Can You Find God Outside of the Church?

In my last post, I said, “Sometimes I feel like I need to walk away from the religious life I’ve always known so I can find God on my own, and then I’ll be able to come back.” I feel like I need to explain that comment more, because I received some comments (both on the blog and from personal friends) about the danger of trying to “find God” outside of the church.

I grew up steeped in Christianity. I was the youth pastor’s kid, then the pastor’s kid, then the missionaries’ kid. My life revolved around our faith. I was at church three times a week (and sometimes in between, just hanging out in my dad’s office). I knew every Old Testament Hero Bible Story and every Beatitude. I could ace every quiz in Sunday school and could sing every hymn with gusto. However, my faith went beyond those “surface Christian” tasks. From a very young age, I sought God out through reading my Bible, praying, and asking my parents questions.

Once we moved to Thailand, even though I was surrounded by Buddhists (and, at my school – Hindus and Sikhs and even a Zoroastrian or two), my faith held fast. While other teenagers were sneaking out, smoking cigarettes, and getting grounded, I was organizing See You at the Pole at my school and wholeheartedly obeying the “no movies” and “no dancing” rules of the Nazarene Church. I was as passionate about missionary work as my parents were. I was involved at our church plant in both worship and the youth group. At school I gave an anti-abortion speech in the Forensics Competition and wrote an article for the school paper on waiting until marriage to have sex. I had devotions every day and fervently sought God’s will for my life. I was the model Christian. I did everything I had been told I was supposed to do, and I did it with a (mostly) willing heart.

I went to a Nazarene university, so even in college, I was surrounded by a faith-based worldview. My best friend from college recently told me that she, along with many other friends, went through a time of searching and questioning in college, yet she never saw me go through that. “You just accepted everything,” she told me.

That comment surprised me. I feel like I DID go through some times of searching during those years. In fact, I dealt with some things my senior year that probably marked the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy. However, maybe that questioning was mostly internal. I see evidence of it in my old journals, but on the outside, I continued doing all the “right things” that I had always done, the things that made me a Christian. I was still attending church, still speaking the religious jargon, still outwardly “accepting everything.”

And why shouldn’t I accept it? It was all I had ever known.

Which is why I say that now I feel like I might need to step away from it. I can’t keep doing this because it’s a “must do” or a “have to” or a religious formula for living a godly life. (The Orthodox Church has all the “must dos” and the “have tos” too. And it says they’re all for a spiritual purpose just like the Nazarene Church does.)

I have come to see that my faith has been shaped by the religious culture I’ve always been surrounded by. I’ve been given the language and the theology and the explanations. I’ve been given the traditions and the feasts and the saints. I’ve been given every good reason to believe in God and in Christianity. And I am thankful for all these things. I am not bitter about they way my parents raised me or the church I’ve now chosen.

Yet I need to discover God away from all these influences. I don’t want to love Him just because the church tells me I should love Him. I want to catch a glimpse of Him in the world. I want to know that He exists above and beyond our human descriptions of Him. That’s what I was talking about when I said about Gentiles in my last post: “There is a purity to that kind of faith, one untouched by influence, unmotivated by years of religious culture.” As an example, here are a few lines lifted from my in-progress memoir about converting to Orthodoxy:

“One afternoon I was standing chest-deep in saltwater and suddenly I felt God rushing all around me. The sea and the sky merged into this vastness that was filled with God. As His creation moved around me, He moved into my soul. I felt like I was a part of the vastness, the beauty, of everything that God created. I felt closer to God than I’d ever felt at any revival or altar call or worship time. God was soaking into me with every breath of air and every churning wave. In that moment, I knew Him, that He was real, that He was Creator, and that He loved me.”

I asked my husband (a theologian) for feedback on my last post, and one of the things he said was, “I can look up at the stars and deduce or even feel that there is a God, but I could never know who that God is.” What he meant is that the church tells us who God is and how to know Him. I don’t disagree with that. Yes, the church has authority and truth.

Yet didn’t God exist before the church did? Wasn’t he in a relationship with humans before religion existed? My point is I want to know God, and I want to know that my faith in Him is not solely because of a list of rules or a history of traditions or a familiarity with “church speak” or years of living in religious culture.

Now am I talking about literally leaving the church for a while? Probably not. That would confuse my children, and I don’t want to do that. I want to encourage their faith. But mentally, emotionally, and spiritually I remain a pilgrim, searching for God and working out my salvation. Just as the father of the demon-possessed boy, I approach Jesus saying, “I believe! Help me in my unbelief!”


  1. Margie says:

    Thanks for this post, Karissa. I realize it reflects your personal thoughts and feelings, but it is a very nice continuation of your post a couple of days ago. I have found the prayer “help my unbelief” invaluable, too. And I was checking other blogs and Ancient Christian Wisdom as more on the Baylor Report concerning the religiosity of Americans and the effects on their mental health. I admire you for examining your relationship with God while keeping in mind your children. God will bless you for that, as He will bless you for actively searching for Him and working out your salvation.

    I think you’ve got an excellent perspective as we come into Holy Week and I pray that any services you and yours can attend will be a support and blessing to your pilgrimage. Here is the wrap-up from the latest Ancient Christian Wisdom blog article because it is better said than I can say it:
    “And so, meeting our abundantly loving God in the Divine Liturgy, coming to know Him and being known by Him, the truth of God’s responsive love, unfailing support, and care for each and every one of us is formed firmly in our soul. It becomes far more than a belief that statistically leaves us less susceptible to mental illness. It becomes a conviction that even in the midst of despair, there is still hope, that even in the midst of absurdity, there is still meaning, that even in the shadow of death, there is still life, abundant life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  2. kksorrell says:

    “Even in the midst of despair, there is still hope, that even in the midst of absurdity, there is still meaning” – I love that. Though many will view my journey as absurd and even faithless, surely Christ knows that I desire Him from deep in my heart.

    Thanks for reading and commenting and for your patience with me and love for me, Margie! Yes, we will be at several services next week.

  3. Claire says:

    I would theorize that you and your husband are both right. The Holy Spirit is everywhere present, filling all things–so of course people experience God in all kinds of places and ways. They may feel God deeply, personally, and respond to that love with love, without knowing creeds, etc. They may be closer to God in their lives than many Christians. Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote, “Each person accepts or rejects communion with God in his or her own unique manner. For some the way includes an encounter with Christ. For all, it includes the encounter with God’s word and God’s spirit dwelling within us. There are, in any case, no techniques for its accomplishment. The act of communion comes always as grace. For those who know it, it is not life’s meaning, or purpose, or goal; it is life itself. God with us, making us what God is.” And sometimes, maybe even often, somebody comes along and says, “The God whom you’ve been experiencing as the Unknown God, I now proclaim to you.” (Acts 17) I think that maybe what you are seeking–what I am seeking–is a porous, not an impermeable faith–one in which you can breathe. It’s there, but our culture is very binary right now, and working against it to some extent.

    • kksorrell says:

      Oh, I love that phrase – “a porous, not an impermeable faith – one in which you can breathe.” Thanks Claire!

  4. God is everywhere. Keep searching. I remember once, about 15 years ago, my youngest son was questioning Orthodoxy, and Christianity. He read the Koran, and studied numerous other religions seriously. During this time, I was visiting Holy Dormition Monastery and I asked Father Roman Braga, the Romanian priest-monk there, to please pray for him. Father Roman said, “I will pray that if he becomes a Buddhist, he will be a very good Buddhist.” I have rarely been anxious about any of my children’s choices regarding religion and spirituality since then.

  5. Kristin says:

    Wow, Karissa, what you’ve said here completely resonates with my experience. I’m friends with Brannon, and I vaguely remember you from TNU. (I graduated in 2002.) If you’d like to correspond offline about this, I’m happy to do so: what you seem to be describing was the most difficult and confusing thing I ever endured, and it wasn’t until someone provided a nonjudgmental space for me to wrestle with it that I started finding my way to the surface. But geez, girl, that thing about being IN God — I TOTALLY GET THAT. And my response to those who warn you about looking outside the church — God is not a God of fear but of love. And if He is not strong enough to show you the way in your heart of hearts, internally rather than externally, then what good is He? My e-address is if you feel like connecting.

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