Faith

What nearly leaving church taught me

Dr Tam Wai Jia // April 1, 2022, 5:54 pm

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.

If you’ve been in church long enough, you might know what it means to want to leave it.

Or, with Covid-19 measures now relaxed, to consider not going back. 

You’ve been hurt, misunderstood. Maybe it’s bumping into someone or other who says, “Don’t slouch!” or “You’ve put on weight huh”.

You know they are well-meaning, but that makes it all the harder.

Love, at times, makes resentment seethe stronger.

Where is this institution called The Church that promised unending hope, care and love?

Maybe it’s having shared a vulnerable wound in your life, only to have it leaked out, all in the name of “trying to get help for you”.

Or going for cell group only to see every single person paired off, giggling and talking about their blissful futures and you … struggling to find your place.

Maybe it’s being told you’re not a good Christian unless you attend cell and tick all the checkboxes.

Or being let down by a missions organisation.

Where is this institution called The Church that promised unending hope, care and love?

Betrayal stings. Feeling alone hurts.

Time passes, and you’re convinced you’ve given it enough time.

After all, with the pandemic putting a buffet of rich spiritual resources online, what’s the point of trying to fit in in-person?

It’s time to leave.

Tallying up the pain ledger

You muster up a list of reasons and gather up all your strength to defend your decision.

Your church is too big. Too programme-driven. Too corporate. Or too small, too disorganised, too nosey, too enmeshed, too suffocating.

The leaders wronged you, said things that weren’t true. You’ve tallied your record on a spreadsheet and it tilts in your favour.

Your church is too big. Too programme-driven. Too corporate. Or too small, too disorganised, too nosey, too suffocating.

I know what it’s like because I’ve been there. I’ve been part of different churches and Christian organisations in seven different countries over the past 16 years and I’ve been angry, hurt before, seething with self-righteousness.

I remember travelling for half a day, heavily pregnant, to a Christian leaders conference in North America, with my toddler in tow and being asked to stand outside the auditorium because “your toddler might cry and disrupt the service” and then being barred from Sunday School because “this is only for children two years and above”.

My toddler was a month short of turning two.

I stood at the dining hall, in between the auditorium and childcare facility, tears streaming down, engulfed by rejection.

I bet that if you’re hurting, whatever you are going through is real and legitimate too.

Plotting escape

Two Sundays ago, when I returned to my home church in Singapore, my first time with my family since I got back from Africa from a six-week deployment as a humanitarian doctor, I took a deep breath. It was the first weekend with Covid-19 measures being loosened, with services no longer restricted to small gatherings.

As an extreme introvert, I mustered my courage to brace the crowd.

Putting up smiles at Christian events became unbearable. I felt I did not belong. Anywhere.

But when I showed up, uncles and aunties I had never met before smiled gently at me and said: “Welcome back from the field, I’ve been praying for you and your family.”

I smiled back, grateful, with tears welling up in my eyes. They knew.

The fact is that not too long ago, while hurt, interacting with anyone from a Christian organisation for me felt agonising. Gingerly navigating my path from the corner of my eye to avoid people and their potential critique sapped me dry of energy. Putting up smiles at Christian events became unbearable. I felt I did not belong. Anywhere.

The pretence crushes you, eventually.

For months, I plotted my self-righteous escape.

Then Covid-19 hit. The pandemic hit church as a reset button and my absence justified itself. It didn’t matter if I showed up in person – for service, for conferences, for any kind of Christian event whatsoever.

Who knew that it would be God’s mercy in disguise?

Broken together

When I emerged from the dark cloud, I had finished reading Pete Scazerro’s “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality”. I had finished an intensive course of inner healing sessions. Something in me had shifted.

I began to understand my hurts not as a direct result of other people’s inflictions, or any particular organisation, but as an accumulation of numerous intense cross-cultural stresses interfacing with the life experiences of others. Overlaid with expectations that the Church (anywhere) should understand, it was a brew for the perfect storm.

Just as my earthly family is not perfect, I can’t expect my spiritual family to be perfect either. 

When I decided to face a few of the people I was hurt by, by climbing the “ladder of integrity” (see this in Scazarro’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality resource), when I had those conversations in truth, honesty and love instead of stewing in my own resentment and hypocrisy, it became clear to me – I could stay.

Having the courage to speak to them gave others a fair chance to explain events and things I would never have imagined otherwise. Where we failed to agree, we could at least agree on closure.

I could stay, not because I could have those conversations with every person I felt wronged by, or because those incidents stopped happening, or because I found the perfect Christian community.

But I could stay because I learned that the Church is a community of broken people, an institution of human limitations, no matter where you go.

I learned it is a system that has evolved from our best intentions but is nonetheless limited. I learned that no matter how all-encompassing it tries to be, no one single organisation can have the perfect ministry for missionaries, stay-at-home-dads, single mothers, people with disabilities, cancer, and so forth.

Most of all, I learned that in spite of its imperfections and failings, God is still good.

If we peel the curtains back, we find people who are doing the best they can to love and care for others in a broken world.

My disappointment with a global institution does not need to translate into disappointment with my Father, or disillusionment with community.

I discovered that if we stop to get to know the people behind these programmes and systems, we often peel the curtains back to find people just like us – people who love God, who love people and who are doing the best they can to love and care for others in a broken world.

Just as my earthly family is not perfect, I can’t expect my spiritual family to be perfect either.

And just because my family, earthly or spiritual, isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean I should run away from it.

The truth is: The people who matter in my life love me anyway.

They may not love me in the way I want them to, but they do, anyway.

When I began to see the Church not as an Institution but as people who themselves are broken and hurting, my heart began to empty itself of hurt and fill with compassion.

Letting go

Once I decided that there was no perfect church, my heart, once raw with open wounds, began to heal. Once I decided to surrender where I ought to be planted to God, my eyes opened.

I began to see that every church in every country in the world is marred by its own cultural failings – maybe too laid back in Canada, too fast-paced in Singapore, too prosperity-gospel-centric in Africa. The list goes on.

But instead of criticising and hardening my heart, I could pray for the Church as a whole. My hurt gave me an opportunity to pray powerfully.

I decided I would forgive, that I myself was broken and had hurt others too, that unless God clearly told me to replant my roots, running away wouldn’t solve anything.

Once I decided to surrender where I ought to be planted to God, my eyes opened.

I prayed, and then humbly confronted two leaders with the incidents that hurt me deeply. They apologised profusely – they’d had no idea how their words had hurt. As they did so, God brought to my mind times where I, too, had erred. He surfaced to me incidents and people which I could bring to Him for healing and let go of.

As I healed inside, the world around me began to shift too.

Words no longer hurt the way they did. Being among Christian community no longer felt like rubbing salt into a bleeding wound.

In God’s uncanny timing, the miraculous happened: I was invited to preach regularly at my home church in Singapore.

“I thought you were considering leaving? Now you’re preaching regularly?” a trusted mentor asked me in affectionate jest.

“God has His ways,” I smiled wholeheartedly.

However undeserved and unexpected it was, I knew my Father’s heart was beaming. In spite of the pain, I had prayed all these months that He would help me find my way home.

And how faithful He was. My heart healed, He spoke clearly to me to stay where I was.

And I found that I did indeed belong somewhere.

Coming home

I don’t know about you, but if you’re thinking of leaving your home church or the Church entirely, or have a friend who is, it’s not by chance that you’re reading this.

If you’re disillusioned and hurting, know that you’re not alone.

Disappointment with the Church, I dare say, is a normal part of our Christian walk, and an opportunity to mature or weaken our faith. You can choose to dig in, press in, or push it away.

True, there are other ways of finding community, discipling others, doing everything the early Church did without conforming to an Institution. And for a season that might be okay.

But in your quietest moments with God, have you brought your past hurts to Him? Have you asked Him for help? Would you ask Him for His will, whether it’s to stay where you are, or to move to a different community?

If you’re hurting, if you’re dying to leave, if you’ve left already, know this: What matters most to God is our obedience.

Have you considered that as we, the Body of Christ, are “joined together … to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21) and as the whole body is “joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grow(ing) and build(ing) itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16), that the Body of Christ needs you too?

“But nobody appreciates me. I don’t fit in. I hate being boxed in by programmes.”

There are situations where a change in environment might truly be needed – when there is wrong doctrinal teaching, abusive leadership or toxic cultures stunting our spiritual growth. But beyond all of that, are we willing to surrender where we are planted to God? If He says to stay, are we willing? And if He says to move to a different community, would we yield?

Acknowledge your feelings. Cry and yell at God if you must. If you need to, take some time away to breathe. Change your routine. Meet new folks. Find space to heal. I know I needed to.

But don’t give up on God or community. Pray. Ask God to heal you. Press in for His purposes for your life.

On Sunday, as church aunties and uncles I did not know came to me to tell me with tears in their eyes how happy they were that I had come back safe and sound, as a stranger waved from me from afar shouting “Well done!” across the hallway, I knew that I had come a long way home.

No church is perfect, but it is home.

And home is always a good place to be.

So, if you’re hurting, if you’re dying to leave, if you’ve left already, know this: What matters most to God is our obedience. Walking away from where we are planted and carrying our hurt to a different place may not make things better. It might feel so for a while, but hurt people will continue to hurt, and eventually hurt other people. No one finds joy in serial church hopping.

No church is perfect, but it is home. And home is always a good place to be.

Yet, there are instances where God may truly call one to a new home. If that’s you, would you do so prayerfully? And if that’s someone you know, would you pray for and bless them, rather than condemning them? Would you embrace rather than shun them?

Ultimately, we are all the Church.

So, today, let’s bring our hurts to Jesus, climb our ladders of integrity, and ask Him to heal us as the Body of Christ.

Let’s re-purpose those hurts as an opportunity for action, to pray and intercede for the Church where it is lacking. Let’s step into those gaps and be the change we want to see. Would we each yield to God and ask Him to choose the place of our planting?

Only then, can we truly hear His voice and discern what our next steps might be. Only then can we see His hand of mercy and grace and truly find where we belong.


For more of Wai Jia’s writings, feel free to visit/follow her on her Instagram. The author would like to express gratitude to Ps Yang Tuck Yoong, Isaac Ong Yi Jie and Cliff Tam for journeying with her thoughtfully as she penned this piece.


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About the author

Dr Tam Wai Jia

Wai Jia is a humanitarian doctor, author, international speaker and the founder of Kitesong Global (https://www.kitesong.sg). To read more about her reflections on life, you can follow her on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/tamwaijia/) and on her blog (http://blog.kitedreams.org).

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