It was a normal day at my little Baptist school kindergarten. We had colored and napped, ate our snacks, reviewed numbers and letters, and even spent a lesson on telling time. We had just put away our sleeping mats when my teacher, Mrs. Edna, called us to attention.
“Children, I want to take a few moments to tell you about Jesus.”
I perked up. Jesus? I had heard about him at home and at church, but I hadn’t concerned myself much with him. He was that guy the adults prayed to and talked about so much. What did he have to do with me?
“Jesus is God’s Son, and he loves you very much. He loved you so much that he died for you to be saved. He is in heaven right now watching over you. If you will pray and ask him into your heart, he will come into your life and always be with you. As long as you trust in him, he will never leave you, no matter what happens.”
He will always be with you.
I remember, even then, feeling deeply lonely. Isolated. Hungry for genuine acceptance. It seemed that my community stood ready to shame and abandon me the moment I failed to do the right thing. Say the right thing. Or better yet, just sit still and keep quiet. To have someone in my life who would never leave me, who would love me in spite of all my flaws, was an idea too powerful to resist.
So I bowed my head that day and asked Jesus into my heart. Immediately, a great sense of his peace and presence flooded my heart. When I left school that day, I knew he went with me.
As I became a teenager, I wanted to share this experience with others. I saw so many of my classmates feeling rejected and unhappy, and I knew that if they just asked Jesus into their hearts, they, too, would feel that unconditional, sustaining love. The problem was, I had been conditioned by my church to share a very different version of that love. In this version, God sent people to eternal torment for saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, and even thinking or feeling the wrong things. The reason was that God was holy and just and knew what was best for mankind. His love was unconditional…as long as you were willing to meet the conditions. The bad stuff that happened in life was all part of His plan to shape us and draw us closer to Him.
So I would go to my friends, share this version of “love” with them, and invite them to come to Christ. But instead of joy, they only looked at me with disappointment and confusion. “You’re telling me that it was God’s will for my grandma to die?” a classmate asked. “She was the only one taking care of me and my brother. Why would God do that to us?”
I didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. I would go home, ask my teachers, study scripture. The few answers I was given were trite and unsatisfactory. I was just supposed to trust that this was the right way. I kept preaching, but no one was asking Jesus into their heart.
For a long time, I couldn’t connect the dots. I couldn’t see how my experience of Christ’s love totally contradicted my theological indoctrination.
I also couldn’t see how much fundamentalism was hurting me. All those nights I spent running to the altar begging Jesus to forgive me, over and over. Believing that, yes, Jesus loved me, but I was crucifying him all over again with my endless failures. The terror and shame that plagued me. The knowledge that I could never live up to all the standards put upon me – and worse: the lack of desire to do so.
Once in a while, however, my eyes were opened. I looked around at all those in my community talking about “having the joy” and “living in victory,” and joy being about the farthest away imaginable. My leaders preached hierarchy and headship as God’s will, yet they only seemed to result in pride and corruption at the top. The dysfunction appeared endless, and there was never enough grace to go around.
Finally, I concluded that fundamentalism was a false gospel. Because the more I stuck to the script I had been given, the more I alienated those who really wanted and needed to experience the love of Jesus. I opened my Bible and discovered scriptures that my leaders would never teach because they “could give people the wrong idea about God.” Forget the fact that God is not served by human hands (Acts 17:25), or that the rules lacked any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:23); God was wretchedly angry at us filthy sinners, and only following the myriad arbitrary standards invented by our leaders could appease Him.
It was worse than a prison. It was a work camp. And no one was leaving unscathed.
I left anyway.
I left fundamentalism to rediscover the love of Jesus and share it with my friends. I left fundamentalism to experience grace and freedom from sin. I left fundamentalism to pursue joy. I left fundamentalism to cultivate a life of spiritual depth and meaning. I left fundamentalism because I realized I couldn’t have all the answers – and didn’t want them, anyway.
I left fundamentalism to follow Jesus.
I left, and I’m not going back.