Why I came back: factors in church membership

This is the third in a series of posts examining my own experiences of leaving church and later returning to Christian faith and practice as a sort of case study, to see what can be learned about why people leave churches and why they come back. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but some of it is triggered by recent comments about church growth. The previous post is about what kept me away from church, and the whole series is tagged “evangelism: good and bad practice“.

In my late teens I left church and Christianity, looking for something better, something more. In the decade that followed I continued to be, at best, annoyed by Christianity. So how come I’m back? Why did I join the C of E?

It’s worth a few words on why I abandoned my plan of conversion to Judaism. This is complex and personal, but there are a number of factors:
-At college, there was no real Jewish community. It was hard to keep kosher, keep Shabbat and so on in the isolation of that situation.
-As I grew to understand different expressions of Judaism my dissatisfaction with Christianity was extended to a general disillusionment with organised religion. Specifically, the tradition of strong discourse in Judaism did not prevent some of the problems I had with Christianity.
-Conversion to orthodox Judaism is very hard work, and I had a growing sense that this was not something God required of me (it certainly isn’t something the Jewish community required).
-My physical and mental health were not great and Jewish practice became just one more category on an overwhelming and interminable to-do list.
-My relationship with my ex-boyfriend was painful, and eventually ended.

I did visit a Unitarian church for a while, mostly on weeknights as I was teaching on Sunday mornings and most Sunday afternoons too, but it became clear to me that despite my initial enthusiasm, this was not really the right place for me either. I loved the openness, inclusivity, and acceptance, but I yearned for — well, for more theism than was comfortable for some of my fellow attenders.

So why Christianity? Why not try something else?

Positive Relationships
If I had to choose one main factor in my decision to give Christianity another chance, it would have to be Catherine. When we met, she was the head of Student Services at Trinity; I was a student, with various problems. This isn’t the place to go into detail, but her attitude toward me and toward other students under her wing was one of unconditional kindness and care. She made no attempt to evangelise. In any case it would have been inappropriate and unprofessional, in her position, for her to do anything other than refer students to the college chaplain if they had questions of a religious nature. To be honest, the crucifix she wore put me off, at first. But as I came to accept and appreciate her help, I also became aware that it was impossible to separate her care for students from her relationship with God — despite her silence on the matter. Perhaps that is why when I found out she was going to be ordained my first response was “congratulations”; certainly that is why I attended her ordination. By then, there was a friendship developing beyond the academic support structure that had been the reason for our meeting years before. This is far from being the only positive relationship in my journey but it was — and is — significant and formative.

Not every relationship I had with Christians was positive — the church still includes people who are hurting and hurtful. And not all positive and supportive relationships I had were with Anglicans or even Christians: during my fourth year at Trinity, conversations with an agnostic pagan Jew were also a context where I learned more about Christianity and about my own beliefs. But if I had not had these positive relationships I doubt very much that I would have explored Christian faith further.

Change in how I understood religious groups
My disillusionment with organised religion was partly a recognition of how diverse it is. That diversity means all denominations or religions have some dangerous people in them, people I didn’t want to support and was keen to avoid… but I came to realise it also meant I could not judge any group on the basis of its most vocal, exclusive members. In fact, there are as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians.

Change in how I understood belief and practice
Having struggled with the Trinity, it seemed like a big stumbling block. But I wanted to sing in a choir, and evetually joined London Gallery Quire on the grounds that I wouldn’t find too much to disagree with in the psalms. Of course, metrical psalmody of that period is often followed by a metrical doxology, so I was in for a surprise! Oh dear. But what I found was that when I sing a doxology I know it is true on the same level which, the rest of the time, I know God exists. This was a challenge. Eventually I decided it was more important to engage with the part of me that could relate to this than to placate the part of me that wanted to understand on a purely intellectual level. In other words, if I only understand the Trinity when I sing, the solution is to sing more.

That shift in understanding led to more willingness to experiment. I knew I needed to pray but had previously been uncomfortable with prayers I couldn’t understand or fully support. I tried praying Common Worship Morning Prayer and found that giving myself permission to skim or skip the hard bits and let God sort it out was immensely freeing.

I was raised in a vaguely Christian context, and certainly in a situation where the background assumption was that faith meant Christian faith. As I explored Christian faith and practice a second time, there was much that was new to me: but it was set in a context with some familiarity. I knew from my attempts at learning Hebrew and understanding Judaism that starting again with a completely different faith was likely to be a lot of work and that being in a culturally minority faith can be isolating. And I started to become less convinced that any faith had a perfect idea of God, and more convinced that God’s ways are higher than ours, that our understanding of God is incomplete, that we see through a glass, darkly. A metaphor I use to illustrate this is the idea of sitting on a beach, looking through different pieces of glass at the Divine. But any one piece of glass might be weathered, scratched and dim; it might be cracked from breaking on the rocks, giving us an inconsistent image; it might be misshapen, giving us a distortion; it might be broken, with sharp edges that cut us and make us bleed. The longer we use a piece of glass, the more skilled we are at using it: we will be able to make out more of what is on the other side. I decided to stop casting around for more bits of glass and learn to use one quite close to what I had grown up with.

Support for discussion and practice
I mentioned relationships earlier in this post; some of the best ones were either largely or entirely online. In the absence of being able to actually go to church on Sunday mornings (I was teaching, remember?), being able to join in (or simply lurk quietly) in the Christian blogosphere was important and encouraging. I also made use of the C of E’s online material for prayer: notably, I was reading Common Worship Morning Prayer on a WAP brower on my phone on the bus as far back as late 2008. I’d never have managed it if I had to buy a book first and then carry that around. (How did I find it? I think it was through Kathryn Fleming’s blog, but I could be wrong.) Once I was more enthusiastic, books were important too: not the ones about how to convert people, or the ones aimed at converting people, but things like Jane Redmont’s “When in Doubt, Sing” which affirmed my experiences with prayer, and the works of Thomas Merton. Guareschi’s “Don Camillo” books were a source of joy while subtly pointing out that communism is no substitute for faith; Rowan Williams’ “Tokens of Trust” was a short but meaningful read. My bookshelves and my online life remain eclectic.

Good welcome when I did go to church
Finally able to attend as myself, not as “the minister’s daughter”, I found that some churches were welcoming. St Mary’s Addington is worth a mention here, for not only letting me sing in the choir when I could get there for Evensong (I wasn’t pushed into this: it took me about six services to work up the nerve to ask), but trusting me to write a piece of music for Catherine’s first Eucharist, and inviting me to participate further by reading from time to time. Additionally, seeing women in positions of church leadership and celebrating the sacraments, and experiencing their pastoral care, made me feel accepted and included in a way I had not experienced during childhood and didn’t even know I needed. But so did the friend who invited me along to his church before Catherine’s ordination so that I could get an idea, after so long away and in a different country, what it would be like; so did the church in North London I occasionally stopped at for Evensong; and eventually, so did St Andrew’s Leytonstone.

I’m not sure there is a sure-fire conversion formula to be drawn from my experiences. I am pretty sure there is not a one-size-fits-all step-by-step programme to try and get people to come to church. Writing this has highlighted that for every external inspiration and support I found, there were internal things going on too, old prejudices being let go and left behind, old wounds being exposed and healing. But similarly, it is clear that the external factors were necessary, at least in my case. What the external factors seem to have in common is genuine care coupled with respect for who I am and where I am, regardless of membership status and certainly not motivated by a desire to increase membership. It seems to me that if we as a church were to extend that care and respect to all, we would surely make disciples, regardless of whether our bums-on-seats membership might increase. It might not be easy, but it worked on me, and I was a hard case.

Discipleship doesn’t stop at going on the electoral roll, joining the PCC, becoming an organist, standing for Deanery Synod, getting confirmed, or any number of other external markers. My Christian development isn’t over and I need help and support as much now as I did a year ago, or two, or five: but what that might entail, for me or for other Christians, is for another post.