my personal journey through evangelical christianity
Image by: Elad Bari
Before you Read...
• This isn’t an attack on any friends, family, Christian communities or any other religious group.
• I’ve tried to use language that reflects the language I was using at the time – i.e God, He etc
• It’s a LOOONG one
Childhood and Sunday school
I grew up in a ‘Christian’ household, a label that in my family informed every aspect of our lives: social groups, career ambitions, even the music we listened to (if you’ve never listened to Jesus heavy metal you’re seriously missing out).
I was immersed in Evangelical Christian culture from birth and throughout my formative years – it informed my worldview, my moral compass, the way I viewed myself, my future ambitions, my purpose and meaning.
I owe an enormous amount of my character to my Christian upbringing.
Some of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories are of church:
My first experience of live music
My first friends
My earliest sense of community and belonging
Some people live out their entire lives within that same church community –
Puberty, education, career, marraige, kids within the same group of people.
So it was pretty disorientating after 25 years to suddenly find myself on the outside of a community where so much of my identity had been shaped.
The Christian tradition was handed to me in different ways growing up, but it never felt particularly ‘extreme’, apart from the odd moment here and there – being forced to throw out all of my Pokémon cards or not being allowed to watch Harry Potter because of it’s ‘demonic’ themes.
From about ages 4 to 11 Sunday school was about games, cartoons and PVA glue.
We were taught all the famous bible stories – Creation, Noah and the Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Jesus rising from the dead etc – with no real deep understanding or discussion, and as an impressionable child I just accepted them as they were handed to me.
When we were old enough we moved onto the more delicate topics –
Sin – Hell – Sex
I spent a lot of my teenage years defending Christianity against accusations of fear mongering and being an archaic system of do’s and don’ts that wasn’t relevant anymore.
I’d often say to people:
"I don’t have to live a certain way, I choose to live a certain way” because
“God loves me and wants the best for me”
“I love God and so I live my life for him”
and NOT because
“I have to live this way or I’m going to hell”
But I now realize my inner monologue was closer to:
"If I don’t live a certain way then
I must not love God (because if I did love him I’d be living that way)
And if I don’t love God then
I must not know God (because if I did know him I couldn’t help but love him)
And if I don’t know God then
I’m going to HELL."
If you’ve any serious experience with Christian culture you may know the sort of inner tension I’m talking about.
At this point my only moral compass or sense of purpose was that of the Christendom, and I wasn’t taught to look anywhere else.
Outsiders of the faith were seen as distractions or even dangerous – there was nothing of value to be learned from them. Community within the faith was always encouraged over relationships outside of it. Too much exposure to outsiders could start influencing you away from God.
This led to a very dualistic worldview of
Us and Them.
Right and Wrong.
I was never taught to embrace life’s wonderfully diverse cultures, ideas and opinions.
I wasn’t given free reign to explore and absorb the world at my own pace or form my own ideas about reality.
And most dangerously, I was taught that Christianity was the absolute truth, and that anything that contradicted that was inherently untrue. There was no grey area.
This was reinforced by a fear of hell, because being ‘saved’ was all based around faith and belief in Jesus as the one true God. Any doubts or contradictions could send you on a path of disbelief and ultimately to eternity in hell.
Exploring other worldviews or lifestyles simply wasn’t worth the risk. It wasn’t even worth thinking about.
This led to a pretty sheltered high school experience in many ways.
I had a lack of genuine relationship, because that required being vulnerable and I wasn’t encouraged to do that with people outside of the faith.
I felt like I couldn’t open up to anyone about anything substantial because every aspect of my life revolved around the Christian tradition and my role within it. I was convinced people wouldn’t understand and I wasn’t taught to value their advice anyway.
As a teenager I felt an overwhelming amount of pressure to live a certain way, and at times that way felt so boxed and narrow that it was carving away my personality. I watched many friends ignore their passions and give up on their dreams to fit this cultural mold.
I loved art and music and found it difficult to express those passions freely without compromising the Christian mold I’d been handed.
I just wanted to be myself, but I didn’t feel like I could truly do that in the Christian camp or the secular world.
Life trying to belong somewhere was a constant battle, and because of all the military language being abused in Christian culture, that mentality was hard to shake.
The bible is steeped in some pretty horrific and violent military language and when it’s read through a narrow lens all it does is reinforce the warfare mentality of tribalism – US and THEM.
I felt at war with the world and its sinful agenda,
and at war with my own sinful aspirations and desires that would ultimately pull me away from God.
Constantly analyzing every person and situation as if I could be manipulated by ‘the devil’ at any moment.
This made me pretty judgmental, guarded and hypercritical even towards people within the faith community (but that was part of the culture).
Twenties and London
At 21 I had a significant experience.
I’d recently moved out of my parent’s small town house to the big city of London.
I didn’t go to university so this was an independence I’d never experienced before and I was eager and willing to experience new things and new people.
I’d been on the lookout for a local Christian community to get involved in for a few months and having tried all the big evangelical mega churches (thousands of members) and never having felt at home, I decided to try a smaller church that I’d heard about through a friend’s neighbour.
I expected it to be like any other church I’d been to before, similar teachings, similar songs and people. I saw myself as a veteran in Christian culture and that I’d be accepted and validated instantly… but that wasn’t the case.
The whole service was orchestrated differently:
There was no live music, no singing, no charismatic preacher, no big screen or flashing lights.
The preacher used language I was familiar with but he’d arrive at conclusions I’d never heard before which was jarring.
The whole experience was uncomfortable and disorientating.
I couldn’t understand how people who called themselves ‘Christians’ could function so differently to the ones I knew.
I was approached by lots of people after the service (which was unusually short) who all seemed very intrigued by me and why I was there.
I used all the usual Christian jargon assuming they’d soon recognize me as one of their own, but they didn’t seem to give me any such validation.
I kept attending each week as there were a lot of people my age that seemed nice enough and I thought I’d have a better chance at building a community in a smaller setting.
Eventually I was invited to a mid-week bible study by one of the young leaders.
I went along, as I was eager to get to know the community better and keen to study the bible.
In my experience, these things were usually 5-10 people openly examining and discussing a passage or story in the bible over pizza or something in someone’s living room.
But when I arrived, it was just the young leader and another young guy in a coffee shop.
Instead of discussing a bible passage together the young leader asked me a ton of questions, mainly about my baptism and my beliefs about baptism.
Baptism wasn’t something I’d ever given a lot of thought, in my head it was just one of the things you did when you felt like you were ready, a sort of public declaration that you were serious about being a Christian.
These guys however believed that baptism was the most instrumental component of salvation (not going to Hell), and that if I hadn’t been baptized legitimately (which in this case meant ‘in their church’) then I wasn’t a true Christian and I was destined for Hell.
He quoted bible verses and literature to support this claim, and recommended I be baptized in their church ASAP!
I consider this a significant moment for me because I’d never felt on the outside of my faith community before. I’d never been told by somebody I trusted that I’d got it all wrong!
That what I had known to be true for so long was false.
He was extremely convincing and I didn’t have any kind of response.
I felt numb and empty.
This was the start of a realization for me, and part of why I actively distance myself from fundamentalism today.
(I’ve written more about fundamentalism here.)
Instead of letting the whole experience enlighten my perspective and educate me about the emotional effects of fundamentalism and tribalism, I concluded that this particular church was wrong and I was right.
I’d been taught that having the correct doctrine was life or death so I wasn’t going to be fooled.
I decided I never wanted to be in such a vulnerable position again.
I needed to be able to discern truth from false.
I needed to know the bible inside out so I’d be able to defend my beliefs.
I needed to educate myself.
So that’s what I did.
I read a ton of books, commentaries, articles, watched videos, debates and sermons.
The more I learnt, the more questions I had – so I started to write them down and work through them one by one.
Dinosaurs? Evolution? Suffering? Prayer? The Devil? Demons? Ghosts? Sexuality? Marriage? Jesus? Miracles? Other Religions?
Over the next couple of years I developed comprehensive answers to all of my questions, answers that reinforced my worldview, affirmed the bible’s inerrancy and argued Christianity as the one true religion.
I had created a little mental pocket book of defenses and that was enough to fend off any skeptics or any of my own doubts. I built my identity on that.
I found a church and a nice community of people that I agreed with.
Life was stable for a while.
… until I found myself on a two-week tour with a group of Muslims.
I was working as a musician and so I was used to spending weeks on the road with strangers, but I wasn’t used to spending time with practicing Muslims.
The only insight into Islam I had was through the lens of my Christian worldview and the media’s propagated accusations of terrorism.
As far as I was concerned, Islam (and any other worldview outside of mine) was inherently wrong and destructive, and anyone who followed it (however good their intentions) had been misguided.
I imagined I’d find similarities between my faith and theirs but that I’d be able to recognize their errors and be able to construct a compelling case as to why I’d arrived at the one true worldview and they hadn’t.
Mostly I expected to find a community of lost, unstable, unhealthy, angry, indoctrinated, apathetic and legalistic people that weren’t engaged in anything that I would have considered peaceful, loving, generous or socially progressive.
Instead, I was warmly welcomed by a loving and well-meaning community, which seemed to just be trying to make sense of their faith tradition in a 21st century western world. Just like me.
I had many insightful conversations with people of all ages and I listened to all their conversations about internal politics, social issues, doctrinal differences, old tradition and modern interpretation – topics that sounded identical to ones within my community.
We chatted about films, football teams, celebrities and music. They shared stories about their experiences of God and how they understood them, stories they considered to be miraculous, personal moral convictions and desires for world peace.
It was all surprisingly familiar.
In fact as the days went on, all I could do was find more and more similarities between us, rather than differences.
I couldn’t find anything inherently different about their lifestyle or religious convictions.
Their passion seemed to be as strong as mine, and their motivation and reasoning seemed to be identical too.
I was taught to believe in only ONE God, the God of The Bible, and anything outside of that to be the falsehood of the devil, however I couldn’t sense anything that felt inherently evil or destructive about their lifestyle… at all.
They seemed to talk of experiencing the same spiritual wholeness and peace that my faith community did.
This made me really uncomfortable.
I couldn’t vilify them for believing what they did; their reasons were identical to mine.
If I couldn’t vilify their beliefs how could I call them wrong?
And if I couldn’t call them wrong, how could I claim mine to be true.
We couldn’t both be right.
I couldn’t reconcile my new experiences with my dualistic mindset.
I started to wonder if perhaps we were all experiencing the same God and we just had different names for it.
Perhaps our experiences with the same God were just draped in the cultures and traditions we inherited.
Perhaps God didn’t care about names or labels or specific rituals.
How could we possibly claim to know the correct one anyway, how could we know?
I started to wonder that if God loved me so immeasurably and unconditionally then surely he wouldn’t risk me spending an eternity in torture over a bit of language, and what even was language in the context of the infinite anyway?
Surely God couldn’t punish me for being born into the wrong culture, and growing up in the wrong tradition.
This was the first time I’d ever entertained the idea that God could possibly exist outside of my faith tradition. HUGE.
Not too long after that, I met a girl.
She had an entirely different upbringing, free from any particular religious affiliation or conviction, but she exercised an existential curiosity that led to some significant conversations.
She was genuinely interested in my worldview and how I’d managed to arrive at such certainty. She was really inquisitive but patient and willing to listen, and celebrated my opinions even when she didn’t agree.
I was well equipped for all of her big questions and we had lots of long discussions over many months.
She started visiting my church, listening to the same sermons, taking with other Christians and reading the same books as me. But I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet had a life changing moment.
I was expecting what some Christians call a “God moment”; where God would enter into her heart and she’d have a big tearful epiphany, declare her love for him and surrender her life to Christianity. But it wasn’t happening like that and I couldn’t understand why.
To me she was contemplating all the right things, hearing all the right people talk, but she was describing her experiences differently.
She wasn’t arriving at the same conclusions
She didn’t sound like ME.
I knew the truth, and if she didn’t see things in exactly the same way as me then she had to be wrong.
My faith had become a checklist of the correct jargon and rituals.
If you ticked all the right boxes you were a true Christian and if you didn’t, then you weren’t.
This was hard to reconcile because I really liked her and I felt a real connection, but I was taught never to entertain an intimate relationship outside of the faith.
The most extreme view I’d been handed was that ‘unbelievers’ were evil at heart and that nothing good could come from partnership with evil.
Another lesson I remember was that being paired with an ‘unbeliever’ was like trying to run a race tied to someone less physically able than you. That person would inevitably slow your pace or perhaps drag you down completely.
This mentality reinforces an intellectual superiority over non-Christians; only to be seen as projects that require the correct wisdom rather than real people with their own wisdom.
The more I got to know her however, the more her wisdom began to impact me.
The more she questioned me and brought up her own experiences, the more I actually started to take in and eventually I saw what I’d never bothered to see before – a person with a genuine heart for people. I couldn’t overlook her capacity for love and compassion; a genuine love for life, culture, art, music, friends, strangers and conversations – no hidden agenda. Just a real person experiencing life’s fullness, not bound by any particular religious or cultural lens.
I saw first hand that it was possible to have a strong moral compass and live a full life without religious doctrine. That it was possible to contemplate spiritual agency, existential questions and the concept of the divine without looking through a Christian lens.
That it was perfectly okay to wrestle with big questions and not come to any objective religious conclusions…
I started to see the practicality in her mentality and her ability to just function without being paranoid about being misled at every turn.
All of these infallible doctrinal claims I’d spent my life cultivating and defending weren’t encouraging me to practice empathy or compassion.
They weren’t giving me the headspace to genuinely love and care for people.
Theological comprehension isn’t useful when someone has had their heart broken and they just need a friend
or a homeless person needs somewhere to stay
or a starving family needs feeding.
Researched arguments about creationism aren’t practical when consoling someone who has been abused or raped.
When I really looked at the accounts of the life of Jesus (the guy I professed to emulate), it seemed insane that I could have such a small capacity to care for people; that I hadn’t recognized my own prejudice or contribution to social oppression.
Had I become the very system of religious superiority that Jesus himself had condemned?
I’d put so much emphasis on eternal salvation, avoiding hell and my own destiny that I’d no headspace left for others.
I had no energy to help others where it didn’t benefit myself or push my own agenda.
I had no energy to actually live like Jesus did…
I realized that all these doctrinal certainties do is create divide, promote tribalism and encourage prejudice.
I realized that morality doesn’t solely exist within the confides of religion.
That those qualities exist within us as humans (just as Jesus was) and there are plenty of stable, caring, healthy people that don’t feel they have to be confined by religious labels.
Her genuine love and acceptance of all people challenged my prejudices.
Her willingness to discuss her beliefs honestly and openly challenged my territorialism.
Her eagerness to learn from new people and cultures challenged my ego.
It was a slow burner though and didn’t fully hit home until a friend of mine introduced me to a podcast.
He was a Christian friend who had been through a similar broadening of perspective.
He recommended a book and a podcast hosted by Christians who had been through the same experience; they discussed faith and doubt openly, free from judgment and legalism, just stark and honest conversations about the bible, church, science, history, art, music and trying to make sense of a faith that may not make sense anymore.
Those conversations were the final straw.
I was finally able to be honest about the journey I’d been on for a while.
To hear that it was NORMAL to have doubts, that other people had them too and that it didn’t make me evil or selfish or lazy or broken; it was liberating.
It felt like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t even know I’d been carrying.
I started reading books that weren’t by the familiar Christian authors – religious and secular philosophers, neuroscientists, historians and thinkers from other religious traditions; real people with real experiences.
I discovered there were many things I could learn about life, prayer and God from other faith traditions too, that every person of faith had something to teach me about God.
I was finally hearing stories that made sense to me, ideas I didn’t have to spend time constructing arguments to defend, ideas that spoke to my core identity, new language for understanding God and conversations that didn’t have an agenda or dogma to impose.
Most importantly, I was finally forming my own ideas and beliefs about the world.
I found that I’d only been reading literature within my specific faith stream, cherry picking the information I consumed which produced an extremely narrow worldview and perception of reality.
The world was far more intricate and beautiful than I was allowing myself to see.
I started to view the bible in a completely different way; I read all sorts of books about its history, authors, genre and language.
I started to notice things in the bible that I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed before and realized there was something much bigger and more beautiful going on.
(I’ve written more about the bible here.)
I started LISTENING to my Non-Christian friends.
I realized that they had experiences and wisdom that I could really learn from, and I’d missed out on a lot of it over the years.
I realized that at 25 years old, in many ways, I was still young and naive.
Loss and Judgment
I felt like a completely new creation, revitalized by the wonder of new possibilities, but I also felt incredibly lonely, angry and sad.
The foundation I’d built my identity on had come crashing down and left me debilitated.
I suddenly found myself on the outside of a community I’d been born inside and lived in for 25 years.
Religious communities can be incredibly insular, and having spent my formative years within that culture, suddenly leaving created an inability to know who I was as a person outside of that context.
It was a deep loss that was hard to get my head around.
I also received a lot of judgment from the community that used to support me.
Most of who were well meaning, loving people that were just doing what they felt was right and they can’t be blamed for that.
There was a lot of abusing of spiritual language:
“you need forgiveness on your heart”
“you’ve been deceived by the enemy”
“you need to get back on the right path”
“I’m praying in the spirit that you’ll be lifted from this affliction”
It was hard to hear and even harder to imagine what they weren’t saying, especially because I’d been there, I knew the kinds of conversations that were being had.
I’d heard people in faith communities call people like me “spiritual but not religious”, saying they lack belief, don’t care enough or are just too lazy to do the work that is required to follow God.
But my experience was the opposite.
I had such a deep yearning for truth, that it sent me out of a community that wasn’t able to support where I was going spiritually.
If I were lazy I’d have just stayed where I was.
I’d already been handed a faith so if I didn’t want to do any of my own thinking I didn’t have to.
At first I responded with anger, their judgments fired me up and I judged them back.
For a time I was so certain of my newfound worldview that I dipped into fundamentalism again – trying to convince other Christians that I was right and they were wrong.
But the more I journeyed, the more I discovered that I have no right to make somebody see the world as I do.
The more I learnt about different cultures, traditions and perspectives, I realized that we’re all just grappling with life’s unanswerable questions.
That it’s impossible for us fallible human beings to get to grips with something so divine and infinite anyway.
And if we keep building our identities on systematic beliefs we’ll just continue to create division, isolate ourselves and ultimately set ourselves up for crisis and trauma when something challenges it.
I try not to waste energy trying to change or control other people.
There’s no set of systematic beliefs that are required to be my friend or that I require to experience life.
I just try and live life and love people.
Everything I learn I aim to be an exercise in trying to live a better life and help other people more.
I love learning about anything the world has to teach me and from my experiences I form opinions, but I hold them all very loosely as I know that I could be wrong about anything.
Sometimes it’s hard, because as humans we crave certainty, but I try not to build my identity on such beliefs.
I still lean into the faith tradition I was raised in (I consider it my entry point into spirituality) but it doesn’t look the same every day.
I believe there’s a lot of good in what I understand to be the true origin of the Christian tradition but that it’s been warped and twisted over the centuries by us fallible humans (as things often do).
I have my own spiritual practices outside of systematic religion that are working for me right now and perhaps one day I’ll find an organised community I feel comfortable in.
I try not to see my faith as being a means of finding facts anymore; I use it to contemplate the miracle of life, the vastness of the universe and human nature.
I don’t harbor any disdain towards my Christian community. Many of them are extremely loving and caring and were expressing that in the best way they knew.
There is nothing quite like the extreme bonding and support network of a church community and I have a lot of love for those people.
I’ve learnt that if there's a power in Christianity it's in how you live it, not how you think it.
I don’t have to come to any grand conclusions to live a life of love and compassion, to appreciate art and music, to have a conversation with a friend, to fight against social justice, to have a moment of transcendence.
Life is in every moment so why waste time worrying about what is true and not true, when real truth exists outside of labels.