Three years ago, I visited a space that made me feel very alienated as a Christian. (I’m fairly certain that sharing the exact details would be contrary to the point — and unhelpful — but, for context, it was one of a number of church or para-church spaces I’ve encountered over my life that share a similar, and very specific, Christian worldview.)
In this space, I was told things about God and Christian life that made me feel alienated and uncomfortable. Some of the teaching didn’t line up with what I’d been taught about God, or how the Holy Spirit had been working in my life and faith. I really struggled with it.
It’s not about my truth, it’s about God’s truth
This particular space might make me uncomfortable, but I knew that didn’t make it unequivocally wrong. I didn’t want to just dismiss a space because I disagreed, or had an emotional reaction. Big picture: I’m not ever going to tell God that I know better than God does — I hold way too high of a view of God for that. Most likely, I figured, this space contained new and unfamiliar information that could teach me a lot about who God is, and how God interacts with the world.
Not all Christian teachers are theologically sound
That said, I also hold too high of a view of God to automatically accept what other Christians tell me about God, without taking the personal steps of long-term, regular prayer, scripture and theology study, and spiritual discernment through lived experiences. I wasn’t going to just take this new teaching at face value. I needed to examine it critically, rationally, and objectively.
So how do we find truth?
When it comes to faith, I believe objective truth is out there. But I don’t believe it’s easy to find. I think discerning God’s truth takes a great amount of searching, discernment, prayer, personal life application, and frequent interaction with the Holy Spirit. If we hear an easy answer, or an answer that 100% agrees with our feelings and worldview, that, to me, is probably the first sign that answer is wrong. (Or if not wrong, than at least an egregious oversimplification.)
Growing up, I was a lot more concerned about faith than most kids. In preschool, I memorized the names of all 66 books in the (Protestant) Bible, in alphabetical order. During my teenage years, I was the stereotypical “Christian” kid, with all the assumptions — and peer alienation — that went along with that. I went to church every Sunday, was active in Bible studies and youth group.
In college, I minored in Christian Scriptures — which I fully realized was silly, because it had zero relevance to a future career and getting out of debt after college. (It was probably the least responsible thing I did in my entire career planning process.) But when on earth do you actually get the chance to study the Bible academically? Impractical as it was, I knew it was a chance I couldn’t pass up.
That’s my background. I’ve been doing this Christian thing since I was 2 years old. I’ve been to Bible studies, small groups, Christian concerts, and youth group events my whole life. I’ve been to public schools and Christian schools. I’ve worked for Christian companies and non-Christian companies. Protestant Christian culture is as familiar to me as the air I breathe, because I’ve spent my life in it.
Right now, is Christianity on the decline?
If you’ve been following the trends of religious growth and decline in our nation and world, then you’ll know that “young people” are fleeing Protestant Christian churches in rapid numbers. The church is becoming “less and less relevant” to the new generations, and struggling to figure out how to keep them interested in faith.
For me, the key to staying invested in my Christian faith was going through a key period of — that often-analyzed, much-discussed — process of “making my faith my own.” For those of us raised in the church, this process begins in our teenage years and continues well into young adulthood.
When do we decide that we’re doing this faith thing, not for our parents, but for us? When do we make the switch from wanting to believe to knowing, fully, deeply, and personally for ourselves and our lives, that we believe in God? For me, it was a long, complex (and sometimes frustrating or painful) process. But stepping out of my familiar Christian space — and stepping into an environment that I knew would challenge, stretch, and test my beliefs — were important parts of my growth and development as a Christian young adult.
So back to that emotional, alienating visit
I very clearly remember the next time my pastor saw me, after my visit to that alienating faith space. We were standing in the cafe that my church operates. A few days prior, I’d explained to her that I wanted to step out of my familiar bubble to explore different Christian experiences and perspectives. But I’d also let her know I was nervous, and that I wasn’t sure how to interpret what I’d encounter there.
The moment I walked into the cafe, she walked over to me, full of warmth and urgent interest. She said, “You went this weekend, didn’t you? How are you? I have some wine upstairs. Do you want any?”
I’ll say it again, because to this day — it remains one of my favorite things that any pastor has ever said to me.
“I have some wine upstairs. Do you want any?”
For me, hearing those words from my pastor was a moment in my faith journey that will always stick with me, at least in the context of faith in young adulthood. Sitting in a cafe — and talking with my pastor, over a glass of wine — about what I’d just encountered, I experienced Christian community with a level of authenticity and lack of pretense I hadn’t felt before.
She didn’t tell me what I was supposed to think. Instead, we mulled over questions together: What, in this new and unfamiliar space, had I been told about who God is? How did that fit with how other voices of authority have described God? What parts fit with my view of God, and what parts challenged it?
I talked about what I noticed during the visit. What had I observed, and how did I interpret it? How did being there make me feel? What previous experiences led to these feelings?
Over a glass of wine, my pastor listened. As we talked, she heard my worries, my fears, and my confusion. She offered her insight — differences in theology among different Christian branches and church traditions, voices of theologians and scholars she’d read. Some of these voices contradicted what I’d heard during my visit, some affirmed parts of it, and others showed their perspectives in a different light.
To me, the biggest danger of these situations is to walk away saying, “Thank goodness I’m right and they’re wrong. I’m so glad I experienced difference, because now I know exactly why the other is wrong, and I’m better skilled to strike down the wrong, and expose the dangerous misleading theology of their incorrect beliefs.”
But that’s not what I remember from that conversation. I don’t recall feeling self-righteous confirmation of how correct I was, and now silly, confused, and mistaken the other must be.
Instead, I remember my pastor’s caring affirmation for my willingness to enter into a new and unfamiliar space. I remember being validated for how I felt — my gut, emotional reactions — and then encouraged to think beyond a gut response.
I have not again chosen to enter into that particular alienating space, but I learned a lot about who God is through my interactions with that community. I firmly believe that God uses a variety of different human messengers — each with different personalities, backgrounds and understandings — to be able to reach the greatest variety of people with the message of God’s objective truth.
At my core, I feel best heard, valued, and connect best in my faith when I am being encouraged to study the Bible academically, to live out my faith through serving my local community, and when I am hearing the Gospel preached by both women and men, of a variety of ethnic backgrounds and life experiences.
But that is how I learn best, based on who I am and the experiences I’ve had. It will be different for everyone. Each person will have a context, focus, and community that most clearly illuminates God’s truth in a way that best resonates with them. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Not even remotely.
For some people, discussing faith and theology with a female pastor, over a glass of red wine would probably make them feel more alienated, judged, and un-heard — the polar opposite effect than it had for me.
Each person is different. Each personality is different. Each set of experiences are different. The key, I believe, is finding the Christian community that will allow you to feel heard and valued, and will connect you with the resources that best encourage and support you on your faith journey.
Where are the people who are living out lives centered on Christ — not just on Sunday, but every day of the week? Where do you feel the Holy Spirit leading you towards serving God, using your skills, gifts, and interests, and where is a greater church community encouraging you to pursue that life of service? Where do you feel most heard, valued, and encouraged in your faith? Where are you being encouraged to pray regularly, study Scripture and great Christian thinkers, take on spiritual practices, and live out a life of faith in service? Where do you find Christian community being lived out in a way that best encompasses how the Holy Spirit and wise Christian mentors have shown you where God is working in your life, and in our world?
Find those communities. Dive into those communities. Figure out how you can best participate in, and add to, the work of Christ they are doing. It won’t always be easy. You won’t get along with every person. You won’t agree with every person. You will experience hard times, miscommunications, and face a variety of obstacles that feel totally out of your control.
Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Find people and resources who can encourage and support you along the way. The journey of Christian faith is one of the most exciting, terrifying, world-flipping, trope-crushing, powerful, and meaningful experiences you could ever undertake. Find your community. Figure out how to be connected to the Holy Spirit, encouragement, and strength. Name your fears. Make a plan of action to address your fears. And don’t be afraid to jump in.