“I stacked up a big plate of this wonderful hangover food, walked home, and never went back.”
My Dad was a pastor. I spent between 14-20 hours a week at the church, not by my choosing. In a lot of ways it was the family business. Over a long period of time, like a son whose father ran a printing press, and who learned how to run a printing press, I learned how to work in a church. I knew the tactics, knew the tricks, knew the business. Knew the things you were supposed to accomplish and figured out how to do that. Plus, I had the ability of playing music. I started while I was 15 or 16 in youth group. After getting out of high school I started traveling a lot with it, specifically as a worship pastor. I was traveling playing for conferences, retreats, and things like that. And making decent money doing it, for a college kid.
When I was 21 I realized that I really liked leading worship for the same group of people every week. I had a greater ability to understand the needs of that group by knowing them personally and I felt a deep connection with that. So I stopped travelling and moved to Orlando and started playing for a ministry which was really big and very production based. Bright lights and lots of bass and smoke on the stage—it was very much like Jesus Christ Superstar, very performance oriented. And it was that pastor in Orlando who asked me to move to Long Beach and start a church with him. We thought, “Oh, we know how to do this, because we were a college ministry and we had 1,200 people coming every week.” It was going to be like nothing. “We’ll go out to Long Beach, California, where everything’s cool and hip and we’ll play in a church that’s as cool as anyone else’s, and it’ll work.” And we kind of fell flat on our faces right away.
I started to have a lot of questions around what should be the crux of one’s faith, the fulcrum of one’s faith. I was asking questions like, “Do we even really have a soul? Do we really even go to heaven?” It was difficult because they were big questions I really wanted answered, and I felt like because of my position I couldn’t ask them. I had so many questions that these people thought I shouldn’t be in leadership in a Christian environment. There were a lot of conflicts for me personally there—I allowed some things to develop in my personal life that people questioned. I started dating a girl who was not a Christian, which was a huge no-no. And I really think that was the last straw for the community that I was in. I was approached by the pastor, who said, “Ultimately, I can fire you or you can resign, I’ll let you choose.”
After I was “released” I connected with another church here in the Long Beach area in the area of musical worship. We met in a park that is famous for having a lot of homeless people who live there. Every Sunday homeless people would come walking into our church and they would eat our doughnuts and drink our coffee and they would hang out and then they would leave. Every now and then we’d have to call the police because one of them would get rowdy in church and have to be escorted out. It was a blast. It was an ugly, ugly building with white tile floors and white walls, and they had this lame, fake tree that they would put up in the front for “ambience.” And they had this crappy sound system that hardly worked. It was just a group of people that pooled their resources to create an environment and a space where people could come together and talk about God and love and the Bible, and a lot of people really fell in love with that place. I think I was one of them. For a long time it was a place of healing.
For Easter Sunday of 2011 the girl who headed their music ministry rented out a theater in Long Beach and put together a band of nine people, and we rehearsed for a month in advance. I’d been having a rough go, and I was super hung over as it was, and I didn’t want to be there, but we had this big band that Easter, and man, we sounded so good. It was just awesome and super-epic. When I got done playing, I walked all the way to the back and turned around and thought, “Holy cow, there are so many people here. This place looks so cool—the band was so awesome! But it didn’t represent the church that I knew. It seemed like a complete lie. It was a manipulative attempt at getting the christers—churchgoers that show up on Christmas and Easter—to come and to stay and make that their home. If I came to that church the next Sunday, I’d have been really be disappointed, because there would have been a super-smelly homeless guy sitting on the tile floor snacking on the doughnut that I brought and there would have been this really small band of one to two to maybe three people on a big week, playing unrehearsed music.
I remember walking out before the service was done. They had this big table with all of these yummy pastries and cakes and sausages and other awesome stuff. I stacked up a big plate of this wonderful hangover food, walked home, and never went back. That Easter Sunday was my last time ever going to any church. There were a lot of things about me that never healed when I was a part of a church. Church was supposed to make life better but it actually made my life worse. It created a lot of guilt for me. A lot of guilt. And I think my guilt was related to the way I believed about God. Not necessarily that I believed that God was going to condemn me or that God was going to dislike me. But I think it was more about that God wasn’t going to approve of me. I had failed at that first church in Long Beach too, you know? My leadership abilities weren’t what they should be and I was confronted by that numerous times. And I felt guilty. I carried a lot of guilt for a really long time.
The thing that blew me away, man, was after I left—now, these are people I was close with, these are people that I considered really good friends (this pastor at one point in time in our relationship had really become to me kind of the dad that I never really had)—after I left, three months went by and I didn’t hear a word from anyone. I didn’t get a phone call that said, “Ben, I haven’t seen you in two weeks. You’ve been here every week for the last three years! Where are you?” Or “I haven’t seen you in a month. Are you cool? Have you been out of town? What’s going on?” You know? Nothing.
I think all along I was questioning my faith, but I didn’t renounce it until a year ago. After that I started doing my own thing. Life is great. I’ve got a great family. I’ve got a great job. I’m going back to school. I have awesome friends. I have a cool girlfriend and we sleep together and I don’t even feel bad about it. I’m making a record. I’m playing some music here and there and it’s awesome. I’m having a great time. I read a lot. I just finished a book last night called Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, which is awesome! I really enjoy little things in my life. I’m passionate about little things. It’s much easier. I don’t think I want to be passionate about big things anymore.