I Quit the Evangelical Church I Grew Up In


I once was found until I realized I was lost.


For me, there was only ever one kind of church. It sat just off a single-lane highway, not far from the beaches of North Florida, and was wrapped in corrugated tin siding. Coming down that highway, one’s arrival was confirmed by a row of flag poles holding international flags, tattered and generally ignored. They were meant to signal that this was a place with global aspirations.

This house of worship was a house of extremities, from the interior design (faux Venetian with a stuffed male lion in the foyer for flair) to the people (a bishop who wore Versace-patterned tops and, when really moved by the spirit, had an inclination to wave large battle swords onstage) to the message itself (people journeyed to our church to hear the voice of God).

We were quixotic and cliché. Down that highway back home, sitting around the television, we would grimace and go silent at portrayals of hypocritical Christians as seen in movies and shows — sweaty buffoons preaching the prosperity gospel.

It was us versus them from early on. I was a somber child soldier in a culture war that had been raging long before my arrival. As best I can remember, I tried to play the part, making up the quasi-lingual annunciations of the holy spirit with some creative zest. I shouted when we were told to shout, strained to have tears, stifled my thoughts and silenced my mind to clear out some space for his voice.

We could quantify our extremes: 24-hour prayer groups, 30,000 person gatherings, big-dollar offerings, number of souls saved. My numbers were low. I am not someone who ever once saved another lost soul, at least not by any agreed-upon standard.

“Such effort!” I now think about our little modern tribe, afflicted by economic crisis, pestilence and Atlantic hurricanes (which we always tried to pray away toward some other tribe).

The other cliché about such extremes is the unnerving ease with which they tend to fall away. I can’t remember when I quit the church. And the same could be said for my parents, my friends, even my three uncles who started it. We just fell away, each of us, like a fashion that faded after years.

Everyone had their reasons. Purity tests. Personal politics. The boom and bust of beach town economies. For some, the voice of god.

Now, over a decade after falling out, or quitting, whichever it is that happened, a few of us will rehash the church times. I’m still not used to the funny, faded tenses we use to recall these stories. Our shared nostalgia has all the qualities of nausea.

I once was found until I realized I was lost.

People will ask me what the whole thing was about, why I stopped.

My reason, the one I have perfected in my head, has just enough context for moments like these. It must have happened in the spring of 2003. The Iraq war was just underway, a glistening new front in our holy wars. I tell the part where one of my pastors, a tall blonde woman who wore pantsuits and spoke with utter authority, announced during a service that our God would uncover Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We were the kind of church that did these things on Sunday afternoons, you see.

Our God would do it quickly too, she added — in seven days or less.

Looking at pictures of the church now on Facebook, I see what’s changed. Faux Venetian has become hotel lobby rustic. (The lion remains.) There’s a Patton-sized American flag behind the stage now. Combing through pictures online in the hopes of seeing just a few familiar faces, I mostly notice how empty the rows are now.

Nathan Taylor Pemberton is a writer and editor from Florida. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times



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