I have not stepped foot inside a traditional church since 2011, when I paid a visit to a local United Church of Christ in Chicago, and had an anxiety attack following the service. Attending a local, traditional church service is hard for me – my breath catches, I can’t concentrate, and there are too many people I don’t know who might judge me if I screw up. This reaction occurs even in churches where I know the people I am with.
This past weekend, I went out with some friends I’d not seen in a while. It was an event hosted by a local bar and brewery, sampling many different kinds of beers (even one called “Even More Jesus”). After about two and a half hours, the crowd overwhelmed and I became slightly claustrophobic amongst all the people I didn’t know. I quietly told my friend that I needed a break, and she told me to do what I needed to do. I took about forty minutes to myself, ate some food and relaxed, and was able to return refreshed and happy. No one thought it was weird, and no one questioned my disappearance. When I came back, people were happy to see me, and we carried on like nothing had changed.
One of the things keeping me from attending church is the questions. I’m scared and anxious about what well-meaning strangers will ask me about my beliefs and the things I will be asked to share if I join a small group. I was raised in an evangelical world where personal boundaries were considered an affront to true Christian fellowship, and if you choose to hold things back, then you’re preventing the work of God in your life.
In college, I attended several conferences and worship retreats in attempts to learn more about God and to get closer to my fellow Christians. Some of these were more charismatic in nature, something my Baptist upbringing was uncomfortable with. I remember during one service, I found myself on my knees in the aisle next to my chair, quietly praying. This wasn’t unusual, as almost everyone else around me was doing the same. A lady I didn’t know – I didn’t see her face – came up behind me and embraced me, asking me if it would be alright if she spoke in tongues over me. I responded with a quick, sharp, “No!” This was a lady who did not know me, who had no real connection to me other than a presumption of shared faith, who was asking to pray for me in an incredibly intimate manner. The sudden transgression raised my instinctive boundaries.
I’ve had friends tell me stories of complete strangers coming up to them, asking to speak Words of Prophecy into their lives, but boundary violations aren’t unique to the charismatic traditions. In my decidedly not charismatic Baptist upbringing, one was still expected to divulge secrets and struggles in prayer request circles, and to forge falsely intimate relationships with people on Sunday who would pretend you didn’t exist in the halls at school on Monday.
To this day, I have to think carefully and intentionally about what real intimacy looks like. And I don’t just mean romantic intimacy, though that’s part of it. I mean friendships, familial relationships, acquaintances. My evangelical upbringing encouraged so much overshare that I have spent much of the last few years relearning how to draw boundaries and not mistake “I shared this with you” with actual intimacy.
All too often, evangelicalism encourages closeness solely on the basis of a shared faith, without examining whether or not environments are safe to share in or whether or not it is healthy. Indeed, in many spaces, “safety” is actively discouraged, because the person who seeks to be safe is perceived as unwilling to “risk it all” for God.
If someone is my Christian brother, evangelicalism reasons, I should trust him to have my best interests at heart and allow myself to be more vulnerable with him than with people who see me every day. In my youth group’s small group in high school, I would see five or six women once a week, and barely knew their basic information – family structure, parents’ jobs, what books they liked and disliked, what music made them want to dance alone in their rooms, what they wanted to do after their education was done. But we still were encouraged to share close, intimate details of our lives, under the guise of growing deeper in the faith. This led to an incredibly awkward friend structure, in which I knew who was struggling with lust but not their middle name.
This false intimacy appears to be a systemic issue within the current structure of American evangelicalism, aided by some really bad ideas about what intimacy looks like. Not talking openly about what you’re struggling with means you’re not “letting go” of your sin. Drawing a boundary about what you will share and where and when means you’re not letting yourself be open and vulnerable – you’re not letting yourself love enough. Vulnerability, then, and “trusting God” means that you don’t have boundaries, you don’t hold back, and you’re “brave” and “honest” – within unspoken lines. Of course, no one really tells you where the line is until you’ve crossed it.
(Oddly enough, I think this warped sense of what vulnerability looks like is what turned me into a writer, but that’s neither here nor there).
I have scars. Many of them left by well meaning members of the church. I have trouble setting boundaries for myself and, without fail, am made to feel shame by church representatives if I do succeed in setting and keeping those boundaries.
The evangelical church frequently behaves as an abuser.
We say that Church is in the vulnerability and in the fellowship – where two or more are gathered. But intimacy without boundaries, intimacy without caution, and intimacy without safety is graceless. My Church doesn’t say, “Without your local church, you can’t speak to the issues. You must share all of yourself first.” My Church says, “We understand. You do what you need to do. We’ll be here when you get back.”