No matter what you believe in, in terms of deities, values, morals, customs, and afterlives, or even if you believe in nothing at all along traditional religious lines, each of us has our own spiritual story to tell, a series of events that led us to becoming the person we are today. My story's chapters are still being written, as are yours.
I debated about putting a page about Christianity on my personal website for a long time, because I didn't want it to seem like I was forcing my beliefs on my visitors. But I decided to write about my spirituality because it is an important part of my current life, and my story is a bit unlike many other Christians' stories because it involves a long time of being outside the fold.
My Personal Story
Christianity is definitely an important part of my life now, even though for over a decade I was not part of any church and was searching for something to believe in. To understand the whys and hows of my current religious beliefs and participation, you have to know a bit of the backstory.
I grew up going to the Southern Baptist church my father's family had attended for at least four generations, but I always went with my grandmother--Mom and Dad did not come very often to church, and though I often wondered why, I didn't really bother to ask. It didn't occur to me, in my childhood, to ask why things were the way they were in terms of church attendance.
Only when I was eleven years old and talking with an elder of the church did I find the true reason Mom and Dad didn't attend church with my grandmother and me. I asked the elder why there were so many different denominations of Christianity, since I already had personal experience of two (Baptist on Dad's side, Lutheran on Mom's side), and knew of several others. The elder replied that she didn't know why, but that was just the way it was. I then said that I had been to Mom's family's church services and didn't see a whole lot of difference in the message--just that the church had a whole lot of lit candles and the preacher was a lot more dressed-up. (I was nothing if not bluntly honest as a child.) The elder replied, as if scandalized, "Oh, honey...if you're not Baptist, you're not Christian."
This left me thunderstruck. In the space of a few syllables, this elder of the church, a close friend of my grandmother's and up till then a friend to me, had basically just said half my family (my mom and her side of the family) was going to Hell, simply for not being Baptist. It stung me deeply, and I left the church and went home to ask about the religion thing once and for all. Mom and Dad explained then that the elders of the church had not been accepting of Mom's Lutheran heritage when she and Dad had married. They had insisted that if she was to become a member of the church like him, she had to be rebaptized, even though she had already been baptized by her father, a Lutheran minister in his own right. Mom subsequently did not feel accepted by the church, and though she tried to come and be part of the church occasionally when I was an infant, she had largely stopped coming by the time I was old enough to remember. Dad was also somewhat pushed aside by the church members he'd known since childhood because of this.
I was hurt and angry over the way that my mom and dad had been treated by so-called "Christian people"--the sense of injustice and prejudice rankled in me, and I stopped going to church after that. Truth was, I had been uncomfortable for quite some time, since my questions in Sunday School were often viewed as "off-the-wall" and "not proper topics of study" (I was asking about how other religions compared to Christianity, why we believe that the Bible is the truly inspired Word of God, etc.) I had already disliked the closed-mindedness I felt, and the incident about my mother's family faith was the catalyst for me to break with my old church. And so, I began a decade-long search to find a more accepting church, or even a more accepting religion if I had to.
By late high school, I had made in-depth studies of New Age beliefs, including astrology, numerology, and the use of Tarot cards; in college, I studied Hinduism and Buddhism, and went to several different Christian denominations' services to see if a different denomination of Christianity was for me. But nothing I found in any of my religious studies made me truly feel as if I had worshipped. I started to despair of finding a spirituality I liked well enough to join, because even if the beliefs sounded cool, I feared being judged by other worshippers for the long time I had spent outside organized faith practice.
Finally, in the winter of 2007, I managed to tell much of the above story to the man who later became my boyfriend, and he invited me to his church, another Southern Baptist church in a different part of the local community. I accepted, a bit reluctantly--I was afraid this was going to be a rerun of my previous failures, and I steeled myself for rejection and sadness when the fateful Sunday morning came.
But to my surprise, there were greeters at the front door who welcomed me, and once I got in the sanctuary, my hand was shaken like a Polaroid picture (with apologies to OutKast). I sat with my future boyfriend and his family, listened to the hymns and choir's special music, and heard the message delivered by the pastor; he was human and unashamed to admit his failings, nor was he ashamed to use his own spiritual struggles as a way to make the sermon relatable to us. I was again thunderstruck, but this time in a wonderful way--I left feeling that I had indeed worshipped the God I hadn't ever really stopped believing in, and that I wanted to return the next Sunday, not only to see the man I was very much in love with, but to participate in such free and forgiving worship.
I was drawn to the church for several reasons. My boyfriend and his family were an important social reason in the beginning, since they were the only people I really knew at first. Also, I knew some of the history of the church; it had been formed out of a group of people who broke away from a more closed-minded church in the area, because they wanted to make a church that accepted people from all walks of life, not just people who were of a certain social status or who were in certain cliques. While this new church still held to the foundational principles of Christianity, I didn't feel judged when I walked in the door, when I shared my testimony of how I came back "into the fold," or anything. This nonjudgmental, more open-minded attitude definitely drew me in. The music was another important thing, since music is part of my lifeblood--I had never seen people sing hymns with such great big smiles on their faces, and I wanted to share in that joy, which I didn't know I had missed until I got it back. Lastly, the perspectives that the pastor and his staff brought to the worship service were very different. I was used to preachers and staff that thought they were above sin, above reproach; instead, here, I found men and women of God who still struggled and stumbled occasionally, but who depended on God and His word to bolster them. If you were going through a rough time, no matter what had happened, these people didn't make any bones about your background or your religious past--you were someone who deserved to be prayed for and supported. I also liked that the people there kept politics and religion separate, as the people in my previous church had not; this helped me feel accepted, like I didn't have to hide who I was in order to be a member.
Now, a few years later, I'm a full member, an alto in the choir, and a Sunday school teacher in this same church; I teach ladies ages ~50-75 in a class called "Sharing Hearts," and I've done some special solo performances of my own Christianity-related music during worship services. Now, the many social connections that I've formed within the church have helped root me there, and I feel that I worship every time I'm there. I am very lucky and very blessed--so many people do not find the type of worship they are really searching for. I definitely believe God had a big part in how I came back into the fold.
What I Get Out of Christianity
Sounds kind of crass to talk about "what I get out of" a religion, but it's important to talk about why I chose to return to the faith of my childhood. From a psychological and social perspective, I know that being with other positive, encouraging people is vital to my own well-being, as it is vital to most humans. Most definitely, the people of my church are solid Christians who believe in forgiveness and mercy as well as being unafraid to talk about God, and I find them to be incredibly supportive of me when I bring prayer requests and talk about my own struggles.
Also, the concept of a fatherly deity who forgives sin (if it is brought before Him and not hidden away) is a concept that seems to be unique among world religions. I'm not saying it's "easy" to be a Christian, but in the other world religions I studied, worship is a taxing, trying endeavor, always trying to please the god for fear of the deity's retributions against the individual worshipper. God can get justifiably angry, as we see in the Old Testament, but it's more the attitude of a father who wants his children to listen to authority for their own good. And through God's Son, Jesus Christ, we as worshippers are given a direct link of prayer to God, just by accepting His sacrifice for us on the cross. The figure of Christ and His suffering also seems to be unique among world religions, though there have been religions that sprang up after Christianity that take some of these elements for their own. Christ's love, for Christians, is an example of unconditional love; no matter what we have done in our lives, there is always someone who loves us and dearly wishes to be close to us.
Another plus for Christianity, for me, is its focus on doing good for others and talking about God with others. As Christians, we serve God not by giving a lot of money or just doing "good" things, but by showing His mercy and forgiveness to others first and foremost. Doing good things to try to "get ahead" with God isn't the idea--once you start keeping score with God, you've lost the meaning of helping others in the first place. And just the act of doing something helpful for someone else in the name of God can be a powerful witnessing moment. ("Witnessing," in this context, means sharing your knowledge of God with another person and encouraging them to accept Christ.) I've seen witnessing done right and witnessing done wrong--done right, it is a profound and beautiful experience for both the person speaking about God and the person listening. Done wrong, it can be an aggressive and negative experience, almost like the person is trying to bully you into accepting Christ. Thankfully, the church in which I now worship does witnessing in the gentle and encouraging fashion, which is exactly what I was looking for.
Lastly, I've noticed a mental and emotional difference in my own self since I renewed my Christian faith--I am more willing to rely on God's strength in times when ordinarily I would have said, "It's okay, God, I'm a big girl, I can take care of this myself." I have faced difficult life situations since renewing my faith, which have shown me that I'm not such a big girl that I don't need God. God, for me, is always there to listen, comfort, and encourage, and to protect and guide me when I am unsure of the path ahead. Prayer, thankfully, doesn't have to be some flowery affair; I think of it more as an email or a text message more than anything. For a person like me, who has dealt with depression through many years, God has been more help to me than any drugs or therapy I know of--He has helped me become stronger emotionally. Odd, isn't it, how admitting one's weakness is often the first step toward getting rid of it?
To Learn More about Christianity
ReligionFacts.com's overview of Christianity does a pretty good job of summing up what Christianity is all about; its Baptists page is also fairly spot-on. Each church will do things just a bit differently depending on the region you're in, but these pages should help you learn a little bit more about the belief system. In terms of Biblical resources online, I like to use God's Yellow Pages and BibleGateway.com to find specific verses and passages.