Loud music, bright lights, a full auditorium.
The air is buzzing and the atmosphere is electric, as over a thousand men stand and sing together, loudly and passionately (no polite-silent-mouthing-the-words to be seen here), every hand in the room raised high in the air, wide open or bunched into aggressive fists, an expression of awe / gratitude / worship / adrenaline.
Many of the worshippers are shouting, ignoring the lyrics that are projected onto massive video screens at the front of the huge room, red-faced and bellowing out their own spontaneous words of love and surrender. Tears stream down faces. Some groups of men begin to gather together in slightly awkward circles (the rows of chairs make it difficult to face each other effectively) and pray for each other with arms around shoulders.
I see all of this from the stage.
I’m playing keyboard as part of the band.
Our role as the band is to create an atmosphere that helps people to worship and connect with God.
My job specifically tonight, as keyboard player and musical director for the evening, is not only to play the right notes, but also to direct the rest of the band through the setlist using a microphone that only the other musicians onstage can hear, and also to watch the worship leader for instructions to pass on to the band regarding volume and song structure, and also to be sensitive to what’s happening in the room so I can play accordingly, and also to be personally engaging with the worship so that I don’t appear bored or disconnected, and also to keep watch in case one of the church pastors steps onto the stage and wants to address the congregation (which can be an edgy situation, as the band needs to drop considerably in volume but still continue playing in order to create a seamless atmosphere, and then we have to increase in volume and intensity to match what the speaker is saying, which ideally builds as a perfect crescendo until the moment where the speaker finishes, and we all launch together into one more loud chorus with perfect timing). So there’s a lot for me to think about.
By the time of this particular meeting, in November 2014, I’ve been doing this a couple of times a week for around 12 years. That’s 1248 worship services, or around 936 hours of keyboard playing, which is a very conservative estimate as it doesn’t include all the conferences, youth camps, tours, special two-hour worship concerts, weddings, funerals, christmas events, and training days that I’ve also played at.
So I’ve gotten pretty good at it by now. I can read the room fairly well, I know how to play in a way that is emotional and sensitive, I know how to build the music in the right moment to get the congregation excited and stirred up. It all comes naturally to me.
But tonight, on 14/11/2014 at the church annual men’s conference, I feel totally wrong.
One of the church leaders has taken the stage, so I am ready to play appropriately to match the tone and volume of his voice. He begins encouraging the men in the room to seek God, that ‘He is here and we just need to be more desperate for His presence in our lives’. He signals for the rest of the band to stop playing, and so I tell the musicians through the microphone to bring the volume down, until it’s just me playing softly on the piano. The speaker leads the room in a moment of passionate ‘crying-after-God’. Everyone is getting into it. I see men fall to their knees, embrace each other, shout out in a babble of tongues. The whole room is stirring and moving together.
And I feel nothing.
Am I the only one?
Is there something wrong with me?
Wait a minute.
Do I even actually believe any of this stuff?
Are these men really experiencing God, or just the high of being part of a large crowd that many experience in a football game or rock concert?
And if it’s the second option, then are we just manipulating them through great music and lighting?
It’s just me playing now, keeping the emotional atmosphere alive through the power of the keyboard, as the rest of the band lay their instruments down one by one and close their eyes in reverence.
I don’t know if I like this.
I think something has to change.
All of this is going through my mind as I play.
It’s one of the most uncomfortable and clear moments that I’ve ever had.
Just over a year ago, I stopped going to church for the first time in my life.
Nothing bad had happened: there were no fall-outs with church leaders, no angry words, no bitterness. I had loved the church that I was part of for a long time, and I still love the friends that I made there.
But I had so much noise and pressure and busyness in my head, so many expectations and inherited beliefs and assumptions about the world, that the whole experience of going to church had become meaningless and frustrating for me.
I’d been in church all my life. I’d been a good Christian. I’d genuinely grown hugely as a person, met some of my closest friends and had a bloody good time along the way.
But at this point, I didn’t know what it all meant anymore. I was stuck in the routine, the tradition, the group mentality, the constant challenge to do more and give more and serve more and be better, and I had to escape.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure if I believed many of the things we sang and taught about. I’d been thinking, learning and reading in a much wider sphere over the previous few years, and some of the ideas about the world that I’d grown up with didn’t make sense to me anymore. I was tired of hearing the same answers that I’d heard since I was a kid in Sunday School, repeated over and over again every week. I had to figure out what I thought for myself.
Honestly I didn’t even plan to leave for good. I just went away for a few months, to take some time out to refresh and get my head together, to allow space for my doubts and questions; and when I came back it was obvious that church didn’t fit me anymore.
It’s funny because I remember how I felt about people who stopped coming to church when I was growing up. I worried about them: I thought they were ‘backsliding’ or that their lives must be pretty messed up, and then I tried not to think about it too much in case I was influenced by their apparent loss of faith.
If you’ve never been part of a church, it’s hard to explain how scary it can be to see people leave your congregation. In my tradition, how often you are at church is a sign of how strong your belief is, how connected you are to God, and how serious you are about your faith. Leaving church is the worst thing that can happen to a person: they are cut off from God’s will and are assumed to be in some kind of downward life spiral.
So I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been encouraged, challenged, or gently forced to be at church events more often, to turn up earlier, to work harder, to stay later, to commit more. I recently saw an email where a group of church attenders was told they were ‘expected to volunteer’, which is a pretty funny contradiction, but also a sad indicator of where our priorities often lay.
I heard so many sermons based on this verse from the Bible:
‘Planted in the house of the LORD they will flourish.’
This particular verse is used over and over again to reinforce the idea that if you stay inside the church, serving and attending as much as possible, you will grow and become a better person and be blessed; but if you simply come and go as you please, without ‘putting roots down’, you will never become the person God wants you to be.
There’s a couple of problems with this idea that seem obvious to me:
#1 : what about the vast majority of the world that has nothing to do with church? Are any of them flourishing, happy, content, living full and meaningful lives? I think you have to admit that the answer is ‘Um, yes, of course.’ And conversely, are there any people who give all their free time to volunteering and attending church events that are unhappy, burnt out, and frustrated? Again, the answer is an obvious yes.
#2 : this verse is quoted from a two-thousand-year-old piece of poetry written for the Jewish day of rest (the Sabbath), long before the idea of church even existed. It wasn’t meant as a handy pull-quote for us to pressure people into attending a few more services every week.
I’m not saying that you can’t grow and become better by being involved in church: like I said, I know that I did grow there, for a long time. But we also can’t take the opposite view, and say that it’s impossible to truly grow and ‘flourish’ unless you are an active part of a church.
Sadly, in my experience, that is the view that many Christians take.
You may not know this if you didn’t grow up religious, but a lot of churches today do extensive charitable work in their communities: feeding the homeless, providing services and care for the less fortunate, putting on summer programmes for kids and distributing school uniforms to poor families, visiting the elderly and sick and lonely. My most recent church is large, and does a massive amount of good in the local area. There are multiple events and outreaches and rehearsals and meetings and groups and ministries and ideas going on every night of the week, covering almost every age-range and demographic and need you can imagine.
Of course, this is a good thing*. But to continue doing all of this, the church needs volunteers. A LOT of volunteers. And they also need money, because helping people at that level is very expensive. So, of course, they ask people to serve and give. This is completely necessary, and volunteering can itself be rewarding and character-building.
*(as long as the work isn’t just a disguised attempt to win converts, as they often can be in Christian circles… but that’s another issue)
The problems arrive when the asking becomes manipulative:
When we tell people that God will bless them if they give more.
When we tell people that church is the most important place on the earth.
When we put an expectation on people to attend.
When we equate serving or attending or giving with holiness / righteousness / connection to God.
When we ignore or insult peoples tiredness, by calling them to constantly give more energy (because in church world, people are going to Hell if we don’t help them, so we can rest when we die).
And when a church is constantly trying to do things bigger, better, and more often, it requires ever greater levels of commitment and energy from the congregation to make it work. It means sacrificing time alone, or time with family, or time to develop your own ideas or beliefs or dreams. And that sacrifice is often held up as a holy and admirable thing.
I deeply struggled with this idea.
I heard church leaders tell their congregations that family, career, and personal dreams didn’t really matter: they would not last forever, because the church was the most important thing they could be a part of. I actually heard leaders preach that ‘the church is the only thing God is building… not your family, not your career, but his church’. To me, this attitude was one of the most arrogant and insulting things I’ve come across, and it was one of the big reasons that I eventually realised I had to take time out.
In our Western culture, busyness and productivity is often worshipped above presence and authenticity. And it’s no different in the church world: it just looks like the amount of people we get saved, the number of attendees at our services and small-groups, and the hours we put in every week to volunteering.
But what if all that busyness is just a way of disguising the fact that we don’t have a clue what we actually believe, that we feel lost, that we just want somewhere to belong, and that we are living a life that is out of sync with who we really are deep down?
I was one of those super-busy church members for pretty much my whole life. For a long time, I was happy and growing and excited about what I was doing. But for a few years I’d been on a slow journey of questioning, learning, and losing certainty about many of my old beliefs. I struggled to continue being so active in a culture that I wasn’t sure I believed in anymore, especially when I was regularly on stage in front of others.
I realised that I had stopped enjoying church. Every time I went to a meeting, I couldn’t wait to leave: I felt demotivated and sucked dry of energy. I found myself less interested in the world. I disagreed with a lot of what was being taught. I didn’t know how much of this religion I actually believed for myself anymore. I was frustrated, and this is the worst thing of all: I felt bad for it. I felt like this was something I was alone in, and something I just had to get over.
Until that last men’s event in November 2014. That’s when I realised that I couldn’t just go through the motions anymore. I couldn’t just do what I had always done and expect anything to change. And I couldn’t rely on the church leaders to tell me what to do: I had my own path to walk. The answer wasn’t to do more; the answer was to stop.
So I stopped.
The truth is that people change and evolve and grow all the time. Of course you aren’t going to fit into one place for your entire life, unless you really aren’t developing very much in the way you think. It’s nothing to feel bad about, and it shouldn’t be such a big deal for us.
Because for me, the past year since leaving church has been amazing.
I feel more free.
I feel more honest.
I feel more myself.
I feel more real.
I feel more present.
I feel more interested and open to the world, to science, to learning, even in some ways to the idea of God.
I feel happier.
Leaving church was the best decision I could have made at the time.
People have asked me a lot about what I believe now: am I still a Christian, do I believe in God, what do I think about the Bible, etc. My response (at least in my head) is usually :
‘Pfft… who knows?’
The truth is that I like not having immediate, concrete answers to those questions. I’m a dumb human, figuring things out as I go, trying to be honest with myself. I’m enjoying being open to a wide variety of opinions and perspectives, and not feeling like I have the one solution to all of the world’s problems. I’m enjoying the time, the space, the freedom to make decisions and look closely at what I honestly believe about things. For me, it’s the right place to be.
As you can probably tell from reading this article, it’s very rare to hear a church leader advise somebody to just stop going to church for a while. There’s a massive sense of needing to be loyal to the church you’re part of. But I think that the best advice some people need to hear is to take a break, to stay away from any meetings and events and serving commitments for a while, and
You may realise you don’t believe in God anymore. Or you may find God outside the church walls far easier than you did inside. Or you may come back to church in a few weeks, or months, or years, with a new excitement and peace and centered-ness that you never had before. Or you may lose interest, decide that you can never know for certain whether or not there is a God anyway, and feel much happier pursuing a different passion and purpose for your life.
Whatever happens, I think we need to put this option back on the table. That’s part of the reason I started The Allowed in the first place. If you are stressed, frustrated, bored and disillusioned with church, maybe all you need to do is give yourself permission to stop. It’s better to be honest with yourself than to continue tiring yourself out by trying to fit in with your tribe.
And in the quietness and honesty of simply living, not as a church attender or as a Christian but just as a human, maybe you’ll experience something that you thought you’d lost forever.
If you enjoyed this MINI, check out one of our Main Issues: in-depth and illustrated looks at some big topics related to science, faith and the Universe:
Issue #5 coming in April!
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.