The idea of struggling to navigate the world today while holding to your faith is not new. Recently I read a great article on Medium about one person’s walk away from his faith, only to return. I also listened to a great podcast episode with one of my favorite musicians about his current struggles. As I’m writing this I’m listening to another podcast about a musician who got caught up in a church that failed miserably and walked away from being a pastor there. In light of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I felt it was the right time to share my own thoughts about how to survive Christianity and follow Jesus in the US today.
I’m ordained as a deacon by the Presbyterian Church in America, but not actively serving in that role. From age 19 to 35 I was in a leadership position of some sort with a variety of denominations in a variety of places. Here’s what I hope is a quick overview of the mess I’ve seen.
The first position was with the Southern Baptist church that I went to until I was around 12-13. I quit going to church altogether at that time because the church split, with a new “charismatic” church growing out of that. The new church is the one my parents went to. One Sunday morning I stood in the lobby of the building they rented for services with a friend who was wearing a cast after mangling his hand in a school shop class accident. One of the pastors talked to him about it, with me standing right there, before the sermon. After the sermon that pastor prayed over the auditorium. He then “felt God leading him” to pray for someone he didn’t know who had their hand mangled in an accident during the week.
At 19 I had been to college for 1.5 years, was actually following Jesus finally, and was considering going into youth ministry. Major spinal surgery took me out of college just in time for that Southern Baptist church to end up firing their fourth pastor (and the entire rest of the leadership) during my lifetime. Somehow, on my first week back, someone heard I had taken one youth ministry class as Liberty and asked me to be part of the youth ministry transition team.
I had never actually gone to youth group, so I didn’t know it was viewed as glorified babysitting. I rankled some people by having the nerve to walk through basic theological discussions like predestination and free will with teenagers. That was the big issue. It was enough for parents to not want me to work with their kids since they were asking questions the parents couldn’t/wouldn’t answer.
After that I went back to college and volunteered with a youth group that was part of the seeker sensitive/Willow Creek movement. That “church” fired the youth pastor I volunteered with just before Christmas for the sole reason that the attendance numbers hadn’t increased quickly enough. Next was the first move to Hawaii where the independent baptist pastor I worked with primarily was too busy keeping his stranglehold over his tiny little kingdom there that he ran off several people before he did the same to me. I then went to the first PCA church where I was handed leadership of the college group almost immediately before being ordained as a deacon a couple of years later. Most of that was a great experience except for an elder or two that had minor theological positions that they would attack anyone over.
My next experience was phenomenal. I started working in downtown DC and went to a PCA church there. About 6 months in the weekly community group I attended for sermon discussion, prayer, and real community service and outreach got too big for the apartment we met in and had to multiply into two groups. I was tabbed as a co-leader for that new group.
Instead of majoring in minor details and having no flexibility on issues outside the absolute core of Christian belief, this was different. When a guy in my group came out, instead of shaming/attacking him, the elders opened up a private group just for men struggling with their sexuality. Shortly thereafter a group opened for women as well. The main things were the main things and secondary issues only came up in relation to leadership positions. Even then it was treated with kindness and love as much as possible. It was a truly wonderful experience.
Then I went back to Hawaii. At first I tried one that isn’t really in my wheelhouse theologically, and it was fine. My next one was right in my neighborhood and very close to my theological inclinations. It was great and terrible at the same time. The senior pastor was fantastic. The assistant pastors were excellent. The small group was good at first but devolved into something I dreaded to the point of drinking before each meeting to make it tolerable.
The final straw for moving on was the prayer ministry. One week at small group one of the regulars there completely berated a newer member for her actions at work (actions I sympathized with and probably would have done as well). The next week we were told the woman who was berated was searching for a new church. The week after that we were told the one who did the berating would not be back to small group because she was leading the new prayer ministry.
As for my parents church history. Since that church split and the SBC church that fired pastors like a bodily function, things haven’t gotten better. They went to another SBC church where the pastor hired his son as the music leader. His son had an affair with a teenage girl in the church. That’s when they found out the son had done so at his previous church as well. Right now that father and son are working together in another church that probably doesn’t know their history. The next, and current church for my parents, had the senior pastor forced to resign for inappropriate sexual behavior. There’s a plague of dysfunction that, to the best of my knowledge, has been present in every church they’ve been part of.
So, how have I navigated that mess and come out the other side still devoted to Jesus? Here’s 3 ideas that I think will help anyone trying to find their way through it all:
How to Survive Christianity and Follow Jesus
Read/listen/talk to those with similar experiences
Just recently I read this post from Benjamin Sledge over at Medium.
I finally left the church when I learned of my pastor’s “indiscretions.” Those indiscretions included: Swinging. Banging his secretary. Embezzling donations. Bigger homes. Swag cars. Oh, and drugs.
I also listened to an episode of the Inglorious Pasterds podcast with Derek Webb about his struggles with his faith and his new album.
As I stated above, while I was writing this I listened to an episode of the Cultivated podcast with Dustin Kensrue of Thrice and his experience as part of Mars Hill Church in Seattle during the Mark Driscoll meltdown.
Read/listen/talk to those with differing theology, faiths, or other beliefs
I initially came out on the wrong side of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ll still argue for the facts of the Mike Brown case not fitting the narrative that was initially pushed, but I clearly missed the systemic issues that led to the reaction. It’s been extremely helpful to read someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates despite my belief that he oversimplifies and doesn’t offer any solutions. It’s also been informative to listen to African American voices within the Christian faith. Sho Baraka and Lecrae have recently sparked controversy, and very good discussion (John Piper, Ray Chang, Bryan Loritts), about the role of so-called Christians supporting an openly racist president/administration. This has led to a parting of the ways (at least temporarily) between major voices in the church along racial lines.
Focus intently on who you are and how that intersects with the things Jesus emphasized
As I’ve tried to navigate who I am and what I’m here for, I’ve been able to laser focus on certain things that matter most to me and represent my faith. My dissertation topic is studying how to use free online classes to provide the homeless and otherwise disadvantaged the education necessary to obtain jobs that pay for their needs. My giving, when I have an income, focuses on groups like Blood:Water Mission and International Justice Mission that are dedicated to the least of these. I’m writing a novel for NaNoWriMo with the underlying concept being the truth of human nature no matter what technological advances may come. I think this represents who I am and what Jesus expects of me as someone who claims to follow him.
It will look different for you.
So What Are You Going To Do About It?
Knowing where many of my readers come from, I expect there have been similar experiences. What have you done to navigate the minefield? How have you seen others either successfully retain their faith or walk away completely?