Last week I nearly didn’t go to church, I was bored of all the same words spoken. I was frustrated with the expectations and event management. I had had enough of having enough. I got annoyed with the words that people spoke, and found objections to the smallest of things. There was something deeply out of step, and going to church only made that worse.
Tomorrow I will walk through the doors again, partly out of habit, and partly out of a determination not to let my disenchantment beat me, partly because I still believe the church to be a good thing. But also out of pride.
Out of pride that I don’t want to let my guard down, I don’t want people to know that everything is not quite a-okay. Slightly defeated by writing this post.
I feel as though I have an image to protect. That of the sorted Christian. The one who doesn’t have doubts or struggles, the one who knows which verses to quote at which point, who knows the right point in songs to raise their arms in worship. The one who knows just how much sarcasm and cynicism about church culture is acceptable.
This is probably the most vulnerable thing I have ever written, I can write about relationships and keep that at arms length, I can write about being single, even in deeply personal terms and manage that. I can throw a dose of humour into posts about dating, I try and find the seems of compassion when addressing controversial topics. But on this I have no guard, I am deeply exposed.
Zoe Sanderson has written this week that: “God is big enough to handle our questions, but in my experience churches often aren’t”. When we have questions and doubts church should be a place where they can be wrestled with in all their raw, uncertain, honesty. They shouldn’t be made into abstraction, and they shouldn’t be shunned out of fear they may cause others to question or undermine the values and beliefs of the church. When the church is afraid to listen to questions it loses the right to try and answer them.
Shame is different to acknowledging that something is other than the way it should be. I do not think my attitude towards church is a particularly healthy one, and I would prefer it to be otherwise. However, fearing speaking out about those doubts and problems because shame may be the result is a far worse situation. I worry that promoting too perfect a vision for how something should be creates a culture that silences uncertainty. And this can make the church the last place people turn with their doubts.
This week’s been labelled ‘impromptu sex week‘ due to the sheer number of posts around the issue of virginity and purity. Emily Maynard, Leigh Kramer, Preston Yancey and Joy Bennett all got in on the act, and attracted some flak from The Gospel Coalition. And I think the core of the issue is less about sex, virginity and purity than about shame.
It raises the question: how can we talk about something being a good thing without pushing those who might not achieve it into shameful silence?
I am a virgin, and I think that is a good thing. But when an unwavering focus on maintaining a particular good thing unwittingly perpetuates a culture of shame for those who might not be it should force a rethink. Not necessarily about whether abstaining from sex before marriage is a good thing, but what we are communicating when the church teaches that. If in trying to encourage purity we just shovel silence onto puritanical norms and end up causing far more harm, suddenly what might be a good thing becomes a very bad thing.
Joy Bennett added a clarification to her post, and then I think amended that, in it she pointed out that neither abstaining from sex before marriage nor not abstaining is shameful. Originally I think she wrote that both are fine, but I think ‘not shameful’ is better. I think we can and should hold views that some things are not fine, but our actions should never lead to shame.
In Emily Maynard’s post she wrote: “Virginity is just another way that people in power talk about who’s in and who’s out of favor with Church, that we set up winners and losers in a Kingdom supposedly of equals. It’s just another way we try to make God like us more than other people”.
I’ve sometimes wished I had a more exciting past. I wish I was saved out of a life of drugs and rock and roll, gone off the rails at one hundred miles an hour and crashed back down to earth only to find my way into the arms of God. I’ve told my testimony as one of many repetitive narratives, I’ve given into the lie that dramatic is better. In the conversation this week I’ve felt I have little to say, I’ve never nearly lost my virginity, I’ve never felt shamed into keeping my trousers up. I have never felt like a winner in the kingdom because I’ve not had sex, it is just where I am. I have got so many other things wrong that there is no source of pride in this.
Someone who has kept out of bed until their wedding day is not more of a winner in the Kingdom of God, and someone who has never had doubts about church does not claim the prize. This is not, as The Gospel Coalition suggested, rampant individualism, it is acknowledging that we do not get it right, and what that looks like for each of us will be different.
It is about the church being a community of grace that does not pretend everything goes right once you tick the box marked saved. It’s about discipleship that goes deeper than sin management, it is about accountability that is more than confessing to messing up.
It is about me finding the words to say I barely want to go to church. But it is also the assurance that the solution, for me at least, does not lie in running anywhere else.
I may not be proud of my virginity, but I am afraid of the shame of saying that I sometimes don’t want to go to church. I may not be au fait with the purity culture more prevalent in the US, but I have struggled with the pressure of not admitting the questions and doubts that might linger in my heart and mind.