Three conclusions from 2015, a year of shifting faith

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A photo posted by Hannah Elizabeth Rose Mudge (@boudledidge) on

I'm not particularly proud of quite a few of the blog posts I've written over the years; some of them show me at my absolute worst: enjoying drama, taking mocking things and trying to be clever with it a bit too far, being full-on cynical all day every day. One post I am particularly proud of, however, is the one I wrote about my journey with motherhood, faith and church in May last year. It meant a lot to me to finally be able to write about something that had been plaguing me for so long - and as I was to discover, it meant a lot to other people too - people who could identify with what I was saying. People who, in a couple of cases, had never felt about to vocalise what they were feeling before.

After the post, 2015 continued in much the same way. Pieces about millennials and the church were still being written on probably a weekly basis. The Evangelical Alliance even surveyed UK millennials for a fascinating report, Building tomorrow's church today, which is great, because we hear an awful lot about Christian and post-Christian millennials in the USA, but there are some enormous differences that mean we can't assume too many similarities.

After another few months of reading all the open letters, all the hot takes on why people who have issues with church are just consumer Christians and selfish babies, having all the thoughts, being able to reel off all the buzzwords and stock phrases about my generation and church, and developing a bit of an obsession with pieces about Hillsong churches (and how they square with current popular narrative that young people are leaving flashy megachurches and discovering tradition and liturgy), 2015 ended up being all about coming to some realisations and making some decisions.

1. God is not some disappointed performance manager

I've struggled to work out where it came from, but pretty much ever since I've been a Christian, I've tended to see myself as a bit of a disappointment. I feel as if it's most likely that it started from a place of low self-esteem and perfectionism, and that it was made worse by pressured Christian contexts, anxiety, together with a combination of not having fully taken on board key bits of scripture and, let's be real here, snobbishness about a lot of what I've always seen as saccharine, self-helpy, feelgood rubbish that seems to quite often be delivered as part of cringey women's events that I wouldn't normally touch with a bargepole.

I'm talking about stuff like God's love, acceptance and grace. And also the fact that actually, I'm not a terrible person because I didn't want to get 'on board' at the vision meeting and my anxiety went off the scale every time there was a call for people to serve on more teams and all I could feel was dread when I got an email about 'events you may be planning in your area'.

I have this story that I tell for laughs; it's about the time I listened to a sermon about 'giving yourself a spiritual healthcheck' and we were all encouraged to think about being in a car, and whether we would say that God was in the driver's seat or the passenger seat, or sitting in the back (or tied up and stuffed in the boot, I thought, because that's genuinely how I felt about my relationship with God and church at that time, a couple of years ago). And of course behind many of the stories that we tell for laughs, there's a lot of pain. For me, it was a pain that grew until I couldn't cope with the incessant Sunday morning calls-to-action to join up, get better, commit to improving x and y - so I had to tune them out. I had a coping strategy for the anxiety caused by feeling like an awful person at church. It may not have been a very sophisticated coping strategy (effectively, it involved just not listening), but that's what I was doing.

I was talking to someone about it last autumn and she told me I didn't need to feel guilty. It was hard for her to see how I could beat myself up - a full-time-working, mothering, writing, household-running person. I told her that around the time of the spiritual health check incident, I'd heard a church leader tell people like me - 30-somethings balancing careers and young children - not to get 'complacent' about the Kingdom and about getting involved in church stuff. As an exhausted, recently-returned-to-work, toddler-parenting Christian, I was pretty ready to let him have it over that comment (but I didn't, because I was too cross). However well these comments are meant, they can cause deep hurt. And it still burns, but I know God knows. He sees. And I don't believe He's shaking His head and tutting at what my life looks like now.

2. He also has a sense of humour 

The perfectionist in me doesn't like those words like 'consumer Christian' and 'complacent'. So in 2015, having felt I'd retrieved some of the headspace I'd lost in the baby and toddler years, I set about making sure no-one could accuse me of being either, thank you very much. This involved improving my prayer life (and because I like peace and quiet and nobody being up in my space, that means walks on my lunch break), getting back into reading again, and visiting some different churches. Excitingly, I have even managed to listen to a few sermons online (only a few, mind you - there are only 24 hours in a day). Related to this, because it's not easy to claw back time from my day to do it, I also spent a good few days on Twitter, on and off, having a ranty discussion about full time pastors and academics being snobby about people who don't have the time or enegry to constantly read and learn and expand their minds. I attended my first ever New Wine summer event, my first ever Youthwork Summit, and as always the Gathering of Women Leaders. And I've been talking to people at church about what's been going on.

Most of this has been great, and it's led to some serious moments of realisation that have cleared up stuff I've been agonising over for years. Giftings and callings, for one. I know I've written before about my ever-present anxiety that I have nothing to offer the church. Ask me what I'm good at, as a woman in a seminar at New Wine did, during one of those often-awkward 'discuss with the person next to you' moments, and I've always been able to tell you, but never have I thought these things have anything to do with my place in the church.

Thanks to two identical words at two different times from two different people, one of whom I had never met before and have never seen since, and several weeks of trying to figure out what on earth they meant, now I know that they do. And when I announced this to my husband, he reminded me that he's only been telling me the same thing for the past few years. 2015 has taught me that I am truly terrible at believing anything anyone says about me unless I've had a personal revelation of it - which brings me on to my decade-long suspicion of saccharine, cringeworthy platitudes aimed at Christian women to make them feel good about themselves.

I remain a truly humorless feminist killjoy on this point: if you're telling women they're precious princesses to try to combat structural oppression without critiquing patriarchy...just don't. But last year, I read an old post that Glen Scrivener shared, and by the end I was basically cheering at my desk. Then I had a conversation with Glen that started with me grumbling about my long-held dislike of 'princess' terminology and ended with him saying 'The Prince totally loves us. But He doesn't leave us in the chamber. He calls us to the throne.' By this point, I was basically channeling a little bit of fandom that really shows my age ( "Damn straight, you tell ’em Albus, testify!", snap snap snap etc.). It's ridiculous how you can be blinkered to something for so long. Especially when God further rubs it in via a prayer-ministry based moment several months later.

3. The church could take some tips from the charity sector

You're probably really concerned about what I'm going to suggest at this point, given the picture of charities that the media has been working hard to paint in recent months. Over the last three years, my day job, coupled with my status as a millennial who's suspicious of being sold things and marketed to and just wants, like, authenticity, has left me beyond disillusioned with megachurch culture, the marketing and strategising and branding and careful curation of a presence and, as I would refer to them when at work, the donor journeys. I'm talking about the 'journeys' that, in the church, can put members on a sort of treadmill of predictable topics and lead-ups and build-ups to courses and initiatives with the idea that they will take certain steps.

At this point, feel free to call me hypocritical, because in my working life, this is essentially what I do, day in day out. It's also probably the reason I would quite like a break from it on a Sunday. I'm not alone - in recent months I've read umpteen pieces expressing the same sentiments (they are, after all, a key point in this debate on millennials). Pictured at the top of this post is how Sarah Bessey put it very neatly in the excellent Out of Sorts

Now, I'm not stupid. I know that a lot of this is key to the running of churches and that it's not necessarily a bad thing. Recently it occurred to me, however, that one of the current major concerns fof the third sector needs to be a key consideration for churches too. You can't have the strategy and the marketing and the journeys without focusing just as much on retention, in a way that is authentic and is meaningful and genuinely communicates that you care, that you're appreciative. Openness and honesty are important, because they build trust.

If you can't give a member of your church a straight answer on what the church believes about a particular issue when the member can see from your practice that it's obvious you have a definite opinion, that's not honesty. If being part of the body of Christ is very much about community, what happens when people feel like little more than another resource to be exploited? If you talk the talk on diversity but who gets to 'play' on a Sunday shows you don't walk the walk, how are those whose faces (or bodies) don't fit going to feel?

When care, community, openness, trust, and the idea that members can play a meaningful part in something important are deprioritised, there will be a problem with retention. Call me a lazy consumer if you like but my work and my eperience tells me it can't all go one way for too long without people becoming disillusioned. And this isn't confined to certain types of churches  or denominations (although I do believe size is a major factor). It shouldn't be ignored. I know that churches do think about turnover, but despite sometimes being tackled with the best intentions, it's sometimes misguided.

The end of 2015 saw us make some exciting decisions, and the first months of 2016 will see us exploring our options as a result. Things haven't been easy, but change is coming.

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