leaving church to save our souls

our souls are more important than church

goodness gracious, people get riled up over conversations about “church.”  i wish we could get as much traction on justice & poverty issues!  it’s fascinating, really, how passionate many are about this topic, especially when someone threatens the church in any way.  i didn’t read all of donald miller’s post last week about why he doesn’t “go to church” much anymore (language that drives me nuts) but it sure did stir up a lot of discussion from all different angles. the one post i did read in response was why i left church by the awesome emily maynard, good stuff.

if you know me in any way you know that i have a very loose definition of church and believe that our limited notions of it are why so many people are leaving it. the exact things that Jesus was railing against have been what we’ve built many of our institutions on because it’s easier that way–doctrinal statements that are filled with long lists of requirements for beliefs, an us & them mentality, and homogeneity. affiliation, certainty, and conformity are values that often keep the wheels spinning & people coming.

we all know that so many people are “growing out” of church. 

we want more freedom, mystery, and diversity. we are tired of giving our souls to something that stops giving us life.  we want to break the weird cycle where we are going through the motions in our faith.  we realize we are addicted to inspiration and it’s time to get sober.  we are drawn to a more practical theology. we wake up to possibility of a life with more justice, equality, and practice at the center. we begin to see (or unfortunately experience first hand) unhealthy leadership that controls & uses people. we want to feel more freedom & less fear.

and often, we find that in order to save our souls, we might have to leave.

that we need to detox from all a lot of things we were taught that didn’t bring us closer to God but actually further away

that we need to find some quiet, some space, some air to breathe.

that we need to reevaluate where we were and consider where we might want to go in the future.

that we need to get out of just our heads and listen to our souls & bodies in a new way.

that we need to reconsider how God, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit might be speaking to us and what they might be trying to say. 

that we need to quit relying on others to tell us what we believe and discover for ourselves what we do. 

that in order to save our souls, our best shot is to get out for a while, maybe forever, it just depends.

this does not mean we are unfaithful.

this does not mean we are rebellious.

this does not mean we are unwilling to submit ourselves to community.

this does not mean we have hardened hearts.

this just means sometimes we have to leave church to save our souls.

and i feel oh-so-clear that our souls are far more important to God than whether or not we leave the institution.

honestly, sending the message to people that it’s not okay to leave church is really not okay. 

i know it can come from a sincere place, but it can be so parental, so controlling, so shaming.

and it’s one of the reasons people are leaving.

i wish we could just trust people more and respect that there are so many wild & beautiful & unique & wonderful ways to live out our faith.

and i wish we could trust God more.  i’m pretty sure he’s big enough to handle it. he’s creative like that.

most people i know find their way into some kind of community & connection & back to some form of church. sometimes it looks so different from where they came from.

a measure i loosely use that i think points to Jesus’ greatest commandment is:

do these spaces & places challenge us to grow deeper in our understanding of God, ourselves, and others and spur us on to loving God, others, and ourselves better in tangible ways?

fortunately, there are a lot of ways to find this–inside and outside the confines of what we call “church.”

do i love the church?  yes, i do.  i am committed to incarnational community for a reason. it’s what my soul needs.  at the same time,  i know sometimes that the best thing someone can do is take a break from it to find their souls.

please, whatever you do, don’t let them take your faith and don’t let anyone tell you that church is more important than your souls.

sometimes we really do have to leave to find them.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

49 Comments

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. Once again, you have described exactly where I am.

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  • Yup – it was “church” or me. Thankfully when I decided to leave I got some good counsel, saying I am creative and people who are comfortable with the kind of system you describe Kathy feel threatened. And that I would find belonging in creative environments, which I have.

    I see church as wherever 2 or more people in Christ are gathered. “Chruch” is something I have found on a Sunday to be OK – and I have found one where I can be more autonomous than before without ill effect for myself.

    But isn’t this the way it always has been and is with any human institution?

    Brilliant post Kathy – nice to know I am not alone (which is what this often feels like) thank you.

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  • I’ve bounced all over the internet and back again and first can I just say that RARE are voices like yours, Kathy, who remind us of the essentials of the matter. Thank you for your wider perspective on what has become quite a persnickety issue. I love especially: “sending people the message that it is not okay to leave church is not okay.” AND “I wish we could trust God more. I’m pretty sure He’s big enough to handle it. He’s creative like that.”

    Deep yes wells up from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

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  • Ha! Has anyone ever tell u how AWESOME u are?!?!? Cause u are to me! Ciuple months ago tried to get back into the church I thought I should be but the question wad do I belong there? I thought I did after I got questioned why I wanted to come back what I had to do when I come back… I thought to myself wow which really opened my eyes this is not god nor he would do tjis… but this is a message they were giving me… a message they were giving to people…rules, how to becomena christian, hoe to get saved, how to do this how to do that… I mean really?! For the first time in my life I felt like God was speaking to my heart and tell me to not go there… of course all the crap about r and I should be going to church… comeon! I don’t need to jusy go to ‘church’ cause to me being around people I should be arounf is those who doesny bring anyone down, criticize, judge, condemn, or any of that crap cause that’s not who God is!! It saddens me that people who go thru that, my heart actually goes to them. My thought about those who are ‘holier-than-thou’ who is all about rules and all that crap…. shamr on them!!! Seriously!!! Sorry if I said too much, not only I’m speaking for myself but for others as well!

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  • Kathy I followed your blog for a year and sent a little a money until I saw you ask for $3500 a month for the church for overhead. What’s up with that? That is as churchy as it gets.

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    • And the clinic you work for doesn’t have overhead? Any time you have a space that you open up for people to meet within, there’s overhead that someone has to pay. I don’t see anywhere in Kathy’s work that she has required payment from someone in order for them to participate at The Refuge. I do see where she stepped out and put her own time and money where her mouth is in order to continue to be an advocate for community. It’s a sad reality that our world runs on money. There’s always a bill to pay. Every non-profit asks for money regardless of organizational classification. In this case, I don’t think “churchy” has anything to do with it.

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    • Hi SCNP,
      Rarely do I respond to the posts of others here on Kathy’s blog, but I am compelled to respond to this on behalf of the refuge. I am the children’s pastor in our faith community, so I get to see behind the scenes all the work and sweat and tears that go into making the refuge a safe place. Reading your comment brought up a lot of emotions, but in thinking about it, it honestly made me so very sad. So very sad with assumptions made without having a clear perception of what it is like on the inside. Having been a part of the refuge for 5 years, and over half the life of our community, I can say that I have a pretty good grasp on the heart and passion of our spirit.

      On the outside, looking at the cost of our rent, sure, I can see it is possible to come to the same conclusion- that “it is as churchy as it gets.” While I can respect that some readers here may already have an allergy to things that have even the scent of religiosity (I sure do), making a conclusion because of one line item in our budget is not a legitimate assessment of the heart of the refuge.

      Our last building, which we rented as well, was falling apart in so many ways. The area that I had to be with the elementary kids was slightly larger than a closet, and was in an area that had continual mold concerns, as well as being in an environment that was unsafe in so many ways. One night, we had 44 children attend, and it was not realistic to cram them in the space that I had. Upstairs, the adults were conducting service in a place that was also not ideal.

      One of my friends, who uses a cane to get around, could not go to the bathroom in our old building, *because she couldn’t make it down the stairs.*. One of our other friends realized she could not invite a friend in a wheelchair, as our building could not accommodate her. Do you have an idea how hard we cried when we heard about that? We knew that in order to keep doing the work we were already doing, we needed a *sufficient* space.

      Finding a new space because of these above issues was clearly necessary, in order to advocate and love and fight for dignity and family. Do you have an idea how much dignity has been restored now that all of our friends can use the bathroom and enter and exit our building?
      Our new building is not fancy nor flashy, and still has tons of issues that we learn to deal with. The kids space currently looks like an empty warehouse, because we do not have the funds yet to get them furniture. Do they complain? No. Am I happy that kids who come from chaotic homes and poverty and bullying and all kinds of hard things have a better space than what they had? YES.

      It makes me feels sad that you cannot see how freaking hard our pastors work at doing life in the trenches. If they were adequately paid for the work they do, it would astronomical. Kathy is hands down, the hardest worker I have ever met in my life. I am honored to be her teammate, and strive to continue to lay down my life as she does.

      SCNP, I am an orphan, with no living biological family members. My friends at the refuge are my family, my connection on holidays, my support in this world. Our building is one place that is centering to me, because that is where everyone knows my name. Does rent seem like a lot? We so wish it was less, of course we do. But non-profits do not exist without a roof, charities need buildings to mobilize their forces, and families deserve a place to have adequate shelter.

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      • Stacy, Thank you for your heartfelt reply and explanation. What you describe sounds more like missionary work than a church. I am burned out on ‘church’ and feel more comfortable with an organization which reaches out to the community as you describe. Once again thank you.

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      • Stacy – thanks for sharing – sounds like brilliant work you are doing there – don’t be discouraged, the world needs people like you!

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    • yeah, i can see how that doesn’t line up, especially after knowing how crazy so many churches are about building stuff. it was one of the hardest hurdles i have ever faced in the past 8 years of refuge life together, to ask for our rent, but we talked through it as a community, made the decision together, and did for an important reason: we needed a home, not a building, not a place for services, a home. if you come see it, maybe you can see what it feels like for yourself, but we are a mission center and healing community, a bit of a cheers bar without the alcohol, and a place for connection & advocacy & food & help & care & recovery & dignity in all different ways throughout the week. i don’t expect everyone to understand but i do hope judgments don’t get made without experience.

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      • Kathy, It was a shocker to get the solicitation in the mail. It was like the Queen song “Another one bites the dust.” I understand your intent now. We all need a safe place, a sanctuary. For me it is my home. However if home is not safe where do you go? A refuge? I apologize for jumping to conclusions and thank you for responding.

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  • “Attending church” is a contradiction in terms for us. We “are” the church and we “take” church to others, by which I mean we give the love of Jesus to people, most of whom have no interest in or involvement with traditional, institutional church.

    We stopped attending church because it (every one we tried) was all about the institution, money, power, control and similar stuff. Jesus was very abstract – mentioned, but no one ever, ever suggested the idea of following Jesus, modeling our lives after what he said and did. Unknowingly, once we left, we found Jesus, walking among the people.

    Isn’t that wild? – We had to get out of the church to find Jesus, ’cause he wasn’t there?

    Someday “attending church” will become an anachronism for most people.

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  • I had to leave church to save my soul, yes, and for the sake of my mental health. I left two years ago, after realizing that having panic attacks in church parking lots is NOT a healthy, normal form of existence. I am learning so much about Jesus during this break from church. As I get healthier, like you mentioned, I’ll probably end up back in a faith community, although I doubt I’ll ever dive back into the staunch evangelical culture I fled from.
    Thanks for cutting right to my heart.

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    • Carly – I’m with you there on that one.

      I went to my doctor and he prescribed me 6 sessions of compassion therapy and mindfulness meditation. It was the compassion and the meditation that got me closer to Jesus, ironically from people who are not Christians! How crazy is that. It seems to me that this is proof that God has a sense of humour!

      Now when anyone comes to me ans says “Jesus died for your sins” in militant fundamental fervour, I give them a slap metaphorically speaking with words – done in a nice way *wink*. There have been some interesting responses, apparently I’m a woolly liberal who needs help, attempts to denegrate those who come against false teachers and in doing so distracts form what is central which is Christ. Well – I sure must have rattled someone’s cage *wink*

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    • thanks carly for sharing so honestly, you are so not alone on that one and i am glad you are taking good care of yourself during this season. peace to you!

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  • Kathy, so good. You speak for so many of us. My love and respect for you just grows. Thank you for your clear voice of compassion and sanity.

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  • Great post, Kathy. Many churches are not prepared to deal with members struggling with the kinds of things you are talking about. They want soldiers, not civilians. When their members come to them with needs that are not being met, they are quite appalled. Soldiers are not supposed to have needs.

    I wrote a bit about this here: 5 Awesome Reasons to Leave Your Church

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    • oh i am so glad that you shared this. so many great lines in there! and sadly, so true. i remember when i was in bad shape years ago in leadership and asked for a break. i got “it’s march madness, and we need our starters, so you’re either in or or you’re out.” my soul lasted about 2 more weeks….thankful for your voice out here.

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  • Normally I would agree with you and I do here in certain
    respects, but if people are going to church or “attending worship services” for
    what they can get out of it they are attending for the wrong reason. And really, does not being a part of Christ’s
    church require a certain bit of conformity? I agree that there are a lot of churches
    around that are churches in name only; who are very non-inclusive, who are judgmental,
    who contribute to inspiration addiction, who “do the exact thing that Jesus
    railed against”. My advice would be to steer clear of those churches. On the other hand there are some really good
    churches around who are true “communities of believers,” where worshipers worship
    God in Spirit and in truth, not for anything they can gain but solely because
    they love God and want to love others as they are loved. Find a healthy church and join a community of believers who worships and adores God and then go forth loving others in the name of Jesus with no strings attached, that’s how to be in a church without loosing your soul.

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    • thanks, bill, and i am with you, there are some true communities out there that can be a challenging and good place when our souls are longing for something more and if they can be found, that’s awesome. but sometimes it can harder than it looks to find a “healthy” one. i appreciate your perspective.

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  • I left church, literally got sober, and then rebooted my faith in the Orthodox church. There I don’t just “go” but participate in the divine mysteries. There I know that God is something other than me. My problem is that for most of my life God was nothing but a caricature of who I was on the inside. This is that part of myself that I could not articulate other than through the intellectualization of my belief. In the end it left me hopeless and feeling a God-abandoned. I had to be willing to become a totally different human being for any of this rebirth to happen. That meant cutting everything out and starting over.

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  • “we are tired of giving our souls to something that stops giving us life. we want to break the weird cycle where we are going through the motions in our faith.”

    This is exactly how I felt when we made the hard decision to “leave” church. It has been one of the most freeing events of my life and I do not regret it one bit.

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  • Oh thank you for your words. Beautiful and grace full! I so appreciate hearing them from a wounded heart place. All my family and friends have questioned and doubted and judged me for leaving a very legalistic church – told me if I was really spiritually mature I would stay rather than leave and told me I’m losing my Jesus because I left. It’s so nice to have one voice telling me Jesus can find me anywhere. And he has!!! I don’t know when or if I’ll be able to go back – and I’ve been getting a lot of pressure to do so, so its so soothing to hear your words. Thanks!

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    • thanks so much for sharing. i was just talking to someone else this week about that “spiritually mature” thought and it’s so interesting how there’s a certain misconception that maturity looks a certain way. peace and hope to you as you keep walking all of this out….

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  • I think house church writer Frank Viola said it best for me. When he said it all depends on your diffenition of what u call church today. The church just like our country has changed. It’s not right to justify that today’s church is OK when it is not. I think those leaving it can see the reasons why they have to leave even if they do not want to level. Church to me is not a denomination or location any more. It’s a gathering were 2, 3 or more gather in his name because he said he would be there in the mist of us. The gathering of the saints is the true deffination of what church is. If you removed the word church from bible and put the gathering of the saints this would be the correct
    Translation of what church means.

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