Why I Went Back To Church (Even Though I Don’t Know If I Believe In “God”… Yet)

Emily Henderson Going back to church

*I just wanted to start this post by saying that this post has been a year and a half coming. I finished writing weeks ago – right before the virus started spiking here in the US and quarantine efforts were started in earnest. I didn’t write this post because I’m scared of the world ending, although at times I sure am (but feeling more hope lately). We held off posting this because we were (and likely still are) all consumed, like most of the world, with the tragic state of things. But I suppose now is as good a time as any to talk about a higher power, our existence, and purpose. Of course, the irony is that I can’t go to church for a while, but that doesn’t negate my feelings and thoughts on the subject. Here goes…

Plot twist in the Emily Henderson story. After being raised Mormon, then spending 25 years agnostic, I have found myself wearing an ankle-length skirt, carrying a bag full of coloring books and snacks, sitting in a pew surrounded by stained glass. AND LIKING IT. What most of you have been wondering (and asking on social media) is, how the hell did I get here? 

Well, a long-winded analogy seems only appropriate to help explain. Here’s how I look at it: Spirituality (and religion) is like exercise or playing a sport – you can dabble in it (the occasional hike), join a local team (a casual church), or dedicate your life to playing a professional sport. Some people like to do it on their own (the rock climber?), some need a group to stay motivated, some like a friendly coach, and some might prefer or need a strict regimen with a lot of discipline and punishment (NFL player). YOU GET IT. There are a million different ways to exercise your body and get those endorphins (if you are even into that) and finding the one that works best for you is the challenge. I think it’s the same with spirituality. There are too many “religions’ and non-religions to count, all with pretty much the same goals – to add or find a larger meaning to life and enrich our day-to-day while we are here. 

I grew up LDS, aka Mormon. I left when I was 15 for the reasons that most people do – I didn’t identify with the conservative values, felt like there were a lot of hypocrisies, and didn’t feel seen as an individual who had a lot of questions that never could be answered. I also likely wanted to act like a normal teenager and make choices that weren’t aligned with the LDS doctrine, because as some of you might know, Mormonism is strict. But mostly it’s because I never really believed in God, which made all the above even harder. In all honesty, leaving the church didn’t feel like the hard part. But upsetting my parents was. Looking back now, I realize that rejecting and feeling rejected by something I’d known all my life, during such formative years, was perhaps traumatic and certainly skewed my view of organized religion. Not to mention affected my relationships. I wasn’t “kicked off the team”. I guess I just didn’t want to play anymore. I could write a whole book about that, and I realized it would be a big question in the comments so I wanted to address it. However, it’s not the point of this post. 

So most of my 20s and early 30s were spent without religion, having no spiritual life, which seemed fine because it’s really easy to not have something that you never had before. Plus I was a bit angry at organized conservative religions and really wanted no part of it. When people said “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual,” I thought it was BS because I didn’t know how to divorce the two. I didn’t realize all the options that are out there. I’d think, “so you believe in what??? Spirits?? What does that even mean??” Now, I know. 


In my later 30s I softened and started to see more of the good that churches can do – including the LDS (although their support of prop 8 set me back a lot). I started thinking about church probably for the same reason a lot of people do: The longing for community, to connect deeper to others outside of our bubble, to find a potential higher power for guidance, and to know that there IS more than just “this.” Also let’s not forget the nostalgia for an easier life, fear of how to raise our children to be good, the desire to help others, and generally help to be a better person. I look at my siblings and parents and I can’t help but think “gosh, Mormons are just the nicest people,” and clearly I want that part for my kids. 

Let me be clear, you don’t need religion or a church to do any of those things above, and many people would argue that there is more harm done with religion than good (I think the singular, and extreme view of the world is what causes problems – the interpretation of religion, perhaps not the religion itself). But historically, that small building in the middle of town could also help provide a lot of those things (when done right). “Working out” on my own was clearly not working. I needed the right “team,” the right church, one that was open and accepting, believed in science, but does that even exist anymore? 

Most importantly I started wondering why we were here. The whole meaning of life thing, and thus began my existential crisis. I couldn’t get my mind around the idea that if one of my kids or Brian died, that was it. No way. I knew that if/when that happens I’d search for answers which prompted me to find them earlier. Also, surely I’m here to do more than just play with pillows and beg for a “swipe up”. I certainly didn’t think that church was going to be THEE answer, but I knew that it was one way that was clearly popular, and one that I was very familiar with.

But I didn’t believe in God or Christianity. I believe in equality and science and radical inclusivity. Also, I was generally nervous to be in a room where another flawed HUMAN BEING MAN might tell me how to think or what to believe. I just couldn’t . . . yet. 

But I still had to find out the meaning of life, obviously. 

So I began my detective work to “find my purpose” and shopped around for the type of spiritual “exercise” that hopefully checked all my boxes and got me a bit closer. 

I listened to podcasts: The Liturgists, Super Soul Sunday, Goop. I read 7 Steps to Spiritual Wellness and Many Lives Many Masters amongst MANY OTHERS. I saw a spiritual counselor and mediums (tarot and palm reader), did sound baths and reiki. I tried meditating and read more about Buddha, and modern-day prophets like Gandhi and MLK. I even became more open to the idea of Joseph Smith – yes, the 14-year-old that founded the Mormon church. In my mind all of the philosophies don’t negate each other, you don’t HAVE to choose one, in fact, it’s my assertion that they are just different access points to the same higher power/s. 

I believe in it all, total religious fluidity, and think there are many different “languages” (or types of “exercises”) because there are many different types of people and we all communicate and function differently. You might see this as a cop-out or even offensive if you believe more singularly – that there is only one true religion – but in a subject that has zero conclusive answers, who is to say anything is off the spiritual table? 

So I suppose at this point I was spiritually lubed up and emotionally ready to step into that door because most of my individual research didn’t yield the community and service aspect that I craved for my family. I still wanted a physical place to meet, an organized way to help, and maybe I could connect more with others outside my bubble instead of me just complaining to my friends or shouting at the stars. 

But before we go further here is a little video I made, talking out loud about my feelings…

So where did I go? What church did I choose? 

**First off, this goes without saying, but I feel like I have to state it – I’m not supportive of any organization who interprets their doctrine to make people in any way feel bad about who they are or their choices, who supports political causes that exclude or seek to take away rights from people. It has to be progressive. For me to attend a church I need radical equality, Evolution is going to need to be recognized as a thing, and anyone can marry who they choose and all families are celebrated. Also, don’t lecture or tell me how to think*

My friend Suzanne was also searching for lots of answers and guidance and as raised Christian herself she felt the most comfortable going to a Christian church. She invited me and I was excited to go more as an anthropological study, definitely unsure that I would “fall” for Christianity. I didn’t the first time around, so why would I now? But the church was a 10-minute walk and only a 1-hour service. It felt like a healthy risk for a good story. 

I prepped myself and dressed in what was almost a sister wife costume and my former church “uniform” – a cute, ankle-length skirt, modest white blouse, and a bandana headband. I didn’t know that at most progressive churches you can really wear ANYTHING. We shuffled in and found an empty pew while the kids focused on their wrapped peppermints (Candy!). The pastor (Bishop? Reverend? Priest? I didn’t know) was wearing a plaid button-up, slacks, and sneakers. Neither hipster nor formal. As he spoke he reminded me so much of my older brother – genuine, funny, self-deprecating, relatable, inspiring and very, very caring while being seemingly unjudgemental. 

As the music started, and we were asked to stand up I held Birdie like a security blanket, swaying with her in my arms, singing in her ear the new words displayed on the projector screen. It was uncomfortable how comfortable it was.

I thought, “I can’t believe I’m at church
And I like it.” It was shocking, but not surprising.

The tears came, as they are right now. I guess I was overwhelmed, maybe by “the spirit” (I’ve heard of that:)), more likely nostalgia. I was my mother. I had done all the things – packed a “church bag” full of snacks and coloring books and yelled “kids get ready for church!” as if they even knew what that meant – they had never been. I found myself shushing them gently the same way my mom shushed us. I was dying to listen to the pastor, as likely my parents also did the bishop 30 years ago, because now it mattered to me. I didn’t hate this nostalgic feeling, because the intention behind all of it, 30 years ago and now, was good. My parents had good intentions and so do I, despite all the mistakes I’m surely going to make when my children are teenagers. The sermon made me ask myself some hard questions in such a non-judgemental and casual way. There was this undeniable sweetness and earnestness from the few people who were there. 

Why this church?

I suppose I found the type of “spiritual exercise” that works best for me at this point in my life. Let me explain. 

I’m going to continue with my sports analogy, because now I’M READY TO HIT IT OUT OF THE PARK. This church is the super fun “community softball team,” with a really nice encouraging coach, and people of all different levels, that accepted me for my average talent but eager demeanor. It’s an “anyone can play” team. This isn’t dissimilar from growing up where I played every sport with such enthusiasm, despite my undeniable mediocrity. And every single year, I won the – I kid you not – “best attitude” award. I’m the exact same here. I’m not necessarily GREAT at the game, but I really, really, really want to play because it makes me feel good and for whatever reason, I will give it my all. 

I like having a team because I’m not that disciplined on my own – I’m too scattered and get bored so easily, I won’t push myself on my own and I’m pretty social (as you can guess). I need a coach who encourages and teaches, but doesn’t yell, lecture, scream or make me feel bad when I mess up (or when I don’t show up). He wants me to be better and gives skills, tips, and tools that help, but no extreme punishment when I fail. I like teammates to share in the same experiences and I respect that some people are going to take it more seriously, be amazing, and leave me in the dust – I literally don’t care. You do you. I just want to set aside some time to be with them and my family, work on what I need to work on, and share some values. Basically, I want to “exercise” and leave feeling really good, taking that experience throughout the week.

This church is new and un-organized in the BEST way. It’s full of people that are in our community, yet outside my normal social circle, and it’s so refreshing. It is earnest and sweet and there is zero dogma and indoctrination (thus far). I told the pastor the second week (when he asked) that I didn’t believe in a “Christian God, per se.” He smiled and said, “I get that,” and then joked, “well …. at least not yet” with a proverbial wink, which was actually very funny and we both laughed at the challenge. I was totally accepted there even though I couldn’t and can’t say that I take Jesus as my Lord and savior. And I’m not sure I ever will. It just felt like you could be the worst version of yourself and still be accepted and loved.

I also really ENJOY learning about history. Despite your spiritual beliefs, a lot of what is in the Bible happened historically (with different versions obviously – no one REALLY knows) and I was gripped with a “what is going to happen next” curiosity, as if it were the hometowns of The Bachelor. And by the end of the never-long-enough talk, the sermon is always brought back to 2020 and how the message could somehow pertain to us now. We always leave wanting to be a better person in some way, with more introspection. Suzanne and I usually have a 2 hour debrief about what we learned, and how we are going to take the message into our lives, as I roast my Sunday supper chicken and sip orange wine or prosecco.

This church also cares about local causes and has provided a place for us to volunteer and help the community. This was one of my original drives towards a physical church versus just practicing my own spirituality. Of course, ideally, we’d be doing it more on our own, not needing the reminder or someone else to organize. But again, like working out, with busy lives it’s easy to forget this. There is some accountability, but most importantly it’s nice to do it TOGETHER. It’s very bonding for a community, hell it’s what makes a community. We aren’t perfect and I’m not saying that I’m using all my time to help others, but it’s more top of mind with more real opportunities.

Wait, What type of church is this??? 

The third Sunday I jokingly ask Suzanne “What are we again?” Oh right, Presbyterian (reformed). Now I currently don’t necessarily identify as being a Presbyterian, nor am I baptized (or however you become an official member). That may or may not happen. If you want to know what makes them different from other Christian sects here is my very rudimentary understanding (approved by our pastor): 1. Reformed Presbyterians let women become pastors and elders. 2. They accept science (evolution) and approach religion with what they say is a more intellectual viewpoint (like I said, so much history is taught). 3. They have open books and you know exactly how and where your donations are being spent, which is inspiring and makes you care more. But beyond that yes, it’s more progressive, with very little shame or emphasis on guilt, no “going to hells,” etc. It probably helps that the Pastor is in AA, so there are a lot of great messages from that philosophy.

Do I believe in God now?

I believe in a higher power that I have a strong connection with, which does give me a sense of calm, guidance, support, love and yes meaning. I also think that we are all connected, including animals and even plants/our soil, which has given me a much greater sense of connection to the earth and empathy. There is something bigger and greater than me, and I feel that pretty solidly in my soul. 

However …. 

I still struggle saying “God” in the Christian sense, and often transcribe “God” to “universe” or as my brother does “GOOD” in my head when it’s spoken. I think the easiest way to explain it is this: I’m open to it all, but Christianity is my “Native Language” – it’s my “way in,” because it’s close to how I was raised (Mormons are Christians). It’s comfortable and easy for me, but as I said earlier there are so many others “languages” that you can also speak (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism – ANY and all of them that I’m forgetting . . . .). I don’t believe it’s the only true religion, it’s just culturally the easiest for me to identify with. 

I hope that saying I don’t believe there is only one religion or one God isn’t offensive to those of you who have more of a singular view, that is obviously not the intent or the *spirit* of the post. Spirituality is so individual and cultural, and I think whatever feels good, gives you a greater purpose, and helps you find meaning is right for you. Again, it’s a type of religious or spiritual fluidity that is working for me.

And listen, some times it gets too “religious-y” for me and that’s ok! I am at a church after all. I just think “this part isn’t for me” and then I listen, without judgment. It’s a lot to go from being agnostic for 25 years to attending a Christian church, weekly. I’m making small steps with an open mind and I’m sure as I learn more about Christianity and that undeniably great guy Jesus, some sort of faith will grow. I’m totally open to it (honestly I think I just need to understand the story more to “get” the story of Jesus, and our pastor agreed to give me some one on one time to ask all my questions).

Are we raising our kids religious?

Mostly we are doing our best in every way, and certainly not relying on church to teach them morality just as we don’t rely on their school teachers to teach them how to behave. For now, they are coming with us and enjoying it, but I’m nervous, Brian even more-so. It seems so far that they are just learning a simpler version of what we are learning. Hopefully, they are just taking away the idea of being kind and helping our neighbors, loving our enemy, etc. Although I know that there is a level of conditioning that is really hard to avoid in a church when you are so young. I try to casually ask them about what they learned and if they have any questions, without being too weird about it. Birdie just likes to color the cartoon angels, but Charlie sits with us in the service and listens to Every. Single. Word. It’s both impressive and kinda scary, fearing that he’s too young to hear the grownup bible stories (guys, the old testament is not G rated, and yes we had to leave once during the service where we learned about why it was called “Passover.” He got scared of blood on our door). 

When Charlie asked me point blank if Jesus really came back from the dead, I said “I don’t know, bud. These are all stories that a lot of people believe are true, and you can learn and think for yourself. Ask all the questions you need and maybe someday you’ll decide if they feel true to you, too.” He accepted that answer, as I wiped the beads of sweat off my brow. I truly think we should foster the openness to faith, and create a space and conversation for their potential beliefs, inspire hope, etc. I personally don’t actually think telling them that these are the facts and that they have to believe helps them develop a healthy sense of spirituality in the long run. I resented that as a child and teenager, and I don’t want to repeat that. 

We want them to enjoy it, not have it be forced upon them and Brian and I are even remodeling the kid’s ministry rooms to be more fun and inviting (coming to a blog near you soon) so it injects the new church with good energy. (See? I’m an ENTHUSIASTIC player.)

What does Brian think? Does Brian Henderson go to church?

The back story. Brian has always been a pretty atheistic, barely admitting that maybe there is something out there, referencing “science” all the time and needing “proof” (boring). His “know it all-ness” has infuriated me at times and we’ve actually had so many heated “debates” and wine-fueled fights about it over the last 10 years. How does HE know there’s NOTHING? 

So when I first started taking the kids he was psyched to get 2 hours alone on a Sunday morning. He would listen to podcasts, clean the house, and watch sports. Then I’d come back in a GREAT mood and make us all a huge Sunday supper of roasted chicken and farmers market veggies. Yah . . . he loved “church,” with no intention of ever going himself. 

But he wanted to participate in the service projects and knew that it was important that we do it as a family. Turns out he enjoyed the people, pastor, and the work. In fact, a couple of months ago our family spent the entire Saturday with some other volunteers cleaning and organizing the kid’s rooms. Not only did Brian not complain about how he was spending his weekend, but I could see that he really enjoyed it. This has continued and the past couple of weeks he has spent a large portion of every day putting down Flor tiles in the new kid’s spaces so the church didn’t have to hire someone. 

He’s opted to come to the last two services and really enjoys the conversation – it’s thought-provoking and historically so interesting. Don’t tell us (or our kids) how to think or believe, but it’s hard to argue with inspiring people encouraging us to be less of an asshole, love more, and feel more universally connected. Knowing that something great exists beyond you, is good for all of our souls (and egos). But spiritually he’s still up in the air, but becoming more open.

How do our friends feel?

Ha. Well, it’s funny. They are watching from the bleachers, nay, across the street inside a house peering out behind the curtains, mostly thinking it’s weird and scared that we’ve changed and become super conservative. After over 10 years of friendship, it must feel odd to text “Brunch?” And get back “Sorry, going to church!” I try to explain it, but it always feels like I’m proselytizing and that’s not what I’m trying to do AT ALL. I also find myself really defensive. It’s kept kinda quiet here in LA (by others, not me), with people sharing political views and educational philosophy much earlier than mentioning any sort of church affiliation. I think there can be a lot of judgment about religion and “church,” mostly because of the stereotypes. The ones that say churchgoers are extremely conservative, hate gays, love Trump and hold “you’re going to hell” signs on street corners. Sure, that exists, but definitely not the case here. After years of angrily arguing about how some Christians are the least Christ-like, I’m relieved to finally be exposed to so many Christians that indeed are carrying more progressive views and are so open, loving and inclusive. It’s so refreshing.

Since I’ve spoken openly about going to church, people will perk up and say “me, too”. There are a surprising amount of “secret Christians” in LA (that’s what I call them). The irony is thick – that they/we are fear being judged out in society, as others do when they are in a church. Extremism in every religion is what people fear, me too, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, I know some Mormons that believe wholeheartedly in the gospel but disagree with a lot of the interpretations of the doctrines that human men have put into place. This blew my mind – that you don’t have to buy into the whole thing. You can believe in the macro but know that some of the man-made rules and rights restrictions are perhaps not for you. I will pay $500 to anyone that can explain why they forbid drinking coffee but encourage diet coke. These kinds of inconsistencies distract (and taint) the entire religion, but I respect the individuals who are progressive enough to realize that there might have been a “language barrier” or a “lost in translation” issue with some of the doctrine from God to prophet. 

But again, this post isn’t about why I left the Mormon church, it’s why 25 years later I’ve found myself in a church at all. It’s still shocking to me, and yet somehow not at all. 

Speaking of … How do my parents feel about me going to church?

I had them read this beforehand, and my mom responded with a lengthy email including much, much more that I won’t share, that “We are thrilled”. Phew. Kinda.

Would I ever go back to the Mormon church?? 

While I have truly endless appreciation for how I was raised until I was a teenager (#mormontil15) I don’t identify with how conservative it is. I do however realize that no one does service and gives back more than the Mormon church – they just don’t shout about it. They do SO MUCH for so many, locally and internationally, and for the most part their intention is wildly pure. I am a highly positive person, with a crazy work ethic, and a very good moral compass because I was raised Mormon by people who dedicated their lives to the church (could be anecdotal, but those are the facts). But until the church can accept gay marriage, encourage more questioning and curiosity, and allow flexibility in rules then I know I won’t be able to make it my community. I’ve talked to the big guy about it, and he’s fine with me 🙂 My beef with religion has truly been more with the conservatism/extreme teachings.

This post felt premature to write. I’m only a year and a half in and I’m just learning my “spiritual language,” I’ve just joined the team. Plus I have a lot of residual religious resentment that I’ve had to work through. It’s creating a pretty big hurdle for me to dismantle or jump over. So while I’m comfortable at a Christian church I still have some triggers. I suppose that’s why it’s shocking, that after all that injury, I’m back up playing again at all. And writing this post over the last couple of months (the first draft was 23 pages) helped a lot. 

So that’s where I’m at, March 20, 2020. I go to church and I like it.

For someone who apparently LOVES a cheesy long-winded sports analogy I find it hilarious that I can’t handle the word “journey,” but I suppose that’s what I’m on – a spiritual journey. And in five years this might be a completely different post. But using that analogy truly helped me understand where I am spiritually and why I am currently choosing the experience that I am. And that is a keyword for me – “choosing.” It’s my choice. It’s my kid’s choice. And sometimes you need to sit out an inning, bench yourself, or play something different altogether. I think we are ready for this modern version of religion – less polarizing, extreme, and dogmatic and shift it to more acceptance, community, connection, and love. I think that generally, it’s the human beings that have corrupted religions because we are all flawed and full of fear. It’s a hard jump to make to let’s say, still support the LDS church when their doctrine doesn’t support gay marriage. But there seems to be an increasing amount of people who are seeing things this way – interpreting it for themselves, translating it to 2020, and leading with progressive kindness, rather than just sticking to laws that men interpreted from their god. 

So have I found my purpose? Do I know the meaning of life? Maybe. I’ve definitely made some shifts in my career to ensure that I can focus on what I think my “calling” might be. Again, you don’t need religion to help you come to any of these decisions or make any shifts in your life, but it helped me think more macro. It helped me look at things with a lens of longevity and purpose, and there can be nothing wrong with that. 

Maybe someday I’ll be ready for the big leagues, but I’m pretty happy here, showing up when I can, and asking a ton questions to myself and others. Sometimes just getting out there and playing feels really, really, REALLY good. 

So, guys, that’s me, in this very moment quarantined up at the mountain house, thinking about bigger things. Now you: What spiritual team do you play for? Did you grow up going to church? Are you too someone who never thought you’d go back but find yourself craving it?? Would you go back? Did this infuriate/enlighten you? Have you also been seeking some of the same things? I’d LOVE to hear it. 

**Any discussion about religion will be inflammatory, thus my apprehension of posting this for over a year. I realize that for a lot of people religion has caused them so much rejection, pain, and trauma, not to mention wars and genocide. But for others, it has brought nothing but joy and security. It seems to me if something can be so polarizing it’s likely because it holds a lot of emotional stake, and therefore is worth a conversation. I hope this can be a productive dialogue, where we can be open to other’s viewpoints and grow by appreciating other’s views. Don’t waste this opportunity to connect by adding fuel to a negative fire. Instead pose questions, and thoughtful open opinions (like I know you will). 

The post Why I Went Back To Church (Even Though I Don’t Know If I Believe In “God”… Yet) appeared first on Emily Henderson.

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