“So, do you go to church every Sunday?”
That – by and large – is the question I’m most frequently asked upon discussing my faith.
Not sex, not drinking, not my position on homosexuality or women leading in the church – but a mild confusion over the notion that I actively participate in a church service every Sunday. Brows are usually raised even further when I add that I also commit to running a community group on a weekly basis as well. That I lead music on a regular basis. That I occasionally preach.
One of two things usually happens at this point:
Scenario one: the questioner sticks out their bottom lip, mumbles “Tha’s cool”, and the moment passes.
Scenario two: a pint glass grinds to a halt halfway to the questioner’s mouth. Their eyes take on the slightest of squints while they mull over their next move, and then launch it, like a conversational cruise missile. One of the biggies. The thing they “Don’t get about Christianity”.
And I enjoy responding to them. I take delight in it, in fact. Because the modern church is so fractured, so confused, so ‘unsexy’, the general thrust of most questions I find aimed at me aren't loaded with judgement, but a genuine interest in a topic they haven't been able to pull apart since RE lessons. Why bother? What’s the point? It’s all bollocks, isn’t it? You’re not allowed to say words like bollocks, are you?
It happened after my first week as a writer at ShortList: Friday night drinks at the local, an opportunity for my new colleagues to work out if I was one of those “nutter” Christians that kicks off in the Mail.
“What do you think about gay people?”
The table became totally silent, as though my answer would become a microcosm representing the response of the wider church.
I stumbled my way through my thoughts on the topic – emphasising that they were my personal view, and only representative of the liberal section of the Church of England, and had been much more eloquently explained by the likes of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby: that Jesus loves unconditionally, that the Church is a place for everyone, that the Church needs to embrace homosexuality and apologise for a lot of harm it’s done to that community – that it's a subject that's far more important beyond the UK, in nations where homosexuality is punishable by death – but that it’s incredibly unlikely that Christianity will ever unify around the topic.
Having passed that test, we moved through a number of other topics: sex, drinking, life after death, Islam. I tried to establish that I didn’t have many answers – that anyone claiming to have all the answers is usually very wrong, and should be avoided. That questions are often more helpful than answers.
To ensure I hadn't spoken out of turn, I asked a number of Christian guys I know living in London those same questions I most frequently encounter. Not theological, bible stuff, not 'history of Christianity and its biggest offences' stuff, just the normal every day mechanics of having a faith. Here's what they had to say for themselves.
Would you ever date a non-Christian?
John Porter - 29-year-old designer.
"Yes but I wouldn't marry one. I think dating is for learning things from each other, so I'd be happy for dating to be where they find faith. I couldn't build a life with someone who didn't share my faith."
Jack Talbot - 21-year-old part-time model, working at a Jaguar parts company.
"Of course I would! I would prefer a Christian, but love is love. As long as they can accept my belief, then it's cool."
Bryan West - 27-year-old consultant.
"Yes, but it does make things harder. Behaviour is influenced by our beliefs so sharing life and making plans together when your value bases are very different is tricky. It's difficult to work out how you spend your time, money and energy if one of you doesn't believe in a God that you are meant to put before them. Interestingly, the same goes for other Christians with very different values. For instance, those with a different view on whether God wants to speak today or heal today. My experience is that it is about shared values which tend to be more compatible if you share a similar faith."
Would you use dating apps?
Jack Talbot - 21-year-old part-time model, working at a Jaguar parts company.
"I do use dating apps, mainly Tinder but I have dabbled in others. I've met so many great people through Tinder. I love talking to new people."
David Matthews - 35-year-old actor.
"I did use dating apps, Christian ones and regular ones too. Had a blast with both. Christian girls are definitely more ready to settle down more than most!"
Chris Hawford - 28-year-old accountant.
"Yes and have in the past. I'm not sure I get on well with the online dating world. That has nothing to do with my faith and everything to do with my sense of humour/ face."
BW: "Yes, I don't think there is anything wrong with getting a bit of tech help. However, the tricky thing is when swiping on your phone actually leads you to mentally swiping people in and out of your life based on their face."
Has your faith ever resulted in any office/work awkwardness?
CH: "Yes. I work in a place where government legislation is debated vigorously and when the same-sex marriage issue came up (and continues to come up), my faith automatically associated me with the window-licking, placard-painting, "I don't understand why we don't just burn them", sackcloth-wearing God-botherers. Being a broad church, you're going to get some nutters out there and sadly I was associated with the more backward, sandal-wearing versions of them."
DH: "Not greatly. Occasionally it's worth reminding colleagues who've decided to rant about the evils of religion that I may be taking a different view, but the people I work with are mostly fairly mature."
DC: "Very rarely. The only awkward moments I can remember surrounded someone assuming I’d hold a deeply conservative view – that I would deny evolution or think that everyone is going to hell. I actively enjoy outlining why I really, really disagree with those views."
What is the assumption you hate most about the fact you are Christian?
Neil Andrews - 24-year-old graduate
"I don’t like that many people think they understand me once they hear that I’m a Christian. Whatever the preconception, it makes me feel uncomfortable. That is one of the biggest challenges of being a Christian, identifying with something that people identify strongly for or against. It polarises people and can interfere with normal relationships."
JT: "I tend to be ousted or just not asked out to events with people I've just met because they assume that as I'm a Christian, I strictly can't drink or go out. I find myself constantly reminding people that I'm still a normal 21 year old dude that wants to enjoy myself, I just think Jesus is a sick guy too!"
BW: "I don't hate any of the assumptions people have about me, I really enjoy talking about them with people. What I do hate is the assumption that not believing in God is somehow a logical default position. This is often underpinned by some very poor arguments; that faith defies logic, that faith creates war, that faith conflicts with science. That's not to say that some Christians aren't illogical, war-mongering, ignoramuses but don't let their mistake be your mistake - have a proper explore and see what you really think."
Have you ever questioned your faith?
NA: "Absolutely, my degree in infectious disease/biology means that I encounter difficult questions about suffering and God’s interaction with the natural world simultaneously. There’s no escaping doubt when your best friends aren’t Christian. I have spiritual highs and lows just like every Christian. Being an atheist sometimes feels like a safer bet, being a relativist more easygoing, but I remain a Christian."
DH: "Quite often - you'd be very closed minded not to. And I don't really think it's a problem - refusing to question one's faith is more a sign of insecurity about it than of strength in it. Keeping yourself in a constant state of doubt is clearly rather tedious, but events and experiences should always cause you to reconsider what you know, and may lead you to question aspects of your faith. You have to do this trusting in your relationship with God and that the experience will lead you into a deeper understanding of your faith, not a rejection of it. But that is done in trust, not in certainty."
DM: "I have totally questioned my faith, I still do now occasionally. It's one of those things where, I like to think of myself as a normal rational guy and as a Christian I believe that there is a higher power in a totally supernatural kind of way. That's a big claim right? Sometimes you question those things. It's totally normal. I almost think 'How could you not question it?'"
BW: "Yes, doubt is one of the most powerful drivers helping to develop us spiritually, scientifically and socially. God doesn't have a problem with our doubt as long as we pursue it and look for answers. Not pursuing answers to doubt is a real problem but we are particularly lucky to have a faith that is supported by evidence and reason (at least as far as any faith possibly can be)."
How do you feel Christianity enhances your life?
Shaun Wood - 26-year-old civil servant.
"Being a Christian makes the tough times seem slightly less daunting. Big decisions in life have always been shared through prayer and they always seem to work themselves out. My life is enhanced through the friendships I have made at church. Some of my most important friendships have started at church."
CH: "Prayer enhances my life because it should be like a conversation with God; there's time to speak and time to listen. Like with any conversation, sometimes it's a bit of a rant, sometimes a heart-to-heart, sometimes a list of things to be thankful for, other times a Christmas list of things I'd like to have. Going to a local church definitely plugs you in to the community around you. Lots of people claim that they miss the 'community spirit' living in London, but you definitely get that in a church."
NA: "Being a Christian allows me to appreciate the world as something intricate balanced and beautiful. It gives me a sense of purpose and curiosity to explore the laws that thread the world together. The best times of my life have coincided with a strong relationship with God. It frees me from the tangles of public opinion, but holds me accountable for the mistakes I know that I make. It comes with a sense of belonging to the greatest narrative in history and a community that is accepting, authentic and kind. It gives me hope."
Are any Christians you know homophobic?
Dan Roberts - a 27-year-old consultant.
"Some genuinely are. Some - usually for reasons of cultural background, either ethnicity or age, more than their faith - are less comfortable with homosexual people, but I wouldn't say they are genuinely prejudiced, and would be open to challenge on their views. Some have deeply considered theological concerns about homosexuality, but at the same time are some of the most incredibly hospitable and welcoming people to homosexuals I've encountered. Many are entirely relaxed about it. I think that in general the church has failed in its duty of welcome and hospitality to homosexual people, which is something all Christians should regret. But also that Christianity still has insights and wisdom on how human beings should conduct romantic relationships with one another, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and that it should be unafraid to speak them."
Dm: "Most Christians I know are definitely not homophobic. I know people that are - but they're not Christians. I would like to think everyone of my friends is definitely not as small minded as that. There are currently three gay couples attending my church and I am super proud of that fact."
BW: "So I can't comment on the proportion of Christians that are homophobic but it is definitely something I have come across. I used to teach in South London at a school with a large proportion of Afro-Caribbean kids many of whom had been brought up under a strand of Christianity that was homophobic, somehow teaching that it was okay to be horrible to people that were gay despite Jesus saying the most important thing is to love. I enjoyed unpacking this and seeing the kids realise the hypocrisy of their actions. As for me, I have had the pleasure of helping one of my best friends, recognise and embrace his homosexuality."
NA: "It’s hard to say! To many a belief that gay sex, or gay marriage is immoral is an expression of homophobia, regardless of how it’s expressed. In which case it could be said of many bible believing friends. However I cannot remember any instance of explicit homophobia in all my years at church. It is an issue that often Christians tend to avoid, for fear of conflict, and because it obscures the central message that God’s love is for everyone."
Has your religion ever put love interests off/ruined dates?
CH: "Yes. The no sex before marriage thing was never explicitly mentioned, but definitely ruined an otherwise pleasant evening. I think she sees it as a wonderful challenge though, which is odd."
DC: "Definitely. Some people think that I’ll view dating with a great deal more intensity because of my faith - that if it becomes serious then I’ll start forming ideas of settling down and getting married, which is rubbish. I’ve been on a couple of dates where they’ve got hung up on the idea that I go to church every week, that surely I would have grown out of that. At least it flagged that a second date probably wasn’t a great idea."
Do you get drunk?
JT: "Not often but yeah, sometimes. I don't need drink to have fun, but it can be nice to have a drink from time to time."
DM: "I don't really get drunk anymore. Nothing to do with my faith though. I've settled down a bit now, got married to a beautiful woman and had a gorgeous little boy. Life has changed for the better and I go to bed much earlier now. Plus the hangovers at 35 are killer! All said though I do still love a beer or bottle of wine."
SW: "I get drunk far too often."
NA: "Not often, only with close friends on special occasions, and never very drunk. I like to drink, but hate how influential it is as a social lubricant in some friends lives. Perhaps it’s more snobbery than a religious stand. It can be fun."
What are your thoughts on sex before marriage?
BW: "Sex is a funny thing, it is often one of the first questions I get if people know I am a Christian. I had sex before I got married. I think in an ideal world I wouldn't have had sex before I got married and my recommendation to others would still be to wait. God loves sex, he made it. But to adapt a speech from Cool Runnings - if your relationship isn't enough without sex, it won't be enough with it."
DR: "I think the current dichotomy often presented in contemporary culture between a fairly casual attitude to sex and a highly restrictive one is unhelpful. Society needs a voice which says: 'not having sex is okay' and which promotes the value of sex while protecting it from being cheapened, and the church should be unafraid to lead here. Promoting that sex is sufficiently valuable that it should take place in marriage is therefore a perfectly reasonable line for the church to encourage. However, when abstinence becomes a point of Christian identity and discussion is suppressed - as it commonly is now - the church puts too much emphasis on sexual behaviours, and makes it harder for Christians to understand their sexuality in the context of their faith."
DM: "I had sex before I got married. I wasn't always a Christian - but to be honest I did even when I was a Christian. I don't care what anyone says, sex is better when you love the person you're having sex with. People get so hung up on sex. I think if you are committed to a person and you love them it doesn't matter if you're married or not. Lots of folks would disagree with me I'm sure. God wants the best for me in all things, he wants all of my practices to be healthy in body and mind. If you love each other, consensual sex between two adults is no big deal."
Have you encountered any insults about being super religious?
CH: "Not since I left school - most people have grown up by now. I think the insults come more from general "media" portrayals of Christians and the twitterati who misunderstand a story and wrongly come to the conclusion that all Christians must be [insert horrific adjective here] [insert despicable noun for a defective member of society here]."
DC: "Not insults – but some friends enjoy keeping more of a ‘tab’ on my behaviour. They’ll pull you up on anything they don’t believe is appropriate for me to have said or done; a joke that was too cutting, or if you aren’t as ‘forgiving’ as they’d expect. They’ll remind you with something like, “That’s not very Christian of you”. It’s not a bad thing – it’s actually quite nice to be held accountable, to have your faith recognised like that."
(Images: Rex, iStock)