Spirited Exchanges Banner

Reflections from an exile

My faith journey began as an adolescent seeking identity and a framework of meaning on which to build a sense of connectedness in the world. I recall a deep sense of belonging when around a group of young Christian people who attended a evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic church (EPC church). At the age of 15, I made a decision to enter this EPC sub-culture and found it full of life, friendship and experiential faith. My sense of self and my place in the world became neatly packaged in concepts, values and beliefs that made sense to me personally, and made sense of the turmoil of world events that characterised the later part of the Cold War under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.

This snug “meaning” fit between my outer world and the inner world of experiential faith culminated in my accepting an invitation to continue my faith journey as a full-time minister. This involved ministry training and mentoring and resulted in formal recognition by an EPC national structure. I had a special interest in how the church might seek to equip younger people to make sense of an emerging post-modern society. A world that was moving rapidly away from the suspiciousness and monoculturalism of the Cold War era to a society that embraced and validated other cultures because it was beginning to recognise its own culture, colonialism and dominant/minority socio-political issues.

However, after 10 years of ministry, I returned to working in the public sector, disillusioned, angry and with a disintegrated sense of life's purpose, the existence of God, and deeply suspicious of organised religion.

On reflection, several factors contributed to this meltdown.  First, a good friend, mentor and ministry colleague committed suicide, leaving a young family, friends and faith community to deal with significant trauma. It would be safe to say this suicide shattered my neatly packaged framework of life and faith and challenged my values and beliefs about death, ministry and life. Secondly, I began to detect serious divergence occurring between the way New Zealand children and young people were being educated and the way faith was communicated to them by the EPC church I ministered within. Thirdly, I enrolled in an undergraduate programme of theological reflection with a major focus on contemporary pastoral studies. Lastly, I began to explore this growing disquiet within myself with the assistance of a skilled spiritual director.

The suicide of a ministry colleague forced me to examine my own mortality and to ask deep questions about what kind of person I was, and what kind of person I wanted to become with what remained of my life. These questions centred on my identity, intimacy needs in my relationships and a wider understanding of adult spirituality. The tidy package of values and beliefs I had developed during my early Christian experience was utterly unable to assist me with the shattering suicide of a mentor. How could well-meaning Christians expect god to answer a prayer for a car-park outside Queen Street when others find car-parks to purchase goods they later use in their suicide! I began to notice a growing disparity between my outer world, shaped so neatly by the EPC church, and my inner world screaming for a spirituality that made sense of the mess and uncertainty of my life.

Also at this time, education philosophy was undergoing a shift from being shaped by a one-size-fits-all concept of life-span development (Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Kolberg), towards ecological frameworks much more interested in the local, contextual (cultural) and narrative concepts of knowledge and cognitive learning (Rogers, Vykotski, Bronfenbrenner). Young people from Christian families were being educated in environments of collective exploration rather than authoritative informing. Like me, many Christian young people began experiencing chronic internal conflict.

The EPC church in which I ministered continued to provide a ‘talking-head' model of authoritative informing. Instead of the church rediscovering that its roots are buried neck-deep in narrative, local theology and experience with god, it preferred to beat harder on the authority drum.

Scripture, rich in the story of local relationships, continued to be used as an explicit and unchallengeable authority on everything from dating to the proliferation of genetically modified organisms.

The EPC church's self-imposed monopoly on truth became increasingly divergent in relation to young peoples growing tolerance of others' perspectives, their accepting the validity of another's experience and their unprecedented confidence to find a voice in an increasingly multicultural, and multiple-meaning society.

These issues played heavily on my mind. On the one hand I felt it was important for Christian young people to develop skills to live in a post-modern secular society, and on the other, I was a chief spokesman for a tradition of certainty, absolute authority and one-size-fits-all evangelical spirituality.

For me, my crisis of faith was centred in a crisis of integrity. Integrity demanded integration. My experience of life needed to fit into a framework of meaning, even if that framework included uncertainty, doubt, mystery, magic and story. I have a distinct memory of standing before the congregation one Sunday morning and looking out upon a sea of sincere faces and saying to myself “I just can't do this shit anymore”. I doubted a dominantly male god, I doubted a divine conception, I was suspicious that Christian concepts of hell, sin, salvation and forgiveness were no more than linguistic constructions designed to hold people in moral infancy. I increasingly found church to be more like an infomercial for childish faith, an exercise in holding people back from experiencing mature faith through repeated exhortations (usually from a male leader) to jump higher, live more virtuously, give more, die more. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word “really”, I could have eliminated world poverty by now!

It was not long before these internal issues got the better of me. I ejected from EPC faith like a pilot ejecting from a fighter-jet moments before it is hit by a missile. I could not peddle EPC faith and keep a straight face! I could no longer muster the inclination or energy to teach impressionable people that the earth was only 7500 years old and that Christian faith was the only way to avoid the horrors of a hellish afterlife. Most importantly, I could no longer be an active participant in a system of socialisation that appeared to prevent people from engaging with their faith as adults instead of being held in parental social transactions. 

Through my theological reflections and self-analysis, I began to appreciate that it was indeed possible, and necessary to find new faith pathways, places to stand, points of confluence that addressed my need to discover a larger vista. Through the acceptance of others on a similar journey, I am learning to trust my instinct and inner search for adult forms of beauty, goodness and truth. For me, the revelation of god is not a closed set of values to dogmatically define and defend, rather a large landscape to explore. While I continue to have doubts about many things, I feel that my journey so far has produced in me a deep appreciation of culture, faith commitments, myth, custom and ritual as significant and valuable features of a physiologically healthy individual and wider community.


Web Design Wellington - Vision Web Design