Growing Up Independent Fundamental Baptist (Background Part 1)
[Photo of me on the lower right.]
Everything was church. Though I don’t remember my years in the nursery, some of my earliest memories are from the 2s and 3s Sunday School class. Needless to say, the most formative years of my life were greatly influenced by organized Christianity. Christians will say that the church isn’t a building, it is people. Certainly that is true. And just as certainly, we impart meaning to places, to buildings, to meeting spaces. Up through graduating high school, I lived and moved and occupied a space declared sacred, a church and school that formed me and molded me, for better or for worse. (Reader, whatever your relationship or experience with evangelical Christianity is, I believe it is important to understand that coming into evangelicalism as an adult is existentially different than growing up in it.)*
When I was four years old, I made what Christians would call a profession of faith. I didn’t quite understand, but I wanted to be good and to make my parents and teachers happy. However, it wasn’t faith. It was out of fear, maybe even terror. You see, Christians believe in original sin, that we are born sinful, like filthy rags, destined to burn for eternity. No relief, just flames and pain. Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Repenting of your sin, even if you don’t know what it is, and accepting Jesus Christ as your savior is the only way of escape. Little baby Emily was terrified of the prospect of burning alive while never dying, forever outside of time. I also knew that the adults in my life wanted me to “ask Jesus into my heart.” So I did. This teaching was the single most influential thing for the first two decades of my life. Like how roots grow, branch, and spread, other teachings branched from this one and influenced my subconscious and my nervous system.
Wracked with anxiety and doubt, I repeated the sinner’s prayer every Sunday for years, sometimes on Wednesday nights. What if I didn’t mean it when I was four? What if I thought I meant it but wasn’t genuine? What if I said it wrong? What if I thought I prayed the prayer, but I actually didn’t? These questions haunted me. I wanted to be good and right. But I was taught we cannot be, not without Jesus, not without God. How could I know for sure if by my very human nature I was evil and wrong? For years, I was afraid I would die in my sleep and be in hell. I would struggle to fall asleep. I’d recite “when I am afraid I will trust in Thee” until I would drift to sleep on my parents’ bedroom floor. This haunting lurked underneath the surface for as long as I can remember.
My fear and anxiety born from the threat of hell, the threat of ultimate abandonment, made me ripe for conditioning. After the several times I asked genuine questions about the dissonance of what I was taught and what I saw in Christians, I learned to not voice those questions. Hard questions and incriminating questions were answered in a few ways. They were either explained away unsatisfactorily or sometimes they were answered with a question, also unsatisfactorily. They were often answered with “God’s ways are higher than our ways” discouraging any further questioning. And sometimes they were answered with shock of “how dare you question God.” So, I became quiet, filing away my observations and questions into my subconscious. I was a people-pleaser. I was well on my way to becoming the golden child of my church and school.
[Obligatory Easter Sunday photo with my brother]
An essence of my being is passion. I am a “go big or go home” type of person. I consumed all things Christian and religious, specifically Independent Fundamental Baptist. My parents were in church every chance they could be, meaning so was I. I went to all the children’s churches, the vacation Bible schools, the summer camps, the Wednesday night children’s programs, youth group, everything was church. Bible verse memorization was a strength of mine. I got involved however I could, even when I didn’t want to at first. This is what the adults in my life wanted. This is what they told me God wanted. And I people-pleased. If I didn’t, I might get abandoned.
School was the same. I went to a private Christian school that was started by the church I went to. It was a small k-12 school; less than 200 students were enrolled the year I graduated. I people-pleased my teachers. I was lucky that my brain works in the same way that most teachers teach and I excelled academically without much effort. People-pleasing became second-nature. I rarely had to be reprimanded, but when I did do something wrong, I felt unworthy of love. If other people, mainly the adults in my life, were happy with me, I felt safe. But that meant I lost myself in people-pleasing. Who was I? A golden child that could regurgitate all the things I’d been taught and recite Bible verses and Christian quotes. I was not distinct from the group. I could not process or flesh out my own thoughts, for fear I might entertain something that would be wrong. And as a friend of mine says, within the evangelical paradigm, the worst thing you can be is wrong.
In high school, we were pushed to go to Christian colleges. To go to a college that wasn’t Christian was shameful. So, by the end of high school, I had decided to go to a Christian college to become a missionary. I thought I wanted to be a doctor or nurse or teacher missionary who would marry a preacher (man) and have lots of kids, both biological and adopted. That’s not what I wanted, but it is what I thought people wanted of me. After my first choice wasn’t feasible, I ended up going to Pensacola Christian College. Little did I know this is where my faith’s deconstruction would begin and I would start to find myself, to come back to myself.
[Delivering my valedictorian speech]
Next post will be background part two where I will summarize college and the following years.
*This is a topic I will discuss in a later post. It took much processing and understanding generational context for me to realize just how different growing up in evangelicalism is from coming to it as an adult.
🙂 people pleasing 🙂
Yup. I know it well.
I was cursed a preachers' kid.
Heading for part 2.