Sarah Bessey loved Jesus, but left church disillusioned. She talks to Amy Boucher Pye about the struggles she faced and how, to her great surprise, she found herself back in a weekly gathering of believers.
When I was out speaking about my book Jesus Feminist, people kept asking me, “Can you tell me about a little part where you said, ‘I didn’t go to church and then I did’?” So many people around the world were struggling with church as an institution, saying, “I’m in that spot and I don’t know how to get to the other side.”
People felt out of sorts – they wondered if all the ideas that they thought were super important maybe weren’t as important as they thought, or maybe there’s more room in the narrative than they initially expected.
And so I wrote Out of Sorts to speak to these people. I wrote with a lot of tenderness because I kept thinking of them and I remembered myself from 10–15 years previously when I was feeling out of sorts. As I was writing, I pondered, “What do I wish someone had said to me then? What things helped, and what didn’t?”
A big part of my disillusionment with the church was because I bought into the belief that God has big plans which all depended on me working harder and harder. I just felt exhausted and that I needed a break. And I felt a bit of a misfit too. More than anything else, I felt disenchanted with the institution of church. I felt like Jesus is the guy I can get behind, but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it.
So I thought, “I’ll be a follower of Jesus but not go to church – that’s how I’ll differentiate myself in my religious views.” But then I had a moment thinking: What does this mean? How can I follow Jesus and not be a Christian? I started off feeling challenged, which I now think was from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was leading me through curiosity.
I wanted to know more about Jesus, even though I had read the Gospels so many times growing up. I had in my memory the Jesus of my childhood and the Jesus of church culture, and yet as I read the Gospels I saw that these pictures were at odds with what I found in the Bible. So I started studying Dallas Willard’s work and Brennan Manning, and a few academics such as Tom Wright. And I was reading some opposing views of Jesus too – is he real? And so on.
As I was wrestling and reading, I felt like I fell in love with Jesus all over again. And I thought, he is the one worth leaving everything behind for, and this is worth reorienting my life around. And so, when people would ask me how I ended up back in church, I’d say, “I just love Jesus!” So here I am, finding myself in crazy places with people who love him too.
Respecting each other’s journey
My husband Brian and I were both burned out and broken, but despite coming from the same background and having similar stories, we went in two opposite directions on the question of church. Whereas I wanted to move away from institutions, he went more in the direction of, “I want to go to seminary – I’d like to have more structure and more foundations.” This could have put a lot of pressure on our marriage, but we recognised it and were aware that not a lot of people can navigate these big questions and survive with a healthy marriage.
We wanted to hold on to each other in the midst of our search and part of that was saying to each other, “I’m going to give you permission to be wrong.” We knew there was a lot in the middle that we agreed on, and we wanted to keep talking and to do this from a posture of submitting to one another, honouring each other and respecting each other’s journey.
By the time a few years had gone by, we had landed in a very similar spot, but we came at it from different directions. He moved, and I moved and God was moving. Today, we stand together in harmony without any collateral damage littering behind us. Very few people go through marriage – we’ve been married 15 years now – without having some pretty serious challenges. And part of marriage is keeping step with each other through these challenges. Sometimes they can be spiritual in nature, or physical, or all kinds of different reasons for changes. If you want to be married to the same person that you married when you were 20, you’re in for a long road!
Finding my way back
When I decided to stop going to church, I thought I was done. I assumed I would be one of those people who loved God and served him, but saw the church as passé. I thought I had evolved past it. But six years into that detox from institutional religion, we went to a local church for Easter Sunday as a concession to convention. And all I knew was that I felt like I was home.
So we just kept showing up. I had been going for a year before I really thought about it. I had fallen in with a great group of people and I began to realise that my previous experiences with the church had been small and narrow. I needed to encounter the bigger, wider, more wonderful story of God in the world that had been expressed across traditions, across lines, across nations, across centuries, across orders. I began to realise just how big, diverse and generous our faith really is and I realised that maybe there’s room for someone like me!
I still don’t always like all of the stuff that comes along with church culture, but that’s OK too. I still show up because we’re committed to it. It’s a worthwhile thing to be intentional in developing community and being part of something that’s bigger than ourselves.
I feel like I have learned to love Jesus better from hearing from other people why they love him and follow him, and how they encounter him – it brings such richness to the way I see and experience God. And for me that’s what church is. We gather together to be together, and then we step back out into the corners of the world where we are.
I’m still surprised that we ended up back in the charismatic church because they don’t observe any of the ancient practices that I’ve fallen in love with. But this church is my home, and where I belong. I’ve tried to make my home elsewhere, but I always find my way back. And that’s part of my story – that I stopped believing that one church will fit everyone. We have a great big family, so we need to get alongside each other.
Charismatic churches can bring a lot of good things to the conversation as a whole. One obvious gift is passion; there’s not a disconnect between your head and your heart, or doctrine and theology and experience. Welding together these things is an important piece of living a wholehearted life.
Then there’s a great history of egalitarianism. If someone is operating in the gifts of prophecy, leadership, wisdom, then we say, bring it to the table! We need it! And there’s more caution about quenching the Spirit and missing out. Also, there are wonderful expressions of prayer and worship. In the last 25 years or so, we’ve moved from being the black sheep to shaping how Christians worship publicly – just look at Alpha and other programmes.
Why writing is vital to me
There are times when I want to throw in the towel with my writing. But when I start to think it’s ridiculous trying to write books and speak, and be mum to my four children, I remember that my writing is what makes me feel truly myself. So I can’t throw in the towel because I’d lose what makes me quintessentially me.
When I don’t have the time for some writing, I start to get snappish and feel like a martyr. I recognise that when I am able to write, I’m actually a better mum, better in my marriage and better in the community. Writing makes me feel more alive and more fully engaged.
In each season of life we have to manage things in a good and healthy way. For me, I only work two days a week, and I often go to the public library to write, answer e-mails and things. For the other five days I’m with the family.
Writing Out of Sorts was never about issues and answers. I never wanted anyone to walk away from my book thinking, “OK, now I know what to think!” I simply wanted to demonstrate how it worked for me in my life and to offer connections to scholars and learning that helped me. I wanted to give people permission to ask their own questions. And to trust that God is there in the questions and in the journey.
Writing the book was an exercise in saying, “You don’t need to be afraid. Wherever you end up, you’re loved. If you carry nothing else forward from the book, know that you are deeply loved by God, and that you do not need to be afraid to change.” And if a reader closes the book and still thinks I’m wrong about 10 or 11 things, I would call that a win.
There’s nothing stagnant about life in Christ – it’s called the Way for a reason. Christ doesn’t change; he’s the same yesterday, today and forever, but we’re changing in response to him. We’re being renewed, changed and transformed in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We’re always changing and always growing – becoming renewed, more like Christ, more human and more fully ourselves. It can feel a bit scary, but it is also exciting and it brings us life.