Having been asked to reflect on growing up in a Presbyterian manse, I need to acknowledge my lack of qualification. It’s true that my father was and is a Presbyterian minister. It’s also true that I grew up in a strongly Christian family which was part of the same Presbyterian church my entire childhood right through to adulthood.
Where my story diverges from other preachers’ kidsis that I never lived with my parents while my dad was working as a minister. Mum and dad felt compelled to career-transition into Presbyterian ministry when I was in year 11 and for our family that meant the parents leaving the nest in order to move states and study theology.
So with that caveat in mind, my reflections.
Melted Shoes and Climbing Trees
My earliest recollections are clustered around the space and the feel of the church building. It was large and cold with a thick air or formality and lots of dark wood. But the community was warm and the stained-glass windows invited the sun in.
My church had funny little wooden walls around each pew with a door to let you in; one of only a few in Australia. Each pew was roughly family-sized and if we hustled for position, one of us kids would operate the latch on the door to seal our commitment to the morning’s worship. Wouldn’t it be cool if the minister could lock all the pews from the pulpit, we joked.
Melting the soles of our shoes on the heating tubes that ran the length of each pew was an experience that bound us together. Everyone who’d grown up in my church had been baptised by sole-melting. And between being soldered to the floor and ‘locked’ in our pews no one was attempting an early exit from an overbaked exposition.
Alongside memories of an old and odd building are ones of a whimsical and warm childhood. The grown-ups were friendly and interested. If there was bullying in Sunday school, it’s because the kids were giving the teacher a hard time. Morning tea was generous and yummy. I would climb a tree with my mate Pete and throw berries at passing cars and I can’t remember ever being told off, at least not sternly.
The warmth of the community didn’t match the austerity of the architecture. For me, church felt like a warm family as well as old-fashioned.
Sleepy Organists and Ram Raids
As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of divergent realities. In my teenage years all I cared about was my friends at school and the fun we could get up to and the stories we’d share about adventures had outside the school bell.
My eyes were boggled as one of my best mates relayed that some comrades had stolen a car, ram-raided a local music store, and apparently got away with it. Don’t tell anyone. I would never do such a thing. Heady stuff.
My other world was occupied by the sleepy organist. On Sunday the church organist, employed by the church to play the pipes, would migrate from the organ pit once the sermon had begun. As he sat in his pew he would nod off. The question was, ‘would he spring back to life before the closing hymn?’ He always did! How was that possible?
I lived between these two worlds and navigating the disconnect between the two wasn’t always easy.
Chocolate Pudding and Badminton
A connecting tissue for me was home life. Home life bridged the two worlds. Where the church seemed too preachy and lacking the nuance of empathy, home life proved that Christianity equalled warmth and sensitivity. Where my peers seemed dysfunctional and lost, home life proved there was a rudder that worked and made sense.
When I think of my childhood and teenage years, I remember things like chocolate pudding and playing badminton in my pop’s backyard. Home life was stable, warm and sometimes really fun. And it was underpinned by a deep Christian commitment. We were taught Bible stories on the couch and dad could be caught praying in the early hours of the morning.
Mangy Dogs and Billy Sunday
My conversion came from an outside voice. When I was at a pivotal moment, a new preacher rode into town from a distant land and preached the same old story but, somehow, in a different way. I was converted by a man who seemed to understand the two worlds I lived in and had authority to commend the one ruled by Christ.
He preached with clarity but, more than that, with understanding and compassion. He didn’t want me to understand how bad and dangerous the world is, he just wanted me to see how good Jesus is. Not just me but my friends as well.
His arrival marked a sea-change in our church culture. One day we held an evangelistic event and people came from all over the place, including a young woman, dishevelled, and carrying a small dog. From memory she had no shoes. This was unheard of. She walked to the front and heard the good news preached. It was an emblematic moment.
Reflections on Preaching and Parenting
Like everyone, my upbringing has influenced all that has followed in significant ways and in ways I don’t even notice. As I reflect on being raised in a Presbyterian Manse a few abiding convictions I hold today bubble to the surface. The first is that a defensive Christian culture is defeated before it leaves the blocks. It’s important to talk positively and empathetically about the universe our children live in from Monday to Friday. We may have major criticism to make about secular society and deep misgivings about its trajectory but our kids have real friends in that world they need to hear we love, respect and appreciate them. And the world is always infused with deep evidences of God’s common grace. Our kids need to see we understand that.
The second is that a generous, warm and faithful homelife is a powerful witness. In many ways, my home life bridged the gap between the worlds that seemed so far apart from the pew. And it wasn’t so much the doctrine taught over the dinner table. It was the feel of home life. Simply creating a happy, loving and generous space is immensely important to transmitting the Christian faith.
– Stuart White