When I first began writing my blog, I had only been gone from my church for just a few weeks. I have come a long way in these last few months and I am seeing more and more truth every day. I want to thank everyone for the kind comments you have left and the support you have been to me. Thank you Jimmy, for all the books you have sent my way - it means a lot to know you have thought about me.
While sitting in my new church yesterday, I had such a sense of gratefulness to God for leading me away from bondage and into freedom. The pastor talked about 3 simple things - prayer, praise, and the Bible. He shared how each one will draw you closer to God and make your relationship with Him stronger. Over the past many years of being in a controlling church that was governed by a strict standard, my relationship with God had suffered greatly. Somewhere along the way I lost the joy of my salvation.
I was saved at the age of 15 and there was truly a change in my life. I became a different person. A great love come into my heart for everyone around me and I had a peace come into my heart that I had never had before. I told all of my friends what had happened to me and invited them to church. One by one they all got saved and started walking with the Lord. Jesus quickly became my best friend and I had a true relationship with my heavenly Father. What happened?
When I first began attending my former church I was young and naive. I trusted and looked up to the leadership. I thought all preachers were holy and that I was supposed to respect and obey them. I was hearing new things and becoming aware that there was much more to the Christian life than I ever imagined - so I thought. In learning new things about faith, I also learned that in this church there were rules you were expected to follow. Many of the rules were unspoken, but I learned them quickly by watching what happened to others if they were broken. The big rule that everyone learned early on was that the pastor was in charge and you are to do what you are told and not question. I developed a fear of the pastor and I never wanted to displease him. I began to place more stock in what he thought about me than I did what God thought of me. I was so busy focusing on what I was and wasn't supposed to do, I allowed myself to drift away from my relationship with God. I am not ashamed to admit this because if I don't acknowledge the truth, then I can't change.
Little by little the excitement I had when I first got saved slipped away. It became hard for me to share my faith with others and invite them to church because I never wanted them to experience the difficulties I was having. I did step out and invite my brother and his wife to come. My brother was newly saved and I was thrilled that he agreed to come to church. He called me one Saturday and told me that he had driven to a park and hiked to the top of the mountain to pray. He shared how he experienced the presence of God and how he knew that God had heard his prayers. It was precious to me and I could relate, because when I was newly saved as a teenager, I would walk to the lake near my house and sit on the dock and pray. I would always feel God's presence. Soon after my brother's call, he came to church and something happened that broke my heart. I kid you not, the pastor began to talk about these "dummies" who think that they have to go up to a top of a mountain to hear from God. To this day I can feel the same feelings I felt that day. All I could do was think of how my brother's feelings must be hurt. I was afraid my brother thought that I had told the pastor what he had shared with me about going to the mountain. Of course I had not told and I couldn't even believe what had happened. He left the church soon after that and now I see that it was the best thing he could have done. He has a very special relationship with God and loves to help people.
We were told all the time to bring visitors to church, but after something like this I was afraid that someone else would be hurt. As Christians, we are supposed to want to share our faith and invite people to church. I did when I was first saved all the time, but I lost the enthusiasm for doing this over the years. I knew that people would be met at the door with rules that were impossible to follow.
Things happen subtly and gradually in controlling churches. The first time you hear certain things it may shock you, but you are conditioned to keep quiet and accept all that comes your way. You say to yourself, "They tell me this is the best church in the world, so where else would I go? I know certain things don't seem right, but maybe it will stop. Perhaps God will speak to him and he will correct it. After all, he is the pastor and he knows more than me. Who am I to question? I am the one who is probably out of line. I better just go along with what he says. Why? Because he's the pastor, that's why." How many people have said these same things to themselves, not realizing they were going against their own heart? How many times have we not invited people to church because of what we were afraid would happen, and yet we sat there week after week, talking ourselves into staying? It's dangerous to push away your own heart's desires to serve a man or a church. It can cost you years of having a true relationship with God.
As I listened to the pastor at my new church talk about the simplicity of prayer yesterday, I realized that I had pretty much "spiritually thrown up my hands on prayer" in the past. I just couldn't see how it would work for me. My friend over at Clarity Rediscovered did a great job describing the rules that the church placed on prayer. If we didn't say something just right, then our prayers wouldn't work. We were told that God didn't want to hear our problems, and all He wanted to hear was the Word. I got so confused because I heard others say that I could talk to God about anything. What was I supposed to do? The simplicity that I once walked in when praying was clouded by rules that contradicted themselves. I lost the joy of sitting down with my Father and sharing my life. I was afraid I would do something wrong.
The same is true for praise. Our church was so focused on singing the right words that we lost the whole point of what praise is. D wrote a good post over at Loving Jesus, Leaving Church on her experience in praise and worship. The songs at my former church were carefully selected. We were never allowed to sing anything that talked about trials we were going through or hurts that we had experienced. All the songs had to be about how God would bless us and what He could do for us. I got so focused on singing confessions of faith that I lost the joy of singing adoration to Him. I loved Hillsongs music and the songs always made me want to worship, but our church wouldn't sing them because they thought there were too many wrong words and phrases in them. I thought so hard about praying and singing the right things, I couldn't even think about Him. (Can you see how the frustration comes by trying to follow the unattainable guidelines of a controlling church?)
Relationship is what Christianity is all about. Many people who are trapped in these controlling systems are merely going through the motions. Relationship is replaced by a long list of rules and regulations that you must follow to be accepted. The leaders talk about how people don't need to get under the spirit of religion, when that is the very thing they are under. How people act is more important than what's really going on in a person's life. We can spend so many years of our life trying to measure up to and please a man, that we lose our relationship with God. For years I tried to measure up, follow the rules, keep the standard of excellence, pray the right things, confess the right scriptures, give to the right ministers, worship the right way, keep up the right appearance, sit in the right seat, say amen in the right place, and submit to every word that came from the pastor, but I was letting my relationship with God get buried under this pile of rules.
There was talk of freedom, but true freedom would have never been attained as long as I was in this place. I was in a meeting one day and I heard a church leader say, "We are not going to give the people what they want. We are going to give them what they need and they don't even know what they need." It seemed that this leader was saying that we were too dumb to think for ourselves - that we were too dumb to even know what we want or need. Why wouldn't they give the people what they wanted? Why wouldn't they want to make it a happy place for these people who gave so much of their time and lives to serve them? Why did the leaders pride themselves in the fact that you had to be "tough" to attend this church? Why did they want so much control over good people who were just trying to be a blessing to them? When I heard that statement I knew it wasn't right, but once again I talked myself into believing I had to accept it. Once again, I put my hopes, dreams, and any hope of ever having a voice on the back burner - way in the back. After being in this place for so long, I was slowly drying up on the inside. You would have never known by looking at me on the outside and I didn't even know until a short time ago. I had been in such a thick fog - I couldn't even see it.
It is by the grace of God that the light came to me. I am so thankful - words cannot express my gratitude to God for setting me free. God is restoring the joy of my salvation day by day and I have begun to trust in prayer again. The Christian life was never meant to be hard and burdensome. Our salvation is meant to be enjoyed and shared with others. God wants us to be so happy that others see and want what we have. Matthew 5:13 says, "You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor?" We are the salt of the earth and we can't allow anyone to make us lose our happiness for God. I am back to a place where I want to share my faith with others again, but I also have a new resolve to help as many as I can to stay away from hurtful experiences like the one I have been through.
As I sat in my new church yesterday, I thought about how I would be excited to invite anyone to come visit with me. There is love and freedom there and people are happy! There are not a bunch of rules - you can wear what you want and they even have free donuts and coffee! Some would call this "seeker friendly" - I call this freedom! I call it loving people! I went to a fellowship group last night and had the best time bowling and eating Mexican food. My children had a large group of friends over last night and had a Bible study. Even though we still have some things to work through, we are the happiest we have ever been. God never meant for us to live under the control of someone else. When I first got saved Colossians 3:23 was one of my favorite scriputres. It says, "And whatsoever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord, and not to men." Never again will I let someone else take the place of my precious heavenly Father.
For all who have been in this situation, my prayer is,"Restore unto us the joy of thy salvation." (Psalm 51:12)