This evening, the weekly small group is at my house. I’ve made macaroni cheese with roast apples for afters: cooking for a dozen has become second nature. The doorbell starts to ring, and gradually my friends let each other in. In many ways they feel more like family. One by one they collect their food from the kitchen until finally we are all seated – some on chairs, others on cushions or the arms of sofas. “Thank you God for this food,” they pray, “Bless those who have prepared it. I ask now that you would really just pour out your spirit into our hearts. Let us hear your voice. Let us know that you are with us. Bless our conversations and may we know your love. Amen”
Part 2: Fear for those within the church
*For part 1, click here.*
The closeness of community found in many evangelical churches is uncommon in our society. In many ways, meetings are a haven in the rolling seas of chaos and calm that pervade daily life; a space that is steady, and steadfastly supportive. At their best, ‘small groups’ are places where people can share their troubles and happinesses, week in, week out, and together turn their focus back to God, the One who never changes.
If I could guess the most common reason why evangelical Christians leave the Church, it would have something to do with the moral sway the church holds. Often people love the community, but alongside the sense of belonging there is a confusing feeling of being restricted and controlled – confusing because often (but not always) there is no one individual actually doing the controlling.
“Often people love the community, but alongside the sense of belonging there is a confusing feeling of being restricted and controlled.”
Rather, a sense of moral alertness pervades the community at all times, as everyone looks out for each other. At times it can seem like an innocent comment over coffee has a hundred years of history and accusation hiding behind it:
|Innocent comment over coffee||Possible translation|
|“We missed you at church on Sunday!”||“Are you going astray?”|
|“I noticed you chatting with Bruce.”||“Don’t have sex with Bruce.”|
|“You’re very brave wearing a low-cut top”||“You’re going to cause the men to sin.” (Heterosexuality is assumed throughout most evangelical church culture.)|
With the slippery slope of Hell never too far away, the stakes are high. The importance of helping friends to take ‘the narrow road’ – the difficult road of faith – is imperative. No-one can do it alone.
The world, Christians are told, has lost its way, and no longer knows right from wrong. It’s up to Christians to set an example. The exact rules vary from church to church, but in general, some sins can be overlooked:
- prejudice / discrimination
- wasting resources
- destruction of natural habitats
- judging others
Other must be avoided at all costs:
- Doing / thinking about anything sexual outside of marriage
- dating someone who isn’t a Christian
- dating someone of the same sex
- watching porn
- wearing clothes that might be seen as sexy (women only)
- feeling angry
- getting drunk
Any desires apart from the ‘desire for God’ are perceived as threatening because they could lead someone to sin – which could in turn lead them to Hell. Sexual desire, for instance, is seen as particularly powerful and therefore particularly dangerous. The following are common practice for many young evangelical Christians when interacting with someone of the opposite sex, in order to guard against being suddenly overtaken by sexual desire:
- Side-hugs only.
- Keep your bedroom door open if they come round.
- Never pray with them.
- Watch out for personal / 1:1 conversations with them.
On top of this, the following is recommended:
- Give access to your internet history to another Christian to check regularly.
- ‘Make yourself accountable’ to a designated, generally older Christian who will ask you regular, probing questions to make sure you’re not going astray.
It may be surprising that such a large group of people would follow this moral code, but if a high level of shame is already present, people have little trust in their own ability to make good decisions, so the control and influence maintained by some pastors is seen as helpful protection. For others, it is the fact that these rules are presented as God’s morals, so to disobey them is to leave God.
“Many evangelical Christians maintain a high level of self-monitoring.”
Spending time in this environment means that the rules become internalised, so many evangelical Christians maintain a high level of self-monitoring, ensuring they only think acceptable thoughts and feel acceptable feelings. This long-term suppression of negative emotions such as sadness and anger is emotionally damaging, leading to a split between what is seen – that which is presentable – and the ‘shadow side’ that must be hidden. This hiding of the ‘shadow side’ prevents individuals from forming deep connections with other people, which can in turn lead to intense feelings of loneliness, even while part of a caring community.
When a Christian who has internalised the moral code either makes a mistake or chooses to go against what they have been taught, the shame that comes from within can be crushing. Those who actively choose to live differently often leave the Church altogether, assuming they are de facto excluded by their unrepentant actions.
Without being part of evangelical churches, I may never have learnt to cook for twelve without thinking twice; I may not have felt the security of belonging to a group who care deeply about me; I probably wouldn’t have survived the first years of primary school teaching.
“Love must not give way to fear, either of Hell or of the kind of God who might send people there.”
The potential of Christian community for enabling people to grow through feeling securely loved is immense. However that love must not give way to fear, either of Hell or of the kind of God who might send people there. Fear leads to control, but love trusts people with their choices, understanding that most of life is less about choosing between good and evil and more about deciding between different maybe slightly better or worse options.
Instead of trying to assert control over each other’s choices, let’s encourage each other to be brave; let’s teach people to know themselves well enough to be able to live within their integrity; let’s assert that God is with them and that they are not helpless.
I am not helpless.
I am loved.
I am worthy.
I am capable of making good enough choices that may or may not look like the rules I am supposed to follow.
And when I make mistakes, they are not a sign of my general evil inclination, they are the next step for me to learn from and move forwards.