If you ask my youngest daughter why she goes to church, up until pretty recently morning tea will have figured high on the list. Memorable moment – our three year old clinking communion glasses with her father and declaring loudly: “Cheers.”
My eldest daughter would probably tell you she goes because her two best friends from primary school are there, along with a couple of uni students she gets along with particularly well. The seven or eight of them sit out the back most Sundays and have a good old convo about everything from feminism to asylum seekers to human rights and whether the Bible even matters. (They have mixed feelings on this, I’d say. From those who can quote the Scriptures and read it every morning to those who are indignant about quite a lot of it, they feel safe to speak up. They know one another well enough to argue. Sometimes hotly.)
So what is this thing we’ve got them mixed up in? Picton Uniting Church is possibly a bit different to churches as you’ve known or grown with them. Not on the outside – it’s pretty bog standard there – and for an hour on a Sunday morning, it probably seems pretty typically ‘church’ on the inside too. People sit in rows, there’s singing, someone talks about something after bits are read out of the Bible, we pray, we collect some money, we pray a bit more, we head out the back for a cuppa. If you’ve suffered through a church service before, no surprises there.
Things that sometimes do surprise people:
- A lot of the official stuff is done by a woman.
- There are usually one or more dogs in the service.
- The person giving the message is different each week.
- The person giving the message occasionally gets heckled in a friendly way by the people not giving the message.
- Children and young people are as likely to interject as anyone, speaking up about what they’re learning and leading parts of the service. They seem to feel pretty much at home here.
- People have different ideas about the existence of a literal heaven and hell; not everyone agrees that Jesus’ death on the cross was required by God as a sacrifice for human sin; some believe Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus also have relationships with God, and so do gay people – but some don’t; some are passionate environmentalists and find God in nature… to name a few…
- What we do agree on is that God is love, Jesus lived the ultimate life expressing Love’s completeness, and life can genuinely be changed by that. Together, we’re trying to make it happen. The rest we trust to each person and God.
Perhaps that all sounds quite un-church-like and dangerously confusing to children. Our experience has actually been that our children find it stimulating to explore different view-points in the world of faith development in the same way as they do other areas of life.
I’d venture to say that my daughters have no concept of the narrative of themselves as sinners who need to be saved once and for all by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, or that they need to ‘accept Jesus into their hearts’ to make this happen and secure for themselves a place in Heaven for eternal life. This was all something I had down pretty perfectly at the same age thanks to numerous youth services and readings of little tracts given to me in order that I be saved from the fires of hell by raising my hand at Christian camps. Maybe it’s what you grew up with yourself and have since rejected or found impossible to believe, or perhaps you’re very alarmed for my daughters that this isn’t something we’ve insisted they engage with…
Instead, my guess is that they see themselves as part of a beloved human family, no better or worse than anyone else on this planet, on a journey of discovery about themselves and others as they attempt to live in touch with a life of love. They’re actively learning about the life of Jesus Christ and the world around them. And they’re doing it alongside a community of imperfect people, all attempting the same thing.
That life isn’t about avoiding the gates of hell, being ‘good’, converting people, studying the bible, praying a lot or even worship. It’s more about love, justice, grace, forgiveness and continually seeking new life.
In practise, what have they come away with so far?
In no particular order – I think they have a pretty realistic understanding of their faults and their strengths – they’re about continuous improvement, they extend grace to themselves and others. This makes them reasonably unselfconscious, which is kind of unique for girls their age. They know life is about something bigger than themselves.
They have glimpses of spirit, mystery, beauty – and they’re open to various ways of expressing that. They pray, but they also meditate. They sit and think in silence. They have a respect for religion in all its forms but they also see its limitations. They know they’re incredibly privileged and have a knowledge of the way people live and believe around the world. They’re determined to make life better for others. They sense words and beliefs don’t make up who you are – action and intuition does (yeah they’re saints. You read it right here from their mother).
Most especially within this community, I think they know they’re loved and taken seriously by a whole range of people of different ages and backgrounds. I think they feel safe to work stuff out for themselves and not to need to have all the answers. That can be pretty important I reckon.
They can’t give you an explanation of atonement, salvation, original sin or redemption but in many ways they live it out. And their journey is nowhere near complete, because ours isn’t. We act on hunches. We hold our truth lightly. We acknowledge we know little for certain but we walk forward by the light we’ve found and we try to share it with others. And that’s about it. Our girls may leave the Church – short or long term. But I think they’ll continue to think, to feel and to act – in love.
I’m not saying these things can only be found within the four walls of a church. I’m just saying that this is where we’ve found them together, and it’s been good for us. And I hope it continues. It’s not easy, as a family, to find a place together where you can explicitly teach, act and model all this with the friendship of others. Church is definitely not perfect, and not every gathering of ‘Christians’ is anything like what I’ve described, but some aren’t a bad start.
So if all this is so great, why haven’t we invited you to come along? To tell you the truth, some of us are a bit embarrassed about the Christian brand. We feel like you might think we’re a bunch of lunatics/hypocrites/insert your own for even mentioning it. There are so many different versions of the C-word that popping our heads above the parapet feels risky. Everyone has a nightmare Christian story to tell (us included.) And anyway, most people want to sleep in on Sunday mornings (us included.)
Totally honestly, some of us don’t even really like calling ourselves Christians half the time, because Christians conjure up images that we don’t relate to. And we don’t want this to get awkward. And yet, what could be more hopeful and helpful than introducing people to stuff that works for you and your family, like a really great juicer or half price flights to Fiji?
For me, it comes down to only this: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
Consider this your invitation to our church. I’m sorry I haven’t made it personally. It’s a slightly unconventional community of people who are idealistic, imperfect and trying for change in the spirit of a love that is deeper and wider than anyone could imagine.
I’m interested to hear from you too. What is it about the church that you grew up with or encounter these days that makes it either attractive or a no go zone? Dropped out yourself because it was all a bit crazy? What have your experiences been? How do the Christians you know come across? Love to know your thoughts.
PS I just told my eldest what I was writing about and she said “So now isn’t a good time to tell you I don’t want to go any more?” Funny kid that one (nervous laughter…)
This article originally appeared on Cath’s blog ‘Wildfiles.’