Rachel Gardner’s first words to me during our one-hour conversation were a warning. “I’m going to bring plenty of sass to this interview.”
She didn’t disappoint. Adjectives such as ‘bubbly’, ‘gregarious’ or ‘extroverted’ somehow feel insufficient when it comes to the president of Girls’ Brigade England & Wales. Sassy is a much better descriptor. Whether preaching, writing or campaigning, Rachel combines her determined, driven nature with dollops of grace and compassion.
Take, for example, the events of last summer. A popular clothing store in Bluewater shopping centre frequented by teenagers, put up a sign above their lipsticks that read: “Send me nudes”. Upon hearing the news, Rachel was incensed.
“I work with girls who have been sexually exploited, who have felt they have to send naked images of themselves to whoever wants them, boys that feel like they have to ask girls, and that they can’t say no. I just felt like ‘I don’t even care about being moralistic, I’m just going to tell you you’re wrong’.”
Within days, 9,000 people had signed Rachel’s petition demanding the store “respect girls more” and take down the sign. Her campaign caught the attention of the national press and the shop’s actions were widely regarded as synonymous with their name (Missguided). Within days, the sign had been removed. You might think that’s the end of the story. Job done. Battle won. Sassy Rachel saves the day. But it wasn’t over.
“I went into the store with flowers and introduced myself as Rachel. The staff all got a bit nervous and scared and I had to reassure them: ‘I’m here to thank you because I know you couldn’t have taken the sign down, you would have lost your job.’ I was not fighting against people who worked in the store. I was fighting against really high-ups that had allowed that decision to be made.”
Rachel can’t remember a time when she was apathetic about faith. Growing up she watched her newly converted parents count the cost of discipleship – even to the point of obeying God’s call to give up their jobs. Their radical lifestyle quickly rubbed off on the young Rachel.
The call to youth work came while writing “a boring essay on Church history” at London School of Theology, she tells me. “I was nearly falling asleep, but as I was writing about Anabaptists, I felt God say to me: ‘Rachel you have got to commit to the next generation.’”
Soon afterwards, she found herself branded the ‘God Sex Lady’ after travelling the country’s secondary schools attempting to communicate Christian beliefs about sex in a relevant way. The project attracted the attention of the BBC who, in 2005, broadcast a three-part series called No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers. The documentary was based around an experiment: what would happen if twelve non-Christian participants aged between 15 and 17 agreed to abstain from sexual activity? The answer, according to Rachel, was that all of them found the process “extremely liberating” and three of won Rachel new friends and foes alike, but she says the positive results speak for themselves.
As well as her role at Girls’ Brigade, the 42-year-old is relationship lead at the charity Youthscape and an in-demand speaker at Christian festivals. Her newly published book is The Girl De-Construction Project: Wildness, wonder and being a woman (Hodder & Stoughton). The blurb says Rachel writes with kindness, truth and...you guessed it. Sass.
The dominant cultural view is that as long as sex is between two consenting adults, anything goes. Christians have a very different view. How do we bridge that gap?
I love The Message translation where Paul talks about sex as more than skin to skin contact; there is something divine that happens here. There are films like Vanilla Sky where Cameron Diaz’s character says to Tom Cruise: “I know we thought it was just sex but now my body has made a promise to you and I can’t deal with that”, and it’s trying to understand that even if we hold the view that sex and no-strings-attached, actually our humanity seeps out of that.
The teenagers I work with in schools come to me heartbroken, even traumatised, I would say, and when we get to the bottom of it, it’s because they’ve connected with someone over social media, or even face-to-face; they’ve shared emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy, but they say: “Well, it wasn’t a relationship, so why do I feel so horrible now that he or she has gone?” And I say: “Well, that is a relationship. The fact that you haven’t labelled it is irrespective. What you’ve done is you’ve given yourself”, and that’s what God creates desire for, the ability for us to give ourselves firstly to God, that is where our desires are only ever met with embrace and love and strength, but then that enables us to offer them elsewhere.
I think culture removes young people’s consent. I think culture says to young people: “You can consent as long as you are saying yes.” I think young people grow up in a culture knowing in their heads they can say yes or no, but in reality, in the situation, it doesn’t feel like no is a genuine answer.
Do you think we need to be more comfortable talking about sex in church?
In the Church community, some people are like: “Just stop talking about it”, but I think I am someone who is aware this is a big topic and I don’t just want to talk about it to make it normal, as if we are talking about having a burger. But let’s not be silent. When there’s silence, that space is filled with shame, and we don’t want that.
You’ve said that 75 per cent of churches don’t have any teenagers in them. Why is that?
It could be that they’ve got children but the children leave at around ten or eleven, it’s the natural drop-off point, with things like football on Sunday morning. But I think, as well, sometimes it’s a lack of making it part of the church’s core vision and strategy. Young people won’t just automatically rock up, you need to be a church that gets ready for them.
You’ve spoken about the exciting innovations in youth ministry. Will the Church of England make enough room for these?
Well, we work with what we’ve got, don’t we? I’ve got an endless optimism, as you can hear. One thing that’s quite exciting is a church that sees itself as a resourcing church for the area. I think the idea that churches can individually be able to do all this is a bit naïve.
There will always be churches like the Abundant Lifes of this world, and KingsGate in Peterborough, that do brilliant, massive youth ministry, and we should cheer them on, and learn from them, but our focus is on the smaller churches. If every church worked well with five or ten teenagers, suddenly there’s transformation.
I spoke to a Christian teenager recently who told me: “All the old people voted for Brexit. They’re going to die and I’ll be left with the disastrous results. It’s not fair, why don’t I have a voice?” There’s a divide between old and young that seems more pronounced than ever. How do we heal that?
I think it’s maybe understanding why that seems so painful for the younger generations, and for the older generations to really hear them. I felt angry too, actually. I live in a very diverse, multicultural area of north London, and I felt horrified that the rest of the country had voted as they had; I felt embarrassed. So I think we need to understand where each other is coming from and create spaces where old and young can hear each other’s hearts.
I love Church catching the vision that youth ministry is a family affair, that we do this together. The best youth work surely happens when a church sees themselves as family first, and there are no divisions between who can access who. I also think social media is an echo chamber: we follow people who think like us, so helping young people not just be inhabiting that space is important too.
What made you want to write The Girl De-Construction Project?
I didn’t want to write this book, actually, it took Hodder two years to convince me to write it. They took me out for lunch two years ago and said: “You’ve got to write a book for girls who aren’t teenagers”, and I said: “No, I only write for teenagers, then I can use short sentences!”
Then, last summer I did a bit of research among 1,000 girls aged 15 to 25, across all the Christian festivals, and I asked three questions. I asked them to answer anonymously: ‘The kind of girl I am is...’, ‘The kind of girl I’m not is...’, ‘The kind of girl I’d like to be is...’
The results were staggering; when I looked through them I realised I actually did want to write the book.
What were they?
In a nutshell, the results to ‘The kind of girl I want to be is...’ were 95 percent “Confident”.
The word ‘confident’ has a special meaning for these girls; they see it as something they will attain to one day, not something that their life experience will give them. It made me think: are they holding back from the experiences that will give them confidence? Is there a perception that has crept into the Church surrounding women, that they should be quiet and passive? Because when that happens, you don’t try anything and gain any confidence from it.
Whereas a man might give something a go and just clock it up to experience, women go: “I can’t do something until I absolutely know I can do this.” But that feeling won’t come, you have to just do it and go: “You know, the world didn’t end and I’m OK. I can do it a bit more next time.” That’s why I wrote about courage.
What led to your decision to adopt?
Jason and I got married and for about ten years were struggling to conceive. I was thinking: “I was a good girl, God; you owe me!” We realised that it was actually me, I couldn’t conceive, and we started to receive all kinds of fertility treatments, all the while thinking: “Where do we draw the line with this?”, because we want a family but not at the cost of being so wrecked emotionally and physically that we’re just destroyed. It is really tough. It came to a point where we said: “Actually, we are going to stop now.”
About a year later we thought: “Well, we’ve always thought about adoption, let’s have a look.” Everything about the place in London we went to felt good and they were really geared-up for vulnerable children and families.
Then we started the process, and it was difficult, it was painful. We had to deconstruct the notions of giving birth to a child, and naming them, and them looking like us and having our personalities, but the more we leant in, the more we said yes to the next step, the more we felt: this is going to be an adventure that will reveal things we never dreamed possible.
Then we brought our little girl home and, oh my goodness, that was just incredible, and weird but amazing.
I don’t want to say that the best thing about adoption was that we learned some spiritual lessons; the best thing about adoption is that we get to be our little girl’s parents, and what we’ve learned is that the more we’ve discovered about her background, the more we wanted her. I suddenly thought: “When God says he adopts us into his family, he knows it all, we can't hide anything, but it makes him say: ‘I will move heaven and earth to be with you.’”
I am absolutely convinced that God could have opened my womb. He chose not to, and being an adoptive parent feels like God’s best gift to us. It doesn’t feel like anything other than an incredible blessing to be her parent, and to help her be all she can be.
You’ve spent the summer preaching all over the UK and beyond. Can you remember the first time you did this?
I became head girl at school so I think I learned a lot about public speaking then. I had a stutter when I was a teenager; I just couldn’t get my words out and my drama teacher really took me under her wing and taught me to speak. It’s quite funny to me that I do a lot of public speaking because I feel that I’m quite all over the place, though I think increasingly I’m enjoying the chance to unpack a passage because I love God’s word and I just find it shines.
What’s the biggest thing that you’ve learned as you’ve done more preaching?
It is trust in God, and greater intimacy, because I think we can prepare talks that on paper look good, but actually when you’re up there sharing with people, you suddenly realise: “I can only pass on what I’ve discovered.” So, the intimate place of saying: “Lord, will you speak to me, will you feed me?” is so essential.And I do still think “Why have they asked me? I don’t know anything,” and that’s something quite natural, and lots of leaders think that. What will make the difference is clothing yourself in prayer, and asking the Holy Spirit to guide you and speak through you.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on Saturday 15 September or download The Profile podcast
Rachel Gardner is a columnist for Premier Youth and Children's Work magazine. Request a free copy here.
All photos (c) Alex Baker