I’ve long since abandoned the atheist phase of my early 20s. But I haven’t gone to church regularly in nearly a decade.

After spending an ungodly portion of my youth engaged in church activities, I walked out.

They were wrong.

I had a serious disagreement with church leadership as a teen. Their argument felt more contrived than actual verbal confirmation from God: we prayed over this and it’s what God wants.

I felt like I was being looked down upon because I was young. So when my pleas fell on deaf ears, I decided to boycott.

I was wrong.

I struggled reconciling this incident for years, searching long and hard for answers. Then I realized my spiritual journey has nothing to do with the way other people behave. It’s entirely personal, and my misgivings with people need not interfere with my own pursuit for truth.

Something’s missing.

Yet I can’t help but carry some burden of the weight I’ve felt in almost every church setting I’ve tried to reengage. It hasn’t felt like something personal. Nor has it felt up to the snuff on the message it markets.

Maybe it’s the unruly pagan in me speaking, but church and organized religion have always felt more like institutions of people-judgment than of people-development.

I don’t mean people who go to church are bad. On the contrary, many of the best people I know – including my dad – practice what they preach as adamantly as anyone. But my own experience has left me wanting more than what I’ve found any church to offer.

I try to recreate the experiences I enjoy.

I find many of the concepts embedded in church culture appealing. The fellowship, pursuit of truth, worship, prayer, devotion, discipleship, not to mention a good potluck..

But my experiences with these activities as part of a church have always felt tainted. Almost as if they were guided more by ulterior motives than to drive personal growth. Like a need to validate certain interpretations of scripture or someone’s ego.

I’ve found my own pursuit of all these things to be much richer when done in a decentralized setting, not under the watchful governance of liturgy.

Come just as you are.

A lot of ideas I have don’t make for polite Sunday-lunch conversation. Still, many of them are both informed and inspired by scripture, theology, and Christian philosophy. One such idea I’ve taken from a classic hymn – that we should come just as we are.

Every major intellectual or spiritual leap I’ve taken has been predicated on this notion. The freedom to approach ideas just as I am has led me through more personal discovery than all learning involving an intermediary combined.

This approach to learning, truth, and spiritual growth makes me feel like I have some say over it. That if I’m not satisfied with the growth I’ve achieved, I can dedicate more energy to it. Or if I’ve fallen out of step, then it’s my responsibility to recover – not some institution’s responsibility to shepherd me.

I own my spiritual growth.

I don’t think it’s some religious figure’s or organization’s place to cast stones on the route I take in my spiritual journey. If church or religion should have any part in my spiritual endeavor, then it should be as secondary influences, not as some spiritual auditor I’m trying to impress to earn a credential for heaven.

Taking ownership of my spiritual development has freed me to seek truth on my own terms, at my own pace – even if that’s meant making a lot of mistakes.

No, I don’t hate church. But my congregation wears the same clothes 7 days a week.