In the past few years, my faith has been deconstructed, shaken, rearranged, re-imagined, worn thin, beat up, and in many ways, renewed.
Of course, for me, renewal has been less like flipping a switch, and more like shedding my skin. It’s like giving birth; long, drawn out and messy. It’s come through existential crisis, dark nights of the soul, genuine frustration, and long periods of feeling spiritually homeless. It comes through doubt, honesty, reading, talking, and whispered prayers.
The extra-martial affair and subsequent suicide of my pastor in the fall of 2012 fractured the ceiling of my worldview, and little cracks followed along the fault lines. I was devastated, angry, and heartbroken. Questions flooded my mourning mind, and they were questions no one seemed to know how to answer.
Isaac knew the bible better than anyone I know. If he believed the things he preached, why didn’t they help him in those final moments of despair?
How do I know that any pastor or leader I listen to is not also living a double life of secrecy? How can I trust anything church leaders say?
These public scandals, falls from grace, and moral collapses of mainstream ministers seem to be so common and widespread. What does that reveal about the way we’re structuring the church model? How much of this damage is a result of an unrealistic expectation of perfection thrust upon our pastors? How much of it is a result of an unhealthy imbalance of power between congregants and leadership teams?
While it is true that the church is made up of humans and will therefore always be imperfect, isn’t it worth considering whether these catastrophes are symptomatic a sickness?
It amazing how once you begin questioning one thing, the floodgates of your mind open up and you start questioning everything else. I saw sickness everywhere I looked, and I tried in vain to swallow my mounting cynicism. Well-meaning Christian friends and family members would provide me with the standard Christian answers to my questions, but they now seemed pale, thin, and unhelpful.
I realize now that the death of my pastor was probably the catalyst which unleashed all of the doubts and questions I’d kept at bay over the years. Growing up in the American Evangelical tradition, I had gotten the message that my Christian salvation is largely based upon believing in all the right things. And when your salvation depends on believing the right things, asking the wrong questions can be dangerous: getting the wrong answer is heresy.
During my college years, I existed on a pretty steady diet of neo-reformed teachers like John Piper and the other members of the Gospel Coalition. These days, when I see a “Desiring God” article appear on my news feed, I agonize over its often burdensome, extra-biblical, and legalistic content. But I didn’t back then. Once, it had felt safe and reassuring to be deep in this evangelical mainstream: a place where everything was black and white, right or wrong. There was an answer provided for every question, a higher purpose for every action, and a monopoly on truth which kept the mysteries of the universe tidy and organized.
But then that fell apart, too.
I started to read the disturbing things Piper has said about women, like, that they should endure physical and emotional abuse “for a season” so as to not overthrow their husband’s authority over them, or that they shouldn’t be police officers because they are not to “have authority over a man.” Around that time, his buddy Mark Discoll was calling America a “pussified nation” and progressive Christians “pansies” and “homo-evangelicals.” Scandal circulated around his misappropriation of church funds, his domineering, bullying behavior, and his promotion of violent, macho masculinity.
The deeper I got into some of this neo-calvinist theology, the more it twisted, dark, and unrecognizable it became to me. Piper teaches that human beings are totally deprevaed, and that in order to display his glory, God made some people to be recipients of his saving grace, and he made others just to send them to hell. He also teaches that God does not just allow but ordains sin and suffering, and that he does so for the sake of his glory.
But if child rape, genocide, and slavery are not enemies of God which Christ came to conquer but tools God uses to make himself look good, then that was a God I did recognize.
Meanwhile, the swirling cloud of exclusionary rhetoric coming from Evangelicals in public and political arenas did nothing to alleviate this Christian identity crisis I was having. I struggled hard with the dissonance I sensed between the teachings of Jesus and some of the actions of my tradition. I mourned the casualties of these culture wars being waged by the Religious Right in the name of Christ. I felt pressured to denounce LGBT “lifestyles” and to vote a certain way, despite my conscience.
Pillars of fundamentalism crashed around me, disappearing beneath dark waves. Whenever I touched one, it broke apart like dust, leaving my hand to grasp for something sturdier. There were a couple years when my faith was muffled by sadness and apathy. I slept in a lot of Sundays.
There must be more to the Christian imagination than compiling these lists of rights and wrongs, more to salvation than an intellectual response to a theological question, more to God’s redemptive promise than saving souls out of a ruined world.
Then, something incredible happened. I started to hear an echo of my experiences in the voices of others: in the pages of books, on blogs and in 140 characters or less.
I read Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday and wept nearly every time I opened its pages. Her words were sweet and sacred to me, they hugged and rocked me back and forth as I read them on my bathroom floor at 3 am. They were proof that I was not alone, they were a reminder that Jesus was walking towards me through this fog.
It felt like a fresh wind was blowing through the halls of my soul. It rushed in unannounced, waking me up from sleep, shaking loose old tenets of my faith, forcing me to my feet. I saw, with renewed excitement, there was more to the mission of God than I had previously thought. During this time, I realized how starved I was for the holy, ministering voices of women. I had been deprived of hearing women teach from the pulpit my whole life, and receiving their wisdom felt like water. God brought women into my life to encourage and embolden me, women who inspired me to find a voice in the midst of my struggles.
My husband, too, was a steady, wise, compassionate voice of reason as storms raged around my soul. He was a real flesh and blood reminder of how deeply good, honest, reasonable, and accepting Christians can be. I was lucky enough to fall asleep next to him every night, and talk his ear off about everything I was thinking and reading.
Slowly but surely, I began to believe that God wasn’t afraid of my questions, doubts, and differences of opinion. Maybe he even encouraged them: maybe he wanted the full, honest engagement of my intellect. Maybe wrestling with him was what was keeping my faith alive.
As I investigated multifaceted and nuanced theological problems, I began to suspect maybe God deals with people uniquely, as individuals, instead of requiring that everyone fit into narrow, rigid categories. Maybe his grace fills in the spaces where our theological boxes remain unchecked.
My take on evangelism became less about a mission to gain Christian recruits and more about a challenge to sincerely listen to and love people. My goal shifted away from trying to convince to people to think like an evangelical, and moved towards an effort to introduce people to Jesus by meeting their immediate needs.
And although I maintain a strong belief that there is Truth to be found, I became realistic about the fact that none of us knows it completely. Since we are all learning and growing, since none of us has all of the answers, our salvation can’t possibly be contingent having the right intellectual response to a theological problem. There had to be something more to it than that.
As I took these steps, and I breathed in these freeing thoughts, it felt like a contorted mask was falling off the face of God, revealing a face more loving, wild, and beautiful than the one I had been led to believe in.
On this journey, I’ve met so many people whose story resonates with my own. I’ve listened as they shared their own painful church experiences, with trembling hands clasped over cups of coffee. I heard stories from people who experienced abuse within the church walls, controlling and bullying behavior from church leadership, or had long been taught damaging doctrines. I heard from people who felt silenced, abandoned, or just plain out of place in the church pews. These wounds were deep, widespread, and far too common to count.
A lot of these people make up the drastic statistical drop in church attendance and religious affiliation in America. While I cannot speak for everyone, I know that a lot of us feel spiritually homeless, but not spiritually hopeless.
We’re frustrated by what we’re seeing. We’re disillusioned by what we’ve experienced. We don’t quite fit into the spaces available to us. But for many of us, that doesn’t mean we’re ready to walk away from the faith. We want church. We long for it. Though we have seen that the church can wound, but we are unwilling to give up hope that it can also heal. It can surround. It can embrace. It can lift up and restore.
Contrary to being “too consumerist,” most people from my generation don’t come to church looking for a concert, a performance, or an advertisement. We come in search of a safe place to bring our whole, authentic selves; doubts, differences of opinion, and all. Despite our differences, we want to be bound together with the saints who came before us and the saints to stand beside us by tasting and reviving the sacraments.
If there’s any validity to the experience of people like me, the church owes it to themselves to self to listen to our concerns with an open mind and an open heart. As author Zach Hoag said, “The decline of Christianity in America is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be embraced.” The church must be willing to continually examine itself, as an institution, a denomination, a congregation, and not be above reproach. It must be willing to examine the ways in which certain methodologies or ideologies may contribute to unhealthy patterns, made way for unfair power structures, been complicit in abuse or oversight, or taught damaging doctrines.
Even though some days its hard, I am committed to rejecting cynicism and rooting myself in the hope of Christ. I am committed to this messy, arduous, imperfect process of continual death and rebirth. I am sustained by the belief that our invisible, unknowable God looks like Jesus Christ, and that he will not abandon us in this.
If you’re reading this and you’ve felt the way I have, please know that you’re not alone. Know that you don’t have to be silent. Know that you don’t have to have it all figured out. Reach out and tell your story.