Liz Grier is a church leader, scientist, musician, teacher, wife and mother. She is also author of Beginning Unlimited, a book telling the inside story of how she and her husband planted Unlimited Church in Exeter, which exists to reach and care for youth on the margins.
Liz, you sound like a person with very many interests. Why did you decide to take up writing as well?
Honestly, I have always wanted to write a book. I have always longed to see my words in print. But to write anything you first have got to have story to tell, and for years I just didn’t. Either imagined or real. So despite trying before – I have a few scientific articles to my name that I wrote during my D.Phil – I think I had accepted that it would always remain as just that. A hope. An aspiration. Another thing that would remain forever on my bucket list.
But then I started writing 12 years ago, just as my husband and I moved down to Devon to start a youth church in Exeter for young people who have no interest in church. But at that time there was no story to tell. It was simply my day-to-day journaling of the minutiae of our lives and how it felt to be called to a ministry which was incredibly hard, and moved so much slower than we had ever anticipated. And because there was no story, although I kept on journaling, I gave up on the concept of a book and left it sitting, forlorn, on my laptop. Then after 10 years of being in Devon we had a sabbatical. Our first ever break from ministry, and I felt a nudge from God to read those early words that I had written, and that was the moment that I realised that I now had a story to tell, and so I started writing Beginning Unlimited.
What message were you trying to convey with this book?
I wanted the book to be as honest as I could about my experiences of church planting. I had found starting Unlimited lonely, overwhelming, exciting, frustrating and so much more. And honestly it wasn’t quite what I had expected. I had thought pioneering a church would be exciting and breathless, a little like Mark’s gospel where he is so keen to tell the story that everything happens ‘now’ and ‘immediately’. I hadn’t anticipated times when nothing happened. When we’d carry on for months seeing no real fruit for all our hard work. And it was easy to worry that we were failing. That we were getting it wrong. Because I’d go to talks or read books about pioneering and everything I heard was exciting. The amazing moments where God had shown up. But I was hearing nothing about the hard times, the times when it feels like nothing is happening, when you get hurt and bruised. So this book is my honest look at living out my calling as a Christian, which I hope anyone can relate to and be encouraged by. It is also the story of our church being planted, which is in itself a fantastic story.
What in your experience are the most common things that stop young people wanting to engage with church and Christianity?
I think that the biggest obstacle is that church and faith are just not something young people ever think about or consider. If you talk to my generation – I was born in the 70s – we will generally have an opinion about Christianity, either positive or negative. But for most young people Christianity is irrelevant and completely detached from their view of reality. For them it feels like something of a past era and not something they would ever think about.
Sadly if they do they think about Christianity they will often reject it on one of two issues, mostly thinking that it is outdated around sexuality and science.
Can you give me an example of the kind of questions young people might ask, or the issues that young people most want to discuss?
Many young people have picked up that Christianity is anti-gay and they don’t want to know anything about an organisation that comes across as so intolerant. For example, we run a night cafe between 12am and 3am early on Sunday mornings, and many times young people will come over to see what we are doing but then say ‘I can’t come in: God hates me – I can’t come in: I’m gay’. Our reply is always, ‘Absolutely you can come in: God loves you.’ Because that is not our moment to engage with Christian expectations around sexual practice, that is our moment to convey something much greater, that God loves them.
I think that the statement ‘God hates gays’ comes from a lack of engagement with Christian belief. Absolutely, within the church there is a spectrum of beliefs about sexual practice, but no orthodox Christian could ever justify being anti gay people. I wish the young people could hear that message.
The second most common reason for them to dismiss Christianity is that they believe science has disproved God. But I love it when this question gets asked, because as a scientist I love talking about science and faith. I think this point of view is a fundamental misunderstanding of both God and science. To me, science is the answer to ‘how’ things happened. The more I studied, the more I saw how beautifully complex and simple the created world is. Just because my science gives me a tiny glimpse into the Creator’s mind does not mean He no longer exists. God, and therefore all that we know of Him from the Bible, are the answers to ‘why’. The bible is not a science textbook. It doesn’t intend to be.
For example, every morning my husband makes me a cup of tea. If my son came downstairs and asked his dad why the kettle was boiling, he could reply that he had flicked the switch that completed the circuit, which allowed the electrons to flow, which heated the element which in turn heated the water to boiling point. Or he could have answered that he wanted to make Mum a cup of tea. Both are factually correct. Both answer the question from a different angle. That is how I understand science and faith to sit together.
There is no scientific experiment you could ever design that would prove or disprove the existence of God. He is just not there to be found in that way.
What was the most difficult thing about planting a youth church?
We faced a unique set of challenges, that probably wouldn’t apply in a wider context. We started with no team, no building and no budget. But probably our hardest challenge was that we did not have a geographical area to focus on. We were commissioned to work with the young people of Exeter. So we found a building in the city centre and based ourselves there, but committedly went out to where the young people were rather than waiting for them to come to us. We found it easy to meet them, and even got less scared of having to initiate conversation. We quickly established a midweek cafe for college students. But it was so difficult to go further. The students that we met came from all over Devon. Many travelling for up to 2 hours to get into college. We had no home context into which to connect. No community. And that made it really difficult to plant a church.
What happens as the young people in your church mature into adults? Do they stick around or move to other churches?
That’s an interesting question, and perhaps you are asking that because I have been talking about youth church, which I think actually is an unhelpful label. We use it out of laziness but it in no way conveys what we think Unlimited, or indeed any church, should look like. Because a church cannot exist of only one generation. Such a gathering would be a congregation or a celebration, but it is not church. To me, church exists gloriously of the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the academic, the sporty, the loud, the quiet. A veritable smorgasbord of every walk of life, where we all live and learn together and from each other. A church that tries to consist only of youth would, I think, struggle on every level without the richness that other members would bring. So we must stop using the label ‘youth church’. We want to be an all-age church, not a youth church. Even that label makes me think of many family services I have attended that have tried to cater for every age group, and have honestly only been partially successful. Maybe a multigenerational church with a particular mission to youth sums us up better. Much more of a mouthful, but maybe a more helpful label.
So in answer to your question… Yes, our youth do grow up, and inevitably some will move away, for jobs, for marriage for all sorts of reasons. As happens in every church. Our church misses them desperately. They leave a hole, and yet we remain unchanged. We remain a pioneering church of all ages passionately committed to reaching young people.
What has been the best thing about having a book published?
Perhaps my friends would be surprised to hear me saying this, as I come across as confident and self-assured in a group. But the best thing about having this book published has been finding I have a voice, and that it is worth listening to. I often doubt myself, worry that I’m doing, saying or thinking the right things. I made myself very vulnerable in this book by choosing to be so honest about my struggles and joys, so the feedback and encouragement I have received has been an overwhelming confirmation to me that I don’t need to ‘be’ anything other than who God created me to be, with all my flaws and failings. I am valued and loved just as I am.