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Toxic Religion and finding your place at the table
(aka. a story of being bad at naming things)
I taught my first version of Toxic Religion class this summer with a virtual room of faces that came for a variety of reasons.
I’ve shared before that I was not sure what to name the class. “Toxic religion” has a connotation that a gal like me knows only makes sense to a specific demographic of people: the crushed; the confused. Those on the other side of the system that has used and hurt them or those they love.
Those on the wrong side of the table understand the phrase “toxic religion.” Those words don’t seem too big or too harsh.
But there’s another side of the table. And in my view - it’s rarely populated by people twisting their mustaches as they try to figure out how to use the truths of God to crush others. To those on the ‘right’ side of the table, “toxic religion” has no correlation to their space of worship. “Toxic” is a dramatic word used by those on the other side of the table.
When you’re looking across the table from the ‘right side’, from the place of safety, from the place of belonging, a couple of thoughts tend to be in your mind:
First, the other side of the table (the wrong side) is a place you are sure you will never be. Why?
Because those on the other side of the table are there because of some deficiency. Some circumstance or twist of the heart makes them unwilling or unable to “repent” “trust” “grow” “be humble.” You won’t end up there because you love God. Because you are willing to listen to the Spirit and submit to leadership.
Those on the other side? They’re in danger. They’re to be pitied. They’re confused. They want something more than they want to submit to God. They call you toxic because it helps them feel better.
Pick your narrative.
I wish there was a title, a phrase, a way to frame this content and this class for those who are on the ‘right side’ of the table.
Because what I know now is the fact that there’s a table like this at all (with a right and wrong side) is an indicator that your space is likely not healthy.
In healthy cultures and communities, we come to the table King Arthur style. A diversity of voices and perspectives come together. The dissenting aren’t separated from those in alignment. They aren’t shoved across the table. They are as likely to be in positions of power as those who say yes to everything.
There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’
I wish there was a way to convey my heart to those on the ‘right’ side of the table. To those looking across that table from the side of safety, I would say: I come with no accusation. I know there are narcissists among us, but for the most part, I know you are not that. You are doing the best you can. You believe you are doing the right thing, following Jesus, and loving well. I know the word “toxic” doesn’t feel like it fits because you are NOT toxic.
I believe so deeply that many of the spaces that have over the years formed cultures of control have not done so out of evil intent or perhaps any intent at all. Culture sometimes happens upon us. And before we realize it - the system we developed to help care for a large number of people - ends up carving up some of those people.
I think my deepest wish would be that those who lead in any kind of church would become obsessed with learning the signs and symptoms of unhealthy spiritual cultures - so that they could ensure their spaces take intentional steps to remain healthy and flourishing.
In some ways I know - just by using the words “toxic religion” it looks like I’m flagging my allegiance and identifying myself as one who hates the church. That narrative is just another way to control which voices are worth listening to and which ones to ignore; another way to control. And as convenient as it may be, it just isn’t true. I’m fighting for the church.
I’m appealing to those within the system (who I know - do not want to hurt people on their watch): come and learn. Let’s understand brains a little better, be more mindful of the power we steward, and work together to create spaces that are healthy.
P.S. The next Toxic Religion Cohort kicks off next week! It’s virtual AND free.
You can learn more and join here.
(And I’d love to hear any new name ideas for the future!!)
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