I spent most of my 20s happily in a church I loved, hit my 30s, and more or less left church altogether. I’m not alone: the same is true of many of my peers. Backsliders? Nope. Some are bored, hurt or disillusioned by ‘routine’ church. Some find that our vision or theology makes us need new expressions of faith. Most are busy. And for many of us, deeper things are going on.
Church has been significant to us. We don’t tend to walk away without thinking seriously about God and community. We wrestle with faith, re-examining beliefs that have lain untouched for years in the cold light of today. It can be a difficult, life-changing process that can put our remaining connections to church under even greater strain.
God is big enough to handle our questions, but in my experience churches often aren’t. Churches that aren’t comfortable with doubt and debate put questioners in one of two positions: compromising the integrity of questioning to conform to others’ expectations, or disengaging altogether. Those who disengage keep integrity but lose community. Questioners can feel like frauds in church, oddities in secular company, and uneasy in between.
Fortunately, my peers are creative enough to make new forms of Christian community, like networks that meet seasonally or local small groups. These groups allow questions, innovation and diversity, and naturally grow from how we live. This is the future of church for many of us.
For me, questioning has been an integral and fruitful part of faith. I’ve emerged from each wrestling match holding onto a few valuable beliefs, having discarded much that mattered less. This can lead to faith that is more real and free than what we had before. It also feels dangerous, because not everyone ends up believing that the answer is Jesus.
Let’s not fear questioning.
Christians, recognise the integrity of earnest doubt. Try not to shut questioners down with glib answers, panic that we’re going to hell, or fortify your faith as if it’s under enemy fire. Listen. Allow doubts to challenge you, even if they lead into territory where you think there might be dragons.
Churches, listen to what people are asking. If we’re struggling against your structures, find out why. Dissatisfaction can breed innovation – so it’s just possible that those on the fringes are signposts for future developments. And sometimes questioners will need to find God in other contexts. They may not ever return to your church. This has to be okay.
Questioners, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Discomfort with certain kinds of church, teachings, Christians or experience doesn’t mean we have to bin God. It just means we may have to seek spiritual nourishment and community more creatively. Keep engaging with both God and friends while you find your peace.
This is hard stuff. Doubters undermine the superstructure of answers we’ve all spent so long building. We make religious people feel uncomfortable. We crave authenticity.
We’re more Christ-like than we realise, perhaps.
Image by Thomas Weiß, via stock.xchng images.