Nobody has given me a compelling reason to return to church

People sit in a church.
People sit in a church. | Getty Images

The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 2. Read parts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, and 8.

Editor’s note: We decided to post testimonies (there are two in this series) from people who are no longer Christians because we wanted to hear their stories and try to understand why they chose to abandon their faith. Our hope is that the Church will listen.

If you ask David Smith (not his real last name), he'll tell you "love has power in human life" and "that's enough for me."

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He has no use for the Christian faith, particularly as it is presently showcased in many expressions of the evangelical church in the United States.

As part of The Christian Post's series "Leaving Christianity," surveying the reasons and contributing factors to the phenomenon of Christians undergoing "deconversion" experiences, former evangelicals, sometimes called exvangelicals, are sharing their journeys away from faith.

These deconversions are often comprised of but not limited to intellectual deconstructions of faith entirely and a series of events where they could not live with the cognitive dissonance of what the Gospel proclaims and how churches operate — or perhaps some combination of both.

A significant part of Smith's story centers around the teachings of Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles; his family was part of Gothard's organization.

Although Gothard is regarded as a fringy fundamentalist to more mainstream evangelical Christians, for Smith, when asked if he sees any gradations between the groups, he replied: "It's all the same mistake at this time in history, if you ask me."

"I don't see anything in the modern 'Christian' church right now that makes me think of Christ. What I see is a business model that is predicated on church leadership never actually having to work a day in their lives, if they can just guilt their parishioners into donating enough money to cover a substantial salary. I realize I may be generalizing here, I'm sure there are still well-meaning folks in ministry in the church. I haven't met any of them though," he told CP in a recent interview.

Gothard, who never married and is now 84, stepped down from the IBLP in 2014 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and molestation were made against him and he was subsequently sued in 2016. The plaintiffs ultimately dropped the case in 2018 because of "unique complexities" with the statute of limitations but maintained he had sexually abused them.

In sharing his experiences, Smith believes "it's extremely important to understand why people are starting to abandon evangelical 'Christian' church attendance en masse."

"Judging by numerous exchanges I've had with friends, family and acquaintances over the past two-and-a-half decades (both in-person and on the internet), I suspect my reasons for abandoning church attendance are consistent with, and reflective of, a much larger community of people. It makes me very sad to see the church pushing people away," he said.

"When I was growing up, it seemed to me that Christian churches were very much intended to be like big extended families. That no longer appears to be the case. The modern evangelical church is like a big franchised stage show, made a thousand times worse by the prevalence of rigid, legalistic ideologies like Calvinism and the politicization of theology."

Smith did not want to reveal his real last name in order to avoid potential harassment. 

Below is a transcript of the interview with Smith, who was raised in the Christian faith and experienced a whole host of dysfunctions in several churches and Christian institutions.

CP: Briefly describe your history, growing in faith, giving churches chance after chance, and being disappointed time and again.

Smith: I can't really say I ever "grew in faith." I believed what I was told to believe until suddenly I didn't, as a result of profoundly negative and violent experiences. I was raised in first a Presbyterian church, then Methodist, then Bible and Southern Baptist churches. My parents discovered IBYC/IBLP in 1976 or so, which was unknown to me at the time. This contributed to my upbringing in subtle ways at first, then overt ways later. My childhood was, shall we say, unpleasant much of the time.

I attended a Christian high school that made IBYC/IBLP attendance a mandatory requirement for graduation, and it was at the age of 15 or 16 shortly before attending Gothard's seminar that my parents told me they had been involved with Gothard's organization for almost a decade already.

CP: How have you personally experienced dysfunctional leadership, unhealthy structures within churches, ministry entities?

Smith: This seems like a potentially really long question to answer, and you have my sincerest apologies that I'm unable to muster up anything detailed this time around. Suffice it to say that I met Bill Gothard personally and spent a fair amount of time with him, as well as his personal "spiritual warfare" adviser who routinely "cast demons" out of people (I will refrain from naming this person for obvious reasons), and if those two individuals are not the very picture of "dysfunctional leadership" and "unhealthy structures within churches," to say nothing of predation, delusion and psychosis, well, I have nothing else to offer you.

The idea of "contemporary worship" has degenerated the modern church to the point where it doesn't even seem like a church anymore. It's like one big franchised off-Broadway production — "Christianity: The Musical!" I mean that's fine, I love plays and musicals, but call it what it is.

CP: Offer some thoughts on the Bill Gothard teachings that were so harmful, formulaic prescriptions for life that proved damaging, abusive.

Smith: I developed the following explanation in a text exchange with a mutual friend, and it's the best answer I can give you:

Recently when I was visiting my folks, I cleared some of my personal belongings out of my dad's basement and I found some Gothard publications that I had forgotten about. One of the publications literally argues that you must be terrified of God to be successful. Another one argues that dancing is wrong under any circumstances and offers a convoluted rebuttal to every scriptural example of dancing, which strikes me as utter nonsense.

As I was looking through this stuff, the thought occurred to me that "my family is living in the ruins of our previous delusions." Because that's what revisiting Gothard's nonsense is: delusional. It's all based on the magical thinking that if you can just erase your own humanity enough, you'll stop caring about your own existence and then anybody anywhere can just have their way with you and you won't matter. You won't even react. It's infuriating beyond all reason.

I'm finally starting to understand the psychology of Gothard's "educational" materials. They're built around a really subtle tactic I would describe as "fish-hooking."

The vast majority of Gothard's scriptural interpretations are designed to sound reasonable. They're mostly consistent with the evangelical consensus. I would call these components the "bait."

But hidden within the "bait" are the "fish hooks": the specific toxic, psychopathic, esoteric theological anomalies that are unique and critical to Gothard's agenda:

"Be terrified of God"
"Yield your rights"
"There is no scriptural basis for dancing"

All the crazy stuff by which Gothard demands subservience of your will to his explicit instructions. It's a form of mass hypnosis — constructed by a man who, as it turns out, was primarily interested in preying on young women and built/propagated a theological culture that stripped potential victims of the ability and even the will to defend themselves.

I'm finally seeing it all for what it really is and it's unbelievably diabolical. It was deliberate all along.

Gothard drew unto himself a vast pool of carefully prepared and thoroughly conditioned victims who were unable to even understand that they were being taken advantage of and used.

Bill Gothard literally elevated abuse to a science. Hide the crazy behind a carefully constructed wall of inane pabulum and plausible deniability, and when the time comes no one will ever believe that an abuser ever molested anyone.

CP: In your own words, explain the story about the last time you were in church.

Smith: The last time I ever attended church was in 1995 or '96 or so. This was several years after my family had left ATI/IBLP but before I had abandoned evangelicalism entirely. I had been visiting a contemporary worship church at the invitation of some friends, one of whom was a fellow musician and a member of the church board. In the middle of the sermon, with 10-15 minutes left, there were some small children playing in the back of the auditorium running in and out through the doors and making a little bit of noise (I think they had escaped from the daycare room). The pastor suddenly slammed his fist on the pulpit and ordered the ushers to close and lock the auditorium doors. To the best of my recollection, the pastor's words were, "Nobody's leaving this room until I'm finished with my sermon."

That was the last time I ever set foot in a church service. I was struggling with Christianity mightily already, having survived and finally escaped the Gothard cult, and this was the final nail in the coffin for me. I don't need to feel trapped by religion ever again in this lifetime: not then, not now, not ever.

If that means that when I die I will go to Hell where I will burn and scream and scream and burn and shriek and flail and burn and scream (this is how it has been described to me by those who want me to "repent"), then so be it. I'm done. I can only go to Hell once. In some ways, I'm already there, so threats mean less than nothing to me. I choose to focus on what little good I can do with my life, and what reasons I may have to feel OK about myself. If all of that is blown away in a blast of Hellfire when I die, oh well. Too bad for me, I guess.

CP: Can you specify some more ways in which church leadership was particularly dysfunctional, or maybe even expound on the dysfunction of the whole church system and how you saw it grind people up?

Smith: When I was in my teens attending a Bible church with my family, a recently hired youth pastor had an affair with a woman who was also involved with the youth program. When this was discovered, the senior pastor literally called them both on the carpet the following Sunday morning in front of the entire congregation and humiliated them both, thundering and pounding on the pulpit. The woman fell on her face prostrate and weeping; the man left the building in a rage. The whole scandal dragged on for weeks and weeks, and our family ended up leaving that church. It was a mess, and I don't think the situation was handled well or in a healthy manner.

When I was in my early 20s and going through some struggles with my parents, I approached the pastor of a large church we had attended in the past looking for help. I explained to this man what our family had experienced in the Gothard cult and how it had affected me. The man flew into a rage and accused me of making up lies about my parents. Needless to say, I left his office and did not attempt to contact him again.

At one point around the same time period, when I was struggling financially, another pastor told me that my problem was "you've never forgiven anyone for anything" and informed me that he would pray for God to punish me as catastrophically as possible so that I would "open my eyes" to what a horrible sinner I really was.

What I see in the modern church is people who live in a happy little play-acting bubble. Put on a good face, go to church, act the part, play your appointed role in the big production that is "Christianity: The Musical!" God help you if you have any actual problems. The church bills itself as an organization that wants to help people, but in reality, they don't want to know you and they don't want to deal with your sh*t. They want you to shut up, look happy, meekly donate your 10% (plus any and all additional $$ you might feel inclined to throw in), go home and go about your business. Don't tell us about your problems, don't act like you're in pain, don't rock the boat, don't distract from the narrative. Anyone with real issues gets thrown under the bus by a bunch of extremely angry people who are too busy play-acting their parts to actually engage humanity on any sort of real level.

The most successful churchgoers are wealthy, affluent people who live charmed lives of unbridled happiness, married their high school sweethearts, have 2.5 kids, etc. I hate everything about it and why would I want to be a part of it? I'm a 49-year-old single man who's never been married, never had kids, has a host of assorted health problems and is a struggling (albeit mildly successful) musician. The church does not want people like me. We're sand in the gears. There's no place for me in "Christianity: The Musical!"

I get routinely accused of "bitterness," whatever that means. That's fine. Other people are entitled to their opinions about me, and I'm entitled to ignore those people. I don't owe anybody anything. All reasons why I have no interest in church attendance. Nobody in the church community cares what I think, so why should I care about them? What a waste of effort.

CP: What was the worst moment you had in a church/ministry setting? The best moment?

Smith: I think I've described my experiences fairly clearly above but if you want to narrow the question down I might come up with a better answer for you. I don't miss church at all. I don't relish living by my emotions. I prefer living as objectively as possible.

CP: Explain how you view fundamentalist Christianity versus what some call mainstream evangelicalism. Do you believe there are gradations, much difference at all?

Smith: It's all the same mistake at this time in history, if you ask me. I don't see anything in the modern "Christian" church right now that makes me think of Christ. What I see is a business model that is predicated on church leadership never actually having to work a day in their lives, if they can just guilt their parishioners into donating enough money to cover a substantial salary. I realize I may be generalizing here, I'm sure there are still well-meaning folks in ministry in the church. I haven't met any of them, though.

CP: Explain how evangelicalism posits itself as impossible to be corrupt because they have the true "biblical" take on everything.

Smith: Also, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a feature of religion, not a bug. The less someone knows, the more confident they will be that they have all the answers. Ignorance is a critical component of the modern evangelical church. Contemporary evangelical leaders don't want church members who think for themselves. They want obedient drones who will faithfully and willingly parrot and regurgitate the beliefs they've been instilled with.

CP: Talk about your reading of the Bible, explain how you came to view the Apostle Paul as contradictory to the words of Jesus. Elaborate on specific passages that caused you to "deconstruct" and stray away from the approved evangelical line.

Smith: In stark contrast to the "off-Broadway" quality of "contemporary worship" in evangelical megachurches, actual "salvation" is billed as nearly unattainable.

Jesus talks about salvation in the most appealing terms imaginable:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 New International Version (NIV)

Doesn't that sound great? Belief in Christ saves the sinner from his sin. In Jesus' own words:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

"For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

"He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." John 3:16-18 KJV

Whereas Romans 6 flatly states, in Paul's ever-circular and immutable ramblings, that to be saved means to be "free from sin."

"What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid." Romans 6:15 

Now, in my opinion, the book of Romans is meant as an example of the utter inadequacy of human language to describe the necessity and the effect of grace on human life. Nothing in it is meant to be applied literally. It's meant to illustrate the failure of the human intellect to fully comprehend the meaning of salvation.

In my opinion, to be saved means that sin no longer has power over you. It certainly does not mean that Christians stop sinning. To be human is to sin. To exist is to sin. Belief is the only salvation.

That's not what the modern church teaches, however.

The modern evangelical church teaches Romans as if it's the California penal code. The modern evangelical church uses Paul's writings as a cudgel to browbeat people with the conclusion that 1) To be Christian means not to sin; and 2) if you sin, well then, you're not a Christian. The modern church holds salvation hostage to good deeds. And this despite the most flagrant of evil actions, abuses, and hypocrisies practiced by modern evangelical leaders, hidden carefully out of sight in the backrooms and behind the stage curtains of the modern church. "Rules for thee but not for me" could be the motto of modern evangelicalism.

It makes me want to vomit, it really does.

CP: As you were making your exit from church/faith did you converse with others, did others try to keep you in the fold, or did you pretty much make a clean break?

Smith: It was pretty much a clean break. There was some initial resistance from my parents, but we agreed to stop discussing it eventually. Nobody has ever been able to give me a compelling reason to resume church attendance, and I don't waste a lot of thought on it. I like having my Sundays free to sleep in and do whatever I need to do to catch up on the weekends.

CP: How old were you when you left?

Smith: I was about 26 years old.

CP: Would you ever say that you felt as though you personally encountered God? Did you ever consider church/faith in Jesus an integral part of your life? Or was it more along the lines of, church was something you did and were invested (to whatever degree) in because you had to go? 

Smith: I can't say with any certainty that I've ever "personally encountered God," only because I question any experiences I've ever had that seemed to have elements of the supernatural at the time. I have a scientific background, and I'm extremely suspicious of any experience I've ever had that can't be objectively verified.

What I will say is that I had several highly emotional "conversion" experiences when I was very young, including being formally baptized in front of an entire congregation, and those emotions led me to believe that there was a supernatural component to my experiences. I don't really feel that way any longer, and I make a point of not living by my emotions. This does not mean, however, that I discount the existence of God. I simply don't know. God may exist. It's not up to me whether he does or doesn't.

I would still consider Jesus an integral part of my existence, but not as a typical "believer." I don't experience "faith" at this point in my life. What I experience is objective reality, as best as I can define it. And the objective reality is, whether factual or mythological, the Jesus of the four Gospels is an unparalleled model of compassion, integrity, and self-sacrifice. It's not necessary to believe in God to see the value of Christ's teachings and follow them. I believe that love has power in human life. That's enough for me.

Church attendance was definitely an obligation, not a choice. It's one of the reasons I don't attend any longer. I don't like unnecessary obligations, and I don't like socializing with large groups of people. I don't like being subjected to other people's opinions, particularly when those opinions are judgmental and uninformed. What I have found is that the vast majority of churchgoers are completely incapable of relating to my experiences, particularly as a survivor of the Gothard cult. Churchgoers will routinely argue with me, belittle my experiences, accuse me of being "unforgiving," deny and contradict my health issues, etc. It's infuriating and I have no time or use for it.

CP: If the evangelical church were to make one big change that would make life better for the people inside it what would it be?

Smith: Whew. I have no answer to that. But maybe, just maybe, off the top of my head, stop asking for membership "covenants"? Stop signing people to legally binding contracts for the purpose of dispensing "church discipline," because it provides an extra-judicial infrastructure for predators to hide behind.

CP: Describe, to the best of your ability, how you understand yourself today in relation to Jesus.

Smith: I have no idea. God is inscrutable to me. I'm probably going to burn and scream and scream and burn and shriek and flail and burn and scream in Hell forever and ever amen, just as I've been told so many times, while all the people who've said those things to me sit righteously with God in heaven, smugly looking down upon my torments with open smiles and laughter, pointing their fingers and saying "See? Told you so." That's fine. I can't do anything about it if it's true. God is overpowering, I'm helpless.

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