Sam Radford

April 8, 2022

My religious journey

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I have a religious background, and that religion, faith, and spirituality are subjects I write about periodically here too.

I have never publicly documented my religious journey in much detail though. There’s been snapshots I’ve shared, but never the whole thing.

This year, I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with Jess Steele, a friend of mine. She’s a jeweller from Leeds who I’ve kind of known—thanks to Instagram—for years through a mutual contact. But we’ve never really chatted much before. In January though, we began a conversation and have been enjoying actually getting to know each other ever since. As part of that conversation, I ended up sharing the big picture of my religious journey to date. And I thought I would share it here too. 

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It’s fair to say my religious journey is long and varied! I grew up in a Christian household. Mum and Dad were (are) both Christians, as were both their parents. Though they had a mix of Methodist/traditional roots, they became part of what was known as a house church movement in the Sixties and Seventies. This was then part of something known as the charismatic movement. And the defining features of this movement were speaking in tongues, healing, and such like. My parents were leaders of this house church and led a group of people that ended up meeting in various halls. Even then, there were regular meetings in our house. We had an endless stream of visiting Christian speakers and teachers staying with us from all around the world. I can recall people converting to Christianity in meetings in our lounge and then getting immediately baptised in our bath! Fair to say, it was pretty full on. There’s much that I look back on now and think, ‘What the earth was that about?!’, and yet, at the time, I’d be lying if I didn’t find it all exciting and compelling. 

When I was around ten, we moved house to a different part of the city and, though mum and dad would still host meetings in their home, and events in different venues, they closed down the church they’d been leading. We started attending the local Anglican church in the village we’d moved to. Talk about a culture shock! My church experience to that point was—though conservative and intense—free flowing. We weren’t following any liturgy or religious calendar. The idea of reading prayers rather than praying spontaneously made no sense to me. Ironically, perhaps, we talked about not being a fan of religion. We viewed religion as being what traditional churches did; we with our spontaneous, free approach didn’t think of ourselves as religious. 

A few years later, I got involved with a youth group at an evangelical church. I loved this youth group, and still have some contact with people I met there. The church itself though was super-conservative. Though they weren’t as traditional as the Anglican church, they had very strong views that all things like speaking in tongues, healing, the miraculous were no longer applicable for the church today. Having grown up with the experiences I’d had, I struggled with this. And as I got older (15, 16) I had more and more conversations / disagreements with some of the youth group leaders, and even the elders at the church. Long story short: I got kicked out of my first church aged 16! (It probably wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, but they did firmly suggest I’d be better off elsewhere.) I can’t pretend it wasn’t a significant time though. And that was the church I got baptised at and transitioned from simply embracing my parents’ faith, to making it my own.

Funnily enough, leaving that church and moving to another church was key to my ending up in Sheffield. I moved to an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church. (Pentecostal is linked with the Holy Spirit coming down on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament and people speaking in tongues.) This was—in terms of my beliefs—undoubtedly a better fit for me, but it never had the same sense of belonging that I had with friends from my youth group. The son of the pastor at the church went to Sheffield Hallam University though, and it was him who encouraged me to think about Sheffield. Which I did and I eventually picked.

Once in Sheffield, I got heavily involved with the Christian Union (CU). I ended up on the executive committee and then was co-president for one year too. I was in a shared house of nine of us—most also connected to CU—and it was an invigorating time faith-wise. Whilst at university, I also planned and led a trip to Ghana to work with a church and various schools. A team of seven of us went, and both the build up to going and the month we were there was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. 

Coming out of university in 1999, and having decided to stay in Sheffield, I got more involved with an anglican-baptist church called St Thomas’s (where I’d loosely attended while at university). I helped lead what they called a ‘cluster’, which was about a group of 40 or so people. During this time, the church established links with a church network in Nigeria called the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). There was talk of them looking to start a new branch of their network in Sheffield. For whatever reason, I had this sense that I should get involved.

A pastor and his wife and two young girls arrived from Nigeria, and then myself and one other guy were involved with trying to start this new church. Starting in their living room it gradually grew and grew. Soon it was meeting in a school hall. Then a cinema. And before long a hotel. The pastor asked me to become the assistant pastor. So from 2001 to 2005 I was the assistant pastor of a black-majority pentecostal church!

Again, there’s lots I look back on now and have a host of questions and concerns about. But it was an incredible time and I learnt no end. I also met my wife, Rachel, there and she went on to become the worship director, leading all the music and singing. 

Towards the end of 2005, we felt like it was time to move on. We were both working full-time, plus doing all our work for the church, and our lives were consumed by church people and church meetings. We no longer had time for other friends and that felt all kinds of wrong. So we left at the end of the year and spent six months visiting and exploring other churches around Sheffield and the UK. It was eye-opening to experience church as an ‘outsider’ and helped us appreciate why church no longer carried any sway for so many. 

In the middle of 2006 we ended up starting something ourselves called Mosaic. We loved the metaphor of a mosaic being a collection of broken pieces that, brought together, can be made into something beautiful that reflects light. Since then, Mosaic has existed as an informal faith community trying to provide a safe space for people to explore and express faith. Over the years, no end of people have come who have felt disconnected from church, but not ready to give up on faith. And we’ve helped them process that and journey with them as all manner of questions, doubts, and uncertainties have emerged for them. 

And I too have personally been on a journey over the last sixteen years where the faith I have today looks a million miles away from what I experienced and practiced growing up and through to 2005. But the expression of faith I have today, though a million miles from what it was, is undeniably built on the foundations of my faith from yesterday. 

Past versions of me would have been all about trying to convert people, convinced that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would be hell-bound. I cringe now. And am saddened too that so many people still embrace a version of Christianity that is a huge distortion of what I think Jesus was actually all about. I now feel like I’m in a place of genuine open-mindedness and open-heartedness. I no longer feel any need to convince anyone of anything! Not least because I’m not even sure nowadays what I’d be trying to convince them of!

I would say that today I am simply someone inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus and his message of love and radical acceptance, healing, and forgiveness. I would call myself a Christian if asked—though there was a stint when I’d have hesitated. Like any family, there are some loonies, and idiots, and people we wish weren’t there sometimes, but they’re still family. And I kinda feel that way about Christianity. There’s much I cringe at. There’s plenty I think is unhealthy and dangerous. But it’s such a huge part of my life that I don’t think I could ever fully disown it. I do hover at the edges though, trying to help others who are maybe in need of a safe place.

—Sam

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👉 @samradford | samradford.com