One gothic friend used to say he could never go to church because his head would spin as soon as he walked through the doors – a poor reference to The Exorcist. I wasn’t quite at that point when I decided to visit the SAP ‘in-situ’, so to speak, but it wasn’t easy. Sneaking into a Christmas Eve midnight service and not making eye-contact with anyone was quite different to me turning up on any old Sunday, in broad daylight, without a religious festival day as an excuse.
I confess I even did a drive-by of the church before sending the email saying I may attend a service. I was also slightly comforted by an article on their website that made gentle recommendations on how to welcome new visitors.
The designated Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Major domestic that morning over everything and nothing. The appropriateness of trackie-daks as a clothing choice. Sunday best? Did I need to dash out to DJs for a fascinator? On the drive over, the bickering continued. “I can’t believe we’re bloody fighting on the way to church,” I ranted. Not a great start.
We arrive. Paste on smiles. Hold hands. Walk towards the doors. I now understand this is jokingly referred to in the trade as ‘the carpark conversion’. If we slap on a game face, then we may just ‘look’ faithful enough. Which isn’t the point at all, but I hadn’t learnt that then.
In the doors. Name badges. Phew. I am spectacularly crap at remembering names so typically retreat to the PR stereotype and call everyone ‘lovey’, ‘gorgeous’ or ‘darling’ in order to hide it. But this wasn’t a room of media hacks, I wasn’t swanning around with a Bolly in my hand, and peppering strangers with endearments would have probably made me look like the wacky OTT evangelist. I have never been happier to see Avery labels and a Sharpie.
I liken our welcome that day to Goldilocks and baby bear’s porridge. Not too cold, not too hot, just right. Everyone was, well, normal. I remember feeling a little awkward when asked had we come from a different church, but no-one raised their eyebrows when we said we didn’t have one. Most importantly, no-one pressured us to come to this church when they discovered we were ‘church-less’. One member of the team did rush over with enthusiasm and I recall bracing myself, only to discover her passion was sharing where to find the barista coffee served after the service. Considering I believe instant coffee is the work of the devil, I appreciated the advice.
Growing up in England, my church exposure was all sandstone edifices and glorious stained-glass cathedrals. Hallowed halls. Pomp and circumstance organ music. Despite my lack of structured Christianity to date, I do love a good, rousing hymn. Dear Lord & Father of Mankind is a particular favourite. Attending my Mum’s weekly W.I. meetings as a kid where they belted out ‘Jerusalem‘ each week probably also played a part.
So the drums, guitars and electric piano didn’t quite fit my experience, but I figured if the church could modernise then so could I. The hymns may not have been the ones from my childhood but the essence was the same. Joy. Grace. Thankfulness.
The sermon that day focused on prayer and how, in times of persecution, prayer increased. I could identify – I’d had a bit of an ‘in case of emergency break glass’ relationship with God until then! The tone was intelligent, in-touch, blending teaching with humour and plenty of relevance to the real world. Without a dog collar or black dress in sight.
There was also a reminder that prayer ought to play a part of regular spiritual practise. As I have weeks when I’m one and zen with my yoga and meditation, and others when I’m hopeless, I understood the sentiment. Plus, as I’ve found over the past months, finding time to have a quick natter with God is often far easier than getting quiet time with my yoga mat.
Post-service coffee and chats were similarly unthreatening. Genuinely friendly people who wished us welcome and wanted to know a little about why we were there. My stereotypes were proving more and more insubstantial. Where was the prideful self-righteousness? I sadly realised that, for those traits, I needed only to take a hard, honest look in the mirror.
After the service, during the afternoon and well into the evening I experienced a sense of what I can only describe as quiet contentment. A peaceful sense of space that reminded me of yoga and meditation, yet with a far deeper sense of….what was it?
And then it struck me. Connection. A spiritual affinity that not even my beloved yoga delivered. Now I had to figure out if it was illusory, or something I could work with.