Did I grow up in a pentecostal cult?

A letter to Satan

Pentecostalism began in 1906, with a son of freed slaves named William J. Seymour.

​Seymour and some cohorts were waiting around in a place called Bonnie Brae street, and their account of what happened is that all seven of them, one by one, began to fall on the ground and speak in unknown languages given to them by God. As their numbers grew, Seymour and his new followers found a home on Azusa Street, in a movement now known as the Azusa Street Revival.

​It was the sparking moment for what became modern Pentecostalism, one of Christianity’s most spirited, outrageous, and closed-off denominations.

​I spent more than a decade of my adolescent life in a fierce pentecostal church. And I haven’t thought deeply about that experience in pentecostalism. That is, until my mother came across a letter I wrote in middle school — a letter I wrote to Satan. I didn’t know what to feel about this letter: it’s full of admonishments, disappointments I had with myself. But it was also confident, promising the devil that I’d stay faithful to God, and that I wouldn’t fall prey to chronic sinfulness. Since its discovery, I’ve been holding onto it, debating on throwing it away. But it’s an important time capsule: here’s a kid, adamant that he’s going to beat the devil. He’s struggling to stay ‘pure’ and holy, but he can’t do it all the time.

​The feelings in this letter — which I’d completely forgotten about — helped me realize that I’d chosen to bury my experience in church and that I’d run away from its impact on my life today. It’s been years since I was devout, so I sought out others to help understand this experience of deconversion. I started out with some questions:

​How did growing up in an insulated, evangelical community shape me? Who am I today in relationship to that younger me? Are there others like me, who immersed themselves entirely within their church as kids, but ended up leaving later?

And as I began talking with others in search of answers, a new question emerged:

Did I grow up in a cult?

This article is part of a larger audio/podcast project on the pentecostal experience. Find the full story at aleccowan.com/spokenthrough or listen on the Listen Closely podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

This project seeks to answer the aforementioned questions, as told through my experience and the journeys of other ex-Pentecostals. There is one Overstory episode, which includes my personal experience and the composite stories of a handful of ex-Pens. Start there.

Throughout this web story, longer cuts from each individual interview are provided to give a broader context to each person’s story. These interviews focus solely on the individual’s journey, and my experience takes a backseat. After all, Pentecostalism encompasses nearly 200 million people around the world, with numerous sects and branches. These individual stories help shed light on our contrasts and comparisons, and the story concludes with a discussion on spiritual abuse, along with a number of other interviews not included in the Overstory. I recommend you take time to listen to the Overstory in addition to each individual interview to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Pentecostalism in its various forms.

Seeking congregation

ANDREW: My name’s Andrew, and I am fifth generation Pentecostal. I should use past tense.​

My great, great grandfather was one to God, the story goes, when he was in his twenties or thirties, I believe. And it’s been passed down on my dad’s side for five generations, and I have nieces and nephews that are now making the sixth generation.​

I was gung ho into church three times a week, at least more than that some weeks. And youth group working at the church, I was homeschooled from seventh grade on, so spent a lot of time working in the church, cleaning and vacuuming out the vans and mopping gym floors and that sort of thing.​

I’m the only one in my family. Who’s no longer with the church.​

ISAAC: My real name is Isaac.​

My church that I attended was kind of interesting because they’re sort of an offshoot of an offshoot. And that was what I was immersed in for 30 years. Went to their private school. I was as far committed to that as I think any other member would be considered, you know, it was my life.​

ALEC: How would you describe Pentecostalism to someone who isn’t religious?

Isaac: In Pentecostalism, we accept Jesus as a dual nature. He was both divine and human. He had a physical body that was a real human body. And so he suffered and died and he went through that pain and suffering so that we could have healing and deliverance today in the modern time.

​If you call them the name of the Lord, Jesus, you shall be saved.​

Where a Pentecostal person differentiates… they don’t accept that argument of just praying and ask for salvation. You have to follow this formula that’s laid out in the Book of Acts, chapter two, verse 38, which is simply: “Then Peter said unto them repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”​

ANDREW: And it was sort of a new revelation that differed from the rest of the Protestant movement in its emotional vigor and specifically the works of the spirit.

And the flamboyant worship running the aisles, rolling on the floor lifting of the hands and singing very vibrantly, you know, and they tend to prioritize worship and outspokenness in church and, you know, affirming the pastor and saying amen and things like that.​

ISAAC: the word I use is fundamentalist. Very strictly and very literally interprets the Bible.​

The Language of Angels​

ALEC: And this is always the part that I have the hardest time explaining to people when they ask me, ‘What is pentecostalism?’ Because speaking tongues is really at the center of what makes pentecostalism unique. Can you just explain what speaking in tongues is?

ISAAC: Some Pentecostals think that it’s absolutely essential to speak in other tongues in order to be saved. You have to speak a foreign language or a tongue of an angel, something that’s completely unintelligible to you. If you don’t do this, then you don’t have the sign of the Holy Spirit in filling your life. And if you don’t do this, then you’re not safe. You know, you’re going to, you’re going to burn.

ANDREW: Paul, one of the apostles and his letter to the Corinthian church, the first Corinthians chapter 12, he lists the gifts of the spirit and they are the word of knowledge, word of wisdom, gift of prophecy, the gift of faith. The gift of healing, working of miracles, the discerning of spirits what’s called diverse tongues or various tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Pentecostals believe that all of them are still relevant today and still available to the church today. And not everybody has them.​

I’ve been told by people who have claimed to have seen miracles, such as blind eyes opened and deaf ears, unstopped, according to them you know, I spoke to people who were there when a man supposedly died and was God raised him back to death.

ALEC: What did you think when, when you were first hearing that?

​ANDREW: When I first heard of it, I was 12. I had no connection with the outside world. Literally, no connection with the outside world. Didn’t watch TV. Didn’t read any books that weren’t approved by my parents and had no friends outside of…​

I had no, I had no reason to think that that was crazy. Lazarus was raised from the dead. Why wouldn’t, you know Brother Barret?

ALEC: And this is what’s wild to me, because at least at my church, we never had legends of people being raised from the dead. But we did have a kind of folklore or mythology around demon exorcisms? An example being a story of one woman who slithered beneath the pews like a snake as a demon as exorcised and pushed out of here.​

But I tried so hard to speak in tongues, and was never able to. So can you just explain what that was like?


The first time I was, I think, seven or eight. Lots of crying and, you know, laid out on the floor by the front of the church and people all around me and lots of tears and just exhaustion of trying to, you know, that, that sort of, that sort of feeling in the pit of your stomach when you cried so hard and just exerted so much emotion that your, your, your body is convulsing and, and, and contracting, you know, your abdomen muscles are contracting and your, my, your, your head hurts.​

And everybody just goes silent.

​All the music stops and it’s, it’s sort of a hushed tone. You know, it’s like the, what they would call the Shekhinah glory of God has fallen upon the service. Your eyes hurt from closing them so hard because you don’t dare open them or don’t break the trance, you know — and that’s literally what it is.

ISAAC: Some people will just chatter and they’ll just dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, you know, and they, they don’t make any actual words. They’re just making this really excited, chattering and stuttering with their tongue and lips.

ALEC: What was that moment like?

ANDREW: It was a sense of relief. Like I’ve never felt before and I can clearly remember it.​

It was goosebumps and, literally, it was goosebumps, hair standing up and. And just peace. I say that because that’s what they told you is, you know, Oh yeah. This is a peace that passes all understanding. This is God’s peace. He is giving you. It’s just, I felt calm because I knew it was over. And I had gotten God’s attention. I had gotten God’s approval and that meant everything to me.​

I felt like I was like, somebody was actually listening on the other end, but you know, whether or not that’s true. I was asking, I sure was asking and. Every time that I spoke in tongues, I felt answered. I felt heard, I felt validated. I felt like my faith had been validated. And I spoke this language and so God must exist. God must be here with me right here in a spirit form. And he’s approved me. He’s he likes me. He wants me to be, he wants me to go to heaven and he’s, you know he’s given me what I asked for.


AVIE: I’m going to go by Avie. I grew up a third-generation UPCI member. I left the church about 13 years ago when I was 19 and have just been slowly working through what that means for myself ever since.​

We would have wild services where people were running the aisles, jumping on chairs, rolling on the floor you know, dancing at the front all of that different stuff.

We would also have services where there was just this sort of, deep grief almost, that would go through the congregation. And so very emotional.​

I “received” the Holy Ghost when I was 10. I was sitting and I was writing a letter to my favorite uncle because my parents had been talking and like his drug problem was getting worse and I was worried about him and I just started crying.​

And my mom asked me what was wrong. And I told her that I was worried about my uncle, and she was like, well, now is the perfect time to go pray for him. And so this emotional ten-year-old gets pulled up to the alter and, you know, I was surrounded by adults… Like I’m, I’m already sobbing because I’m upset and that’s interpreted by the adults around me that the spirit is coming over me. And so all of these adults surround me and there’s a lot of shouting and, you know, everybody’s touching me. And I like… I was just overwhelmed with the situation and the emotion.​

And after that it’s blank, I don’t remember anything. I like came to about an hour later and didn’t know what was going on. And my mom told me that I’d been speaking in tongues for over an hour and I didn’t remember it. I had no memory of it.

​It was kind of a traumatic experience.​

And from that point forward I was told I’ve received the gift of the spirit. Now I can speak in tongues. And so that’s what I was supposed to do when I prayed going forward.

ANDREW: It was probably six or seven years after the first time that I spoke in tongues again the second time. And then, you know, years in between that, but it was always, I had done something wrong and I knew the Holy Ghost was no longer inside me or in my spirit.​

I didn’t think I have God’s stamp of approval. And I wanted it. So it was that same scenario over and over again, wanting to be approved by God, and it just, seeking for that… I felt that I was asking a deity for that.

AVIE: One of the teachers that kind of took me under her wing… like I, I was in a very fragile, emotional state, and she noticed that, that I was dealing with a lot of things. So she kind of became, you know, a confidant and a mentor. And when she found out that I was Pentecostal, she asked about speaking in tongues and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s part of it.’ And she’s like, ‘you know, I’ve tried for my entire life and I just can’t do it. I wish God would give me that ability.’

But like for her, the justification was that she talked too much to begin with. So she didn’t think God was going to give her that gift, which I thought was hilarious, and also like… brought to reality the fact that not everybody who follows God can do this.​

SARAH: So I never personally spoke tongues in the sense of, I was possessed by the spirit.

My name is Sarah. I have spent most of my life from birth to adulthood in church.​

I used to be so religious. It’s not even funny. I was never to the point of wearing skirts and covering your ankles, but I wanted to speak in tongues so bad, but I followed on my father’s belief that the spirit has to possess you.​

So it was a matter of, for me. You know, I’m doing my very best for God. I’m donating my gifts of the spirit. I am doing all these things. I am so into my church and my people, and I do everything that God says, and I listened to the sermons and take notes as best as possible. But I have yet to be possessed by the spirit in speak the language of God.​

It was almost as if my… I wouldn’t want to say obsession, but it was like an obsession compulsion.​

I remember praying as I would go to bed every night that the Holy Spirit possess me and make itself known, so I can see the things and the ways of God. Which, it was partially taught to me by my grandparents that the Holy Spirit can come over you. And it has happened to them. So for me, it’s like, I’ve, I’ve been so deep in this and it hasn’t happened. Why not?

My mental health at the time had really degraded users of personal trauma I had encountered when I was younger. So between that trying to search for some reconciliation, some hope that I will stop feeling this way that I did mentally. And then also being constantly told. By the individuals that believed in the Pentecostal doctrine, you know, there was probably a good reason why, and it had something to do with me.​

ALEC: So for me, I really wanted to speak in tongues. I really desperately tried to and I tried super hard to for years. And it’s like you’re saying, it was an obsession. But that obsession eventually turned into a kind of shame or guilt, that I wasn’t doing something right, I wasn’t doing what God wanted. And I really loved the church, And so that shame really helped motivate me to be that much better at my scriptures, or not sinning, or just memorization.​

Did you have that same kind of empty fulfillment, like you’re chasing something all the time?

SARAH: If I hadn’t felt the Holy spirit and perhaps it could have been my negative mindset, it could have been my depressive tendencies. It could be the grudges that I hold against people. It was always an element of, there was something that I was doing, which was why I wasn’t ever experiencing the presence of God.

​ALEC: Well and I felt like trying to live better was difficult because there were so many microscopic moments throughout each day where you could slip up, for fall out of “God’s grace.”​

I’m curious as to what kind of restrictions you had in your church, and if you had that same kind of feeling.

ISAAC: I usually try to mention, you know, it was, it was like being Amish. So much of what defines Pentecostals, especially. Just to the average person that may not have that much religious background is really how they live. It’s you’re not allowed to watch movies, you know, allowed to go dancing. You’re not allowed to go to the bar. And so you live by this code and even more so than just like the code is the fear of being. Turned in by your, by your friends.​

They defined everything you did, you know, you couldn’t, you couldn’t just go out with someone and just say, Hey, you know, let’s go out and grab a cup of coffee. Every decision you made, went through the church leadership. It was a cult, I mean, that’s really the best way to describe it.​

SARAH: There was always some type of leash on the content that I had read or seen when I was younger or watched to the extent that, you know, when you’re younger, you don’t really notice those things because you only see what is given to you or shown to you.​

ISAAC: I really enjoy a good movie and I enjoy a good TV show. But that’s against the rules, nobody has a TV in their house. Nobody even goes to the movies, but I would go by myself. And again, mid-twenties, early twenties, I’m just sitting in a movie theater, maybe a couple towns away, so I don’t bump into anybody by chance. And nobody’s going to recognize my car cause I’m, you know, stuffed in the backlot of a movie theater somewhere.

​And I would enjoy it. And then I would feel guilty about it. Just. Immediately after, and then like the next church service. Oh, you know, I’m going to pray and ask forgiveness and next weekend, I’m going to do it again and see, it was like they had this double life where you wanted to be normal. You wanted to experience normal things, but you couldn’t, and you were just kind of locked into this controlling mindset where. You were feeling guilty about things you enjoyed, just because somebody thought It was a good idea. And it was just the most ridiculous way to live. But that was reality.

ANDREW: I knew at an early age that I was not straight, I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was just a temptation, a sin, a spirit. And I didn’t know what to do with those thoughts.​

So I just prayed, literally prayed them away and pushed them out of my head. And they kept coming and. So instead of acting on them or, or letting you know my finding my identity, as I would say now, I just pushed it away and even became homophobic.

​And the man that I’m in a relationship with right now, we had been friends for years before becoming an item. And early on in our friendship, I ran into him at Walmart. And I stood there in the produce section and talk to him for a few hours. And here comes walking through the door, a man who went to church with me and knew that other person.​

And he knew that the other person, my current partner, he knew that that man was gay. And he looked at me, and he looked at him, this man from church. And he nodded and he said, hello. And he kept walking. And my heart just dropped.​

I knew that I was instantly labeled as gay or, you know, I was at least teetering, because I was seen in public with a man who is a known homosexual. And that man who went to my church… I’ll call him David.

But David went to the pastor and told the pastor:

He said, ‘Hi pastor. I saw Andrew with a known homosexual in Walmart. They were talking.’ And my pastor called me aside and he said, ‘Is this true?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir I ran into him at Walmart and I was talking to him.’

And he said, ‘Well, just, you know, be careful about your…. reputation, you have a reputation to protect.’

And I went back to David and I said, what gives? I mean, I just ran into him at Walmart. And I was talking to him. What if I was witnessing to them? I wasn’t, obviously.​

And I asked him, I said point-blank: I said, so how long should I speak to somebody not in church? If I run into them, if they’re not in church and I run into them, how long should I speak to them before it becomes too long before, I’m “associating” with them.

And he said, 20 seconds.​

ALEC: I think being a child is especially difficult when you’re growing up in pentecostalism. Because your parents at this point have age, they have experience, things they feel regret for, things they want to repent about. And they just have more life experience. They’ve seen the underside of the world, and so putting Christianity on top of that can make the world feel scary, like there are demons flying around.​

Was there anything your parents did that made the world just feel that much scarier as a kid?

SARAH: God, I remember… I don’t know, anointing oil? We would regularly make cross over the doorposts and stuff in the windows. And you know, you were taught to do that if you’re having nightmares or you’re having bad thoughts. And then you have that reinforcement of, ‘you should constantly be in fear.’

So if you feel guilty watching something, oh, that’s the Holy Spirit speaking to you. You’re not supposed to be watching. Or the end times are coming. You should always be ready because Jesus could be coming back any minute. So then there’s that paranoia that you’re supposed to be on the lookout for the signs.

​And then after a while, you’re thinking the world’s getting worse. So you start connecting all these dots that don’t even exist, living in constant fear of something. It’s in every doctrine, everything. There’s just that reinforcement of fear that that’s how you’re supposed to live and living in fear is what keeps you in line with God.​

ANDREW: It’s the shame and guilt that comes with the concept of sin. I mean, I, I think thought crimes are just… it’s an insane concept to… to say that someone is going to be punished eternally with, with such a horrific concept of punishment. You know, burning in fire tortured for eternity because they had a thought.​

AVIE: You know when the structures of authority can’t police, you’re policing yourself.

​ALEC: It seems like that fear of being turned in, of being unfaithful to God, or even just being around unfaithful people. For me, and what I’m hearing from other people, is that it really just makes you lonely.

AVIE: I’ve called you to be a separate people, that whole thing. I don’t know if your church mentioned that or not, but there’s a scripture that, you know, God wants us to stand apart.​

This is part of the reason that I feel that Pentecostalism is a form of cult, because they tell you that you have to rely only on the people who are part of the church with you, that anyone outside of it is dangerous and that you should expect to feel isolated by everyone, around you, who isn’t in the church, because that’s how it’s supposed to be.

SARAH: Everything is devoted in some way.​

You’re thinking about it. You’re planning something about it or reading something for it or about it, or you’re there and you can’t really escape onto this war unless you’re sleeping. And even then shoot, you might be dreaming about it.​

ALEC: What effect did that kind of 24/7 surveillance of yourself, if you want to call it that — what effect did that have on you?

It turned into not long after it turned into paranoia dinner, it spiraled into psychosis. And I remember therapy times where I would do my prayers to God at night. And I would just get so frustrated because I wouldn’t hear God saying anything back to me.​

I wouldn’t hear God. I wouldn’t hear a very sinister voice in my head. And I at least had the smarts about where to go, that’s not God, why can’t I stop this voice in my head? It, I think after a while, it really started to drive me crazy that. I was trying to revamp my, my relationship even more like, okay, maybe if I fixed it up a little, you know, get better, you know, read even more. Maybe I’ve been slacking. That’s kind of what was going on doing that, it didn’t get better.

A gender divide

ALEC: So pentecostalism is obviously a very traditional religion. Churches tend to be conservative, mine was. It kind of holds up an image of ‘good-old Christian living,’ puritanical living.​

What kind of expectations, or restrictions, or even straight-up sexist views did you experience while you were in church?

AVIE: Women weren’t allowed to cut their hair, no sleeves above the elbows. Skirts had to fall below the knees collars couldn’t be more than the width of three fingers from the collarbone. No makeup.

​What I was told was that like all of these interests would make me a good wife in the future that, you know, all of this was good because I would be a good support perhaps to a pastor. It was never in the context of like, you, you, you can establish your own foothold in the faith and influence in your own, right? It was always in the context of me being attached to the authority of a man.

SARAH: There was a level of sexism. If a girl was talking to a boy and every fellow class, they’d always be watching him like a hawk — not so much watching him watching her. There would always be that double standard of things that they were called to.

AVIE: There was like this temptress aspect to it? That I was being overly sexual. And I like, I, I don’t know where they got that. Cause I, I was kid, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no experiences like that. But it was still suggested, you know, that there was this dangerous aspect to me.

SARAH: I always wear dresses. I love to wear dresses and I would wear them and we randomly got a complaint. Okay. I think during one of our girls' nights or like girl’s youth group. That there were some of the boys standing down at the bottom of the stairs, watching the girls go up so they could look under their skirts. And that pretty much they wanted us to wear shorter dresses and or pants.​

So that really rubbed me wrong because many years before, I experienced sexual assault, and I was wearing uniform shorts for school when I experienced that. So for me, someone that even at that point, which was kind of radical — I believed in women’s rights, and that’s something that I never spoke about while I was going to church.​

AVIE: I was at a youth convention, and I was coming down from getting ready in my hotel room and I got on the elevator with my youth minister. And I was wearing a black turtleneck. A black — it was the early 2000s, so pleather was in at the time — so I was wearing this black pleather skirt. It’s embarrassing to think about in retrospect it was, but it was, it wasn’t tight. It was just a black pleather pencil, like a straight skirt and then black boots black knee-high boots.​

So it was just all black, pretty much all of my skin was covered and it wasn’t tight clothing, but he looked me up and down and said that I looked like a $2 whore. And I’m 14 years old, and I like… just stunned. And he just walked off the elevator to go to the service. And so I went upstairs and I changed.

​I was like, Holy shit, like… I can’t understand. What about you know, what about our belief system would ever make it okay to speak to a child like that? And sorry, it makes me emotional to think about still, but um, so instances like that though, were what were pushing me sort of away from the church. I didn’t feel valued for my own intellect. For what I could contribute on my own. And I was attacked a lot for, for just trying to figure out ways to express myself that made me feel more comfortable in my own skin

Pentecostal churches make space for abusers like this.


ALEC: How difficult was it to leave? Can you describe what that process was like?

ISAAC: You walk out the door, you vanished completely from their life. Like you disappear. And I think. I can count on one hand the number of people that I stayed in contact with that I had some kind of relationship with after I left.

ANDREW: I don’t have a lot of contact with my family. I speak to my parents, you know, maybe every other week or so, but the fact that I’m not in church anymore is definitely a big part of that.​

ISAAC: I was married for six years. And as soon as I sat down and had an honest conversation with my wife, like, this is what I’m experiencing, I have doubts about things. And I have good reasons to think that maybe this isn’t the right way to go. And it’s just like, you threw a switch and it’s, I’m the outsider. I’m the enemy all of a sudden. And it was just downhill from that day on.​

AVIE: I was sick of being the girl who wore skirts to school and Told them. I told my parents that I wanted to go shopping and I wanted jeans and I was tired of dressing that way. I’m going to do what I want. You can, you guys can either accept it and like, just let me do it. Or you can make it a fight and me go around behind your back. So it’s basically up to you, you know?​

SARAH: They used to regularly talk about me actually. Kind of in disappointment, that I left and that they can tell that I’ve changed as a person because I’m not as in touch with God as I used to be, that that just changed me as a whole person. And you know what? I definitely agree. I am a completely different person since I’ve left the church and it’s for my own better.​

ANDREW: You have to just leave. I don’t speak to anybody from my ‘former life’ as I’ll call it, none of my friends. Some of them probably would speak to me. But I choose not to. I don’t hate them. I don’t have any ill will towards them.​

It just, there’s just, there’s a disconnect. I mean, what would we have to talk about?​

ISAAC: When it came to my parents, they’re just like, I grew up with these people. I knew what they. Their mentality and their thought patterns. There’s no chance of that conversation going well. So like, I just thought, why would I even waste my time?​

ALEC: I’ve been really trying to distance myself from who I was then. I’ve done what I would consider a 180, and I’ve just put all those pentecostal experiences in a box, I just leave it somewhere, I’ve decided that I’m just not going to open it. At least not until now.​

How do you reflect on your experience? I think what I’m grappling with is that pentecostalism, and my experience, it’s part of me whether I want it to be or not.

ISAAC: You hear in the church over and over again, all these people in the world, they’re all, they’re all sad and they’re lost and they’re going to get addicted to drugs. They leave the church, they’re going to lose everything and end up homeless. That’s what the narrative that like to push. And, and yet it’s the complete opposite. Everybody that I know that left the church. I mean, they’re, they’re happier.

I got a job where I traveled more often and I got to see New York city flew around Atlanta and North Carolina got to see San Francisco by myself. You know, just, I was just exploring life in feeling that freedom. And I was just like this incredible rush.

ANDREW: I was what, 16, 15 at the start? And it was a culture shock if you’ve you ever see one, it was like being splashed with cold water. I didn’t have any friends outside of church. I had never heard secondary music or, well, I mean here and there, but not to speak of, I hadn’t watched TV and I was just thrown into the deep end.

AVIE: It was a culture shock. It was pretty scary at first, but it was also exhilarating because like, I was surrounded by so many different people and none of them followed the rules that I had been brought up to follow.

SARAH: Yeah, it felt like a culture shock. It was like a pit in my stomach at the time, really that, you know, I felt like in a way have I wasted my time at this church after trying to do good as the way God would intend me to, in the original sense of what Jesus preached, which is what we were supposed to be following, but. It ended up leading to nothing. So what was the point of me devoting all my time and my effort and resources, and I never genuinely saw any reward come out of it?

​There would still be mornings where it would just feel wrong, not waking up early on Sunday or not going out on Wednesday to go to youth group or not going somewhere on Sunday night.​

ANDREW: As a kid, when you’re being taught right from wrong, you’re not just being taught, don’t kill and don’t steal. You’re being taught to think these things. And don’t say these certain words, and there’s no reason given, except this book that’s 2000 years old. So you’re constantly second-guessing. Is this okay? Is this okay? Is this okay? And that’s just that causes things to break down over time, and I lose cognitive function because some of it is so much of it is focused on second-guessing myself. And it’s not great for a relationship because I spent so many years trying to make my parents happy, trying to make my pastor happy, trying to make my youth pastor happy, and trying to make God happy.​

ISAAC: For years after leaving, you will dream about going to church, you know, because your brain is so wired to think about it.​

ALEC: What do you think your life would have looked like if you hadn’t gone to church?

ISAAC: I see it as I lost a third of my life to those people. It’s really hard to say if I went back to being, you know, if I left at 18 years old, what would I have done differently? Would I have chosen a different career? Would I have chosen a different partner? Certainly, you know, like the possibilities just explode.​

I would have probably enjoyed life more. I mean, that’s, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. I would have been like everybody else.

My personal story continues from here, and you can hear its entirety in the Overstory of this project. Here, you can find additional stories from ex-Pentecostals, as well as an interview on recognizing and addressing spiritual abuse.




Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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