Why Christian subculture makes it hard to follow Jesus

I work for a Christian organisation, I have done umpteen Christian internships, I found my flat on a Christian accommodation website. I start my day with Christian music, I hang out in a Christian coffee shop, I 'ooh' and 'ahh' when someone namedrops a Christian celebrity. If it has the prefix 'Christian', I've done it, bought it, read it.

And sometimes it feels like I can't breathe. Even worse, sometimes it feels like I've lost sight of Jesus.

Been there, got the bracelet.Andrew Itaga/Unsplash

I began my faith journey in a quite unusual way, without an Alpha-style course or evangelistic talk in sight. I just rocked up at a church, calling myself a Christian, by which I meant 'I've heard about this grace thing, and I want in.' But what I think people heard was 'I think and feel and know all the things you do' (I didn't. I still don't). So instead of being discipled in the essentials of the faith, I learned from social cues. In other words, I learned what we really believe in our hearts as essential, even if we know in our heads that it isn't.

I learned, for example, that 'Jesus' was the right answer to 80 per cent of Bible study questions, which Christian authors were basically canonised and which were treated as heretics, which professions were elevated above others. Singleness (a noun I had never encountered before coming to faith) I realised, was a gift everyone was looking to return by their mid-20s and so I should swiftly become this 'Proverbs 31 woman' of which people spoke.

I noted what led to someone being given a platform, and why others were barred from serving the church publicly. And so I modified my behaviour accordingly. After all, these people were close to the God I wanted to understand. If I looked, thought, dressed, spoke and acted like they did, maybe he'd love me as much as they did.

And every time we sang Amazing Grace or I read John 3:16, I wished it were that simple. I wished what people said about grace being impossible to earn was how we all lived.

But if I had had a bracelet imprinted with letters to remind me of how to live out my faith, it would have read BWWCT instead of WWJD: But What Will Christians Think? What will they think if you go into the industry you love? (After a few raised eyebrows, I changed track and broke my own heart.) What will they think if you don't serve on a mission trip over the summer even though travel makes you anxious? (I always did). What if you don't go to the Christian festival, even though you know God is extra present there? (I never have – it will take an audible voice from heaven for me to sleep in a tent – but I still feel guilty.) What if they find out you like films that aren't rated PG-13? (I bought headphones and watched them by myself.)

Being a Christian soon became about evading anything that could be observed as sinful, rather than living out an ethic of proactive and wholehearted love. My mental energy was taken up with risk avoidance rather than stepping out. After all, it was more likely that someone would ask if I was dating a non-Christian than if I was withholding forgiveness from someone. I learned how to conform, but I was so busy living in the shadows of some ideal Christian woman that I lost track of Jesus' footsteps.

An easy come-back might be that I should not have worried about what others think and just done my own thing. But I've never found disregarding the attitudes and beliefs of other people – especially those I care about – to be realistic, let alone biblical. And as for the 'you do you' mentality, it strikes me that before there was a New Testament, there was a community and a way of life established for Jesus' followers. Christianity was 'the way' before it was recognised as a religion. Before there was evangelistic literature, there was a relational ethic that was meant to be contagious. We will rub off on people. The question is are we imparting salt and light or adding new burdens?

Jesus died, partly, to set us free from the law so that we could prioritise love and live in line with the spirit of the law rather than the letter. Of course focusing on rule compliance, since we cannot know a person's heart, makes it easier to work out who is in and who is out. But that's exactly why we are called not to judge: relying on externalities to figure out who was in and who was out was the Pharisees' forte.

It is not my wish for Christian communities to be hollowed out of all the resources that help us live out our faith. But I hope we keep in mind that we are stewards of a message, not members of a club. I hope the wood of the cross is always visible through the trees of Christian subculture.