I spend a lot of time on this blog criticising the structures of organised religion. I don’t do this out of malice, out of a belief that religion is wrong or that the people within its communities are ignorant or naïve. I do it because I and many others who question faith or walk away entirely, have discovered the damaging effects of indoctrination and how this can hurt how we interact with people, engage in activities (sex) and/or see the world and its nonreligious citizens. I aim to support those who are experiencing associated struggles, and to educate those who may be unaware of how much this transition can have adverse effects on their friends and family.
But despite the battle with guilt or rejection or loneliness, the church deserves more credit than I have afforded it thus far. Separate from the notion of God and the tenants of faith, there are five things in particular that have been incredibly valuable to my life, things that I have found difficult to find beyond a religious context.
1. Social Support and Joy
Sometimes waking up on a Sunday morning was a slog. Sometimes opening up your doors and hosting 10 people on a Tuesday night didn’t feel worth it, especially after you dropped the cake batter all over the floor for a second time. Sometimes sacrificing your Friday night to look after 30 high school kids was nowhere near as fun as the house party down the road. But the point was, you did it anyway. You did it for God's kingdom and it paid off in community.
When you dragged your body into church on a day you really didn't want to be there, you were greeted with smiles and a genuine desire to know how you're doing. When you skipped into church on the good days, when you ran through the aisles hugging the people you grew up with, sung next to, collected stickers in Children's Church with, oh boy, it's what a full heart feels like.
When you were sick, you had messages from people telling you they were praying for you. Regardless of whether you believed prayer to be effective, the fact that someone was taking time out of their day to sit in silence and talk to God about you and your health was really nice. Sometimes people would drop around food or deliver flowers. Sometimes members of the congregation would leave gift vouchers for restaurants in your letterbox so you could treat yourself to a meal. They wouldn't sign it with a name.
I remember a church community I was lovingly accepted into hosted a car boot sale for a new church member who needed money for medical bills. Most of us didn't know her, but we stayed up sorting donations until the early hours of the morning, only to sleep a few before jumping in the car and heading to the flower markets to stock a pop-up florist in the church carpark. We raised thousands.
Many Christians I know have social calendars full to the brim: wedding this weekend and next, church picnic, church weekend away, bible study dinner. When you leave the church all of this disappears. I haven’t been invited to a wedding since. I have more empty Friday nights than I have busy ones. My Sundays are now days of rest and relaxation (and often boredom) rather than ones full of post-church activities. The more I have drifted from the Christian God, the more I have drifted from my Christian friends. I now need to find my people elsewhere. But where and how does one establish such a rich community? Why is it so much harder as you get older?
2. A Weekly Reminder To Be Better
Every Sunday evening from the stage I would be reminded to love my neighbour, to give to the poor and to forgive others who had hurt me. Regardless of how bound this was to religious anecdotes, the messages were, in my opinion, morally sound. I left on a Sunday night committed to being a better person. I left committed to buying the homeless man that I walked past every day lunch and some of my favourite snacks. I left driven to be kinder to my sister, more respectful to my parents, less bitchy with my friends. Jesus's teachings were the common denominator in all of my decision-making and if you know the Bible and know Jesus's teachings, you'll know that this is a pretty harmless (and in fact, a very beautiful) way to live your life.
3. Less Fear
I have less fear to talk to strangers about existence and what it means to be a good person. I have less fear of persecution (Matthew 5:10), for it is inevitable in the life of a Christian. I have less fear to give. In church, I had less fear of death (now I'm fucking terrified tbh).
4. Self-Awareness and the Tools to Think Bigger
The thing with prayer, and particularly prayer that's longer than a dinnertime grace or a bedtime 'thanks for the fab day', is that is forces you to reflect on your own actions. This self-reflection permeates in your life- throughout your decision making, relationship breakdowns and workplace conflicts. My journal entries used to be written to God, but now I don't write them to anyone. The practise remains. Of course this is not limited to religion in any way, but it was church that introduced me to this healing mechanism and it was this healing mechanism that kept me from the clutches of the black dog (or was it God and prayer? Who knows).
5. Cross-Generational Friendships
To sit on a pew with an older lady and drink tea and talk about relationship struggles and career crises and to talk to young children about how they think the world came into existence, or how they think you should treat people is incredibly humbling. How many of us have friends outside our own generation that are not related to us? How many of us have friends we can call up and invite over to dinner to sit and talk with, while their kids run out back or study in the lounge room or play in the pool? We can learn a lot from children, and we often forget how much we can learn from our elders (we're too busy calling them 'cute' when they hold their husband's hand). Church introduced me to a rich variety of people, and the weekly gatherings cemented valuable friendships that challenged me and brought me joy.
It can be incredibly difficult for people to leave a religious family because to do so does not simply mean abandoning a narrative, but to abandon the beauty of the community. One of the public comments on one of my previous blog posts articulates the reality of this well. This gentleman doesn't believe the tenants of Christianity, and hasn't for a year now, but continues to serve and attend his Anglican church:
"I personally see the day coming where I will have to come clean about where I'm at, but for now the known knowns of sitting in church week after week, hearing sermons on things that I don't believe and praying prayers to a God I don't believe in, are preferable to the unknown known of what would happen to my life, my security blanket of friends and family, etc, if I came clean. Most days I feel I'm the only one, but my rational brain says that's unlikely, that there must be some people who feel exactly the same way and pull off the same pretence week after week with nobody none the wiser."
Christians, doesn't this scare you? I know you want to hold onto everyone for all they're worth, but don't you think we could love each other a bit deeper? Reverse depth in a way.
You love them and their spiritual soul, but do you love them as a human being too?
Churches are places full of people with kind hearts and good intentions. Many people who have been burnt by the church have been burnt by the inherent nature of man: to fuck up sometimes. I regularly think of the various church families I have been a part of, and I long for them. But I long for them for the support and the warmth they gave me, and I need to separate that desire from the core of what that community is: a belief system. A belief system that I no longer necessarily believe in or agree with. I am so thankful for the church, and I'm so thankful for its stitches in my fabric. I don't know if I'll ever find a community as big and warm again, but I take comfort knowing that the more I project who I am and what I believe truthfully, the more people I will attract that will bring me warmth, a warmth that I hope to give them in return.