Over the last week or so, for no particular reason, the Politics has taken a bit of a backseat to the ‘God’ element of this blog’s remit. A few days ago I set out my thoughts on the direction I see the church in the UK heading over the next decade. Today I’m continuing to add some more reflections on the state of play for Christianity at the moment.
When I was growing up I was very conscious that I was in a significant minority amongst my friends and peers in my village and at school. Being from a Christian family, believing in God and going to church every week was a rare thing, much as it is today. My church mostly consisted of very nice grey haired people. Other than my brother it was unusual to have anyone else attend anywhere near my age. At school until the age of about 16, as far as I was aware at the time, I was the only Christian in my year. However everyone knew that I was a Christian as my Dad who was a local vicar would come in and give assemblies occasionally. Fortunately they were pretty good, so I didn’t suffer from too much embarrassment, but I found it hard to talk about my faith and beliefs when I didn’t get the impression that anyone would understand. I was more concerned that I would be seen as weird or asked difficult questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer and then look stupid. Consequently I avoided talking about God and did my best to bat away questions about my faith when they did come up in conversation.
I suspect there are thousands of Christians of all ages who have the same problem. They have a personal faith, but just find it too difficult to come out in public and admit it. This dilemma was covered very well in an article in the Telegraph on last Monday. Judging by the interest it drew, there are plenty of people who related to what it had to say:
‘Once upon a time, a good friend of mine worked on the fashion desk at a women’s glossy magazine. By day, she tried to convince insane models and even more insane photographers to channel their artistic temperaments into creating credible fashion shots. But by night, she was a Secret Christian, or ‘SC’ – regularly attending church, leading services, and even (gasp) sitting on her church council.
‘No one at the office knew of her scandalous double life. Work and personal life were separate. But, as time went on, it became harder and harder to cover up her God-squad alter-ego. It required a high level of mental dexterity to remember to say, “Just dinner with a friend” when asked what her evening plans were, instead of, “Just dinner and a Bible study”. When she booked a week off in the summer to volunteer at a Christian children’s holiday club, it felt wrong to mutter “Oh, maybe Sicily,” upon being questioned on her time-off plans. Habitually lying, even just by omission, was taking its toll.’
I can relate to this. Although I’ve never denied being a Christian, there have been plenty of times when I’ve had an opportunity to talk about my faith or explain what I believe and have just bottled it. Subsequently there have been a lot of prayers asking for forgiveness and promises to attempt to do better next time. Each time I’ve been left feeling a failure as a Christian and that I’ve let God down badly.
It’s a sad state of affairs when you don’t feel able to talk openly about something that is such an integral part of who you are.
When the Telegraph article talks about coming out as a Christian it reminds me of the context it is usually refers to. There are many parallels between coming out over your Christian beliefs and coming out as gay. It is a big deal opening up about either of these and even more so if you happen to be a gay Christian. It takes courage because you know you will be perceived differently from that point onwards even if those around you do not necessarily react negatively – at least to your face. I had a conversation with a gay man who works with gay teenagers not long ago. He was telling me about the terrible difficulties some face being accepted for who they are and the anguish it can cause. As he went on I could relate to what he was saying from the perspective of many young Christians. I still think it can be far tougher for gay young people, but I know some who have had family and friends react strongly against their faith especially if it is newly found. I have adult friends who find it no less easy, especially at work. The comments at the end of the Telegraph piece demonstrate that there are plenty of people who are still quite happy to throw snide and insulting remarks at someone who is willing to be honest about their faith. Talking at a gay person it that way now would rarely be seen as acceptable. It’s little wonder that some choose to keep their faith to themselves.
Perhaps if the experience of being gay and being a Christian have certain commonalities, then maybe Christians can learn something from the way that society’s acceptance of those who are not heterosexual has dramatically changed in the last few decades and more so recently. An ICM poll in March 2012 found that 45 per cent of Brits supported the legalisation of gay marriage; by the end of the year another ICM poll asking the same question put support at 62 per cent. In 2013 it increased further to 68 per cent. That’s equates to a quarter of the population changing their views in space of a year, which is remarkable whichever way you look at it.
This is a culmination of years of pressure, lobbying and effective PR often using high-profile figures to fight the cause. I wouldn’t want to see churches adopting the same tactics which more recently have sometimes left those who disagree with gay marriage being labelled as bigots, but there has been a growing confidence and pride amongst many gay people who are willing to stand up and be counted for themselves and others despite hostile opposition and prejudice that Christians would do well to emulate.
This is nothing new and probably has a lot to do with British reserve – we just don’t like to talk about religion much. It feels like a big enough step if we mention our faith on our Facebook or Twitter profile.
I’ve become more aware of this having travelled to sub-Saharan Africa where talking about God is very natural. Just imagine how the early Church would have got on if they were worried about what others might think. Christianity would have remained no more than a tiny Jewish sect if it wasn’t for so many passionate believers giving their lives to share the Good News. If you look at the explosion of churches in China where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are becoming Christians every year, we can see that this is still going on in some parts of the world right now.
If the Church in this country has any chance of growing in the years ahead, then it will either come down to God having to do the work by zapping our nation causing a Christian revival to take off, or Christians discovering a new confidence in their faith and allowing God to work through that. I suspect the later is God’s preferred option.
Confidence comes when we are sure of our faith, when we sincerely believe in God and His promises and when we know deep down that the Good News of Jesus Christ is of immeasurable worth to us and others. As the apostle Paul put it: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’.
When we find support and encouragement with fellow believers, the less we care about being seen to be a religious freak. The more we understand what we believe, the easier it is to explain it and deal with those tricky questions even if we don’t have a definitive answer. The more churches work to build a body of believers who are discipled to grow their faith and apply it to their everyday lives, the more faith becomes integral to who we are and the way we live rather than it being a bolt-on.
When we look at what Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby have done to raise the profile of the Christian faith, we see their total commitment to their beliefs has won many admirers from all backgrounds even if they don’t agree with everything they say. They may have elevated profiles, but there is still a limit to what they can achieve as individuals. It is the calling of the whole Church to be a witness for Jesus and for all individuals to play their part in being God’s ambassadors.
It was only when I started working for a Church and was in a position where I had no option but to talk about my faith and explain it, that I realised that doing so wasn’t anywhere near as big deal as I had thought in the past. Certainly I didn’t always find it easy and others sometimes made things difficult , but I actually found it gave me an inner sureness and freedom and my faith grew as a result. Now I’m in a ‘normal’ job I still hold on to that. I don’t see myself as an evangelist and probably never will, but I do see the need to be honest and open about my faith. I don’t always get it right and frustratingly still let chances slip by.
As I read the stories of the apostles founding the Church and those of God’s Church growing right now, rather than wanting to keep out of the way and leave it to someone else as I once did, I now often feel the urge to jump in share what I have been given. Sure, it’s scary at times, but God promises to give us strength despite our weaknesses and I’ve found this holds true. We’re not in this alone and there is no reason to be afraid. So much of our reticence comes down to fear; fear that stifles and causes us to keep things to ourselves because we are too worried about what others might think or say. Is that really how those how have been given the most precious and powerful gift of all should act?
“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7,8)