Then and Now, part 1: Conversion

This is the first piece in a planned series of reflections on my religious experiences, as I look back on them from my current position.

Then – 1st March 1990

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Saviour. In Your Name. Amen.

As I recited those words in my head, as a fifteen-year-old in a suburban London church, I didn’t really know quite what I was letting myself in for. I remember thinking at the time “I hope I’m doing the right thing”, but after several days of attending evangelistic events, I’d been intrigued by the things I’d seen and heard.

I’d been aware for a few years that various friends of mine at school were Christians who took their faith seriously, but I’d taken no particular interest. However, a few days earlier, my friend Simon had phoned me up and asked me if I wanted to go to a debate at his church. I was bored and not particularly looking forward to school the next day, and it sounded like it might be quite interesting, so I went.

As I discovered later, the event took a fairly typical format used in evangelistic circles – it was a “grill a Christian” session. After a short introductory talk, the leader of the event, a young Baptist minister named Steve Chalke, opened up the floor for questions. It’s over thirty years ago now, so my memory of the event is somewhat hazy, but I remember the questions covering issues such as suffering, sexuality and why Jesus had to die. I’d never really understood what Christians believed about these things, and I never saw their faith as relevant to me, but as I sat and listened, it all felt like it made a bit of sense. I was a deep kid who liked to think about big issues, and I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and Chalke spoke with conviction and authority about the issues the audience were addressing. He seemed able to think on his feet and give answers to questions that made sense and provoked further thought on things. I’d also never been inside a church that was as bright, modern, comfortable and welcoming as this one. Those greeting visitors were overflowing with friendliness and enthusiasm. It blew away the rather stuffy view I’d held of churches up to that point, and I noticed the place was full of people my own age.

Nothing particularly earth-shattering happened that night – a Monday – but the seeds had been sown. Steve Chalke hosted a lunchtime event at my school on the Wednesday of that week, and I went along. It was here that I heard about an event called “The Video Express” at the church on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and it was there I found myself on Thursday night, praying “the sinner’s prayer”, and promising to devote my life to serving God.

I’d not known what to expect, but the evening consisted of slick multimedia presentations on big screens – this, of course, was a very big deal in 1990, and the technology was impressive – along with drama sketches, live music, some games and, finally, a talk. The talk was all about how empty our lives are without God. How we were trapped in selfishness and sin without the Holy Spirit to help us. How we could trust Jesus to rescue us, give us meaning and purpose, and an eternity with God in Heaven.

It had worked. It had added up. In an emotional state, I wanted it. I was aware that my life, while generally reasonably good up to this point, wasn’t perfect, and I liked what I was being offered here. I was promised love, community, friendship, purpose and safety, and it all added up to a convincing deal.

Having prayed the prayer, I was invited to stand, with quite a few others, and go through to the hall at the back of the church. Here I met with a young man called Phil, who talked me through a booklet called “Bridge to Life”, which explained how and why we were separated from God, and how belief in Jesus could reunite us with him. Again, I lapped it up enthusiastically. At the end of the evening, I found myself waiting for a bus home, with a silly grin on my face, absolutely convinced I’d found the answers to Life, The Universe, and Everything.

It was the start of an eventful journey, certainly. At the time, I had no idea how eventful it would be. But at that moment, I was welcomed into God’s kingdom with open arms, surrounded by happy people who were convinced I’d done the right thing. It turned out various friends had been praying for me to find God, and that made me absolutely certain that the evening had been a powerful encounter with a loving God, who knew everything about me, and was willing to die for me.

Now – September 2021

It’s hard to believe sometimes that I’m now 47 years old. In many ways I still feel the same as that rather naive 15-year-old that promised to serve God forever back in a different age. In one very significant way, however, I’m not the same – I’m now an atheist, and I’m full of regret and anger over the way my life as a Christian panned out.

One of the biggest things I’m particularly angry about is the rather cynical way my emotions were manipulated to get me to believe in the first place. It’s an absolute classic trick – the tried and tested talk setting the mood, the use of music, the way people are played like fine violins. You can use these techniques to get people to believe pretty much anything you like. Was it God? Of course it wasn’t.

Anyway, initially it was all wonderful, or at least seemed that way. Church life was good. I felt like I really belonged to something, and had an identity and a purpose, for the first time in my life. The road back to atheism was a long one, though, and I think it began just a couple of years after my conversion.

It’s a long story I won’t go over right now, but my problems began when I got involved in a form of Christianity that looked radical and progressive, but was in fact brutally uncompromising and deeply conservative. I spent a year out after school as a volunteer and trainee on an outreach programme, based at a church on the South Coast that had become quite famous for its rapid growth and strong community involvement. I’ll go into this in more detail later, but recent reflection has shown me that the mindset prevailing in this environment did me a lot of damage. It’s only as I watched all the things I passionately believed in unravel slowly over the following years that eventually, in 2016, I was led to be honest with myself and conclude that I no longer believed in God.

Ironically, this moment of clarity came to me at the Greenbelt Festival, the very last Christian gathering I was attending after I quit going to church a year or so earlier. By then, though, it was pretty clear that I was only going to the festival to see friends, and although I still enjoyed much of what was on the programme, I tended to avoid the “religious” stuff. I’d been to the Goth Eucharist, something I’d previously enjoyed, and although the aesthetics and the atmosphere were perfect, I realised that, spiritually, it did absolutely nothing.

I can very specifically remember the last time I actually felt anything “spiritual” in church, and that was in November 2014. It was at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which I’d visited on a week’s trip to the city, as I seriously considered emigrating to take up work for the Chicago Transit Authority. At the time, it felt like I was genuinely moved by God’s presence in a way I hadn’t for some time, and it made me very emotional in a way I hadn’t been in church for years. Only much later did I conclude that it wasn’t God, but a combination of a very manipulative form of worship common in American megachurches, and the weight of making what felt like the biggest decision in my life – the entire direction of my family’s future was at stake here. Who wouldn’t be emotional with all that on their plate?

The moment I stopped believing it all was very different to my conversion experience. It was all a quiet, peaceful business, as I finally released myself from a commitment I’d been urged to make when I was too young to understand the full implications. At the end of the festival, I packed up my tent, got on the train home, and quietly got on with the rest of my life.

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