Open the Doors and There Are the People

This is part of my series on Doubt. You can see the whole series here.

Church on Sunday morning was once the place to be. These days, Saturday night sees a lot more action, but Sunday morning was a big deal. It's true. In the years following World War II, an already religious America experienced remarkable revival. America's mainline churches grew at historic rates. Meanwhile, Evangelicalism spread like wildfire in rural America, before marching down Main Street on the shoulders of a man named Billy Graham. The 1950s heralded a 50 year Golden Age for the American church.

That age has passed.

More churches are shrinking than growing, and more are closing than opening. The meteoric rise of "mega-churches" is not enough to offset the collapse of smaller congregations. The story is the same across all Christian denominations: fewer converts, slowing growth, and an exodus among people under 30.

If you're reading this series, you may be part of that exodus. This is a series about Doubt, after all. Doubt with a capital “D.”

Here's the thing: the Bride of Christ has earned her sullied reputation. I know so many people who have been hurt by churches. I'm talking about the kinds of gaping, emotional wounds that won't heal on their own and can become gangrenous. Congregations gossip, ostracize, and shun people. They can be ruthless when "defending the faith" or "standing up for the truth."

I understand why so many people have left. All those empty pews and abandoned buildings tell a story of a good thing gone bad. How did the bearers of the "Good News" become the "kick-you-when-your-down" club? How many people have stumbled in life, and then been burned where they should feel safe? How many have had their questions brushed aside, or even mocked?

If you've read this series, you know that I believe religion and spirituality can be healthy and beneficial. You know that I believe that people are talking about something real when they talk about a God that made us, and a God that we experience. You also know that I believe Jesus was a real man, who died and rose again, and that he was the Son of God. You also know that I know that sounds crazy, and that I can't prove it.

It’s easier to follow Jesus when you walk along with others. There are few things more powerful in shaping our beliefs than social identity. If you want to believe in God, it's going to be easier if you spend time with people who believe in God. Jesus knew this, and that's why one of his most enduring acts was to create the church.

Jesus made the church. He's the visionary founder of the largest religious movement in history. If we accept that spiritual experiences are real phenomena on our brains, we also have to understand that no organization in the world has as much scholarship and experience with those experiences than the Christian Church.

But what if you don't want to get hurt? What if you've had awful experiences with Church in the past?

I'm with you. I've got bruised ribs from this whole Church thing, and worse, I've been the one who did the bruising. It's not enough to go to Church–you have to go to the right church.

The Right Church

I have funny feet. I wear size 12 shoes, but my feet are really narrow. Most size 9 or 10 shoes are the right width, but they smash my toes. Most size 12 shoes are way too wide--my feet slide from side to side. I have to try on a lot of shoes to find a pair that fits my funny feet. I hate to go shoe shopping. But, if I just grab the first pair that looks right, I'm going to walk with a limp.

Churches are the same way. I count all churches as part of the same Church: Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostal, non-denominational, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, AME, and all the other groups who follow Jesus. Talk about a variety of styles to choose from.

I also count all those people who love Jesus but just can't go to church anymore as part of the Church too. Church doesn't just happen in church buildings. It happens in homes, restaurants, pubs, shopping centers, and anywhere else that people who follow Jesus get together. A handful of friends who get together to pray and talk about the Bible over beers is just as much a church as a cathedral full of people.

That's a lot of options. How do you find the community that fits you?

The most important thing is to find a church community that is safe. A good church will accept you exactly as you are. It is a place where you will be loved, rough edges and all. A safe church is comfortable with questions--even tough questions that challenge our faith.

Your church should also challenge you. To follow Jesus is to seek a changed life. We're trying to become more loving, more forgiving, less selfish, more patient, and more Christ-like all the time. Your church should help you move toward that changed life, but it should do so in a way that is supportive, not destructive.

The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow rules, but a community inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its table.
— Henri Nouwen

First, safe. Second, challenging. After that, you can start thinking about all the other issues of belief and practice. Do you want a church that is formal and that has a consistent ritual in the service? A lot of people find meaning and comfort in liturgy. Others prefer a service that is casual and laid back, and a teaching time that is accessible.

Others like to get together in someone's house for a meal and some form of study. All those things are church, and all of them will help you grow if they are safe and challenging.

The tough part is finding that community. There are a lot of dangerous churches out there for people who Doubt.

The Hunt

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and I loved it. But, I viewed God differently after I returned to faith from atheism. I read the Bible differently too. But, I still loved my church and all my friends there, so I stuck around. That was a mistake.

It hurt me. I couldn't talk honestly about God without upsetting people. I hurt other people anytime I did. It hurt me and it hurt them--what a bad scene. I thought I could make it work, because I loved them and they loved me. I was wrong. My church was perfect for my friends, but it didn't fit me anymore.

It was time to move on.

I've never tried to find a church on my own before. I've always followed my family.

My wife and I took some time off. We didn't know where to look, and we had to grieve the loss of our old community. I think that's important–to take time to deal with loss. Our kids stayed home too, and that was new for us. Our kids had been in church their whole lives.

But it gave us a chance to talk about our faith as a family. We took time to savor Sunday mornings together. I've had friends who started going to house churches after something like this, but I've learned that something in my spirit thrives in a weekly rhythm anchored on Sunday mornings.

We started looking. I scouted places out, and I asked friends about their experiences. I didn't know too many people who thought about God like I did, mainly because I wasn't sure what I thought about God at all. I just knew I was ready to sing, pray, and hear sermons again.

We found several churches that would have worked, and that we could have been comfortable in. We were pretty close to settling down at one in particular, but then my friend Trueby told me there was a church on the south side of town I had to try.

I'd never heard of it, and it was a longer drive. I didn't want to try it at all, but Trueby is a really good friend, so I visited.

I found the church of my dreams.

Good Samaritan UMC is safe. Atheists and agnostics are welcome. It's challenging. It's economically, culturally, and racially diverse. Our pastor is a woman, and that means a lot to a dad of two girls. Good Samaritan is a place where I have grown, where I have been loved and nurtured. It is a place I feel comfortable inviting friends who ask me about church. My pastor gave a sermon last Sunday that talks about our mission in Tallahassee–I love it.

This post isn't an advertisement for Good Sam though. I'm telling you this story because I'm in a pretty small city and yet I found a church that is perfect for me. I thought I'd have to move to another city with one of my pastor-friends to find a church like this, but it was right under my nose.

All I had to do was keep looking.

If you Doubt, but want to keep searching, or if you have trouble believing, but find Jesus compelling, a good church is the single most powerful asset you can have as you work to know God.

May you find a safe, challenging church.

photo credit: marcp_dmoz via photopin cc