What being in 'the wilderness' taught me about faith, church and God


For a few years now it's seemed almost fashionable in some circles to talk of struggles with church and time 'in the wilderness' of Christian culture. I'd go so far as to call it a whole subsection of the Christian blogosphere, enthusiastically received in particular by a generation of American Christians disillusioned with the churches and teaching of their youth – and unfortunately in some cases, spiritual abuse and criminal activity. There has, however, been a less positive reaction from others, who see those speaking out about their experiences as bitter, mounting unreasonable 'attacks' on successful ministries and denominations – and straying far from God in the process.

I'm one of the people who has, largely, found the boom in people writing about 'faith shifts' and 'searching' and 'questioning' helpful. It happened at a time in my life when I was starting to put my finger on the reasons that I felt 'done' with church – but I wasn't really sure if I was ready to talk to people about it. I believe that sharing aspects of our lives that have been the source of great pain and turmoil needs to be done with wisdom – and so I agree when people say that ultimately, healing, moving on and looking towards a more positive future is the way forward.

But I also believe in speaking out about the realities of our lives with the hope that things can be better and that things can change. Time spent in 'the wilderness' isn't easy – it can be a lonely place, but as I've learned it can also be a place of deepening understanding of God, of church and of ourselves. With moving on comes reflection and so for me, taking those first steps after a faith shift means sharing some of the key things it has left me with.

Doing church isn't about building an empire

And crucially, it's fine to feel uncomfortable about such tactics. This is, as I see it, especially an issue when it comes at the expense of caring for your community and facilitating discipleship. I am probably one of the very worst people to attend any church set-up that fancies itself as a 'brand' – and this is where I have to check my cynicism on a regular basis as I attempt to move on from the 'wilderness'. Maybe it's because I'm a millennial and our favourite buzzword is 'authentic', but I work in fundraising and marketing and so when all I can see on a Sunday is a marketing strategy and what is essentially a supporter journey, I want to run. Call me a hypocrite if you like, but it's too much.

I know that there will be an element of this in every church because the church needs these things, to some extent, to be effective. But it's been refreshing to visit churches where I've felt I'm not being sold anything – where I've felt as if I'm simply worshipping, learning, connecting – and where I feel I could be appreciated as an individual. In the past week an impassioned critique of Hillsong's intentions to set up a church in San Francisco has prompted a lot of debate and it's because what's perceived as grasping empire building has upset people .

A wonderful church doesn't always look like a top quality band and an amazing video and strategic teaching series designed to inflate numbers week after week. It might do – but it also looks like the little things – the quiet prayers and dinner table discipleship and realisation that God is everywhere, not just in the Sunday 'experience'. It looks like genuine care, appreciation and support. It looks like everyone having the opportunity to 'go deeper', not shiny surface-level theatrics. It doesn't necessarily look 'cool'.

The kingdom of God looks like the people that make us uncomfortable

Reading Nadia Bolz-Weber's Accidental Saints and listening to her speak on a visit to the UK in 2014 prompted me to really reflect on what the church often looks like to those on the margins. Much of Christian culture operates on the basis that you have to fit a certain mold to be 'visible'. 'People of influence' are important; wealthy people are important; cool young people are important because they give your church the right vibe. White middle class men are definitely important. Women who are married mothers may not be the most visible members of a congregation, but I know the struggles my single friends and childfree friends have had.

No matter how much, as a church, you genuinely care about 'everyone else' and what's done for them behind the scenes, what people see on the surface speaks volumes.

What people see on the surface can leave them feeling that they have to have everything figured out and successful – all their issues sorted – before they can be a valued member of your community. Coming to the realisation, as I did last year, that 'people like you' aren't massively visible in your church culture, is sobering – particularly when you're a fairly privileged member of society yourself. It's vital that churches see the potential and invest in those who don't necessarily 'fit the mold', valuing everyone for who they are and not simply seeing problems to fix or faces and voices that aren't quite right for the image they want to portray.

It's not good enough for churches to pay lip service to equality while doing little to put this into practice

As a member of the Project 3:28 collective, I spend some time every year looking at the gender balance of speakers at Christian conferences and festivals. I'm so thankful that some organisations are committed to recognising the gifts of women and giving them opportunities, but disappointed that in some organisations that affirm women in leadership and teaching roles, the balance still tips so strongly in favour of men. The same is true in the local church. More effort is needed to make egalitarian beliefs a reality.

I've sat through months of sermons that have failed to mention the many women in scripture, and months more without hearing a woman's voice. The answer to this issue is not hedging explanations and talking about how difficult it is to find women to lead or teach. Women make up more than half the church. What use was Jesus' revolutionary treatment of women if we're still going to find ourselves limited by our churches and even ignored 2,000 years later?

There will be awkward revelations about yourself – but that's ok

I think God enjoys making us uncomfortable sometimes. One of the biggest and most embarrassing revelations I've had during this time has been seeing that I had, in recent years, totally forgotten about the depth of God's love and grace for His people, seeing Him more as a perpetually disappointed manager conducting an appraisal and finding me wanting, inducing guilt and shame.

This has partly been down to problems with my self-esteem and the emotional rollercoaster of the early years of motherhood; partly, I believe, down to the pressure of the sort of church culture that is a constant stream of requests to give more, serve more, do more, organise more, attend more events – and put even more strategies into place that would supposedly make my life better. A combination of the two proved brutal, until I felt I couldn't go to a single other church service that reminded me why I didn't measure up.

Sometimes you need a good talking-to from a friend about the fact you don't need to feel guilty about it all, but it's helpful when that comes hand in hand with a revelation about the character of God.

A further wake-up call came from reading Mark Tanner's The Introvert Charismatic and recognising, in myself, the urge to retreat from having anything to do with people because charismatic evangelical culture is extrovert culture – and I don't need small talk and 'getting plugged in', thank you very much. The pressure of megachurch culture when you're an introvert can feel extreme, but the church is at its heart about community. To run from it and pretend you don't need it is futile – and so it's helpful to remember that community takes many forms – ones that everyone can find a home in.

Thankfully, you're never alone

When going through a faith shift or struggle with church, it's easy to believe, at first, that no-one else will understand you if you talk about it. It kept me quiet for a long time. I'd read too many pieces online railing against people who have struggles with church, calling them selfish 'consumer Christians'. But when I began to talk to friends about it and write about it, even in the vaguest way I knew how, people wanted to talk to me about it because they could identify. When I wrote in detail, for the first time, about how motherhood had changed my relationship with church, people didn't just chat to me about it on Twitter. They emailed me; they told me they'd sent my post to their friend who felt the same.

The recent publication of two memoirs dealing with 'faith shift', of time 'in the wilderness' – Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans and Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey – were incredibly timely for me and helped me to make sense of things. In a situation where it is so easy to become bitter and endlessly cynical, here were two women who, after everything, were still in church and could still recognise how much it meant to them. They hadn't lost their faith – in fact, it was stronger than ever – and that's what we can all hope for, in times of trouble.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge