Monday, 22 October 2012

Wilderness Experience

One of the strangest and saddest things that can come someone's way once they leave the church system is the silence, distance and exclusion maintained by those they had thought were friends. In our case, fewer than 5 maintained contact, and they were mainly from other congregations. All but two of those from our own circle cut off contact. Some seemed to have thought that we had backslidden. Others assumed that we had done something really bad. Others decided that because we no longer saw church as they did, they refused to have contact with us. We were not permitted to explain why we were leaving. We were cut off from having information about friends in the church for whom we wanted to pray because we weren't a part of the group any more. This was not done intentionally; it's simply the way the organisation works. Organisation is done ostensibly for people, and it can help those who need help, but it can also exclude.

I suppose some would say that this was our fault. After all, we left the system. What else should we expect? And perhaps this is partly true. We believed that we had seen through the system and could see something which hardly anyone else could see. No-one else in our circle had come out - if they had left, it was to join another church in town - there has always been a steady church-swapping of sheep. So many felt that we no longer wanted to be friends with them. This wasn't true; what was true is that we could no longer join in with the compromise and pragmatism which become inevitable when a group grows too big to maintain intimate relationships based on obedience to the Word of God. We had always been seen as rather radical, idealistic and extreme, I think. Many felt that we were far too much so for our own good. They may have a point. Certainly it has made us few lasting friends here, where most people take easier paths.

So in a world where the vast majority of people find connections in social groupings and clubs of various kinds, Christians who leave the social Christian organisations called churches truly find themselves in a wilderness. No matter if those in the organised churches truly and primarily believe that the church is the family of God and the body of Christ or not, organisation eventually, incrementally and insidiously takes the upper hand. If we cut ourselves off from it, we shouldn't be surprised if we are excluded and sidelined. It was still a shock, though. We had always assumed that being part of the Body of Christ meant that regardless of where you worshiped, you were still family.

It's hard when you find out later that someone you were close to and live next door to has had a major operation, but didn't tell you. Or that someone else had lost their baby at birth; that someone else was dying from an incurable disease; that another had been living in adultery for two years; that another marriage was breaking up because of infidelity and yet another because of irreconcilable differences. We were no longer in the information loop and therefore couldn't help practically either. When we did offer to help, once we found out, it was ignored or refused.

Re-reading the above makes me think how unhealthy what I have written sounds. It reads as if we are self-focused, obsessed with our own legitimacy and correctness, and that everyone else is just wrong. I don't want to imply that I think we're the only ones who are right. God's people are precious, whoever and wherever they are and those in the circle where we had been are just as precious. I just don't think we fitted. At least, we weren't like them and we eventually came to feel that our questions and passion for truth and the word of God were awkward, uncomfortable and increasingly unwelcome. We are not perfect - we are constantly being shown where we fall short. Perhaps it's partly this which makes us vulnerable to spiritual attack and being overly hard on ourselves.

I think that what I'm trying to identify is the strange dilemma one finds oneself in when one is no longer part of the organised group. There is an identity which comes from belonging somewhere and to somebody. Once that's no longer the case, (clearly shown when a friend from the group talks to you about "her" church as if you were no longer a part of the Body of Christ) then there's a strong sense of disconnection and pain, which is touched again and again when memories are brought up, or when sad news surfaces about someone you may have had contact with. Because the vast majority of Christians meet in church buildings and have organised services, we are necessarily cut off from the majority because we meet at home and eat, pray and worship as a family without a pre-planned programme. We've lost touch with the others, and that's sad. We've been to the occasional church service since leaving, which causes some to come up to us and ask us if we're "coming back". It's so ironic. And only someone who has gone through the same thing can understand that spiritually we are still family. Most in the church only see the walls though, and that's the tragedy.

Since coming into our wilderness experience, we have had the privilege of walking with a few others with whom we try to meet regularly, once a week at least. We know a few others who live further afield who we meet up with every few weeks. We have no name as a group and haven't felt we should have one. So far I don't feel a sense of identity has grown up with us. I wonder if it's because we don't have a name, or because we are so few. I'd be really interested to hear from others who are in or have been in a similar situation.

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