When I read the Pew Research Center’s report on America’s changing religious landscape, I don’t see statistics. I see Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome
[n. pohst-truh-mat-ik church sin-drohm]
- A condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing, or breaking thereof
- The vile, noxious, icky, and otherwise foul aftermath of said spiritual injury
- A serious term intended to aid serious spiritual healing—without taking itself too seriously in the process
Where the data shows five million fewer Protestants, three million fewer Catholics, and nineteen million more “nones” who do not identity with any religion, I see Sarah the bartender who isn’t allowed to love Jesus because she loves women, Sam who adores the new Pope but hates the things the church has done in the name of Jesus, and David the minister who just can’t believe in hell.
I see thousands of stories of brokenness. I see the millions of people who crash into religion when they go looking for God. I see people so tired of being spiritually bruised that they give up on faith altogether.
And I ought to know: I used to be one of them.
The first time I wrote down the term “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” was sometime in the early 2000s. It didn’t matter that the phrase was written in blue eyeliner on the back of a cocktail napkin or that much wine was involved. In vino veritas!
Strung together, the four little words framed pain I couldn’t express, said what I couldn’t. They identified the reason I couldn’t pray, or darken the door of a church, or say the word "God."
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome was the reason I was a "none."
People who leave or are left by their faith lose a lot more than a place to go on Sunday morning. They lose relationships with family and friends, social status, tribal approval, self-esteem. They lose their God, their identity, their certainty, their gravity. I know because I lost all those things.
I left my faith and ministry training program in my early twenties after my questions became much bigger than the answers provided by my evangelical subculture. Or maybe it is more truthful to say, my faith left me. I’d been given a religion that was built like a Jenga tower—when I took a few blocks out, it all tumbled to the ground, destroying me in the wake of the fall.
I am not an isolated case. I know this because once I started writing about "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome," many people had the same reaction I did. “That’s me,” they responded, telling story after story, in person and via email, of the same struggle, the same yearning to have faith of their own without being bound by dogma.
I didn’t know that naming “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” was the first step on a very long journey of spiritual recovery. I didn’t know that I’d spend the majority of my twenties rebuilding my life without God (and doing a pretty good job, I might add), right up until I became very ill, or that my illness would force me to face PTCS after nearly a decade of avoidance. I didn’t know that I’d face it the most reasonable way a really sick person could: visiting thirty religions before my thirtieth birthday. And I sure as hell didn’t know I would chronicle my experiences in a book by the same name, or that the journey would transform me from a person who couldn’t even talk about faith to a person whose life work is talking about faith.
I only knew that when I first said “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” the words clicked—a key in the lock of my injured spirit. I knew that when I talked about it with others I found out I wasn’t alone. I knew it was a place to start.
PTCS is real, pervasive, and quite possibly one of the reasons why the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points since 2007. It’s part of the “why” behind the “what” of Pew’s findings, but, as my experience shows, it can be much more than that. Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is a place to begin a conversation about the reality of spiritual injury and the many, many paths to healing.
Reba Riley is the author of the forthcoming Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing.