Chapter One - My first church
When I was nine, I sang in a children's choir. The conductor was a Christian lady, and we would all pray together at the end of rehearsal. We sang songs about God's love and grace and about our best friend Jesus.
When I was ten, Mormons would come visit our house. I made friends with them because I thought they were nice and they taught me about Jesus and a man named Joseph Smith.
When I was twelve, a religious group came to my school and gave us all bibles. Most of the students had fun with these, tearing them apart, setting them on fire. But my bible was precious to me, and that night, I read the prayer in the back and invited Jesus into my heart.
At thirteen, I decided it was time for me to find a church. I went with my friend Angela to her church, my friend Emma to her church and my neighbour, Renae to her church. I liked them, but I didn't join them. Then I went with Aimee to her sister's new church.
It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. People were so happy. The music was fun and inviting. I was special. I was loved. I was hooked.
I went back with Aimee that night. We joined the youth group, the kids church, the music team. I left all my other extra curricular activities so I could devote my free time to the church. I was baptised, I began speaking in tongues, and hosting prayer meetings at school in my lunch hour.
The novelty never wore off for me, I loved my church until the day I left it, just over ten years later. But I left a very different girl with a very different relationship with God.
my baptism, 1998
singing on stage at a conference in Sydney, 2005 (second from the right)
one month before I left church, 2008
I moved to Melbourne in 2009 with a broken heart and a new hope. Hope, that God and I would find our way back together. I had lots of friends I could talk to about my journey, friends from all walks of life with God - friends who'd grown up in church, friends who'd found Him later in life, friends who were still looking but weren't prepared to give up. But I wasn't going to go to church. Not until I'd figured out what was right, in my heart.
Skip forward four years, and I guess I was pretty cynical. Christians were constantly in the media, spreading messages of hate and judgement. My life meanwhile had found a new purpose, a new meaning that didn't involve me qualifying anybody else's choices, questioning anybody else's faith, or protesting against an individuals rights to choose.
But cynicism aside, something made me want to go back. There was something about church I'd missed. Was it God? Was it worship? Was it the community? Communion? Maybe it was having a sense of being a part of something greater than myself. Instead of raging against my instincts, I gave in, and found an excuse to go back to church. That excuse was Sunday Service. The premise of Sunday Service had nothing to do with me, and everything to do about judging the Christian faith.
But try as I might to fight it, going to Sunday church became all about me and God. It became a documentation of me searching for my faith again. And more than anything, it became evidence that I wasn't going to find what I was really looking for.
Chapter Two - City on a Hill Melbourne
About a month ago I received an email from Sarah*. Sarah was introduced to my blog through a friend of hers and had contacted me to let me know that she related to what I was going through. Sarah told me about a church she'd been going to lately and asked if I'd like to go along. Something about Sarah made me want to meet her, so after a few failed hook up attempts, we finally met on Sunday night, just before the 6pm service.
There was something about Sarah that made me trust her completely. I started sharing with her all my hopes and fears. Unfortunately, I had mostly fears to share. I told Sarah that after nearly 6 months of reaching out to God, I felt the furthest from him I'd ever been in my life. I felt like a non-believer.
Sarah had always been in church, but she could understand where I was coming from. She said she too had doubts, but she'd chosen to believe.
I thought about what it would take for me now to choose to believe in God. I thought about what I would have to give up if I was to return to the church properly, to return to my life pre-2008.
There's no way I could do what Sarah has done. And I admire her so much for it.
City on a Hill meets at the Melbourne Central Hoyts cinemas, which I loved. The seats were so comfy, the room smelled like popcorn. Sarah said the downside was that during worship she could really only hear herself and not the voices around her which was true. Lucky for me, Sarah had a beautiful singing voice. And although I really loved the idea of multi-purposing a cinema space, it did make it hard to not feel far from everyone else in the room.
We'd spend too much time downstairs in the food court chatting and missed the very beginning of the service so they were in the middle of announcements when we walked in. There was a very relaxed vibe, it didn't seem to matter we were late, lots of people were still streaming in. I couldn't believe how nice it felt to walk into church with someone and not alone. I could see the welcome team as we approached, but I didn't need them. It was so much better having a friend.
The young man doing the pre-service announcements started talking about his pet hate, people trading in their eternities for this life on earth, which as you know from my last blog, is my pet hate, except the exact opposite. It was almost comical, but I didn't feel like laughing - I felt like leaving. I honestly think if it wasn't for Sarah I would have just bailed.
The music was next, and I didn't know any of the songs. I assumed they were written in house. The singer was apparently "on audition" for the Music Director role in the church and I thought he was very good and not at all "performancey" like some others I'd seen, especially if he was on trial. They took advantage of the massive screen and had highly visual lyrics and why not? In fact, they continued to make the most of the screen throughout the service.
It's funny, because if this was a purpose built space, I would have hated it, but because they were just working with the space they had, I thought it was wonderful.
Pastor Guy was speaking today, from his favourite scripture, 1 Peter 3:18. He opened by talking about his background in PR, how it was his job to keep companies on message. He linked to Christianity's job to keep to their message - which is Christ, and the message of the gospel.
Pastor Guy then did something pretty extraordinary. He started talking about what happened to Jesus on the cross. I don't mean in a "he died for our sins" way, but rather a graphic, "Passion of the Christ" retelling of events. He spoke about Jesus being beaten with sticks that had hooks on the end to tear out his ribs, the nails hammered through his hands... he went on for quite a while. I'd been a bit distracted taking in the space when he started this, but he quickly had my, and everyones attention. The room was frozen.
Its a gutsy thing to do, and I'm not sure he pulled it off. It was the second time I'd wanted to leave his church that service, and it wasn't the last. Do I think churches should talk about the crucifixion? Absolutely I do, its a cornerstone of their faith. But not in a family service. And not when you have guests.
Towards the end of his "message" (I use this device because I never figured out exactly what his message was) he said "You can't be a Christian if you don't love Christ".
Again, I believe the point he was making was entirely correct. And that's why I haven't called myself a Christian for years. But at this point in the service I wrote myself this note - It's time for me to walk away. I didn't mean from the service, I meant from Christian churches.
No, I don't call myself a Christian, for many reasons that I won't go in to, but I do continuously attend Christian churches. And this pastor had just made me feel like I wasn't welcome to do that. I spoke to some of the congregants after the service who said how devastated Guy would be to think I'd interpreted him that way, but it wasn't even his words, or the way he said them. It was the truth behind them.
Why is a non-Christian hanging around Christian churches? Why am I standing through praise and worship? Why am I saying "Amen" and the end of their prayers? I don't share their faith.
Pastor Guy also quoted Christopher Hitchens from this interview, defining who has the right to call themselves a Christian. Guy spoke about Christians who dream of a heaven with golden paths, never ending ice cream, mansions and all the time in the world to learn the piano, Christians who remove God from Heaven all together. I really liked Pastor Guy's no nonsense attitude towards his church. He told it like it was. Unfortunately for me, it was the final nail in the coffin for my Christianity.
After the service I spoke to Sarah and her friend, Pam, about how I felt I'd just been punched in the guts, just been showed the door. I told them about my desire to be a part of something, to believe in something, but that I had no faith left at all. Pam told me the story of her friend who, after ten years of marriage and being involved in the church, he'd recently admitted to his wife, and himself, that he didn't believe in God. It was tearing their family apart, but he couldn't keep pretending to believe in something he didn't.
And I guess what City on a Hill gave me permission to finally do, is admit I don't have faith anymore. Admit I'll never find the church I'm looking for, because faith is mandatory. Faith is what takes a room of people and makes them a church.
*not her real name, obviously.
Chapter Three - It's not over
When I left church in 2008, my pastor warned me "If you leave the church, you'll lose God". I remember replying, "I'd like to believe we wouldn't let that happen". God and I had been in relationship for ten years. We'd make it work.
It took a month for me to stop being a Christian.
It's taken five years for me to admit it, but I'm probably an atheist.
Here's what I've learned so far on this journey:
- Yes, there are people out there living like Jesus did. And they are amazing and not like the assholes on Q&A speaking on their behalf.
- Trust your heart. Trust yourself. Because that's the only thing you'll ever know for sure.
- Keep an open heart, an open mind and always hope for a miracle. I know I still am.
And I say its not over, because I'm not prepared for it to be. I figure I've got at least fifty more years for God to make an appearance and prove me wrong. And I'd so love to be wrong on this.