A Bad Church Experience

Seen on social media: a meme quoting J. Mark Johns, pastor of Canvas Church (the one in Alachua, FL): “Don’t let a bad church experience stop you from going to church. We’ve never let a bad restaurant experience stop us from eating out. #tryagain”

This is a hoary chestnut right out of the Evangelical gaslighting playbook. It’s an attempt to devalue the criticisms of people who have left the faith.

In fact, people who have bad experiences tend to hold on to their religion even more firmly.

I remember as a Christian being aware that people sometimes needed to reach the end of their rope before they would accept Jesus’s salvation. (Explain to me again how this is not abusive?) It was very clear that bad experiences drove people to religion, because the religion gave them emotional defense mechanisms that they could use to calm the hurt and anger that they felt about their circumstances. I myself as a Christian went through a number of heart-wrenching church splits in which innocent people were destroyed, all at the hands of supposedly loving Christians. And I was enraged at these people, but that just made me turn to God more.

Most of us who have left the faith did so only after we had gotten our lives together, after we felt confident, after we had examined all sides from a detached, intellectual perspective. We do not leave the religion because of an isolated bad experience, but because the religion itself is wrong and bad.

Or to put it another way, Christians didn’t start treating me badly until after I left the faith. #TrueStory

And there’s no evidence that this church is any better. Like any fundamentalist church, they have a page listing their beliefs, a series of propositional statements about reality that they hold to be true even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

These beliefs include basic beliefs about their story about God and the Bible. But it doesn’t really matter, because that alone isn’t going to suck you in. That’s why they also play like good spiritual bullies. They begin with the standard negging: “Although you have tremendous potential for good, you are marred by an attitude of disobedience towards God called ‘sin.'” Then they progress to threats of heaven and hell, rounding out the picture with a claim that only by accepting “God’s offer of [conditional] Forgiveness,” following the dogma herein laid down, can you obtain eternal life.

These claims run the gamut from “Yeah, you just made that up out of thin air” to “No, we’ve tested that, and it’s false.”

But it gets worse. This church also has a set of “core values,” like a more progressive church. But these values are nothing like, for example, the “We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ” or “We believe that God loves you – no exceptions” of the Episcopal church. In fact, their set of core values doesn’t even mention the word love.

Rather, their values focus on spreading their disease to their community, by attacking people who are already struggling in their community by making huge promises that they can’t fulfill. “One more person redeemed. One more person healed. One more life renewed… We expect lives to be changed, marriages to be restored and addictions to be broken. We expect God to do the unexplainable because we truly believe that NOTHING is impossible for Him.”

They focus on complying and following, not thinking and understanding. They focus on their religion to the exclusion of the real needs, lives, and stories of the people they are victimizing: “We live in a complex world. Simple is refreshing and effective… Excellence and honor to our God define us. When we treat the little things like they are big things, God will do the big things like they are little things.”

And it is this last part that brings us full-circle to the way they talk about apostates.

“Don’t let a bad church experience stop you from going to church. We’ve never let a bad restaurant experience stop us from eating out.”

Firstly, that’s not true. If I have a bad restaurant experience, I will definitely think twice before eating at that restaurant again. And there are plenty of churches and plenty of religions. And I don’t need to eat out in order to live a healthy life. It might even be better for me not to eat out. It’s much healthier and cheaper to prepare whole food at home, especially if one is on a fixed income or can commune with family while doing so. Food is an important element of our social life, and eating out isn’t for everybody. And that’s okay.

But they clearly aren’t listening to the stories of those people.

They don’t acknowledge the bad restaurant reviews. Customers are consistently poisoned, turning into zombies whose only purpose in life is to chase down their friends. The owner refuses to acknowledge the bad reviews. The chef needs more fresh meat. And the whole restaurant chain is like that.

I frankly don’t think they even care about our stories. They only care about defending their own image. And that’s why Johns so cavalierly mischaracterizes the lived experience of apostates. We don’t have valid concerns and objections. We haven’t carefully and thoughtfully chosen to reject his religion because it’s bad, or at least bad for us. Rather, in his rendition, we are shallow, overgeneralizing from a single bad church experience to the whole of the religion, or maybe even to the whole of world religion.

And the really sad part about this is that he most assuredly knows better. He’s the pastor. He’s a professional. It’s his job to know better. And no doubt, people have told him before that he’s wrong.

Hear that hollow echo?

I propose a revised meme:

Don’t keep going to church just because you had a good experience. You wouldn’t get married just because you had a good first date. #PlentyOfFishInTheSea