As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.
Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.
When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.
I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.
I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself.
When others were weirded out during the prayer ministry time, I was unfazed.
Ten years ago I remember chat boards discussing this or that issue, some theological debate, whether a certain band was better than another. I would spend many an hour formulating the killer argument. I remember writing a long paper on whether God heard the prayers of non-Christians. (The answer is yes. I’ve got better at being succinct. But not that much better cf. this post.)
I thought that because I recognised the bubble which existed, I thought that because I would critique it, and at times subject it to ridicule, I was better than it. I thought that I wasn’t captured by the tyranny of culture that makes faith a thing to be practised, perfected and performed, I was immune to it.
Faith meant something to me, it wasn’t just a culture that I was absorbed into, it was something more. Knowing God made a difference: it helped when I was lonely, when I’d stand at the back of the hall and no one would speak to me. It helped when I was in a crowd and acting cool, but not too cool, because that would be uncool. It helped when things went wrong, when the thing I had set my heart on crashed before my feet. I kept walking through the rubble knowing I was not alone.
My belief in God, and that he loves me, mattered when I messed up, when I disappointed, when I did not do the things I should and did others I shouldn’t.
I spent too many years hanging off the coattails of the vanguard of Christian culture. The people I was with were ahead of the trend, and I thought, by association, that was enough. Being innovative, creative, different, was important. Rejecting conformity, orthodoxy, ritual, was a badge of honour. If people weren’t objecting to what you were doing, it wasn’t radical enough.
When handing out chocolate selection boxes to the neighbours at Christmas is radical action, provoking ire and critique, something somewhere has gone wrong.
Many of my fellow travellers on that road those years ago are now on different paths. Some who walked this way in recent times do not any more. For some it was decisive, deliberate, definitive. It was giving up on a childlike ways, it was parting company with a life they were opting not to lead. It was the decision to leave God behind. But for many others the path is less certain, less clear cut, and cloaked with frustration, doubt and hurt, emotions they felt were not accommodated.
Not accommodated in a church where having it together was only optional if you were cool enough not to care (and your trousers were baggy enough and slung low enough around your thighs). Even then, being cool enough not to care about being cool was a carefully manufactured image.
Church was a place for worship, and for belief. It was a place for reaching to God, calling down his presence, sending out his disciples, going to the ends of the earth to comfort the wounded.
But often the wounded were sat next to you.
Often the wounded did not know what it was to know with the certainty they were told to know. Did not believe as earnestly as they hoped they did believe. Jessica Misener recalls her youth: “My desire at that moment was for Jesus, or as 30-year-old me wants to declare in hindsight, what I earnestly believed was Jesus.”
Others were hurt by decisions the church took, or what leaders they looked up to did when people weren’t looking.
Mike Pilavachi, leader of the Soul Survivor youth festivals and church, has commented on the different tenor to the conferences aimed at teens and Momentum, which is for students, 20s and 30s. For the younger attenders it is hopeful and optimistic: it is about changing the world for Jesus. For those a little older the dreams have sometimes been dashed, sometimes the hopes have faded, and the world has not changed how they expected, and maybe Jesus seems a little further away – seeing through a glass darkly resonates more than doing all thing through Christ who strengthens me.
I never gave up on faith, but there were many days, long periods, when I was stuck on autopilot. I was doing the things I needed to do, attending the meetings, reading the books, listening to the music, understanding the concepts I needed to grasp. But sometimes one was missing. Sometimes I wasn’t sure that I was sure enough that I believed.
Sometimes I wonder what it is I have spent the twenty years, since I went to the front at a meeting aged ten, doing. Sometimes I wonder who it is I’m praying to. I wonder if I am actually going mad and talking to myself.
But I never gave up, and instead I have learnt to let go. I learnt to stop performing, stop worrying, and know that peace is more important than knowledge. I needed to know that last week. This is not a past story of my teenage years, it is a daily walk.
It’s the paradox of childlike faith. Doubt isn’t the enemy, it is what makes belief matter. Children know with certainty but never stop questioning: everything is definite and nothing is sacrosanct. It is my hope that I know with certainty that I am loved, but I never stop asking.
Many who don’t currently go to church never decided that was it, they were not betrayed or hurt. Going to church just stopped happening. For some they still believe, they can still be still and know that God is here. For others God seems distant and a relationship with Jesus part of the clichéd Christian culture they are embarrassed to have embraced with such abandon.
My story is not one of rebellion, it is not one of rejecting God, it is not one of walking away. I was the one who stayed and kept up appearances. For me that mattered, for me hanging on when I felt god was not hanging on to me was important. But it also grew me a hard shell, it grew a heart that was harder on the outside, and a vulnerability on the inside I dared not expose.
It taught me that being seen as with it, together, sorted, grown up, mature, responsible, was what mattered. It made me hide shame with secrecy, and fear of failure with planning and perfection.
I wish that if I or anyone else could answer, beyond doubt, criticism or rejection whether the Bible is inerrant, infallible or trustworthy for faith and conduct and what that means, it would solve the problem many have with the Christian faith. But I don’t think it would. There are men and women who defend the faith with deftness and dignity, winsome writers who tell of the divine. And I wonder if it misses the point. The answers we give aren’t always the answers many are looking for.
There are people I know who left church behind, others for whom God is not what he once was. But in equal measure there are friends who find this road once more. Who perhaps stumble a time or two. Who perhaps wonder whether this is the place they can call home. Who nurse the wounds caused by hurt and betrayal. Who do not always believe with the fervour they feel their faith should elicit.
And one thing Jessica’s deeply moving piece portrays is that communities of belief are important, the place where we worship and the people we join with, makes a difference. It is why in the nineteenth century atheists set up secular societies, it is why in the twenty-first the Sunday Assembly copied church services but dispensed with the faith bit. Jessica says: “Losing Jesus, someone I talked to both hunched over in prayer groups and in the darkness of my bedroom, felt like losing a friend, even if he was an imaginary one all along.” She goes on: “With a divine outlet compelling me to focus on something besides self-preservation, I felt free from the prison of ego.”
Commenting on someone else’s beliefs, even when published on Buzzfeed, is a vulturistic past time. Stopping blogging for even a few months last autumn taught me a little about disengaging, leaving aside the controversy of the day, the outrageous statement, the fact that someone somewhere on the internet was wrong. I let it go.
So I’ll leave it at this: I believe that faith in Jesus frees me from the prison of ego, and I believe that enough to let it matter. That prison was broken down, not by the force of certainty, but the cracks that let the light in.