For the record, I am a Christian. But I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. That’s nothing especially rare or exciting. Out in the world, it’s actually pretty common. However, at a private Christian university, I find that not growing up in the church puts me in a minority.
The other day in one of my classes, a professor asked the class which of us grew up around the church. I ended up being the only one who didn’t raise my hand. I don’t know exactly what the others in my class thought of that: maybe that I felt out of place? Maybe that I wished I’d had that solid foundation of Christ as a kid? Maybe that I missed out on something important growing up?
Honestly though, I’m actually pretty glad that I’m a Christian who wasn’t raised in the church. There are three main problems I see that can happen for kids who grew up in Christian homes that I, not being raised in the church, don’t experience. (Let me be clear: I’m not at all saying that growing up in a Christian home is bad. There are countless ways that growing up in a Christian home is beautiful. But I am saying that growing up in the church offers some unique temptations and trials, and that not growing up in the church is actually a lot cooler than it initially sounds to some Christians.)
One thing that I sometimes see in those who grew up in the church is that it’s easy for them to become insincere in their beliefs. When raised in the church, it’s easy for people to piggyback on their parents’ faith. God doesn’t ever quite become real to them, and they only go to church and do other “Christian things” because it’s what their parents want. Fear of parents’ disapproval becomes some people’s inspiration for faith rather than the draw of God’s love.
Not being raised in the church, I’ve never experienced this temptation of insincerity. I’ve never felt any pressure from anyone outside of myself to “keep my faith.” I just stick with Jesus because I want to and because I think He’s just that good. I have no one to impress. I have no family to use as a crutch to stop me if I want to stop believing in God. I feel more secure about the sincerity of my faith since I know for a fact that it doesn’t rely on anyone but God and my confidence in Him.
Preconceptions and Lack of Wonder
Another thing I’ve noticed at my Christian school is that sometimes, when we study the Bible in class, a lot of people have to wrestle with misunderstandings about certain passages because of how they learned them in Sunday school. Similarly, another thing I hear surprisingly often is people complaining about Bible stories feeling stale.
It’s certainly not always the case, but sometimes I see that those who are raised in the church are more likely to be desensitized to Christianity. People raised going to church experience a kind of complete submergence in the Bible from a very young age. Being fed parables, stories and the salvific “ABC prayer” from an age too young to understand sometimes causes people to never fully experience any of it at all. To these types of people, reading the Bible can become a boring church thing, and truly getting something out of God’s word simply isn’t a realistic idea at all.
I find that without growing up in church, when I did become a Christian, every part of the Bible was new. Everything that I learned about God was a wonder, whether it made me question things, feel convicted or experience actual love. For me, instead of growing up submerged in Christianity, I was able to view every story, every verse and every prayer with fresh eyes. Every moment with God and His word was a discovery, not just a chore.
No Point of Reference
Perhaps the most important reason why I’m glad I wasn’t raised in the church can be summed up in the concept of felix culpa: fortunate fall.
I’ve known what life is like completely without God. I’ve known the inherent brokenness, loneliness and lack of love that is experienced in a heart with no Jesus. However, I’ve also felt the absolute fullness that life with Him brings. If someone is surrounded by the church growing up and has never not known the love of God, while that's a certain kind of beauty in itself, it's hard to imagine that the reality of the world and its intrinsic brokenness is ever quite as personal. Something about really experiencing a completely graceless, sin-filled, broken heart makes the reality of the cross just that much sweeter.
Allow me to turn this into an excuse to quote C. S. Lewis. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from "That Hideous Strength":
"She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expecting, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. […] This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed."