It wasn’t planned, but I quit church. Well, at least corporate, institutional Church. Maybe it was seminary that contributed to it. Maybe it was my own wandering. Maybe it was me “backsliding”. Or maybe it was God. Just maybe.
I was at a faith focused event this winter. Sitting around at a table with a varied group, a woman asked the group, “So, where do all of you go to church?”. My stomach sunk. Around the table it went. Cool trendy names of churches like Genesis, iTown, The Well, etc. Then it came to one of the event’s guest speakers. He responded with, “Um, I’m unchurched, I guess.” Note: awkward silence. But for me, I lit up. A few more people and a few more weird church names. Then to me. My timid response, “I’m unchurch.i.n.g.”
You see, I quit church and I’m finding God. Cue grumbling and eye rolling. It’s more like strategic disengagement than just reckless abandonment. Look, I’m no wild eyed liberal free thinker. Well, not just yet. But maybe I’m on my way. I grew up in a conservative Protestant environment. I went on to spend my college years and several years after reading the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Andrew Murray, John Piper (kinda the only living guy I would read), Augustine, John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and any number of mostly dead guys. Then I went on to seminary (got a counseling degree…so maybe it was all that dangerous psychobabble that corrupted me) where I learned from some pretty legit biblical scholars. Years and years of studying the answers and something began to happen in me. I began to ask questions.
I’ve been amazed at how quickly I moved to the fringes of institutional church communities when asking questions. I wasn’t and am not trying to rock anybody’s boat, but rather exploring questions. And I find church uncomfortable with the questions. Why? I have no idea. They’re just questions. Jesus asked questions all the time. I’d call him a master questioner. He questioned the status quo of all things in his day, especially religious life. Questions led to great changes in history and in the Church. Martin Luther questioned the circumstances of his day and sparked the Protestant Reformation. Abolitionists asked questions of humanity, society and equality that led to the emancipation of slaves in America. Industries were built off of questions asking, “What if there’s a better way?” Questions are what spark great change and great growth not only for society and industry, but for faith communities and individuals.
I’m figuring out that God is incredibly capable of handling questions. Who knew? And I always thought I was just supposed to master the answers. Did you? Do you still? I grew up learning the answers. I recall Sunday school classes focused on apologetics (focusing on answers to defend a view). I remember learning why other religions and some denominations were “wrong”. Once, in our youth group, a taped line was used as a midpoint (neutral) and students were instructed to move to the right of the line to agree or to the left to disagree with various doctrinal and social statements. As statements were read aloud each of us moved toward agreement or disagreement as we saw fit. It was an incredibly polarizing experiment through which my sisters and I along with 3 or 4 others found ourselves opposite of 30-40 other students in response to most statements. Our answers were “wrong”, but they were rooted in questions.
How is it that when we come to faith, we come full of questions, but after years of getting used to it we tend toward reciting answers? I did it…a lot. I studied the answers in case anyone else asked the questions. I’d be ready. I’d be ready to defend my faith, to prove my point. Or, if God asked the questions I’d pass the test. The answers were so important. And don’t get me wrong, they are important, but so too are the questions. And I’ve missed that. We’ve missed that. And I think I need more and more questions.
What questions are you asking?
Try it. Just ask a wild question. Let’s try one. What if there’s no hell? Ok, that’s a big one. Too much, too soon? Did you go straight to your answer of why there is a hell? Well, that wouldn’t be a direct response to the question would it? What do you do with the question? Can you hold the tension of the question?
I live in Indiana. If you watched the news at all, you saw the uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The news, social media and conversations all over the country, and likely world, were ablaze with what Indiana was doing with RFRA. The conversation was predominately focused on the idea the RFRA gave Christians the freedom to refuse service to the homosexual community, predominantly regarding gay weddings. From all sides, answers were everywhere. Dogmatically arguing points. But what about the questions? Here’s what came to mind for me. What if Christians made a point to serve the gay community beyond what would ever be expected? Would that be Christlike? Where do you go when you hear those questions? Are answers popping up in your head? Are you preparing to argue your point? If so, you’re missing the opportunity for conversation, the opportunity to learn and explore possibilities. I don’t know where exactly I’ll land on this topic, but I want to ask questions and have dialogue about it. But the question feels threatening.
I asked a pastor, “What if we quit counting and measuring at church?” His response, “But that’s the only way we can know we’re effective.” Can you see how he missed the question? I asked “what if you quit counting and measuring?” His response jumped right over the conversation. We missed an opportunity to explore an interesting question, to possibly come up with unique ways to engage people, to enjoy what differences we may have in our perspectives and learn from one another. Needless to say, the topic changed fairly quickly.
Look, I don’t know where I’m going to land regarding any of these questions. You and I may end up agreeing, we may not. Does it matter? I know that even asking these type of questions makes some people uncomfortable. I’ll be honest, I have a long way to go in developing questions and asking them well. But, through unchurching (some by choice and some by subtle ostracizing) I’ve found a community of misfits full of questions, discovering truth in the person of Jesus and living in a way that mimics that of Christ on earth. You know the one, the Christ who ate with sinners and tax collectors. The Christ who led, served and sacrificed. The Christ who spoke to and loved outcasts, extended his hand to the sick and lame, welcomed the inquisitive and rebuked the religious. The Christ who asked masterful questions.
Click here for Getting Lost, a follow up to this post.