By Will Small

This post is part of a loosely themed series called ‘God in Skin’. It will still make sense on its own but if you want to follow a longer flow you can go back and read the previous posts.
Click here for part 1 or part 2.

I grew up in church-land. There has never been a time in my life when the Christian tradition has not been the norm. At 30 years old, I have easily clocked up 1,400+ church services in my life to date.

I am the fifth child out of six. As adults, my siblings and I are as diverse as you can imagine. Yet, under the same roof we were raised within the predictable rhythms of life in a suburban Christian home: grace before meals, church every Sunday and a myriad of strange Christian content like Psalty the singing song-book, anything by Max Lucado and a healthy collection of DC Talk tapes.

Between child numbers one and six, no doubt the experience of being raised by my parents changed dramatically, and each of us has a different story of what it meant to grow up in our family, but one thing is certainly true. Faith was at the centre of my parent’s own lives, and they always tried to foster it at the centre of our family home.

As a child, the church felt like my second home. It is a presence in my mind as far back as I can remember, and from the feel of the carpet and the smell of the bathroom, to the lilting tones of typical baptist sermons and the taste of a milk arrowroot biscuits in the foyer after the service, the church I grew up in is deeply imprinted in my psyche. I remember falling asleep on the heated floors of the auditorium, subconsciously consuming sermons while curled beneath my parents’ seats. I remember the excitement of church camps, church picnics, church trivia nights.

In one of my most ‘Christlike’ moments as a child, I remember my parents driving halfway home after a Sunday morning and realising they had left me behind (presumably talking to adults about doing my Father’s business). In the chaos of having six kids to muster I don’t blame them. And I have no doubt I felt safe and secure.  Sure, there were some eccentric people and some weird unspoken traditions, but at least in my experience, the church felt like a good place to grow up around.

At five years old, in the kitchen of my parent’s home, my mother led me in a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart.

At twelve years old, on a Sunday night, I was voluntarily dunked in the big tub at the front of the church and baptised as a follower of Jesus.

At fourteen years old, I started a lunch-time Christian group called ‘Living the Life’, trying to rally up some theological fervour in my peers at the small, conservative Christian High School I attended.

At seventeen years old, I debated classmates about the age of the earth at the large public school I then attended.

At nineteen years old, I sat in philosophy tutorials at university and defended the existence of God as the only rational position for a person to hold.

At twenty-years old I became a High School chaplain, and shared openly with students who asked curiously about the worldview I had arrived at.

I was a church success story. I had good role models, youth leaders that were genuinely interested in me, kind adults that encouraged and inspired me. I read my Bible, listened to Christian music, evangelised frequently and aggressively avoided alcohol and anything that could possibly be labelled as ‘secular’.

Now thirty years old, I am married, I have two sons, and I have been engaged in pastoral ministry for the last five or six years. 

Predictable much?

But, there’s another story.

There’s the story of the doubt, the disappointment, the disenchantment, the death of a clean faith that sat where it was told to and stayed within the lines.

There’s the story of the new thing, the resurrection; somehow tied to the old, but reborn into something unlike before.

I have never stopped believing in Jesus. I have never stopped attending church.

But somewhere along the way, somewhere in the last few years, it feels like I was converted. Recycled. Remade. Almost like I was born again.

(Dang, I sure sound like a good evangelical, don’t I?)

It is actually hard for me to tell my story.

Not just because it sounds cliche. It makes me cringe.

Sometimes I want to go back and tear up the books I used to read about sexual purity, erase every scornful mention of the word secular from my younger lips and pretend I was never a member of the church drama team as a teenager.

But I can’t do that. I have to own my story. I was a Christian golden child, a poster boy for evangelicism.

So, what has changed?

If I am still deep in the guts of it,

if I continue to pastor a church,

if I have never wandered beyond the walls of my tradition

how can I dare to identify as a fringe-dweller?

For everything that has stayed the same,

It is clear to me that everything has also changed.

What I believe about the age of the earth,

How I understand the Bible,

What I believe about hell,

about atonement,

about sexuality,

about evangelism,

How I speak about God,

How I think about God,

How I  think about my neighbour,

How I think about justice,

How I understand pain,

These are my conversion experiences.

Some of them will be explored throughout these posts (I know that list was really just a tease), but this space is not just about me. Or Hannah.

It’s about the seismic mass of people who have experienced some variation of these stories. Maybe you grew up in church, maybe you found it later in life. But when you look back at the way you used to practice your faith that person seems almost unrecognizable. The way you used to exist within it seems unsustainable now. But you aren’t quite ready to tap out. There’s still something you’re clinging onto, maybe just by a thread. The Jesus story, the idea of church as it ought be, these things still cause you to wrestle and question and grumble, and even if you’ve left the church or come very close to doing so, even if you haven’t had a ‘quiet time’ or picked up a Bible in months or years…you aren’t ready to let go yet.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to take a guess there’s a good chance this could describe you.


how did we get here?

And what will we do about it?

I don’t claim to have the definitive answers to these very large questions. But I believe we should honestly and curiously grapple with them. And, if you’ve read this far I’m hoping you’re open to doing so. It’s not an overnight process. But there are different ways to think about and practice faith.

We’ll pick up with these questions in the next post….

Questions you might want to chew over/chat to someone about:

  1. What have been your ‘conversion’ experiences?
  2. What are you clinging onto? What can’t you let go of? 
  3. What do you long for from Christian spirituality and community?

5 Comments on “Growing up in Church Land

  1. I long for authenticity in the church. I’m tired of Christian spirituality being this higher place of existence when I believe people should be grounding themselves in faith and finding connection to their inner selves. I long for the connection of psychology and spirituality research to be intertwined with faith and to see real healing of trauma through doing the work (inner self-healing). I long for the church to discuss real research rather than someone’s opinion piece. Faith is necessary (whatever you believe in) but miracles don’t always happen. Between trauma and wholeheartedness there’s a whole lot of work to be done to heal and we shouldn’t be alone to do that.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this Ellie. This is a beautiful and well articulated vision of integrated faith. Love the acknowledgement of the important role faith can play, while also seeking to use psychology and other research to support healing.

  2. This is great. I identify so strongly with the upbringing you describe, years of eating sandwiches for dinner under the pews in night church, shout-whispering at my siblings before getting a general parental ‘leg’ below the seat to be quiet.

    I think it can also make it easier to walk away from it all as an adult because if you don’t revisit why you have taken on the beliefs that you did, and confirm or reject, then your current beliefs aren’t relevant to you as a maturing adult which can be confused as ‘I don’t believe it anymore’.

    Sometimes I wish there was a way to forget everything and have to re-learn and decide what being a ‘Christian’ means, sometimes I think that would be easier than having always been one.

    • Thanks for sharing this EJ. The image of the parental ‘leg’ below the seat is classic haha.

      The idea of coming to Christianity ‘fresh’ and without anything to unlearn is definitely an appealing one.

      I love the imagery throughout scripture around God making things new. I have come to understand this as the new thing coming from within the old thing. A kind of divine up-cycling. Not like a shiny new product wrapped in plastic packaging from a factory around the world. But like something vintage that has been lovingly restored and given new life. Where ever you find yourself, I hope that you’re able to experience some kind of renewal like this. May you come to ‘see’ in a way that feels new for you 🙂

  3. Pingback: My Bittersweet Faith Formation - Spiritual Misfits

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