My home town church’s services were of a traditional format. Hymns, a Bible reading, and a sermon, all in a carefully crafted order. But the youth group regularly took trips, to other churches and events. These were memorable because I was exposed through them to a style of worship that was a bit more… radical. I encountered people for whom religion didn’t just appear to be a hobby or a social activity but a way of life.
In about 4th year of high school we started going to a monthly evening service in a church in Glasgow. This was called “Power Point” (before Microsoft coined the term I think!) and was aimed at young people. It drew in huge crowds. One of the youth group leaders took us in a minibus; we would go to the service, go to McDonalds afterwards for a late meal, and then go home. It was always a fun night out with friends, really. It was on the first one of these trips that I had quite a profound experience.
The service featured a lot of singing, in a modern style with a rock band. The words were projected onto a big screen and we would bop away with the upbeat tune and sing our lungs out. My friends and I always headed for the upstairs balcony section, right at the back, and stood on the pew during the singing (as long as the usher didn’t notice). It was during one of these songs that I found myself overcome with emotion. I don’t know if it was the music, the crowd, the words, the big wooden cross on the wall, or what, but I was electrified. At the time I considered it to be an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
I always looked forward to that one Sunday in the month when we would go to this event. Looking back, I feel gratitude towards the man who gave up his evenings to take us there. He also opened his house to us on many occasions for us to all hang out together and have fun. I think there was a sadness about him, but he put his energy into doing good and didn’t wallow. There were just the occasional glimpses of sadness. While my friends and I always made for the back of the balcony, he would sit in one of the side sections, and more than once I saw him looking over at us during the singing, as if for inspiration, for hope. I once heard him saying that seeing all these kids worshipping made it undeniable that there was something in it. I wonder if as much as anything, going to these events was about him searching for faith.
I think that there were people in the church back then, particularly those involved in the youth group, that had that more radical, practical theology and would have preferred a less stiff-upper-lipped worship style. But they coexisted harmoniously alongside the more traditional setup. As for the youths, I think that for some, seeds were sown and radical trajectories were embarked upon. For others, there was ultimately no interest in religion. But quite possibly none were set to become “traditional” churchgoers. It just seems that the days of being religious by default are over.
I was talking with my mum at the weekend about this and it’s kind of interesting really. Since I left home, the fundamentalist/evangelical influence in the church has grown, probably through more of such people moving into the town. They have rocked the boat, and a lot of my parents’ generation have left the church. In their case, coming face to face with stark views has triggered an unprecedented questioning. Many of the older traditional believers will continue to attend church until they die; they are the mainstay of the church and form the bulk of the elders, and, well, they tend to resist change. But the younger ones cannot. They are polarised. They either don’t find religion of significant relevance to their busy lives, or they make it their lives. There’s no middle way any more.
As a kid there was no middle way either. These monthly Power Point events and other similar trips were the only religious influence that stood a chance of holding my attention over the noise of teenage life. When the frequency of this spiritual input lessened in the last couple of years of high school because of weekend jobs and so on, my commitment waned. I never actively changed my mind, I just got swept along with whatever was going. And whatever was going usually wasn’t very conducive to maintaining a religion. So maybe it’s culture that doesn’t allow people to be religious by default any more.
It took a radical, vibrant, optimistic church to make me decide to be religious at university. And this is where it inevitably went to the next level. The carrots that were dangled before me may not have been about rewards in the afterlife but they were things I definitely wanted. Peace, hope, answered prayer, dramatic miracles. The church went through a period of obsessing over what they call “revival”, which is where outreach goes crazy, people start flocking to church in droves, and miracles happen left right and centre. It was around this time that I started to realise the church was adrift with no-one at the helm, as I watched people searching for the voice of God and hoping it would be saying that a revival was on its way. The worst part is, normal life had started to seem unsatisfactory. With such a clear picture of how life should be, the regular old world with all its messed-up beauty felt hollow, boring, even a little depressing.
Ultimately of course I have preferred to resist the naive lure of the dangling carrots and appreciate life in all its confusion, pain and beauty. I see goodness where I once might have dismissively seen only bad. I am still an extreme, all-or-nothing person, but stuck on nothing. Part of me still relishes the thought of making radical changes in my life. There is a tension between my head and my heart, and at the moment my head is winning out. But I hope that there is a middle way. Whatever paths I may walk in future, I hope I don’t try to live austerely in some sort of sterile utopia. I hope I find a way to be hopeful and gracious without needing empty promises. I hope I will be strong enough to live in the world with a radically big heart.