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The Perfect Church with Deep-Seeded Problems

- How my experience with a house church influenced my novel -

by Joshua B Coleman

In my novel Observing the Inevitable, a close-knit community is pushed to the edge as an explosive element threatens their home. Relationships are stretched, sides are made, and separation is imminent. But in most cases, impending doom is not the reason for a group to collapse.

How many times have we heard about a church split? It’s far more common than I think any of us wish were the case. And how many individuals leave the church for less-than-preferable reasons? It’s a lot. But it’s not something we commonly address. Part of the reason, I believe, we do not talk about relational separation is because our idea of the church group is formed around it being the body of Christ. There comes with it an air of perfect sanctity, that the church, as a group, cannot be wrong because it is of Christ–its is the perfect Bride. This is dangerous thinking. It is not an idea we necessarily go around actively defending and talking about, but hanging in the back of our minds the belief is often there. The group is perfect because God is perfect, but somehow the individual is not.

Several years back, I lived in a house church, which was an amazing experience by most accounts. At the time, I believed their should be more daily action to faith, and this new environment presented a unique way to it. I thought I had found the perfect group to increase my faith because I finally saw a church active in works. Their daily lives together was a testament to their faith.

It took me three years to realize something wasn’t right.

Group dynamics are messy. To this day, it is incredibly difficult for me to talk about how groups go wrong because everything about it is subtle. There is rarely one “evil” a person can point to and contribute to the problems within a group. Often, the problems are deeply embedded into the culture, and therefore embedded into the minds and beliefs of the people within the group. When I was living in the house church, I never understood the things I had simply accepted without understanding.

I accepted the idea that I was growing depressed when I had never been before. I was in a church environment that was constantly encouraging each other–every Sunday service had a time dedicated to words of encouragement, and people were constantly doing little things to encourage the members. Yet still, my mental state was getting worse.

After coming to terms that something was off, it took me a year of questioning everything I had learned from the church to get an idea of what was happening to me. It took me a year to realize that the deeply-rooted, unspoken beliefs of the group were making me worse–and they were making others worse, too.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t notice something was off before my own decline. Their were members in the church that had some serious issues, like a marriage on the brink of divorce, and it was clear that it had a huge effect on everyone living in the houses. There was meeting after meeting, trying to work out how to reconcile the marriage, how to get one person to actually want to improve the marriage and relationships with the members, but it was a losing battle. It seemed as if the church had done everything they could for one of the spouses, but the person was avoidant, and a real mess of emotions. As I wasn’t a member at the time, and came into the church while this was mid-way through–I only had an outside look at the situation. The members were on edge because this one person, that much was obvious.

About the same time, someone else was challenging some of the beliefs of the church, quoting G.K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. They had emotional breakdowns all the time, and the general thought was: my goodness, we cannot handle this person.

Another person was failing to support their family, getting distracted, acting in ways that the church might deem not appropriate, never stepping up in responsibility. And we thought: this person is trouble, they won’t listen to anyone.

I agreed with the group for years, but at the same time I started asking questions, I started noticing patterns. Goodhearted people were becoming problematic, and as I started asking questions, I realized I didn’t always agree with the generally accepted mentality. Things weren’t so simple to say that one person was the problem. Because now there were three, and then another with a more personal issue, and another with a serious decline in their mental state. There were too many individuals with too many problems, but still the culture of the group was “better together.”

Then I started to become one of those problematic people. I started to get depressed, so I started asking why. Many people blamed their poor self-esteem, but there were too many issues in the group for me to think that I was the sole problem. After internet searching, and soul searching, and exploring scripture, I finally pointed my messy thoughts and feelings to one thing I could understand: Emotional abuse (and perhaps, even spiritual abuse).

Labeling it was not an easy pill to swallow. These were not bad people. They were faithful and always trying to do things for others. Many I would consider far more faithful than myself. But I was showing signs of emotional/spiritual abuse, and quite frankly, so were many others. And this is where the idea of the group gets messy.

Good people can perpetuate a culture with emotional abuse built right into it, and no one even knows it’s there.

Through many conversations, I began to realize that the entire church blamed individuals for having problems. Being together was supposed to be the solution–yet I believe it was the biggest problem, the cause to individual’s declines. When someone did something offensive, there were 10 to 15 people to take that offense and many would share about how it offended them. Imagine just 4 people coming to you after you did something, whether intentional or not, saying that you hurt them. Then bring in the whole church during a meeting, telling you about your offenses. It was no wonder so many of the members were falling apart and never getting better. I only wished I had realized something far, far sooner.

Questioning the group and labeling the culture as emotionally/spiritually abusive was wrecking me. I tried to explain it to the pastors, to the elders, to the members, and every time was stress inducing and damning. People seemed to take offense. No one understood. No one agreed. It was as if the perfection of the Church–the group–kept them blameless. I was in such a poor state to help them see my thoughts on the foundation of what they lived by. I was also furthering the very problem by simply trying to fix it. Constantly bringing attention to things that needed to be fix, trying to fix them, was a huge part of the problem. It was a constant reminder to everyone that they were terrible people, even though no one was.

In the name of helping, we were making each other far, far worse.

Eventually, I was strongly encouraged to move out of the house church. I was holding on to some hope that I could maintain my relationships and status within the group. Even while believing the foundation of the group’s beliefs were damaging, I didn’t want to leave–and at the same time I knew I had to. Finally, I did leave. I was left feeling so lost, so excluded and hurt, feeling like the odd man out, never fully accepted because I was now separate from the group. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, and finally on a whim, I moved across the country and lived with my cousin for a year. It is there that I started writing Observing the Inevitable. It started out as a way to process all the dynamics I had just experienced, and all the feelings that were bearing down on me. Then it turned into something so much more.

I started to talk to other people and found out that my experience was not as unique as I thought. Others had been hurt by and left church groups that were very close-knit expressions on how to live a better Christian life. Even the church I am a part of now had a huge church split some 15-20 years back. Non-Christians were relating to many of the things I was bringing up in my book too, some claiming larger political connections, and I realized that this was something that really needed to be addressed.

It’s time we stop hiding behind the mentality of “group.” It’s time we evaluate the true consequence of what we believe–there may be some stinkin-thinkin’ mixed in our foundations of truth. Our attempts at helping people might actually be making the problem worse. It’s time we stop being ignorant to our deep-seeded problems and start asking, what will free us from this? As we’re so focused on trying to fix our problems, we might be faced with a solution we don’t want to accept: give it a break.

Observing the Inevitable is a science-fiction/fantasy novel about the collapse of a colony focused on staying unified. As problems arise, the group blames everything except the one thing intertwining them all together: their culture.

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