From the first week of my existence on this earth, I have been going to church — pretty much every Sunday since then, that’s where you’ll find me. So, church and church life has played a large role in shaping me into the person I am today.
My Dad is a pastor, and I know he would be understanding to hear me say that although this has been most definitely a blessing, it has also been somewhat of a burden. Preachers’ kids are often viewed by others as an extension of their parents and their ministry, and this can place a heavy weight of expectation as to where we place our priorities and whom, or what, we put our faith in. I was privileged enough to grow up in an extremely loving home and my parents predominantly sought to teach me the value of being a child of God. However, I was not completely shielded from societal expectations of who I should be because of what my parents do.
As I reached my teenage years I felt these pressures and assumptions build up, and this led me to struggle with my identity; both as being labelled as ‘Christian’ and more generally of what I wanted to do with my life, and who I needed to be in order to achieve this. The expectation that I shared the same faith as my parents often made me feel hesitant about raising questions or doubts whilst in church. This led me to be a child who grew up systematically going to church whilst having, what I can see now as, an extremely underdeveloped faith.
As a late teen I struggled with mental health issues, specifically social anxiety. Through therapy I was able to understand how some of the negative thoughts that troubled me so much stemmed from these pressures that I felt growing up. Funnily enough, it took this crisis moment for me to begin to make sense of God and religion, the distinction between these two things and how I related to them. This was really the first time that I felt a strong personal relationship with God and His guiding presence in my life. And it was this guidance that led me to this university, St Andrews.
Nevertheless, by the time I arrived at university I was somewhat burned out with church. I had been going my whole life, whether I liked it or not. But in finding a new sense of identity in my relationship with God, I decided to join a church here. I’d been told about a church called Cornerstone, so I rocked up one Sunday morning to the town hall not knowing what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. Firstly, I was shocked to see so many young people, as my experience of church thus far in life had been lots of (lovely and amazing) old people. But this was completely different – a room buzzing with chat and friendly faces.
Cornerstone has made me fall in love with church again. The reason? I was accepted as Charis, and nobody met me with preconceived ideas of who I was or what I believed, and hence I was able to deepen my faith and explore what my belief in God meant for my identity. In Cornerstone we are given the opportunity to meet in smaller groups once a week to cook for each other, spend time together and talk about God. This has brought my faith alive. It is an environment in which questions are not only accepted, but also encouraged. For me, there is absolutely no point in believing something if it does not stand up to questioning! We discuss the parts of the Bible that we struggle to come to terms with or accept, and approach these issues and doubts with open hearts and open minds.
Church shouldn’t be painted as a group of people who are perfect. We are all aware, and should be, of the mistakes that churches have made and continue to make. The truth is, no church is perfect, but simply a group of people in who are all flawed and broken in our own ways. But this makes me marvel even more at God’s grace, for He brings together a group of imperfect people and, as a collective, we look to Him for guidance. We are called to mirror Him to the best of our abilities in our attitudes towards others.
I have found my identity here at St Andrews. It is not in my parents, or in the label of “the religious friend.” My identity is in my relationship with God. I would encourage and challenge all to go to church, to come for a week and try it out, to challenge what you hear if you disagree with it and to raise questions if you have them. You may just be surprised by what you experience.
Photo Credits: Eliot Davis