Plenty of people were raised in some sort of church, typically a Christian one (in this country, at least). It’s something I’ve bonded with many people over. The conversations tend to go like this: “Hey, remember growing up in church? Ugh, weren’t the sermons so boring? Weren’t the dress codes annoying? I hiked up my skirt every chance I got!”
The thing is, though, my experience of being raised in church was very… different. The contributions I’d make to these conversations, never seemed to have the effect I expected:
Someone might say, “Ugh I hated church as a kid; we weren’t allowed to curse.”
And I’d say, “Yeah I hated it too; I wasn’t allowed to watch Pokemon.” I thought this was normal. Until I noticed the confused or concerned expressions. Then I’d explain, “Because they said Pokemon was demonic.” I thought that was normal, too. Apparently not.
I shared little tidbits like this, here and there, throughout my life. Always thinking it wasn’t a big deal. But after the thousandth disturbed expression in response to my memories, I eventually realized that maybe the environment I’d grown up in wasn’t a typical church-childhood after all. Maybe it was a bit more toxic than that.
So I’m going to make a list of characteristics my church had, that (from what I gather, based on these ongoing conversations with other church-grown children) aren’t necessarily normal or healthy. These are characteristics that one might consider cultic; but because I grew up so deeply entrenched in it, it seems truly normal to me.
I still have a hard time acknowledging just how cultic it was.
The trance sessions (a.k.a. “Revivals”)
As this was a Pentecostal church, the congregation believed that simply accepting Jesus as your personal savior, or being baptized by water, wasn’t “enough” to get into Heaven. The actual way to get into Heaven, according to them, was to be baptized in word, in water, AND by the Holy Spirit.
Unlike a baptism by word or water, though, we couldn’t just choose to be baptized. The Holy Spirit had to choose us. And the Holy Spirit would choose you based on the purity of your heart (or some shit like that). So if you didn’t get filled with the Spirit during a revival session, this was reason for the congregation to suspect you of being a sinner, and treat you accordingly. Whereas, if you did get “filled” (which was confirmed by convulsions, prophesying and speaking in “tongues”), then you automatically got more respect and higher ranks in the church.
So trying to get “filled” became this sick competition. I now realize that my peers were probably faking it to impress the church elders.
To facilitate the baptism-by-Holy-Spirit, the church would hold regular Revivals. We all had to stand up at the altar of the church together, lift our hands, close our eyes, and start praising God. We weren’t allowed to stop, or sit down, or lower our hands, or open our eyes, or even look bored. If the deacons of the church felt like it, they could go ahead and put their hands on your body to pray the Spirit into you. Or, if they decided that you didn’t look sincere enough, they would hiss guilt-inducing things in your ear.
I recall one particularly bad session, where it was late at night and I was tired. I was maybe 11 years old. And about 3 different church elders kept giving me dirty looks whenever I’d open my eyes. One of them forced my hands back into the air and hissed something about how I was disrespecting God.
That night during the car ride home, my mother admonished me for disrespecting God. Said I needed to pray for forgiveness. I sat in the passenger side of the car, having what appears in retrospect to be a panic attack. I didn’t know what a panic attack was at the time. But I was breathing heavy, shaking, crying, and scared that I was going to Hell, begging God to forgive me for not trying hard enough.
Even back then, I had questions. But didn’t they say that the Holy Spirit chooses you, and you can’t force it to happen? Didn’t they say that it’s better to worship God when you mean it, than to worship Him out of obligation? Wouldn’t God be more upset about that?
But I didn’t ask. Because I felt absolutely terrified that I had angered God by not praising him enthusiastically enough.
Obsession with doomsday (The Second Coming / The Rapture)
When I was 6 years old, my mother decided it was time to show me a movie about the Rapture called A Distant Thunder. In it, a woman who had been spiritually slacking got “left behind” when Jesus came to take all his more devoted followers to Heaven. To survive the Tribulation, she has to decide whether to take The Mark of the Beast (an unforgivable sin meaning eternal damnation) which would allow her to eat food and live safely, or to prove her loyalty to Jesus by not taking the Mark (which would mean being executed).
That movie sent me into an overwhelming crying fit. I begged my mother for answers. Why doesn’t God just save everyone?! Why does he have to do this to us?!
She answered coldly, “That’s just the way it is. You have nothing to worry about as long as you obey God.”
Again, only in retrospect do I realize this probably qualified as a panic attack. The sheer anxiety I felt after the movie was over…. it was so dark. So unfair. I was a child.
It wasn’t only my mother who often reminded me of the Rapture. The pastor would include it at the end of all of his sermons. Jesus is coming soon, he would say, closing his Bible and looking solemn. Make sure your heart is right with the Lord. It felt more like a threat than a comfort.
That movie, and the idea of the Rapture, continued to terrify me for the rest of my childhood and into my teen years. Any time I woke up late to an empty house, parents gone to work and my brother gone to school, I would run around looking for them, trying to remain composed, but internally terrified that the Rapture had come and that I’d been left behind.
I’ll give you two examples of how this one manifested:
My Pastor was a raging homophobe. Even when I was a Bible-beater myself, it always bothered me how vehemently and grossly anti-gay he was. He would go off on screaming, sweaty rants about “the abomination of homosexuality,” even if homosexuality wasn’t related to the main topic of the sermon at all. He’d give graphic descriptions of the structure and function of the human rectum, as “proof” that “gay sex” was biologically abhorrent. What’s worse? In the middle of these rants, he’d march through the pews and glare directly at anyone in the church who was suspected of being gay. I can only imagine how humiliated they must have felt.
Once, he totally crossed the line and called gay people “faggots” (this was when I was pretending to be a Christian because I still had to go to church every week, as per mom’s orders.) So at a church dinner later that evening, I tested the waters and said, “I don’t think he had to go that far and use the word ‘faggot’. That’s not a Godly, loving word to use.” To which the woman sitting across from me replied, quite plainly, “Well he has to warn us about homosexuality.” I gave up and went back to my food.
Another way in which Public Humiliation was utilized? On anyone who asked too many questions….
No questions allowed
One day, at age 14, I stumbled upon some verses in the Bible that disturbed me so deeply, I started self-injuring as a direct result. You know those verses in Deuteronomy that command rape victims to marry their rapists or else be publicly stoned? Yeah, those.
In a fury, I went to church and asked my Sunday School teacher why God would permit this, if He was so loving? Didn’t He care about rape victims and their trauma? She gave half-assed answers until, realizing that I was not going to stop until she answered me straight, she told me to “pray about it.”
On a Sunday not long after that incident, and without warning, the deacons called me to the altar. As the whole congregation sat and watched (probably enjoying the sight), the deacons put their hands on my body (belly, head, back, thighs) and started screaming prayers for God to “FORGIVE HER DOUBLE-MINDEDNESS!!! FORGIVE HER WAYWARD THOUGHTS!!! MAY SHE ONLY HAVE THOUGHTS THAT SERVE YOU, LORD!!!”
I stood like stone, pretending not to feel humiliated and violated.
The congregation’s attitude towards me completely changed after that. For the worse.
Everything is demonic
The short list of things that I was told were demonic, blasphemous or sinful:
– rock music (even Christian rock)
– playing cards and dice (yes, like the kind you play Solitaire with)
– skirts above the knee
– celebrating Halloween
– incense, sage, crystals, pretty much anything “spiritual”
– stage magic (the innocent stuff, like slight-of-hand and pulling rabbits out of hats)
– philosophy, science, astronomy, astrology, symbology, and psychology
As you might imagine, this was rather socially isolating.
“They’re all Satan worshipers!” (Social isolation / Us-vs.-Them mentality)
Anyone who wasn’t Pentecostal specifically, was worshiping the Devil. Unless they were Jewish. Then we approved of them. Because Pat Robertson told us to.
This, too, was rather socially isolating.
And last but not least….
Fixation on making money
(this is where my singing was exploited)
continued in next blog post:
Growing up in a Pentecostal “church” (Part 2)