This is a longer than usual post that comes in response to a couple of recent conversations. It deals with the importance of experience in our faith development. I meet more and more people - mostly people who fit in the "categories" of the GenX and Millenial generations - who would like to come to church, but the things they have heard in church keep them away. By and large I hear them say three things about Christianity that keep them outside of church doors.
1. They don't want anything to do with a God of fear. A God rooted in fear just seems too small. They have been told that the only reason to go to church, participate in Christian community, and learn the scriptures and traditions is to avoid a fiery pit in some other world. This makes no sense to them; fear doesn't speak to them. They have experienced some wonder in the world and have absolutely no desire to orient their lives around a belief system that begins with fear rather than this wonder.
2. Church has been a place filled with hurtful and meaningless platitudes. The concept that "it's all in God's plan" doesn't fit with their experience of the world. The sorrow they've felt in their own lives and tragedies they see around the world just don't fit with this view. If it's all in God's plan, God seems to be a pretty mean deity - sadistic even. They have heard, upon the death of a loved one, "It's all for the best." Or they have heard after some kind of tragedy that "It's all in God's plan." Wow! These platitudes hurt people and don't add meaning to life. People are looking for a place that will welcome honest and real questions about life, death, and all that happens in between. They are looking for a place that will welcome their doubts and offer a way to deal with them. They are not looking to have the most important and fundamental struggles of their souls dismissed.
3. The God of the churches they have known has been described as "all powerful." This means that God either makes all the bad things in the world happen or allows them to happen. This doesn't work with their hopes for a deity. It just doesn't seem right.
Of course there are lots of other reasons that people stay away from church, but these are some of the ones that I hear most about. And I have to say that if I had been raised in a church that promulgated them I probably wouldn't go to church, either. My experience of God - the Divine, the Ground of Being, the Source of All that Is, the Great I Am, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, the Holy Spirit, the Great Love (you get my drift) is that our words will always be insufficient to capture the wildness of God. God is the wildness of love and the passion at the heart of justice. In them we find a holy combination that is magnificent and miraculous. God is personal and corporate. God is inclusive - radically so. And God convicts our sins - yes, I said sins. Sins of injustice, of apathy, greed, violence, fear, and hate. We do sin. We miss the mark all of the time, but my experience (thank goodness) is that that God's grace overwhelms my sins. God invites me into full communion with the universe and all that is in it. At the heart of Christianity is a radically inclusive and relational God who loves this world and burns with a passion for justice.
Here are some responses to the three reasons people stay away from church:
1. "Fearing God" - which is in the Bible quite a bit - is to hold the purity of God's holiness in awe. It isn't an invitation to be afraid. It is an invitation to hold God and all that God has made in wonder and to look upon it all with reverence.
2. My experience of God tells me that there are no easy answers to life, just an invitation to live. The sorrows that we experience aren't sadistic gifts from God, but through them we may find our ability to withstand grow stronger. Sometimes, though, they will almost destroy us. Our community is there to hold us up when we can't stand on our own. Christianity is a pathway and Jesus is our Way. Together we ask questions and stumble along.
3. God's power is overwhelming. I have experienced God's power is a lot of ways. Living the Pacific Northwest, it takes just a glance at Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, or at the salmon making their way home to spawn to see God's power at work. When I see oceans spinning with hurricanes, I see God's genius at work as the Earth tries to right itself back into balance. But somtimes God's power lies in the tear of someone aching and mourning. God's power is not our power. It is divine. It is generative, invitational, convicting, and persistent. It is not coercive - at least not in my experience.
I have experienced God's love as something wild and God's passion for justice as even wilder. I tell those coming back to church - those who dare to step across the sanctuary threshhold - that God invites us into community to seek together what we haven't found alone. I tell them that church isn't perfect - it is political and flawed and filled with difficult personalities. Church isn't a place to come a order up a slice of personal fulfillment. Church is a community that stumbles together to discover over and over the wildness of God and ways for us to extend that love, grace, and justice into the world.
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