Leaving a Revival church is hard, but it’s worth it

Six years ago I left the reclusive church I was raised in and stepped into a world of possibility. Here is what I learned along the way.

A red-and-white soft toy with bewildered eyes and a half-zipped mouth.
Revival churches exercise tight control over their members’ beliefs. Photo by Alexas_Fotos.

The Revival Fellowship is a conservative Pentecostal church, or at least that’s how Wikipedia currently puts it. Reading through the edit wars it has also been referred to as a denomination, a group that differs from mainstream Pentecostalism, a spirit-filled church, a pseudo-Christian New Religious Movement, and a cult.

I was born into this church. It was my entire world. School and work were just an afterthought. There was no social life outside the church. It took me a long time to resolve that I didn’t agree with The Revival Fellowship’s beliefs, and even longer to pluck up the courage to leave.

The fellowship has thousands of members around the world, all of whom fervently espouse the need to speak a mysterious prayer language as evidence of having miraculously received the Holy Spirit. This is called speaking in tongues. Full-immersion baptism is also essential. These two rites of passage begin a new life that centres around the fellowship’s busy calendar of church activities. So begins an uneasy tension between trying to live a normal-looking life while also converting people to your peculiar form of evangelical Christianity.

The Revival Fellowship is one of several closely related Revival churches that have splintered from each other over the years, the most significant being Revival Centres Church (formerly Revival Centres International). While these Revivalist churches hold similar beliefs, they do not associate with each other – let alone with other churches. They are known for their policy of shunning ex-members and those who break the rules. Members with doubts about their compulsory beliefs are faced with a difficult choice: put the doubts to one side, or allow their entire social fabric to come tumbling down.

A wet five-year-old Mark sitting in a bathtub and smiling.
I was baptised (in speedos!) at the age of five after faking speaking in tongues by saying “Dibba dibba dibba dibba. Gillity gillity gillity gillity.”

A life built on a five-year-old’s lie

I “received the Holy Spirit” at the age of five. I was sitting on a toilet in a caravan at a fellowship camp in Wales. I decided matter-of-factly that I knew how to speak in tongues and proceeded to repeatedly say two made-up words: dibba and gillitty. This was my best attempt to impersonate how my parents sounded when they spoke in tongues. Over the next two months, I told my parents that I could speak in tongues, had it confirmed by church leaders that I wasn’t faking this divine ability, and ultimately was baptised in my bathtub (wearing speedos no less!) with friends and family praying, singing my favourite chorus, and watching on.

Mine wasn’t a typical infilling of the Holy Spirit. Often this happens with church leaders laying their hands on your shoulder, encouraging you to close your eyes and repeatedly say hallelujah as quickly as possible until it changes into a fluent, incomprehensible jumble. For some, this process takes mere seconds. For others, it takes years to speak in tongues or it never happens at all. Some people find speaking in tongues for the first time to be powerful, supernatural, even freaky. Some find it to be subtle but assuring. Others are less than impressed.

Over the years I let my fake tongue develop into a more “real” sounding language. The fellowship taught us to pray in tongues regularly and to feel guilty for not praying in tongues enough. Praying in this fluent glossolalia became the most natural thing in the world. Being the good boy I was, I treated it all as true. However, as a young adult, I came to recognise my entire life was built upon the big lie of a small five-year-old. Either I had truly received the Holy Spirit at a later age (without even realising it) or the whole idea of speaking in tongues was a sham.

Simultaneously, studying linguistics at university helped to confirm what I had already suspected as a pre-teen: this mysterious divine “language” isn’t a language at all.

The truth about speaking in tongues

Forget the mystique of an old-fashioned name. “Speaking in tongues” should really be called “speaking in languages”. The Bible is clear that these were real languages with real meaning (Acts 2:1–11). If these languages have meaning then they have words, grammar, and a sound system (or phonology).

A mosaic on a cathedral ceiling depicts the descending fire of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, with a flame floating above each person’s head. Text around the mosaic says "I have made you a light to the nations”, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”, and “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit".
The Revival Fellowship’s beliefs are based on the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 where tongues were real languages with real meaning. Photo by Pete Unseth, CC BY-SA 4.0.

At least once a week each Revival Fellowship assembly operates the “spiritual gifts” or “voice gifts of the Spirit” where two or three messages in tongues get miraculously interpreted into English. This is based on one of several possible readings of an especially ambiguous passage of scripture (1 Corinthians 14). This ritual provides a perfect testing ground for the authenticity of speaking in tongues as practised in Revival churches.

Through years of careful observation, I could see that the exact same utterance in tongues would, week after week, have a completely different English interpretation. Often, a very short utterance in tongues has a very long interpretation in English. Interpretations reflect the opinions and style of the interpreters. If tongues are real languages then the interpretations in English are inaccurate and inconsistent.

Some tongues are too simple and repetitive to contain any meaning. Others, while impressive-sounding, are still highly formulaic and lack the kind of linguistic structure that would indicate the “sentences” have true meaning. There is insufficient evidence of words, grammar, and distinct speech sounds. Typically a tongue follows the sound rules of the speaker’s native language. If they are speaking a real language then they are speaking it with such a strong English accent as to make it unintelligible.

Occasionally in the Revival Fellowship you may hear a story about someone’s tongue being recognised (and understood) as a real language. These stories may even say that the interpretation of the tongue was correct. But these stories are always vague. There are never enough details to verify the story or confirm its plausibility. This hearsay does not prove that tongues are languages. Even if one believer were to miraculously speak a real language, this would not negate the fact that most believers do not.

Ignorant by design

The Revival Fellowship believes that the Bible is written exactly as God intended it, word for word. They believe the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts contain elaborate numerical patterns that couldn’t possibly be devised by humans (the Revival Centres disavowed this belief called “Bible numerics” some 23 years ago). The fellowship believes a 1611 Bible translation in hard-to-understand archaic English is the best translation for modern use, unrivalled by 400 years of subsequent scholarly endeavour. All of these beliefs are out of touch. They are out of touch with the true difficulty of piecing together ancient texts from inconsistent manuscripts and fragments. They are out of touch with the reality that “miraculous” numerical patterns can be found in any text and in any language. They are out of touch with an enormous body of scholarly research into the meanings of scripture and the origins of the Bible.

But the Revival Fellowship prides itself on being out of touch. Members are told not to read unsanctioned Bible study materials. They are told to use only a select few Bible translations. And church leaders are content to cherry-pick scientific findings that agree with their chosen interpretation of the Bible while discrediting any science that doesn’t sit so well.

Revival Fellowship members exist within an echo chamber of dogma, some of it explicit and some of it unspoken. It is not an environment conducive to questioning or the pursuit of truth. Members have only to choose whether to go along with the dogma or get the hell out. Questioning will be tolerated for a limited time, but only if it is done quietly, and only if it results in a return to the officially sanctioned truth.

Black-and-white photo of an imposing curved ceiling with high windows.
The Revival Fellowship is an echo chamber. Photo by hjl, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Name your favourite bias

It is expected that miracles will accompany the life of a believer. Everyone must have a “testimony” – an account they regularly share of the miracles that have happened in their life, starting with them being born again, and running through all the miraculous healings and provisions they have experienced. The most impressive testimonies come to have an almost myth-like status, repeated again and again to boost everyone’s belief in their miracle-working God and hopefully convert nonbelievers.

But everyone is expected to have a testimony even if this requires a lot of embellishment of some rather unimpressive stories. The primary concern with testimonies isn’t to prove that happy events were caused by God; it is to build faith. Untestable claims of divine intervention are the name of the game. Even very striking healing testimonies, when you drill into them medically, aren’t as impressive as they sound. A doctor in the church admitted to me that these healing testimonies can easily be torn to shreds. Certainly no rigorous attempt is made to ascertain whether the power of prayer over serious illnesses is medically verifiable or statistically significant.

For every church member who was healed by God, there is someone else who wasn’t. For every astounding testimony that sticks in your mind forever, there are many more forgettable ones. For every convert who stayed in the church for a lifetime, many converts didn’t. For every family that was made whole, another was torn apart. By focusing only on the good things, fellowship members have a belief system built on bias: confirmation bias, salience bias, and survivorship bias. It is a faith based on the experiences and insights of one’s friends, not a pursuit of objective truth.

At the end of the day, neither my experiences nor the experiences of those around me were enough to convince me that there is a god or to convince me to overlook the fallacies of my faith. The evidence should be weighed objectively, and the Revival Fellowship’s beliefs were found wanting.

Aerial image of fields and five converging roads.
I found myself at a crossroads. Would I choose friendships or truth? Photo by Miran Hojnik, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Ripping off the plaster

In the weeks leading up to leaving the church, I had a minor panic attack. I was in literal pain. I was at the pastor’s house and I wanted to tell him everything. But I couldn’t. How can you tell someone that your entire life is a lie? How can you confess to the mental gymnastics required for you to preach from the pulpit in church? How can you finally decompartmentalise and speak the plain truth? It’s not just a conversation. It’s a fatal blow to your entire identity. There is no recovering. It is the beginning of the end.

Weeks later the conversation finally happened. I waited another few days to leave the church, just in case the pastor could change my mind, but that was a fantasy. If 26 years in a church isn’t enough to convince you then nothing will be. On the evening of Tuesday 5 July 2016, at the age of 26, I finally ripped off the plaster and left the church.

It was the best decision I ever made. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

The fallout

Leaving the Revival Fellowship is absolute. I might as well have died for the sense of sudden, unexpected grief I inflicted on the people I left behind. But that grief is the consequence of belonging to a church that believes so strongly in cutting itself off from ex-members. It is not my fault.

As soon as my departure became known, people began to unfriend me on Facebook. Close friends made the difficult decision to exclude me from their lives. I expected this but it was still deeply painful.

To this day I assume that everyone in the church wants to shun me. I never reach out to anyone. If they want a continued friendship then they have to reach out to me. I do this because I don’t want to rock the boat and because I can’t bear the pain of explicit rejection. I also do this because I know what believers say about “backsliders” behind their backs. As a now openly gay atheist, I don’t want to put up with the fake smiles of the more extreme factions who believe it is okay to mock people like me, and who believe I deserve to burn in hell.

I don’t know if members of the Revival Fellowship realise how much pain and trauma their beliefs cause. They believe the truth must be told, no matter how unpleasant the task, but their truth is so siloed and uninformed that it doesn’t deserve to be told. Their truth is hate disguised as love; bigotry disguised as reason. Their truth divides families and ends friendships. Their truth makes love conditional and predicates it on lies. The reward? Divine salvation and eternal life, supposedly, although one wonders if it is really worth the price.

A dark square tunnel leads to lush green light.
Leaving my dogmatic, isolated church was like walking from darkness to light. Photo from rawpixel, CC0 1.0.

Strategies for leaving

Leaving a Revival church is a big deal. It’s a good idea to have a strategy to help you go through with this life-changing event.

In hindsight, I wish I confided in people outside the church – someone who had already left the fellowship or someone with no connection at all. They could have shared my burden and provided a valuable outside perspective. There is even a forum and Facebook group to support people in Revival churches. To their credit, my family were there for me and supported me through this difficult transition even when it conflicted with their own beliefs.

If you still hold spiritual beliefs then you might choose an open-minded spiritual or religious group to help with your transition. I however was an agnostic atheist, so more religion wasn’t the answer.

My strategy was as follows:

Firstly, I needed a social network outside the church. I did this by pursuing my passions. My first love is performing. Two years before leaving the church, I signed up for some classes in improv theatre and comedy. I absolutely loved the classes and quickly made new friends. They gave me the support network I so desperately needed as I transitioned out of Christianity and into the wider world. Nevertheless, I was so terrified that I didn’t tell my friends about my crisis of faith until after I had left the church.

Secondly, I needed to give myself a little shove. I committed myself to two events I desperately wanted to attend that both clashed with church meetings: I agreed to perform in a show on Wednesday 6 July and signed up for a masterclass on Sunday 31 July. This gave me a deadline. I had to leave the church before these commitments because skipping church meetings just wasn’t an option. If I started skipping church meetings then people would know something was wrong. Either way, my crisis of faith would be outed.

I left the church at the last possible moment (on my self-imposed deadline of Tuesday 5 July 2016). The rest is history.

Mark performs with a friend on a black stage. Both are wearing monochrome clothes. He has a beard and a concerned pose. She has frizzy hair. Her arm and head are blurry due to motion.
On Wednesday 6 July 2016 I performed in a show instead of going to church. My Revivalist life had finally come to an end. Photo by The Court Theatre.

A new beginning

I could write a book about my life since leaving the Revival Fellowship. It has been a thoroughly exciting six years. There has been success and failure; triumph and heartbreak. I find myself in a place now where life is happy. I rise to the challenges of my busy life with enthusiasm and fervour, and I go home each night to the love of my life.

The first excitement was discovering my own values and beliefs. Suddenly I could hold views based on compassion and science instead of bending my political ideology to my religious beliefs. This was a wonderful transformation. Now I live a life of passion and conviction, not compulsion and guilt.

Transitioning from the fellowship’s dense social network to a sparser social network in the real world was challenging. My experiences in the fellowship cause me to fear conflict and be shy around strangers. I struggle to reach out to people, even close friends. But these are difficulties that can be worked through and overcome.

It’s impossible to escape the fellowship entirely when you still have family in the church, but I live my life on my terms and am open about the person I am. I surround myself with people who love and accept me.

I don’t know my destination, but I know my values, and boy am I enjoying the journey.

Promotional image with a deep yellow background. Mark wears a baby pink suit and wields a steaming iron. He has a salacious facial expression.
My solo show Ironing Man (2020–2021) represents the culmination of my journey. It is an affectionate parody of musical theatre about discovering who I am and what I believe. Photo by Erik Norder.

Mark Darbyshire is an analyst and theatre maker. He lives in Aotearoa New Zealand. He has a BA(Hons) in Linguistics and a CertSc in Computer Science from the University of Canterbury. Until the age of five, he attended Revival Centres International in England. Then, until the age of 26, he was a member of the splinter group The Revival Fellowship – initially in England but mainly in New Zealand. He also visited Revival Fellowships in Australia, Europe, and Fiji. He is passionate about building a future based on science, sustainability, kindness, and understanding.

For more stories like this, consider the book Speaking in Tongues (Tom Tilley, 2022) or the podcast I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist. They provide touching insights into life in a Revival church and the tortuous process of leaving and discovering yourself.

For other resources and support, see:

For enlightening perspectives on the history of Christianity and the Bible, I recommend countless books, podcasts, videos, and courses by Bart D Ehrman.