While studying in Sheffield, I met Tom as we were on the same course. Considering that we were both history graduates, we had surprisingly little in common. Our friendship over that year taught us both a lot about patience and the need to understand the other side of a debate. However, that didn’t stop me from being shocked when he asked to share about his experience going to church. What follows is the story of an atheist’s visit to church (in his own words).
I have my best ideas in the pub.
Saturday was no different. Sipping on my third or fourth Carling and tapping my fingers along to a cover band in The White Horse in Birmingham I vaguely heard three of my friends discussing their Sunday plans. One friend, visiting Birmingham, wanted a church to attend for the weekend he was in the city. The other two, as locals, invited him to join them. A conversation as normal as any, and one I had heard many times before. However, this time a new thought appeared to me.
Although I was raised on bible stories at bed-time and hymns in school, I have been an atheist since my pre-teen years, and consider it to be a deeply held conviction of mine. I think of myself as an academic person, liberally minded, intrigued by the unknown as a search for answers not as a source of reverence. I had my mind made up on Christianity. However, it struck me hard hearing friends make plans that I had overlooked some things very close to home. My personal interest in history, politics, and society mean that I have always made an effort to understand the lives of people from different countries, backgrounds, and time periods, but I suddenly realised that there was a huge part of some very close friends’ lives I knew nothing about. I had largely remained ignorant of this part of their lives because of my own opinions on the church, and in honesty felt a bit bad about it.
“Can I come?”
Trust me, the only person more surprised than my friends to hear that phrase come out of my mouth was me. Had I really just volunteered to give up my Sunday to go to… a church? Of all places? My experience of churches when younger was cold stone, greyness, and monotone readings of scripture. I was never impressed, and had not thought about churches out of an historical context in likely over a decade. Yet, saying this out-loud had not made me regret my question.
I explained to my friends I wanted to know more about their lives. I was also upfront with them with the fact that this was no conversion; my interest was more anthropological than agnostic. They were comfortable with that, so I agreed to meet them on Sunday morning, outside Gas Street Church in the centre of Birmingham.
Upon arrival, I was taken aback by the warm welcome I received as a stranger. I spoke to a greeter about my job, history, mutual friends we had, and the fact I desperately need a haircut. He asked about my home church, and did not bat an eyelid when I told him I had never really been to a church, he remained friendly. This was not my experience of church. I went into a large yet cosy renovated warehouse, it was well lit and full of character, people smiled, I was offered coffee. This was not my experience of church. We took a seat, and a band stuck up. This was not my experience of church. This was energic, welcoming, homely, and modern. Communion even had a gluten-free option.
The band continued, guitars, synthesisers, vocals, drums, and a complete lack of organ. People started to worship, hands went up, singing started, people bobbed to the beat and smiled, and I was taken back again at the comfort people felt in a church.
To be clear, I have always been fascinated by the mentality of crowds and groups.
As a 17 year old, my football mad then-girlfriend took me to a match at the Baggies ground. She was underwhelmed at my description of the game as ‘an interesting anthropological experience.’ It did not last, I cannot say I blame her. That is what I was ready for at church. My mind instantly fired up explanations. The band played low synth tones, giving the listener a feeling of swelling. They began at resting heart rate and slowly increased to build tension. Repetition of words reinforced meaning. Group chanting enhances social bonds in a crowd. Yet, despite these explanations quickly appearing to me, unlike the football game, I could not escape the feeling I had very quickly stopped being an observer and was beginning to feel something. That was new. I felt part of something. This was still no conversion, I do not believe in a God and do not think this will change, but I could also feel my perception of faith changing.
Then the sermon began, and I heard a very engaging speaker talk about Discipleship. I am a public speaker by profession, and I recognised a lot of the audience engagement tricks and storytelling techniques I use in my own work. I also appreciated the consistent branding on the PowerPoint, but as someone that works with university lecturers I see a lot of bad PowerPoints. I expected, much as my early experience of churches and faith had been, to be made to feel inferior, powerless, and guilty. That did not happen. I heard speakers talk about social media addiction and its implications, about self-care, about maintaining relationships, about community outreach in Birmingham, and I felt empowered to tackle things in my life and my community. This was a great pep-talk and one I needed. I did not follow it through to their conclusions about the Lord’s place in my life, but their message hit home nonetheless.
To many of you reading, this probably is not a huge surprise or my words may seem strange. This may be stating to the obvious but as someone coming to this from very limited experience it blew me away. On the rare occasion I thought of the church I saw historical and political, I saw guilt, power, and control. It was another world to me, an adversary to free thinking. In places it may be that but not here, and I daresay not at most places. This seems obvious in retrospect but was not. I realised the church was not solely the outward facing political organisation I thought of it as, conservative (small c) and restrictive. Maybe this was not church, maybe it was faith. I had not seen that before.
“How are you doing?” my friend asked.
“I’ve never experienced something so genuinely culturally alien. But it’s truly excellent.” I replied. I do talk like that, my friends are very patient.
By the arrival of communion, I felt invigorated, motivated, and energised. Ever the sceptic I thought at the time that this must be the feeling people call God. I felt full. I felt like a big yellow balloon was inflating within me, I felt loved by a room of people I had never met. I was beginning to understand why people liked this. After asking a friend’s permission, I took communion, which I had previously refused at funeral services (much to the dismay of some family members). The service wound down, and I went to thank the organiser; another religious leader that seemed interested and not annoyed at my lack of faith, and thanked me honestly for my attendance. My friends and I left together, and got on with our days.
It is now Sunday evening, and apparently writing this article could not have waited until tomorrow. I still feel great, still feel like I can do anything, change my life if I wish, and help my city. Will I go again? 12 hours ago I would have laughed at that question, now the answer is not so sure. Did I feel God? That is more certain. I do not believe I did to my mind. But, I did feel love, and I feel welcome in a place that was this morning so distant from my understanding. I think I understand why people do this now, I think I understand my friends’ faith not as a product of upbringing, and experiences, but as a connection to a genuine community. I am glad I went. Let’s see what the future holds.
Words: Tom Gidlow