There is silence as the new Christian takes to the platform. Their story begins a search for meaning, purpose and love with twists and turns. Their life story seems desperate and the congregation sit in rapt attention. The story continues and then suddenly there is a turning point. Something like ‘and then I met these Christians’. The story ends as the new Christian talks about this new life that they have begun. They finish and the congregation applaud and celebrate. Our faith is strengthened and we give thanks for all God has done. I love these testimonies of people finding faith.
But there is also another kind of story; the one we rarely hear, especially from our church platforms, of people losing faith. Over the past few years, I have spent time meeting with people who used to call themselves Christians.
It is very easy to celebrate what God is doing as people come to faith but we must also listen to the stories of people who are losing faith. We need to understand what has gone wrong so that we can help them rediscover faith. As I have listened there seem to be four specific areas that have challenged faith. I believe that when we listen to these issues as the Church, we can learn to be and do better as the Church.
The first was unanswered prayer. Some have felt that God has never felt truly present. When other people heard God’s voice, they only heard silence. When others shared their testimonies, they felt they had nothing to share. Perhaps as Christians, we need to remember that we are all different. We experience God in different ways. We too easily forget that we don’t only encounter God on a Sunday morning but in the reality of everyday. We can experience God as we are overwhelmed with compassion. We can experience God in the reading of Scripture on the bus. We can experience God in art and film and the seasons and laughter. Maybe we need to broaden our understanding of how we experience God.
Secondly, there was the issue of the Church. People who had not been let down by Jesus but had been let down or hurt by the very people who claim to represent him. Their stories are painful to listen to; stories of cover-ups, hypocrisy, gossip and the abuse of power. It’s easy to think, ‘Well, that’s not my church’. But it is amazing how easily our church culture fails to reflect the beauty of Christ. Do we sometimes fail to look in the mirror to see whether we truly represent Jesus?
Thirdly, there was the issue of pain and suffering. How can a loving, all powerful God allow so much hurt? A string of confusing questions. Why does God allow babies to die? Why doesn’t God always answer prayers for healing? Why did my loved one have to suffer like that? The challenge here is to remember that God suffers as we suffer. We need to remember that life is not always easy, that there will be challenges and hard times. But we must also remember, when things go wrong, that people don’t merely want neat theological arguments but the very presence of God.
Finally, there were whole barrages of big questions that challenge the authority of the Bible. Do all faiths lead to God? Why does God commission Israel to wipe out other nations? How can you defend the Bible when we now have science? Too often we begin our response by saying that the Bible is the word of God. The problem is that this doesn’t always cut it. We need to explain why we give the Bible such importance. We need to demonstrate why it is trustworthy, how it was written and how we interpret it. Too often we preach from the Bible without ever explaining why we have this deep seated confidence in Scripture. We need to be able to defend our faith intellectually.
We often only hear the stories of people coming to faith. But perhaps we should start listening to people who lose faith. Having spent time listening and reflecting, I believe that we can help others keep their faith, that we can become a Church that reflects more of the risen Jesus.