I’ve always LOVED church. If my parents said we were having a day off from the Anglican church we’d been at since I was two I would insist that we had church at home. We had to have a mini service and there would be a plastic Vitalite tub for the collection. Church was my favourite thing as a child. I love going. I loved the friends I had at church. I loved the once-a-month Traidcraft stall where they sold those amazing peppermint sweets. I love bring and share lunches and church away days. Church was ace. And so was God.
As a teenager, church was still amazing. I had some of the best friends I’ve ever had and youth leaders who loved me absolutely. Yet life stopped being so great. Issues from childhood knocked me sideways and life became painful. Church was an anchor in the midst of all that.
In my late teens my life went dramatically wrong. Teenage pregnancy, early marriage, self-harm, suicide attempts and all forms of abuse took over my life. The church I was in tried their best, but after my (ex)husband abused a teenager of a family in the church they banned him from the church for services where there would be under 18s. I felt banned too. Even though I wasn’t. My (ex)husband took everything from me; church, freedom, friendships. Everything.
At 21, as a single parent, I found myself living in a hospital with a premature baby and a 3-year-old. They don’t really have church in the hospital. Life was too chaotic to find a church. And my ex-husband had taken from me all that I had loved about church. But in that place of utter desperation I learned to rely on God, outside of a church context. I read the Bible and prayed. Totally alone.
After leaving hospital I went to a large New Frontiers church. Yes, I really did. It was the place God called me to. The church was too big to need my contribution and so I could spend time listening to the preaching, while my children went to kid’s groups that didn’t need me on the rota. There were some people who befriended me, but I was still very much alone in a church with hundreds of people but few single parents. It wasn’t comfortable, but it didn’t demand anything of me when I was stretched to breaking.
Eighteen months later God called me from the north of England to a quite middle class town in Essex. I’d dealt with years of abuse, a crown court case, a premature baby who kept nearly dying. I’d been a single parent on a low income and tried to hold it all together for my children. After miraculously ending up engaged to my now husband I collapsed. The church cared for me so deeply. As a charismatic free church there was a whole lot of praying for healing and a great investment in me and my children. It was a close knit family who believed for big things and sometimes was a bit weird and wacky. But it was where I got well, got married and God mended much of my brokenness.
My husband was the church administrator and we became embedded in the church and relied upon for the crèche, leading small groups, being in the worship band, setting up, welcoming people. The rota was where it was at.
Two years on and I began to question aspects of the church. The problem with a hospital church; it’s not always skilled at dealing with healed people who’ve been liberated into their own skin. Especially not someone with as many opinions as me. I found they didn’t want leaders, they wanted strong followers. Something I couldn’t be.
Soon after this God called us to move to a new area of Essex, a much more deprived area. We helped to plant a new branch of the same church movement we’d been part of. At the same time I was in the process of deconstructing what my faith meant. It was the glory days of Brian McLaren and Rob Bell; gentle deconstruction was where it was at. Soon after my first Greenbelt, we realised God was calling us to leave church for awhile. We’d moved into an area to help plant a church, they’d begun meeting and all was well and suddenly, we just left.
We spent 6 months working out what church was for. Did we miss it? If we did, what did we miss? What was important about church? Did we need it?
At the end of this time we came to the following conclusions:
- We wanted our kids to grow up in a church.
- We would have loved to set up a house church, but God didn’t send anyone for us to do that with.
- Not going to church ensured we took responsibility for our faith journey and shifted our focus of Sunday as the most important aspect of our faith.
Soon after this we started going to a local Baptist church that had great kids work. For two years we attended the church. Yet there was little sense of community; no tea or coffee after the service had a massive knock on effect of people not really relating with one another. I began leading the youth work. Yet, the big issue we found was theology. The church was conservative and although it believed in women’s leadership in theory, their practice wasn’t great. It was around the Equal Marriage debates and they shared scare letters about how it would lead to people marrying their dogs. The young people believed in the Illuminati and The Rapture. It became apparent that church couldn’t solely be about what our kids needed.
Over two years ago we became part of an Anglican church. There’s loads of families. They have a generous orthodoxy and can cope with my questions and challenge. I have a deep appreciate of liturgy and the deep history of the Anglican church, having been part of churches where anything routine was frowned on. I’m becoming a Local Authorised Preacher and lead a weekly tweenage youth group. My husband is in the worship band and the kids are settled in kid’s groups. The church is low pressure and the vicar is releasing and inclusive.
I’ve found church as a child, in the solitary experience of a hospital, I found it in New Frontiers, in charismatic free churches, the deconstruction of meeting in a living room with only my husband and kids, a Baptist church and in the Anglican church. For me church is found is the journey. God knew what we needed and what we had to give and placed us in the right place for that time. Church for me is not a once and for all. It’s where God finds me and I find God.
NATALIE (God Loves Women): Natalie speaks and writes on understanding and ending gender injustice nationally and internationally. She loves Jesus, has a fab family and can usually be found ranting on Twitter.