Hello again! This is part two of my deconversion story. I’m including a bit of life history to give a foundation to my leaving Christianity in early 2017. This time I’m going to discuss my short stint in the non-denominational charismatic church and my agonizing 17 years in the United Pentecostal Church.
The charismatic church I attended was typical: heavy on the ecstatic experience, very light on doctrine. We even supported ministries like Kenneth Copeland and Rodney Howard-Browne, the self-proclaimed “Holy Ghost Bartender.” What a dumbass. Anyway, as I was saying, my experience was typical: speaking in tongues, laughing in the spirit, being slain in the spirit, hearing from God and doing crazy things both in and out of church. It was during this time that “god spoke to me and called me to preach.” I thought he wanted me to be an inter-city missionary. The irony is that I don’t even like to drive through downtown, much less walk.
Because I was so militant in my views, I developed a strong “us versus them” mentality. (This worked out quite well when I joined the UPC, because that’s how they roll). I remember a friend and I put up posters all around the school saying things like, “Need help with finals? Pray to Jesus!” We got into trouble for it, even with the local FCA bunch. I thought I was being persecuted by a bunch of lukewarm Christians. Little did I know I was just being an idiot.
I started working at a local grocery store where a woman in her early 20s began talking to me about the UPC. She had a similar zeal for god, but had long hair and always wore a skirt…which was weird. We talked a lot about “true doctrine.” If you’re unfamiliar with the UPC, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say UPC doctrine is a good mix of eisegesis and poor hermeneutics. Perhaps their biggest fault is using historical-narrative text as didactic, but I digress.
Eventually I converted. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the UPC is a cult. We were taught that everybody else was going to hell, and only we had salvific truth. We damn near worshipped the pastor, and women were second-class citizens. If you’ve ever watched a documentary one of those snake-handling churches, it was very similar, but sans snakes. (If you haven’t, you should. They are quite entertaining).
A few good things happened during this time (my marriage and the birth of my two beautiful children), but otherwise it was also a fairly rotten era. My worldview was so distorted. Everything but fresh air was sin. I lived under a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. There was never any physical abuse, but there was emotional and mental abuse. The pastor had absolute authority. Submitting yourself to another human in such a manner is degrading. I remember once he didn’t like the Hawaiian shirts I was wearing to church (I carried a gun and the shirts were good for concealment), so he told me to not wear them again. Just like that, the decree was issued, and I had to obey. Can you find such an edict in the bible? Hell no. It’s all up to the pastor’s whims. Such bullshit.
My wife and I stayed at the same church for years. I eventually became the assistant pastor and was generally well-regarded in the church. I was the first man to become a licensed preacher under that pastor’s ministry. I was a good writer, contributing to nationally published UPC books and magazines. Somewhere along the way, though, I got burned out. I was doing too much for the church. In fact, church always came before family. On top of that, I had to listen to retired people complain because I wasn’t making enough hospital visits. In a controversial move, my wife and I left and went to another UPC church in town. My role there was greatly diminished, so the toll on me wasn’t as great.
We stayed there for a few years. We made some friends and had some good times. I believe it was a better experience than the previous church. I don’t think the people were so uptight. My kids attended the in-house Christian academy. My wife even taught there. We were totally enveloped in the Christian bubble. In spite of the friendlier atmosphere, the lifestyle was essentially the same. We had to dress and act a certain way or fear rebuke. Please keep in mind that all of these “holiness standards” as they were called never produced the desired results. People still “struggled with sin.” Members still died of disease. Folks still got offended over stupid shit. This special doctrine that was supposed to change lives really didn’t. I never saw a bona-fide miracle at that church or in any other, for that matter.
In a last-ditch effort remain in and enjoy the Pentecostal lifestyle, we left for yet another church. While the music was incredible, the people were some of the snobbiest I’ve ever met. We were there for five months and made few friends. Perhaps it was that experience that helped convince us we needed to leave the UPC which, to them, was as sure a ticket to hell as atheism. We began questioning the dress code – and only the dress code at this point – and decided we needed to move on. Much to the chagrin of…well, pretty much everybody we knew…we left the UPC.
The next 12 months would forever change my life. I’ll discuss that more in-depth next time. Thanks again for reading.