and have lots of babies for him.
Which was fine, but I wasn’t there yet. I was 14 and had room in my imagination for more than one dream. And there just wasn’t a whole lot of interesting possibilities for evangelical womanhood, except for one loophole: the missionary enterprise. In missionary biographies, I saw representation of brave women who gave up creaturely comforts and prospects of the godly husband, to live a life of danger, uncertainty, adventure, ambition, and ministry to vulnerable people. It was everything I wanted for myself (except for the celibacy bit, I was a sucker for romance and, well, sex) so I devoured the biographies, immersed myself in the drama and intrigue of missionary life, applied and got accepted to Wheaton College, where Jim Elliott had graduated—the famed martyr who was speared to death in Ecuador.
I got my Ring by Spring (the popular saying among Christian campuses in which Christians rushed to secure their courtship before leaving an environment of concentrated numbers of eligible partners), married, and settled into living the role of submissive wife and a life of service for God.
It was hard. I wasn’t great at being a submissive wife, not so much because I was rebellious but that my husband refused to play his part as the domineering, I mean, “strong spiritual leader,” in this script. Having also grown up in evangelicalism, somehow he found feminism before I did and viewed me as his equal. I insisted on doing the groceries and the cooking and the mommy-ing and he went along with it because well, he respected my wishes. I also grew increasingly discontented despite the fact that I was trying to live the dream—traveling across the world for the missionary adventure. I found that my ambitions and desires felt shackled even in the mission field loophole where a woman was supposed to be able to live large like the women in those missionary biographies I had read. Maybe it was because I had a husband with me? It felt like no matter how much I tried to flourish in those early years of adulthood, I could not grow beyond the confines of the evangelical narrative. People expected my husband to do the leading and the teaching and the speaking, practically throwing opportunities at him while I hustled to be seen and heard, all the while keeping the household and making sure I stayed appropriately small. The dissonance became harder and harder to sustain so I began to veer off script. After almost six years of choosing some hard things for the glory of God, we packed up our bags and moved home.
Except what is “home” when you married straight out of college and your first job was three quarters of the way around the world in a foreign land? We had moved six times within the first few years of our marriage, twice internationally. We didn’t ever own anything long enough for it to feel like ours. Even more unsettling, is that just as we said goodbye to our furniture and kitchen appliances, we were also starting to step away from the system of beliefs, values, and the blueprint for our lives we were given from childhood.
The next place we moved, we stayed for more than 10 years and counting, it’s where I’m writing this essay. My two kids grew up in this home, the only one they have ever known. We wanted to give them stability in a loving home. These days our family lives are routine to a fault: breakfast, school, dinner, homework, play, and early bedtime to get ready to do it all over again. It was like we got all the adventure out of our system during our missionary years. In my 20s, I hiked the Great Wall of China, faced down communist police in charge of making sure our religious activity didn’t threaten their authoritarian regime, coiled in fear as my taxi driver got into fist fights while I sat in the back seat with my baby. In my 30s, my most exciting day is a BOGO sale at the Starbucks down the street. When we decided to stop moving so much, we chilled all the way down.
On the surface, we gave our kids what we wanted to give, felt like they needed: stability and security. They grew up knowing they could trust us to not only provide for their needs, but also our own needs so they never felt responsible for anything other than their own development. I began working as an administrative assistant at their school so that I could be on their school schedule, vacation together, and be more than informed about their lives at school. On brand with other helicopter parents of our generation, we may have “hovered” a little too much, protecting them from any harm that may come their way. It meant shielding them from some of the spiritual turmoil brewing beneath the surface, because the decade of my 30s was truly tumultuous. Those years of active parenting overlapped with my years of “exiting circles of orthodoxy.” I love that description, from Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, so apt because truly it was circle beyond circle.
Biblical literalism: exit.
Eternal salvation: exit.
Jesus as the Only Way: exit.
Purity culture: exit.
It sounds so easy, to exit, but readers who have been through this will know every exit required great courage, and the steps are taken with tremendous fear and trembling. But every door I walked out of, I never walked back in and I felt more free and light and true to the human experience.
It’s hard to know exactly how my kids have perceived the experience of growing up in a home where their parents are going through such profound faith shifting, as they are only now starting to process in hindsight. All they know for sure is that we used to pray before dinners and now we don’t. We used to go to church and now we don’t. I tried to shield them from the turmoil of my own exit because having grown up the way I did, extending my kids spiritual autonomy and allowing them to live their own path became of supreme importance. I try to share my experiences but give them ample space to live their own story. For the most part, this was tenable except for one particularly profound rupture in our family lives.
After posting a selfie of myself with a rainbow ribbon in my hair at a local pride parade, I was called into my supervisor’s office and asked to stop posting gay affirming posts on Facebook because it violates some homophobic code at the school I was working for, the same school my children attend. Instead of complying, I resigned. This event was deeply traumatic for me, in ways I never shared with my kids because I didn’t want the choices I made to have a negative impact on their lives, especially when this particular incident took place at their school. As always, I wanted them to know that I have my own resources to take care of myself so that they did not have to concern themselves with my burdens. You can take the long-suffering doctrine out of a girl, but she can still endure long-suffering.
Parenting while faith shifting is complicated. At the same time I’m wresting myself free of the old narratives I was raised with, I’m also desperately searching for a new story so I can do better by my kids. What are some of the new values we have? If we aren’t laying down fundamentalist rules and regulations for our family, what do me and my house stand for? If we aren’t raising our kids in purity culture and sexual repression, what does sex positivity look like? If we’re emptying the pews, what family rituals will define our family so that they can look back on their childhood with fondness?
We did get a puppy—the joy of our teacup Yorkie is our strength.
I published a book about this, Parenting Forward, in which I laid out a new vision for parenting the next generation away from toxic fundamentalism. What I learned through the process is that raising children unfundamentalist isn’t to replace old rules and structures with new ones, it’s to radically alter the posture with which we raise our kids. The new vision isn’t a new religion, it’s to cultivate a playground for our kids to explore.
It turns out that publishing Parenting Forward, both the creative act of writing and becoming a thought leader in parenting, was a perfect antidote to faith deconstruction because fundamentalism fears chaos and hoards power. But creativity and children demand you let go. Circles of orthodoxy don’t unleash the muse, they hold her captive; and they crush children’s spirits instead of letting them thrive. My kids don’t need me to find a better story for them than the one I had scripted for me, they need me to let them figure out their own.
My Great Deconstruction Decade is over. I feel a palpable sense of equilibrium after years of being knocked off kilter, by which I mean years of anger, resentment, rage, remorse, and trauma. I mean, I’m grateful for many good times as well, but if recovery from fundamentalist religion wasn’t painful, I wouldn’t name it as trauma. What I learned is that it is near impossible to find healing and recovery when you are in or even just adjacent to your place of trauma. I remember vividly, visiting some evangelical friends, long after we’ve stopped going to church, knowing the likely possibility they will invite us to theirs. I prepared myself mentally, telling myself that just visiting one Sunday doesn’t mean commitment, won’t mean a repeat of a lifetime of trauma, and is frankly a polite thing to do in our pluralist society. I wanted to say yes, prepared to say yes, readied my soul for the trip back to the pews. When Sunday morning rolled around, something else came up and we weren’t able to go, my entire body sagged with relief as I let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. That was a trauma reaction and that experience taught me to treat myself with more kindness. I promised to allow myself to draw the strictest boundaries between myself and the church for my own well being. That decision is one of the best ones I’ve made yet for my healing. Without the threat of spiritual triggers, my body found the time and space to regulate herself into robust grounding after such faith shifting turbulence.
Because I dutifully followed the early script of my evangelical life, I married young, had babies young, and now find myself almost empty nesting in my 40s. But after the Great Deconstruction Decade, I no longer follow a script. Narratives and myths are powerful drivers of human motivation—we live and die by the stories we believe in. What do we do when we reject the one passed on to us via tradition or popular prevalence? I searched for alternative stories in parenting but decided justice for children is not imposing our narratives on them. But what about for myself? What story frames the meaning and purpose of my life after exiting circles of orthodoxy?
When I think back to why evangelicalism turned out to be so toxic for me, it wasn’t so much toxic individuals (though to be sure, there were key players I can name when I’m feeling petty), or blatantly malicious acts. It was that everybody within that culture was subsumed for the cause. Evangelicals are not monolithic, people had dynamic personalities because they exhibit the wild diversity of humanity, but evangelical culture is remarkably predictable. Whenever outliers crop up, a family with a gay kid, a wife who is the clear leader in a marriage, someone who expresses dissident political opinions, the system clicks into gear to ensure they remain outliers—as if they are the occasional glitch and can be sent outside until they do better. Speaking as someone who left, I have been erased from the narrative of the evangelical world where I spent more than half my life. They cannot explain why the system malfunctioned so best not to bring attention to this one. Anyone that threatened the Evangelical Story must be cast out.
But the outliers are not glitches. Every human being within the system has rich layers of personalities, history, preferences, identities that create the stories of their lives but the Evangelical Story rules above them all. I was a girl who obsessed about death, loved fantasy stories, delighted in adventure, daydreamed about kittens and kissing boys. I was finding pieces of myself with every new experience I was collecting, readying to launch into the story of my life when it got violently subsumed by the Evangelical Story.
Evangelicalism is not the only story that swallows human diversity, other narratives like nationalism, White Supremacy, capitalism do the same. The power of a single story can be corrupted.
So forgive me if, given my background, I’m a little skeptical of myths that require unquestioned sacrifice. I’m also aware that we all participate in them, no one deconstructs into a vacuum. But I feel safer when I can settle contentedly into living smaller stories of everyday life—and I always have one. Recently, I told the story over dinner of how I wiped out on my bike after the brakes got slippery in the rain (some bruises but I am fine.) My stories are always hyperbolic, full of big feeling that encompass my fullest self.
I think these are the stories that define my life moving forward. No more Evangelical Story for sure. And not any other grandiose myths that promise utopia. Stories, with little s’s that propel me to not live my best life, but my best day, and Universe willing, the day after. And although I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop being a storyteller, what I’m really hoping for deep down, is that I would spend the second half of my life learning to fully immerse myself in the experience of my own stories, not just for the telling of them.
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