If I was to write a stand-up comedy show about being a teenage Christian, I’d probably talk a lot about DC Talk, WWJD wristbands and using summer festivals as an opportunity for dating. It wouldn’t be a great performance, especially for those whose adolescent years weren’t spent in church halls and campsites in Somerset.
You probably remember Katy Brand from her sketch show on ITV2 a few years ago. Her latest stand-up show focuses on her years as a ‘teenage Christian’, and throughout the hour we hear her story – from teenage convert (she doesn’t come from a Christian home), to worship band, school assembly and CU leader, before doubts crept in and were rammed home as she studied theology at university.
There’s a lot to unpack in her story, but a key thing to emphasise is how full-on in her faith she was. This isn’t the story of someone picking out the odd bits of evangelical subculture from the edge of a crowd – Katy was immersed in a world many of us are very familiar with; her tales of Steve Chalke’s sex videos (wait, I should rephrase that…) the omnipresence of Steve Chalke’s “don’t touch what you don’t have” advice, cringe-worthy stories in youth Bibles (made by a cartel of un-culturally relevant youth workers, apparently) and worship leaders with perfectly finessed hair all strike a familiar tone. If nothing else, this might be the only standup performance you ever see that ends with an ironic Delirious? Sing-along, complete with egg shakers and tambourines. While the “I found Jesus” refrain in the chorus was easy to pick up, the YCW team were the only ones singing the verses. Most notable in the show is what Katy fails to mention – her youth leader. There’s no mention of one. At all. This might be for a variety of reasons; she may not have had one or the one she had may have been so brilliant that it didn’t lend itself to comedy.
For those of us au fait with many elements and touchstones of this world, the show becomes a perverse game of ‘guess who?’ as you try and figure out which 1000-strong congregation she was a part of, which worship leader she had a crush on and which particular festival she went to. While those prove a fun distraction (for the Christians in the room), this isn’t merely a Peter Kay-eque nostalgia-thon.
Katy’s journey away from Christianity is the central focus of the show, and is both sad and worth listening to. After becoming a Christian through an experience of the Holy Spirit after visiting church with a friend, she dives into her new-found faith with two feet, becoming absorbed in church culture – the ideal support network for a socially awkward teenage girl. In fact, one off-hand comment Katy makes here is telling: “My entire life seemed to revolve around the church – maybe that was the point?” Obviously vibrant church communities can be huge forces for good in a young person’s life, but with the hindsight of someone who stepped away from church, it’s not difficult to see why Katy might be seeing an attempt to shut Christian young people off from the world as less than ideal. We have to at least be aware of this perception when the communities we form seem so all-encompassing. What this comment does tell us is that church filled a need for socially-awkward, teenage Katy. Once she grew more into herself, church was no longer a necessary social crutch. In fact throughout she talks far more about her church rather than her faith, so it’s probably not a huge surprise that when she becomes disillusioned with one expression of church, her faith fell away. The question we have to ask ourselves is how youth groups and churches can continue to provide what young people need as they grow up – what security or community do they need once they’re less socially awkward?
When it came to losing her faith, the obvious thing to grab onto might be an out-of-character attempt at exorcism at a summer festival, but the seeds had been planted long before that. Studying RE had thrown up plenty of questions and doubts in teenage Katy’s mind, but not only had she failed to find satisfying answers to these questions at church, she hadn’t found any answers. The questions were thrown out – the church was not a place for questions. Similarly, stark warnings were sent her way when the congregation found out she wanted to study theology at university – she was told that many young people who studied theology lost their faith so she shouldn’t do it. She rightly asked the question that if her faith couldn’t stand up to intellectual rigour, what was the point? But something even more troubling began to happen as these questions were asked – her positions of responsibility in the church (from making tea and coffee through to being in the worship band) were taken away. Not only was there no room for doubt, there was no room for anyone doubting. (There’s an important caveat here: Katy’s story and performance were designed to be funny, not to provoke youth ministry discussion – so it’s definitely possible that certain elements were hammed up, not in an effort to lie, but to entertain.)
Youth ministry, and presumably the church Katy attended, have moved on since her teenage years. Perhaps the lack of youth leader in the story speaks to a lack of space for these doubts and a church so desperate to keep hold of teenagers that they sought to avoid problematic conversations. We’re probably more used to sitting with young people’s doubt. But this story reminds us how important that is. Not only does acknowledging and allowing space for doubt open up conversations and create spaces where teenagers are free to honestly express what’s going on in their head, this stage might also be vital for their faith development. In John Westerhoff’s stages of faith development, the third stage he identifies, searching faith, is prevalent in adolescence. This is a time of doubt and exploration and allows young people to eventually own their faith for themselves. Katy Brand’s challenge isn’t about our cultural relevance, it’s about a youth and children’s ministry that is open to doubt; that doesn’t remove young people from positions of influence because they’re asking awkward questions, but is instead happy to journey and wrestle with uncomfortable trains of thought. If we can’t learn from Katy’s story, her hour of jokes in youth ministry’s direction will be no laughing matter.