It has come to my attention that over the last few years I have criticized the church quite a bit.
This is a list of positive lessons I learned from the church I grew up in, which was pretty charismatic and pretty evangelical, and no, I don’t really know what those labels mean, I’m just taking a stab at giving some background. I chose thirteen things because the number thirteen sounded nice in the title. I tried to choose things that I could associate with a specific memory. I prioritized things that might counter either (a) what I’ve previously written about churches or (b) what people probably think charismatic evangelical churches are like. The list is not exhaustive. It is rather too long. Also, probably the best teaching of a child by a church would appear in her behaviour rather than her memories. But I hope this redresses the balance.
One. God likes you. A lot.
Aged twelve, I took some friends to an evangelistic event where we heard that if we only remembered three words from the whole talk (well maybe five), it should be these three (or five): God likes you. A lot.
Later on, I started inviting friends to the sorts of evangelistic events at which Christian speakers laboriously debated the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, or informed all those present that hell was a very bad place. Foolishly, I failed to notice what was missing. It was never going to be good enough to summarise the gospel in four points on a dinner receipt, even if the points were more or less the right points, though that would have been something. It was always going to feel like a waste of time to lose public or private debates to the nearest available atheist, and winning them would have been even worse. Because I’d come from a church that taught that God likes you.
Someone wondered, why didn’t the speaker say ‘love’? Isn’t ‘love’ stronger than ‘like’? But even the best, most beautiful descriptions of a generous love poured out for all humanity would still need this extra observation, that by the way, God likes you, specifically you; enjoys your company, finds you interesting, really is pretty chuffed about those things about you that make you different from everyone else. Hovering over your head is a big blue invisible thumbs-up sign.
This impression has never gone away even in the moments when I realised I had zero theology and/or I had just been taken apart in one of those silly debates.
Two. You can’t take your stuff with you to heaven.
This came from a skit about a chap with big suitcases and a hotel up a long flight of stairs, the chap plaintively saying, “But what about my stuff?” … You can’t take it with you.
Ironically, perhaps, the children’s workers presented this anti-materialist, anti-consumerist message at what must have been the most materially complex kids’ event even known or conceived in the history of kids’ church: ‘Breakfast on the Beach’, which involved filling the whole of the front space of a 1,600-seat former cinema auditorium with sand and decorating it to look like the Bahamas. I remember singing on the beach, eating a fruit kebab, wiggling my toes in the cool sand and learning that I couldn’t take my stuff with me to heaven; I also remember seeing the trucks, or was it skips, full of sand when they’d got it all out again afterwards, and am now completely blown away by the kids’ ministry team of the time.
But there was no irony really. I think the point was that we were not supposed to cling to worldly goods, treasure them up for ourselves, or sink our identity in them, but that, this being the case, there was no need to hate them or shrink away from them either, since any ‘stuff’ that came to hand could be given away, joyfully, extravagantly, comically. If you had not, you trusted that everything would be OK; if you had, you threw a party for everyone else.
Whether I now live in this spirit of generosity is doubtful. But the anti-consumerism I idealise, even if I don’t achieve it, is more like Breakfast on the Beach than John Lennon’s well-known imagining. Imagine no possessions: fine, but look, suppose I happen to already be in possession of some fruit and some skewers and an electric guitar or two and relevant PA equipment and several tons of sand. Why not lavish it on the one group of people least able to appreciate what it cost us. Why not do something stupid, and see how many baskets full of leftovers there are at the end.
If I am now horribly sceptical about Christian speakers who own a private jet, or offerings talks that suggest that the more you give the more you’ll receive back, it is because my church taught me that I shouldn’t run after all these things, that the kingdom of heaven is marvellous beyond calculation, and that you can’t take your stuff there with you.
Three. Jesus’ love is very wonderful.
That was the reason, I suppose, which has only just occurred to me, for Breakfast on the Beach: the original breakfast on the beach, the disciples meeting this mysterious person who turned out to be the risen Jesus.
Jesus was always imminent and immanent and smiling behind everything good. You were always discovering Jesus, like discovering hidden treasure. Jesus’ love was always surprising. It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it. You made these shapes of high and low and wide with your body and you knew you could never reach far enough. Oh wonderful love.
Sing the action songs in the children’s meetings (oh wonderful love). Sing with the grown-ups with guitars and drums in the art deco cinema aforementioned, with its curious frieze of naked Greco-Roman warriors round the top of the walls. Sing a whole new set of action songs that came in when you were old enough to help in the children’s meetings instead of attending them. Sing and dance and wave a flag. Sing along to cassette tapes, sing along to a portable CD player like the cool people. Learn four chords on the guitar and sing of his love forever (D, Em, G, A, D, Em, G, A…). Sing for at least half of the Sunday morning meeting, even on an average Sunday when nothing unexpected crops up. Shortly after I first learnt to write, my notebook included a composition called ‘Mettings’ which read, ‘At mettings we sing’. Stop, period, и всё, basta. I am supremely grateful to my church for always worshipping, fervently, joyfully, and not because of routine but because of earnest desire. When I complain about song lyrics or volume or the way a worship time is done, it is in large part because my first church trained me to want to praise him with tambourines and dancing (often literally), and whatever gets in the way of that is endlessly frustrating, even if the problem is essentially just me being pig-headed.
Five. Pray without ceasing.
Here I’m remembering a coloured card prayer diary that I made when I was about nine and failed to successfully use on a regular daily basis. I started daily prayer times later; now, of course, like Emo Philips, I pray a simple prayer every morning, an ecumenical prayer that speaks to the heart of every faith and goes, Lord, please break the laws of the universe for my convenience… just kidding. Most mornings I stare vaguely at my Bible feeling sleepy and uninformed, and I have no idea whether my on-and-off-often-more-off-than-on God-directedness during the day really constitutes a Christian walk.
Laziness and distraction are obviously issues. The point, however, is that my church did not teach prayer as a mechanistic ritual for earning God’s pleasure or assuaging conscience. The church modelled prayer as a basic attitude towards life. Whatever you did yourself, you committed to God and placed under his kingship. Whatever you did for anyone else, you did it, entrusting them to his affection. Prayer was of course something you actively did, loudly and quietly, steadfastly and spontaneously, with more tambourines and more dancing: conscious, deliberate prayer was your first reflex, whether things were going right or wrong. But prayer was also the background to everything, as if you wrote your life on prayer-coloured paper.
Six. Pray in tongues.
I’m grateful to Wikipedia for the information that praying in tongues is also called glossolalia, and that it can be described as “the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which it is believed to be a divine language unknown to the speaker”. In my church praying in tongues happened all the time, sometimes into the microphone with a follow-up interpretation according to the instructions of the apostle Paul, more often as a sort of personal letting-rip, sometimes in one of those beautiful moments when the whole room is singing those grammarless, lexisless, unplanned, uncrafted, untinkered-with, unhesitating sounds. Possibly it ought to put me off, discovering that there is some Scientific Explanation for all this and it’s a kind of psychological or sociological quirk, widespread amongst world religions. But I’ve thought about this and I just don’t care. I really don’t give a [however you choose to round off this clause]: it’s jolly useful to be able to pray in tongues when you want to pray but all your English sounds weird and stilted or just won’t form itself into prayer at all, and one can always say, following the advice of Mike Pilavachi, if this is gobbledygook, let it be gobbledygook for you, Lord. It’s pretty ace gobbledygook and I’m grateful for it even if that’s all it is – much more grateful than I am to Wikipedia.
Seven. Ask for more.
At some point in the nineties, along came the Toronto Blessing with an awful lot of laughing and crying and sitting around soaking up God’s love. This could be everything from brilliant fun to exceedingly annoying: when a visiting speaker gets up to preach, and then starts laughing, and can’t stop, and keeps laughing, and keeps on until half the church is laughing (the other half probably very perplexed and impatient), and still keeps on laughing and then says “More, Lord!” – well, one listening child thought “No! No more! This was quite enough already…”
Having now grown up, and having tried out all extremes of involvement in and detachment from the laughing and crying and falling over, I still think that God is not a God of disorder but a God of peace, that on the whole preachers should get on with preaching something, and that those people should be honoured and appreciated who are never going to laugh or cry or fall over and may be standing around in that kind of meeting feeling very alienated indeed.
At the same time, I don’t wish to shake off the sense of excitement when you think, wait, there is more than this, there is more to God or more to the truth or more to this person or situation than I realised before. It’s a good thing to never stop learning. It is a great thing to get to know the love that surpasses knowledge, whether you do it by sitting on the floor laughing for hours or in some more Britishly conventional way. I do think it’s good to ask for more.
Eight. When making a cheese and tomato sandwich, it’s best to cut the cheese and tomato in thin slices rather than big chunks.
Yes, I am literally thinking of a 9-11s meeting (the subdivisions of our kids’ groups had excellent names in those days) in which two children’s workers each made a cheese and tomato sandwich, and one of them cut everything neatly and made a nice sandwich, and the other cut everything any old how and made a weird sandwich. The moral of the story, if I remember rightly, was something about following instructions. To the casual observer, perhaps, charismatic Christianity might seem to be all about hyped-up emotion, sensationalism and spontaneous impulses. And yet, backstage, charismatic Christian children’s workers were teaching us to be reasonable and rational, to use common sense and to learn from the experience of those wiser than ourselves. Maybe you felt led to make a cheese sandwich, but you made it according to logic and tradition like a well-equipped and skilful sandwich-maker. Also, because you’d done Prophetic Training, you only made the cheese sandwich if on careful consideration it appeared to be Strengthening Encouraging and Comforting, and if it aligned with what you knew already from studying the Bible, and if, obviously, it did not mention Mates Dates or Babies. Reasonableness, you see. (Spoiler: most actual cheese sandwiches pass these tests.)
Nine. Be careful about showing your bra straps.
OK, OK, I put this one in deliberately to shock and annoy people. Well-adjusted liberal-minded folk tend to get twitchy if you describe how once or twice the youth group would be divided into boys’ and girls’ groups to talk about Relationships and related matters, including the vexed question of, um, dressing modestly. It sounds like a double standard, policing girls’ bodies, teaching them to feel shame, squashing young women beneath the ugly heel of the patriarchy. Well… It wasn’t. Sorry. At least, from my personal point of view as a girl in the youth group at the time, there are a couple of glaring reasons why this was not the case.
For one, in our church it was not possible to take a step in any direction without tripping over a fabulous female role model. Women were praying and preaching and prophesying, women were belting into the microphone, magically keeping the church running smoothly as an organization, caring for people wisely, leading, guiding, speaking, running the soup kitchen and the prison ministry, taking off to do development work in distant corners of the globe, using their creativity and intelligence and strength and confidence and even occasionally hosting stereotypical Ladies’ Days with continental breakfasts for those who enjoyed that kind of thing.
For another, the implicit message the charismatic church constantly gives you about your body is that you are to use it. Or rather, you are free to use it, in whatever way you can or find helpful. Raise your arms, stamp and shout, hop around for joy as gracelessly as you choose, lay your hands on people when you pray for them, lower them gently to the ground if they happen to fall over in the process. Dip your feet in paint and walk around on the map of Britain and then someone will wash your feet. Huddle like penguins if anyone needs to be encouraged or empowered, and if you can’t lay hands on the person in the middle, then lay hands on the person laying hands on them. Dance in the worship time, dance on stage, dance at the back where no-one can see except Jesus, dance in the street, dance in your kitchen at home. Speedily reassure anyone who really isn’t into dancing that the whole dancing thing is not mandatory and that worshipfully sitting on a chair is in no way less valid…
So when the youth leader advises you to dress in such a way as not to cause your brother to stumble, the context is your worth, embodied worth, responsibility and dignity as an equal member of Christ’s body who has important things to be getting on with. It was about respect for yourself and kindness towards others, about being free from the pressure of our peers and the fashion industry to look or act in any particular way. It was one fairly trivial side note in a larger message about growing up with a sense of authority and purpose and freedom from any expectations that society in general might be throwing at us along the way.
Ten. I’d far rather be happy than right any day.
Remember when people started saying that the pearly orbs appearing in digital photos of twilit youth services were actually angels? There was some kind of justification about wheels within wheels… wheel shapes, you know… they did look beautiful, those photos. Half of my small readership are now saying gosh, this church was even weirder than we thought. I hasten to clarify that we didn’t think the digital photo blobs were angels for very long…
I’d far rather be happy than right any day. This is (a) a quotation from Douglas Adams and (b) not entirely accurate. I would always get a kick out of being right; less egotistically, it is obviously important to seek and speak out for the truth. So the question is how and where to draw the line between honest, honourable pursuit of truth on the one hand, and, on the other, a smug, narrow, destructive obsession with currently accepted conventions and jargon. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition; everyone expects the theological thought police if the church culture seems to prioritize being ‘sound’ over being who you are. My church, it seems to me, did not do this: a little bit of muddle (look! angels!) was considered pretty much par for the course and something for the pastoral and teaching team to navigate thoughtfully, prioritising people, making sure above all that they knew they were loved. ‘Truth is a person and his name is Jesus’: truth started off with knowing God, each of us and all together, and one could move on to being right about things as a still important but sort of secondary part of the process of being a church.
Eleven. The Father really loves you.
I may have rather implied this already. But we did keep coming back to it. Did you know that he loves you? He loves you. Oh yes he does. Try it with all the different emphases. He LOVES you. HE loves you. He loves YOU. Helovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyou. He loves you yeah yeah yeah. He loves us oh how he loves us. Oh wonderful love.
Twelve. This is the body of Christ, broken for you.
I would pretty soon be out of my depth if I tried to dive into eucharistic theology or whatever it ought to be called. We were a charismatic evangelical former house church, and we simply called it “breaking bread”, and it was quite low-key and I wouldn’t want to suggest that we did it the only right way. But the way you break bread as a child, I’m sure, stays with you. To me, on an emotional level, it seems terribly important that we did not take a ready-divided bit of bread but actually broke it off ourselves, sometimes after the leader of the meeting had, while reading a relevant Scripture passage, torn the whole loaf in two. You see and feel it. You remember that his body was broken. You remember that it was broken for you. And then the cup of wine is a shared cup, the blood of one man that is life for all. I can’t explain it, but I’m sure I knew it on some level as soon as I was old enough to have the bread, which was somewhat before I was old enough to have the wine.
Thirteen. God loves everybody.
Yeah he does.