How to Talk to a Former Fundamentalist

I left the world of fundamental Christianity some time ago. Many, well, okay, most of the people I knew from that time in my life seem to assume that means I have either become an atheist (I have not), that I’ve gone right off the deep end (the jury’s still out), or that I have a demon (seriously-some have asked that in completely serious and genuinely concerned tones of voice).

I get it: from the outside looking in, many observing my life would find those conclusions logical. I have lost a lot, and many a thinly-veiled cautionary-tale sermon-illustration have been told based on observing my life from afar.

But, those assumptions are wrong. The folks making them are not bad, they’re just wrong.

Over the past couple years, I’ve gotten messages like this:

“You’re never going to be happy without the Lord in your life.” Um, yes I will. In fact, I am.

“You must never have been saved in the first place.” Either this is a way for this person to justify a belief in the doctrine of eternal security, or an accusation of the sincerity with which I believed as a child, which is when I became a Christian. It is highly offensive: it often is the depth of sincerity that drives a person to seriously examine their beliefs.

“Can I just show you a few scriptures to help you?” Not unless you want to field some unanswerable questions.

“If you just get back in church, you’ll be fine. You just need some good preaching and the fellowship of good Christian friends.” For many people, especially introverts, the manipulative facets of institutional worship drive them far from their faith.

“So, all of the things you did/said/sang/taught, was that all just lies?” This is a bit like asking a doctor who studied the prevention of infection during the 1800s if their belief in the effectiveness of using leaches and their actions toward their patients based on that belief, was all lies. Asking such a question is nearly the equivalent of a slap in the face.

“If you’re okay with not having the promise of heaven, are you okay with ending up in hell?” It’s not a question of “being okay with” a belief; it is a question of that belief’s validity.

Sigh.

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In the interest of preventing others on both ends of such conversations further frustration, anger, and pain, I thought I’d post a few things people should consider when speaking to someone whose faith has undergone a major metamorphasis:

1. Understand that people who make serious changes to their belief system and worldview do not do so flippantly. These decisions are foundational, and most often are made very slowly, after much study and grief and pain, carefully and reluctantly, because the person making them anticipates the impending upheaval that will result.

In my case, the world of fundamentalism encompassed my entire life, spiritually, socially, educationally, and materially. My entire world was wrapped up in fundamentalism. (Note to reader: if you find yourself in such a place, where everyone you know and everything you’re involved in revolves around one organization or entity, be careful: they are controlling not only your entire life, but there is also a very high probability they are also controlling your mind.)

I knew honesty with myself would do irreparable damage to many of my relationships, because those relationships were based solely on a common belief system. And I was right: nearly all of them built in the church are simply over.

2. Understand that people who reject a belief system and a church are not automatically rejecting God. Oftentimes, they are actually moving closer toward God as they have come to understand Him. A faith that does not look like the one you practice is still a faith that deserves respect.

3. We know your lines. We’ve read, and actually even sometimes have  written, your inspirational pamplets. They do not answer, nor do they even begin to satisfy, the questions we have. If they did, we’d still be sitting in the same pew.

4. We often will not discuss the specifics of what we now believe out of respect for the faith of those who believe as we once did. In my case, I do not want to cause someone to have a crisis of faith that becomes an earthquake in their life. It’s hard to speak clearly and honestly about this without seriously offending and hurting believers who I care for deeply. There is also the moral question of influencing younger people over whom I held some influence: they must be given the respect and grace they deserve to ask their own questions and find their own answers.

5. Reaching heaven, or avoiding hell, is no longer the goal of my life, nor is it the goal of many others who have left institutional Christianity. Attempting to motivate us with nebulous rewards or punishments in the afterlife will not get you anywhere.

What I am focused on is *today*. I want to be kind and honest and faithful and good because those things are right in and of themselves, not because I may be rewarded for them in the sweet-by-and-by. I do not intend to believe something because I will be punished in hell if I don’t according to the currently approved procedures of whatever the church says.

6. Words mean things, and interpretation matters. The terminology of institutional Christianity often holds a completely different meaning for those outside the church. Do not assume what one means by even the word “God” is the same as it used to be.

7. Truth is far larger than fact.

8. “But, the Bible says…” is not always a good argument. In some cases, it is actually just the opposite.

9. Saying, “If you just had faith, trusted and believed, you would know the truth,” will do nothing but frustrate the hell out of someone like me, who desperately tried to do just that for years. You can not fake it till you make it. For some people, belief does not work that way.

10. Love that is deeper than one’s belief system or worldview is a very rare and precious thing. Being able to honestly say, “I don’t see it that way, but I respect your convictions,” is the mark of a true friend.

11. It is love that gets its hands dirty that is real: the people who have shown me the most Christ-like love are those friends who have nothing to do with the church: they fed me when I was hungry, took me in when I had nowhere to go, gave me what work they could and paid more than I deserved, laughed and cried with me when I needed them. They set me on their donkey and brought me to the inn, paid for my care, and never asked for a thing in return. There is not a measurement large enough to calculate the depth of my gratitude for these beautiful heathen Samaritans, who demonstrate what it means to be human so effortlessly.

If you know someone who has left the church, or if you yourself have left, and the adjustment has been long and difficult, and just when you think you’ve lost the last thing you had to lose, the ground gives way again, be patient with yourself and with those around you. We don’t adjust easily, we make hurtful mistakes, we say stupid things and offend eachother needlessly. Change scares us, and people do dumb things when they’re afraid.

What we all need is a bit of grace.

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25 Responses to How to Talk to a Former Fundamentalist

  1. Most beautifully and wondrously said.

  2. Chris P. says:

    I’m sure that was not easy.

    Sorry I couldn’t be there during this time and after.

    I relate to much of this given my own past internal struggles over my beliefs. The only caveat I would add is: I had only heard many of the usual or pithy lines before. Many of those lines only added to my frustrations and struggles rather than settling them. So I looked deeper and further and found much better answers, often in some unlikely places. I moved away from some parts of the beliefs I grew up with, adapting and adjusting. But I also found some answers that have served me well since.

    • rodalena says:

      It’s that brave willingness to look outside the lines for the answers you need that makes me admire you. I am so glad you’ve found some of the answers you need.

  3. Suzanne says:

    I hope I’ve given you the grace that you need. I loved u for u, not for our mutual believes, and I still feel that way. I hope you find what u need from me in me too, my lovely friend.

  4. Stacie Morin says:

    <3.

  5. Jenn says:

    Ro,

    I am so proud of you for speaking what is in your heart to speak. I know this journey is long, hard, and often devastatingly lonely, but please know that I am right there with you in spirit. :) I love you so much!!

  6. Katiejane says:

    (((((((((((Rodalena)))))))))))))) I am hearing you. I am having such a struggle in my walk right now. It isn’t God but some of His people are just so stupid. Sigh. Thank you for saying this stuff. As a fundy I know how hard that would be. xx

  7. drkenadair says:

    Yes, I am a Baptist. I am a fundamentalist. I am a preacher. Right now you don’t need a Baptist, a fundamentalist or a preacher. You need folks that you can call “friend.” I hope you count me in that number. (By the way, even though I am a preacher, I am not a judge. How could I judge you? I have never walked in your shoes.) On my heart and in my prayers. Find peace.

  8. A truly moving and thoughtful reflection on your spiritual journey. It brought to mind the image of a cocoon. Your “fundamentalist” background may have, while seemingly confining your spiritual self for a time, actually served a purpose to nurture you in faith and prepare you for the challenges you now face. Just a thought…

  9. Parasol Parasail Parachute says:

    Last Sunday, I walked my dog, who is my only real friend, and I made us dinner, and we sat on the floor in a room where there is no television. Sometimes people invite me to dinner, but I don’t go, because I will leave them in their beautiful houses with their loved families, and come home, and we will sit on the floor together, my dog and me, and the emptiness will close all around us, and we will cling to each other, and it will be more awful to have believed that there is love like that, except that it is not for me.

    Fundamentalists are like that, except without the love: they exist to tell you what you ought to have but what they have not got.

    • rodalena says:

      I hope you find love from the people you care for to be as genuine and beautiful an true as the steadfast love of your dog.

      Thank you for your moving comment.

  10. Dana says:

    Rhonda, I’m so sorry very for the many hurtful things that you experienced from the hands, hearts, and mouths of those who professed to love you and/or love God. I’m glad that others have helped you through this difficult transition, and that you’re finding your bearings. I’m grateful for the short time I was able to spend with you, and although the small amount I know of your journey saddens, terrifies and haunts me, I greatly appreciate your courage and determination to find truth and beauty.

    Love and prayers, my friend — always.
    Dana

  11. I appreciate your post, as it describes my journey too. However, I’m still part of a church, one that is good in many ways, but not in others. It reminds me of that saying of how people are used to a certain dance in a relationship. When you change, and you change the dance, you get pushback, because they are uncomfortable. I’ve changed, but I don’t know the steps to my dance yet, and I’m still with people who are dancing my old dance. Hopefully that made sense!

    • rodalena says:

      This makes total sense to me. Thank you for your comment: I’m certain it will resonate with other readers like it did with me.

  12. Rhonda, I am so sorry that people have treated you this way. I feel like I have gone through similar things, though not to the same extent. I have been judged and unfairly… I understand what you’re saying. Please know that I love you! In church, out of church… makes no difference to me. I may not always see eye to eye on everything, but who does? That’s not what makes great friends. You are an amazing person with a huge heart and a kind spirit. I will always consider you my friend!!

  13. #2 – thank you especially for that one. And #7.

You look like you want to say something. Go right ahead.