Burned Out on Church with Nowhere to Turn

Should I give up on church?

For several years I wrestled with this question. The short answer was “no.” I wasn’t angry at God, I wasn’t angry at people, and I knew that Christians are not supposed to forsake “assembling ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).

But my church experiences left me unsatisfied. My husband and I dragged our children to one type of church, then another in our quest for…something. We met wonderful people doing wonderful things. And yet…

Something was missing in Christianity as I had experienced it. I knew it in my bones, but I couldn’t define it.

The inner heaviness had been growing for years. I was frustrated with worship music that was mostly about my feelings towards God (regardless of whether I felt anything at all), the constant stream of new programs, new books, new ideas, new whatever to jumpstart my spiritual life. People who are deeply committed to Christ spouted endless opinions and doctrinal positions, ever fervent about Truth even as they cherry-picked their views from the endless buffet line of Protestant faith and practice.

All the old answers for spiritual renewal—more time in prayer, more time in the Word, checking to find some deeply hidden sin that might be unconfessed—were not working.

You could say that we just needed to find the right church. But what does that mean? Our family tried just about every flavor of Protestantism, including a charismatic church (which has since split), an “emerging church” (which has since disbanded), and an Evangelical Presbyterian Church doing significant work with the poor in their community. But at that church (still whole and unsplit, I hope) people had donuts and coffee during the worship songs, and the service of Communion was so casual it seemed borderline irreverent to me.

Is That All There Is?

In the casual church, filled with many wonderful, loving people, I experienced a revelation. Maybe here and now, far from Eden and not yet in heaven, everything is unsatisfying. My yearning for…something…might not be caused by a problem with me. It might not be a problem with church. Maybe dissatisfaction is simply the result of living in a fallen world. Seemed logical, but the prospect of facing 40 years of Sundays in a state of resignation was incredibly depressing. The band might have been be playing “How Great is Our God,” but in the back of my mind Peggy Lee was singing, “Is that all there is?”

An Unrecognizable Gospel

The next big moment of disenchantment came at a nondenominational gathering for youth. I took my youngest child, a middle schooler at the time, to an all-girls event in a large venue—a traveling show filled with skits, brand-name Christian rock music, and brand-name Christian speakers. I was annoyed with the entertaining, pep-rally feel of the thing, but I’ve always been skeptical of we’re-just-as-cool-as-the-secular-world relevance. I tried to keep an open mind.

I listened carefully. And when the time came for the big Saturday evening talk, the one that was supposed to bring all these girls to salvation or recommitment to Christ, I learned that God loves me, He really wants me to come to Him, and I can trust Him with my heart. That’s it. Nothing about sin, nothing about repentance, nothing about humbling myself before Him. And of course nothing about getting baptized or partaking in any sacraments or being a part of the Church.

None of the adults around me seemed bothered by this. I can’t remember if this talk was before or after the Christian rock concert with all the screaming girls. But I realized I had just witnessed the natural devolution of the Protestant experience—no creed but the Bible, interpreted my way. Christian faith is all about Jesus and me. Especially me.

I knew something was very wrong with American Christianity, and I didn’t know where to find answers. Many Catholic writers have enriched my life, such as the late Henri Nouwen. But there are some specific theological reasons that kept me from exploring the Roman Catholic faith. That left about 20,000 or so Protestant denominations to sample—each of them promising better theology, better programs, better music, or the Next New Thing.

Discovering a New Path in the Ancient Faith

What I really needed was the old, not the new. Something very ancient, very beautiful, and very foreign—to me, anyway. A providential encounter with a Facebook friend introduced me to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. That friend led me to a book with a title that summed up my condition: Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells by Matthew Gallatin, a philosophy professor and former Calvary Chapel worship pastor. His journey paralleled mine and gave me hope.

I began to test the waters of a stream of Christianity that had flowed for 2,000 years, resting on the first seven Ecumenical Councils, without adding new doctrines or subtracting old ones. By embracing the old, I found something new: renewed faith and hope, consistency, depth, and abundant grace.

I’ve also experienced struggle, confusion, adjustments, and more questions. This blog will address the history and beliefs of Orthodoxy but will focus more on Orthopraxy—the practice of living out the ancient faith in a distracting, secular, and sometimes hostile culture. The why’s and how’s of living a life of faith.

If you’re looking for an expert guide, keep looking. But if you’re a Christian who is burned out on church, or if you’re sort of Christian-ish and searching for something you can’t quite define, I’d be honored be your traveling companion. Together we will journey through feasts and fasts, prayer and apathy, and the ascetic struggle of trying to live out Jesus’ commands and embrace the wisdom of the saints.

I hope you’ll journey with me.

23 comments:

  1. Wow! Yes! This was almost exactly where I was a year ago – with my wife asking me why I was always leaving church moody and angry, and me asking “is this all there is? Where is the worship?” So to Orthodoxy I fled.

  2. The same book was transformational for me. This article was me 15-16 years ago. I am looking forward to journeying with you on the path I walked 14 years ago when I was received into The Church.

  3. Interesting. I also experienced moodiness and dissatisfaction during my evangelical/charismatic years. Some anger as well. But I don’t think I could have quantified those feelings or pinned down their cause. I held on for a long time, partially because I was a long-time staff member of a Bible college, and partially because I was bringing a wife and children with me to church. A major “revival” blew through and saw many people strewn on the floor, but I was left untouched. Then one day I attended an Orthodox church, mainly out of politeness to a friend who was hosting me for the weekend. And there I was “surprised by joy,” expressed in tears that, again, I was unable to explain. This happened a long time ago (over 20 years), and my migration into Orthodoxy was a slow process. But I am so grateful that it has happened and, having been chrismated almost nine years ago, I find I am still at peace and content at church and I do not leave feeling morose or angry. (Well, I could say a lot more about it, but I’ll stop for the moment!) Looking forward to reading about your journey.

  4. That was me 10 years ago, trapped in Lutheranism. There is such peace in Orthodoxy. I’ll follow this journey with you!

  5. Sounds like my experience: gnashing teeth after church service, wondering “Did I really worship?” Looking forward to future posts.

  6. I resonate with this, and think that your journey is lovely. I often wonder, though, what place there might be for those that encounter and perhaps even pursue Orthodoxy, but without the peaceful, “coming home” feeling? Is it okay if that feeling never comes?

    1. I arrived in Canada from an European Orthodox country, years ago. No Orthodox churches around here at that time so we attended some Catholic and Anglican ones for a while… different language, different rituals, different organizations- same idea. Words, words, words… Priests keep talking about God- a vague and distant concept; about the suffering of Christ for us- which does not resonate with me, making me feel obliged to anything [compassion for any suffering does not derives from those… overused reminders]; about things to do and not to do, about sins I don’t subscribe to…. in an ambiguous language, part accusatory, part threatening, part promising. Th regurgitation of the metaphoric language of the New Testament, written for the people of the 1st century is hard to understand and the explanations given are seldom deep enough to catch my attention. All in all, life in Christ promoted by the church has nothing to do with my intimate ‘life in Christ’. I feel closer to God in an empty church, regardless of what organization belongs to, than as one lonely sheep in the flock sermonized by the shepherd. God is present when ‘I’ makes room for him, complete room as there is no room for both ‘I’ and God in this existence, beyond any concepts, rules, ideas, dogmas… God is all there is.
      What Orthodoxy has to offer over other denominations is the hesychastic teachings of the prayer of the heart, the experiencing of God in the intimacy of losing oneself into oneself, in total honesty. And yes, on a personal note i miss the sights and smells of the old wooden churches of villages in the old country, with their almost naive paintings of biblical scenes on walls and icons, darkened by the smoke of candles and incense. There is where God was felt the first time…

      1. Thank you for your thoughts. The importance of stillness and of prayer of the heart are definitely missing in our hectic modern world.

    2. Thank you! I think the emotional component is a real issue for many. My hubby Rob struggled with the disconnect between loving the consistent, unchanging theology of Orthodoxy and disliking the long, seemingly repetitive services. A lot of cultural adjustments are involved, and in some ways, people from secular backgrounds have an easier time becoming Orthodox than those of us who have been shaped by different Christian experiences. Patience and perseverance are required, but I believe the peace will come, by God’s grace. It’s important to discuss these feelings with a spiritual father, too. We are not meant to struggle alone.

  7. This was me 20 years ago. Especially the turmoil of emotions re the faith that I had loved, confused by my frustration, but unable to deny it. Many, many books and conversations later, our entire family came Home and have never looked back. Not that it has been easy and bliss. No. Hard work, but always this sense of there being no where else to run to. Once we had tasted and seen, all other wells did indeed seem shallow and dry.

  8. I find this interesting. I am an evangelical/holiness pastor for 30 plus years. I have had an on going relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy having read Matthew Gallitan’s book along with many others. I have been influenced much by Fr. Peter Gillquist of blessed memory. I look forward to your posts.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Reverend! [My guess is that you go by “Brother Jeff.” :-)] I hope you have had the chance to read Fr. Peter’s memoir, Memories of His Mercy. The account of his peaceful death (truly a “Christian ending”) left me in tears. Also, are you familiar with Fr. Barnabas Powell’s blog and podcast, “Faith Encouraged”? He’s a former Pentecostal preacher, and his experience shows!

      1. Thank you and I have read all that Father Peter wrote even before his reception into Orthodoxy. I had a meeting with him in Alexandria, VA many years ago when I began studying, reading about Orthodoxy. Yes, I am familiar with Father Barnabas Powell and his podcast. Finding time to listen to all is difficult being a full time pastor. I also have incorporated Abbot Tryphon’s daily posting into my devotional life as well.
        Thank You…and yes, Brother Jeff or Pastor Jeff or just Jeff are all fine.

  9. My path into Orthodoxy was a hard one. The people I knew for years and loved dearly from another churcg did not join me in my journey. They were like a family to me at one time.
    As I continued on my Orthodox life what I found to be the greatest lasting benefit was to have a friend in Jesus. When I was growing up in the Baptist Church we would sing a song about what a friend I have in Jesus. Not only did Jesus become more of my friend, but the Holy Trinity, His Mother, the Saints and Angels all joined in. For me there has been times of the just being alone without anyone to be a part of my life during my Orthodox journey except for the faithful I mentioned above. I am so very moved by their love for me when no one else was there.

  10. It looks like there are many kindred spirits out there in the blogosphere! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I look forward to the dialogue!

  11. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey with us. Obviously, your post resonated with many who shared your frustration and experiences in the Protestant world. The comments of others were very beautiful as well, especially Christina. Christ demands that we love no one more than him and it takes a lot of courage to embark on the path that you expressed in blog, and which so many affirmed in their comments above. It takes courage and a lot of faith to embark, then to walk that path, not knowing the outcome. I really admire that and I’m so glad that you not only found Orthodoxy but you are able to make finding it and embracing it easier for those who will follow you. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Presvytera Jeannie! For those who don’t know, Dr. Constantinou hosts Ancient Faith’s newest podcast, “Search the Scriptures Live,” where she examines the Scriptures through the eyes of the Holy Fathers. Currently she is in the second chapter of the Gospel of John. I can think of no better way to combat the relentless noise and secularization of the upcoming Christmas season than to spend time with this beautiful Gospel while driving and preparing dinner!

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