Religious experience: UC professor Steve Fuller probes own spirituality in yearlong church trek

Mariemont man writing book based on blog, journey

CINCINNATI -- In 2009, Mariemont resident Steve Fuller visited 52 houses of worship in 52 weeks as part of something he called "The Church Experiment."

After each visit, Fuller wrote a blog about the experience that he published here.

Now Fuller, a communications professor at the University of Cincinnati, is editing the blogs and putting them in a book. He's hoping to have it ready in time for a talk he's giving April 22 for Bespoken Live, a storytelling nonprofit.

He's writing a concluding chapter for the book that sort of sums things up. It's called, "Why I'm No Longer a Christian."

As Fuller explains in his blog, he became a Christian at 23 and went at it full-tilt. He started working at the Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati at 26 and left to help start another church before turning 28.

By March 2008, just after his 30th birthday, he had stopped attending church. He'd originally decided to take a short break, but found that life without church was better -- he'd never been happier.

He hadn't stopped believing in God, however, and he felt God nudging him to "see what's out there" -- hence "The Church Experiment."

It was similar to quests writers in other cities have done since, such as "52 Weeks in 52 Faiths" or "52 Churches in 52 Weeks," in which a "Christian man visits new church every week, blogs about Jesus, tries too hard to be funny."

Fuller visited Christian churches of many denominations – Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, independent and Quaker. But he also visited a synagogue, a Buddhist center and even a gathering of atheists.

"I made myself available, observed what happened and wrote about the variety of experiences -- good, bad and ugly," he wrote.

The blog drew a lot of comments, including one that said it was from the pastor of one church Fuller had visited and had written that, "besides meeting a few nice people, there wasn't much to like about this place."

The writer/pastor called Fuller a hypocrite and coward, and added that sneaking into churches and looking for things to criticize publicly is just plain wrong.

But others thought it was great, like Fuller's longtime friend Brad Wise, director of Bespoken Live. He called The Church Experiment "almost like must-see TV, in blogs."

"(Fuller) had the guts to go out and be the curious one," said longtime friend. "(He was) almost like a proxy for the people who had interest and curiosity about what might happen behind the closed doors of these churches."

Some of the churches Fuller visited clearly made him feel uncomfortable, like the Passion and Fire Worship Center, a Pentecostal church where members practiced the showier gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in unknown languages.

Two hours into the service, the pastor prayed for people, then touched their heads, prompting them to fall backwards. Members of the ministry team caught them, laid them on the ground and covered them with a white cloth.

"They stayed there for a really long time," Fuller wrote. In Pentecostal circles, this practice is known as being "slain in the Spirit."

The pastor called Fuller up and began praying for him. Then the pastor screamed and pushed Fuller firmly in the stomach, so startling him that he stumbled backwards. Fuller sat down in a chair for about 10 minutes, then "ran for my life," he wrote.

What Fuller didn't write was that when the pastor prayed for him, Fuller's eyes began fluttering uncontrollably. It was only the second time in his life that he's had a physical reaction when someone prayed over him, and it "weirded me out," he said.

Fuller doesn't think Passion and Fire is still around -- it doesn't appear to have a website anymore. For the book, he checked up on many of the churches he'd visited and found that most of the ones just starting then have closed their doors.

Moments like he experienced at Passion and Fire confuse him, he said, because they make him believe that there are real spiritual experiences. Although he no longer goes to church, he still believes there's something supernatural about his relationship with God.

He misses being part of a church community, but he doesn't go to church for two major reasons:

First, churches seem to focus a lot on money and the need for people to give it. Second, it feels like political conservatism has hijacked Christianity in the United States.

"It's almost like being a Christian and being Republican are synonymous now, and that feels gross," he said.

He no longer calls himself a Christian, he said, because that word doesn't mean anything to him anymore.

"Some of the best people I've ever known are Christians, and do amazing things," he said, "but some of the worst people I've ever met also call themselves Christians. Which of those two accurately represent what is a Christian?"

He likens religion to a pill that brings out the real "you" in those who take it.

"If the real you is a little crazy, then religion makes you a lot crazy," he said. "And if you're a good person, it makes you better."

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