Church: To Stay or To Go?

Reformed church of Gossauphoto © 2008 Tambako The Jaguar | more info (via: Wylio)

Today’s guest post comes from my friend Mason Slater. Mason is a husband to Melinda, a seminary student, a youth pastor, a blogger and a freelance writer in the Mecca of Christendom, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He blogs at New Ways Forward. (Add him to your Google Reader; he's one of my favorites!) 

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So this past week Rachel has been blogging about how faith changes our relationships, which has been brilliant because I can very much relate. I’ve gone though many of those same changes (and in many ways still am), and that process has transformed my relationships in significant ways.

I want to focus here on the relationship that has been the most difficult for me to work out—my relationship with my church.

What do we do when we begin to come to different conclusions about faith and practice than are taught by our faith community?

We have plenty of options, but I’m going to look at them under two categories: We can leave, or we can stay. 

If you find yourself in this dilemma, I can’t tell you exactly what to do because I don’t know your story. But I can tell you mine.

In college I began to push back against the mostly Baptist faith with which I had been raised. I studied for myself and was exposed to more of the world.  In retrospect, there was probably more grace given to me than I realized at the time, but it didn’t feel that way. (That said, calling someone a heretic for rejecting Left Behind eschatology is hard to do graciously). The more I asked tough questions the more my questions were either dismissed as a phase or I was told I needed to just believe the Bible.

But I did believe the Bible. I just didn’t see how it was saying the sorts of things I’d been taught.

So I left.

But not all at once. Over time I stepped back bit by bit from the many ways I was involved in the church, until one day I walked out the doors knowing I wouldn’t return.

I tried other church communities which did not look at all like the one I had left, and I tried no church community at all. Each path had its own ups and downs, but over time I was faced with a decision I did not expect:  Did I want to go back—not to the same church, but to one similar to it?

I had to make this decision because I was offered a position on staff as a youth pastor on staff at exactly the sort of church I’d left. I thought it would be an easy decision, but it wasn’t.

After much thought and prayer, my wife and I decided that this was exactly where we needed to beThe institution and tradition still don’t fit us exactly, but that really isn’t the point. We love the people and have a role to play there now.

That role? To be the voice I wish I had heard at that point in my journey. Not in the sense of acting a part, pretending to be on the same team while secretly indoctrinating people into images of myself. No, I simply pray that I might be able to help the people I work with see that this Gospel story is deeper, farther reaching, and more beautiful than any of us had imagined.

It can be a difficult path to walk. More than a couple times in the past six months I thought I was going to be Chad Holtz-ed (see how I did that?) over some of what I’ve said or written, but so far it’s all working itself out for what I hope is the best for all involved.

Yes, I still have the same disagreements theologically and socially, but I’m learning to put them in their proper place. I’ve made peace, more or less, with my story. There are areas in which I push back, but I’m glad to play the role I’ve been given—to try to share a bigger picture of God and his saving work from within this tradition.

When I walked out those doors years ago I never thought I’d be back, but I am, in a way. And I’m happy to be, because if there’s no voice to tell these kids there is more to the story, when they walk away it might be for good.

So when you are faced with that choice, to walk away or stay for God-knows-what reason, just remember you’re not alone. You’re not alone because many of us have faced that choice and in our brokenness tried to choose a path with some level of graceAnd, you’re not alone because there is likely someone else like you or me a few pews down.

Leaving might be the right choice, but if you stay there is a role to play in that path as well. It’s at least worth thinking about.

Grace and peace.

***

Your turn.

Have you ever faced a big decision about possibly leaving a church? How did you make that decision?

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Changing faith and changing relationships: Some things I learned the hard way

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This week we’ve been talking about how changes in faith affect our relationships, and today I wanted to share a few lessons that I’ve learned as my own faith has evolved over the past ten years or so. Your comments after Monday’s post gave me a lot to think about, so I tried to incorporate some of your questions and ideas into these reflections, many of which were arrived at after trial and error, failure and grace: 

We can’t drag others along on our faith journeys. When we have dear friends with whom we’ve experienced notable life transitions—high school, driving, dating, college, marriage, kids—it’s only natural to assume that they will be along for the ride when our faith changes.  Perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as I’ve raised questions about Bible-Belt Christianity is that no amount of passion or persuasion can convince others to ask the same questions. In fact, forcing such questions upon other people almost always makes the situation worse. Like many of you, I’ve grieved as some of the most meaningful relationships of my past have grown superficial and flat as we avoid talking about matters of faith.  I desperately wanted these friends to join me on my journey because the road ahead was so lonely and frightening and new. But they couldn’t, and it was unfair for me to try and drag them along. 

A superficial relationship is better than no relationship. I’m terrible at small talk, so the prospect of spending the afternoon with a once-close friend talking about the weather is enough to make me physically ill. For several years, I resented the fact that those with whom I once trusted my deepest secrets did not want to hear about the things that were most important to me now. (Some have refused to read my book!) But I’ve since resolved that if this is the kind of relationship they want, I must be willing to walk the extra mile and do my best at maintaining it…always leaving the door open for something deeper, if and when they are ready for it.  

Online communities can really help. The nice thing about online forums like this one is that they let us know that we are not alone and they give us the chance to work through some of our new ideas without jeopardizing those “real life” relationships that are too fragile to handle brutal honesty.  I’m not ashamed to say that some of the most important conversations of my life have happened right here on this blog. 

New friends will come along.  Online friends can’t take the place of those face-to-face conversations over coffee or late-night talks about God.  It took a few years, but as I grew more honest about my faith, a surprising group of new friends (and some old friends!) came out of the woodwork. Ironically, people who used to be turned off by my unrelenting confidence (and pension for proselytizing) suddenly felt comfortable engaging in conversations with me about faith. Now my circle of friends is more diverse than it has ever been, and I am a better person for it. 

It’s not always right to rock the boat. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I get frustrated with Christians who seem to find it easy to believe everything their pastor tells them to believe. It makes me especially angry when my friends refuse to even listen to new ideas because they are either too certain or too afraid to see things from another perspective. But I’ve learned that it is not my job to test other people’s faith. My job is to be a friend to people who are already struggling through tough questions, to offer companionship on the difficult journey through doubt. I am to be a counselor, not a recruiter. It's not always right to rock the boat.

…But sometimes it is. When friends engage in conversations that are anti-gay, anti-Islamic, or anti-immigrant, I speak up.  When they speak with disdain about the poor or make general statements about people of another country or faith, I try to offer another perspective. Politics and theology are rarely worth arguing about, but when something cruel is said about another person or group, I think it’s appropriate to offer a gentle correction. I figure that at the very least, it teaches people not to make those kinds of statements in my presence. 

Don’t feed the trolls.  Online, trolls are people who show up to leave mean-spirited, off-topic comments that don’t really contribute to the conversation. In real life, they may be acquaintances who suddenly take an interest in “fixing” your faith or in harassing you about issues related to politics and theology via annoying email forwards and Facebook statuses. Engaging such people is almost always a waste of time and energy.  Don’t do it. 

“People who never get criticized aren’t saying anything important.” Dan offered those words to me once after I received a particularly hateful email in response to one of my posts.  Questions, honesty, challenges to old ideas, and arguments for new ones—these things are almost always met with resistance. I can certainly be wrong at times, but I think I have some good things to say and that it’s important that I keep saying them in the right context and with the right spirit.  You should too. 

Our lives are our testimonies. Living in a small Southern town has subjected me to a lot of hurtful gossip. Most of the rumors about my supposed theology are either untrue or exaggerated...and yet they are nearly impossible to dispel.  I have learned by trial and error that it is a waste of energy to try and track down and correct the source of such rumors. Better to spend my time learning to follow Jesus a best as I can. If my live exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, people are more likely to doubt what they’ve been told about me. I can’t control what other people say about me, but I can control my attitude. I figure that if my words can’t convince people that I can be both Christian and a democrat (or a Christian and an old-earther), then maybe my life can. 

Avoid both blame and guilt. I have a bad habit of jumping to extremes, so I tend to see my failed relationships as either totally my fault or totally the other person’s fault… when most of the time we both share some responsibility. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to apologize and okay to be hurt when I don’t receive one in return. It would be easier if there was a good guy and a bad guy, a black vs. a white, but relationships aren’t supposed to be easy. In fact, they are valuable precisely because they are hard.  

What have you learned as changes in your faith affect your relationships? How do you live peaceably with those with whom you disagree?

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Why do you find it so easy to believe?

This post was originially published back in January of 2010. In light of our recent conversations about how changes in faith affect relationships, I thought this would be an appropriate re-post. More to come tomorrow and Saturday! 

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One of my favorite scenes from the TV show “Lost” occurs down in the hatch, between John Locke and Jack Shepherd.  

Arguing about whether or not to press the infamous button on faith alone, John demands, “Why do you find it so hard to believe?” to which Jack furiously responds “Why do you find it so easy?

It’s a classic moment in Lost history because it perfectly encapsulates John and Jack’s characters, and because it points to a predicament to which we can all relate: Some of us really struggle to accept things on faith, while others seem to find it easy.  

And occasionally we get on one another’s nerves.

For example, I relate more to Jack in the sense that I’m a skeptic. I think critically, challenge authority, and ask tough questions about my faith. Many of my friends,on the other hand, rarely wrestle with doubts about Christianity, and can’t seem to understand why I would.“Why do you find it so hard to believe?” they ask.“Why do you find it so easy?” I want to shout.

There are several reasons why their confidence bothers me. 

First of all, deep down I’m jealous of the fact that they don’t lie awake at night worrying if everything they’ve been taught is a lie, if God is good, or if He exists. I hate to admit it, but I envy their certainty and serenity.

Second, I’m perplexed because the things that move me to ask questions—disasters like the one in Haiti, religious pluralism, heaven and hell, science, poverty, injustice—don’t seem to bother them like they bother me, and I (unfailry) wonder if it’s because they are less compassionate or less intelligent than me.  I wonder sometimes if they are in denial, if they’ve checked their brains and their hearts at the door in the name of blind obedience and easy peace.

And third, there’s that nagging fear that the John Lockes of this world relish in the opportunity to judge me for my lack of faith. We all have the tendency to return judgment with judgment, so the moment I feel vulnerable to attack, I put on the armor of resentment and pride and inform my perceived enemies that they’ve got it all wrong, that my faith is actually stronger than theirs because it can stand the test of scrutiny while theirs remains weak and unchallenged.

Clearly, my frustration with those who find it easy to believe has more to do with my own insecurities and fears than it does with them.

 Perhaps this goes both ways. Perhaps the John Lockes of this world don’t find it as easy to believe as I think, and they get frustrated with me because my questions don’t make it any easier.

After all, John ends the conversation with, “It’s never been easy.”

 So, to whom do you relate the most—Jack or John? Do you find yourself frustrated with the people who find it hard to believe or frustrated with the people who find it easy?

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For Parents of Doubting Children (a guest post from my dad!)

Transient

This week we are talking about how changes in faith affect our relationships.  As I've spoken with college students around the country, I’ve found that many are struggling with parents who react defensively to their questions, doubts, and new ideas.  Oh how I wish these parents could talk to my dad!  

Peter Held is the senior fellow for Christian Worldview at Bryan College and a professor of Christian Thought and Biblical Studies. He’s also an amazing father, who along with my mother and sister, have encouraged and supported me through all the ups and downs of my faith journey.  As he’s encountered other parents with children who doubt, he’s been able to share from his own experience, and has graciously given us a glimpse of what he’s learned in the process. 

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In her book, Rachel tells of her personal journey from certainty, through doubt, to faith.  It has been remarkable to see how her story has encouraged so many people to continue the journey and not to give up.  Over the past year I have heard from many parents who see this painful struggle in their children and ask how they should respond.  I have said I would never write a book or give advice about raising children.  Every parent knows how unique every child is and how different every situation is.  When it comes to helping your children through the difficult passages of life, there is no one way that fits every situation.  But here are some ideas that may be helpful: 

1. Don’t panic.

 This is not an uncommon experience.  Young adulthood is a time when it is natural to question values and beliefs and make them their own.  Although the church is losing many such strugglers, and church attendance is declining by generation, your child doesn’t have to be among them.  In fact, sometimes doubt can be a big step toward a stronger, more intimate faith. Some say it is essential.  

The casualty rate seems to be increasing, perhaps because the world has become much smaller for our children.  Through technology, media, travel, short term mission trips, they are experiencing the world in ways their parents may never have.  When I was growing up my mother told me to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in India.  My children know their names.  They’ve held them in their arms.  As a result, my children will see the world with different eyes and a different heart and they will be more engaged.  For some it will mean asking deeper, more personal, and more troubling questions.  

Questioning and doubting are not reserved for the young, and it is not anything new.  Moses, Mary, Job, David, Thomas, and others expressed serious doubt and conflict with God.  Reread the Psalms and you’ll find more doubting and questioning God than you’ll find praising God. You’ll find that most of the horror stories about young Christians leaving the faith are because of how the doubt was mishandled. Drew Dyke, author of Generation Ex-Christian observes that we have done a poor job of responding to young Christians who doubt.  Sadly, some of these children not only leave the church but they also walk away from their parents. (Point #2 seems to contribute to this.)

2. Avoid “bundling” your faith.

Transient

Know what’s essential to the Christian faith and leave plenty of room for diversity.  This may be the most important advice to follow.  I have been surprised to see how many parents have bundled their faith inseparably with a particular political view, economic philosophy, worship style, or the latest social issues.

True Christianity is not about politics, political parties, or personal preferences.  Do you really want to lose your child because of differing political views?  Does it really matter if they are for big government or less government, universal health care or private health care?  If these issues seem to be too emotional for either of you, don’t even discuss them.  The Kingdom of Our Lord is not limited to one political system or philosophy.  

The essentials of the Christian faith are not dependent on certain doctrinal systems or denominations (Calvinism, Arminianism, dispensationalism, covenant theology, election, predestination, free will, and so on).  I make my living studying and teaching these important doctrines and I have convictions about them.  But godly Christians throughout the ages have real disagreements in all these areas.  Keep your convictions but make sure you’re not making everything an essential.   Remember, Christians across the theological spectrum have far more in common than we have disagreement.  Again, if these issues seem to stir up too much emotion, avoid discussing them.  Given what the Bible says about the deceitfulness of the human heart, humbly acknowledge your own bias and limitations.

Unless they request it, resist the temptation to pass along books, articles, or emails hoping to change their minds on these non-essential issues.  If your child comes through this struggle loving God and following Jesus, anything else is just extra.

3. Listen well.  

Show genuine interest and ask questions.  If you want your child to learn from this, provide the example and be willing to learn something yourself.  I have learned so much from my two daughters who see and experience a different world than I do.  This phase of parenthood can be extremely fulfilling if you allow your role to change appropriately.  This is not just a petty phase.  Doubt can be extremely painful and frightening for them.  Sadly, they may lose some close friends during this time.  More than ever they need a caring parent, an ally, not another adversary.  

4.  Don’t make this about you.   

Keep your insecurities to yourself.  Forget what other people will think.  Avoid the following thoughts and sentiments:  “Where did we go wrong?”  “We raised you better than this.”  “How could you do this to us?”  “What will the people at church think of us?”  Unfortunately, parents have reported some very disappointing responses from their Christian friends and leaders.  Don’t expect anyone else to love and understand your child like you do.  

The road ahead may be dangerously rocky and uncertain.  

Don’t make them travel it alone.

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Has your relationship with your parents changed as your faith has changed? What do you wish they knew about you and your faith experience?

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When faith changes, so do relationships

“How have friends and family responded to your book?"

“What should I say to my close friends who just don’t understand the questions I’m asking?”

“Is it possible to talk to my parents about theology and politics without making them angry?” 

“I feel like a stranger in my own church; should I leave?”

These are the questions I’m asked more than any others—on Facebook, in email, and as I travel around the country speaking about faith and doubt.  It seems that no matter where our various faith journeys lead, one thing remains universal:  as our faith changes, so do our relationships. 

And sometimes this is painful. 

When I opened up about my doubts about Christianity, close friends suddenly grew distant. Rumors spread around town. People I barely knew “confronted me in love,” while those I’d grown to trust talked amongst themselves.  Dan and I struggled to find a faith community in which we could be honest about our ideas, and while my online connections flourished, it took a long time for me to feel safe opening up to my new friends in Dayton. (I’m so glad that I did!) While my parents, sister and Dan have remained supportive and encouraging through every twist and turn, some of the most important relationships in my life will simply never be the same. 

I’ve lost friends, and I’ve made new ones. 

I’ve been hurt and I’ve been hurtful. 

I’ve shared too much and I’ve shared too little. 

Along the way I’ve made some mistakes, but I’ve also learned a few things....so I’d like to devote several posts this week to topics related to faith and relationships.

Today I’ll just open up the conversation to your thoughts and questions. On Wednesday I’ll share some practical tips for engaging in better conversations about faith. And on Thursday I’ll be introducing you to my dad!! He's written a fantastic guest post about how parents can relate to their doubting children. (I think you’re going to love him; I sure do!) 

So to get things started, I’d like to pose a few questions: 

How have your relationships changed as your faith has changed? 

Which relationships have changed the most?

Are there any questions/ issues you would like us to address over the next few days as we tackle this deeply personal subject?

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