Have you ever felt like religion or Christian tradition has got in the way of you having a sincere relationship with the God that those things are meant to draw you towards?
Australian journalist Tom Tilley was raised in the rural NSW town of Mudgee, attending a Revival Centres church his dad pastored. His parents discovered the Revival Centres church group after becoming Christians in adulthood.
The church’s central doctrine revolved around the spiritual practice – or “gift” – of speaking in tongues and in many ways emphasised it over a relationship with Jesus as the conduit for salvation.
In Tom’s memoir Speaking in Tongues, he tells the story of growing up in the strict religious community, what led him to have doubts about the church’s teachings and how deconstructing his upbringing helped him build a life of greater sincerity and meaning.
“In the church I was born into, [speaking in tongues] meant everything,” Tom told Hope 103.2’s UNDISTRACTED podcast.
The Revival Centres “defined the whole organisation on this doctrinal position that you had to speak in tongues in order to be saved,” he said.
“For people of my parents’ generation who came [to the church] later in life, they had what felt like a really powerful spiritual experience which formed the basis for their faith.
“For us kids, that put us in a bit of a strange position.
“My parents’ generation… felt a really powerful spiritual experience which formed the basis for their faith. For us kids, that put us in a bit of a strange position,” – journalist Tom Tilley
“We knew from our very early years that at some point we would have to have this mystical spiritual experience [and that] God would have to decide to give us this gift in order for us to, apparently, be saved and therefore to remain members of our church community.
“It slowly dawned on us that the love we had in our church community was conditional.”
The need to speak in tongues was a pressure point for Tom, who at 10 years old started questioning the rigidity of the community he grew up in, how they related to people outside of the church and what it would take for someone to be excommunicated from within the church group.
“While a lot of the things the church did were not that extreme – my story’s not [about] physical abuse or sexual abuse – it is about the threat of being cut off from the people you love,” Tom said.
“And actually, that is kind of extreme even if it doesn’t look like it.
“Human connection and your relationship to your most important community, that’s right up there with air water and shelter in terms of human needs.”
At times, Tom “saw examples of people getting kicked out for going to the wedding of an ex-member”.
“We lost a good friend out of the church who had [premarital] sex and got kicked out forever. A close friend, someone who we knew since the age of three, and we were told not to speak to him anymore.
“Later, when I left the church I moved him into my share house so he wasn’t left out on his own.”
The line between those who were included and excluded was a particular challenge for Tom, who wrestled with the difference between the love-based teachings of Christ and what he saw demonstrated by some church leadership.
The line between those who were included and excluded was a particular challenge for Tom…
“Other Christians that I met painted the more compassionate portrait of Christ,” Tom said.
“To be honest that sounded a lot more fun to be out there doing things in the world, supporting people, lifting people up. Not sitting around reading the rules to your own church and deciding who’s in or out.
“That was a bit of an epiphany for me. I want to live a bold, positive life, not a negative reductive life.”
At the heart of Tom’s story is something that may be familiar to others raised in the Christian faith: the need to contemplate, push back on and test the ideas that shaped your youth.
“I had some obvious things to push back against [that] just didn’t make sense,” Tom said.
“If your faith made you feel sheltered from the full range of human experiences, then I think you’re going to be left questioning [whether] you have lived a full life.
“If you grew up in a Christian family that had lots of exposure to different elements of the human experience, then I can imagine you’d still be satisfied with the path you didn’t choose, because you still got to feel things out for yourself.”
Tom Tilley’s memoir Speaking in Tongues is out now.
Listen to the full episode of UNDISTRACTED with guest Tom Tilley in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.