By a Lifelong Christian Church Member (ANONYMOUS)
In 2006, the Barna Group conducted a study about church attendance and found that most twentysomethings leave the church after being active through their teen years. The data showed that “61 percent of today’s young adults had been churched during their teen years but are now spiritually disengaged, i.e. not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying.”
One of the insights David Kinnaman, the director of the research, offered was, “Every teen has different needs, questions and doubts, so helping them to wrestle through those specific issues and to understand God’s unique purpose for their lives is significant.”
I am one of those who struggled with questions. And I almost, almost, became one of those who decided to leave the church.
The church has been a beacon to lost sinners, the disillusioned, and the poor. We throw open the doors and welcome them. We offer our classrooms for 12-step program participants; we hail their testimony, and we feed and clothe them. But does the church offer a safe harbor to the doubting Thomas who is struggling to have faith and trust in God?
The American church is quite comfortable with the simple questions of new believers, but it tends to run from existing believers with serious doubts about their faith. We simply demand that they “snap out of it” in a way we would never demand of an alcoholic.
In his May 16, 2010, Christian Standard article, “Embracing Our Questioners,” John Castelein wrote, “Has the time come for churches to close the back door where many struggling church members are disappearing unnoticed? I believe churches need to do a better job engaging church members who have serious questions.”
Rachel Held Evans chronicles her journey in the book, Evolving in Monkey Town, in which she describes herself as, “Born in the Bible belt, the daughter of a genuine, certified theologian.” But by the time she graduated from a Christian university, she said, “I wondered if the God of my childhood was really the kind of God I wanted to worship, and at times I wondered if he exists at all.”
Many within the church described her journey as a faith crisis, and told her not to question God because she was in dangerous territory. One friend said, “I encourage you to stop challenging God’s sovereignty and consider taking a position of humility and thankfulness.”
Eventually she would realize, “It’s about moving from certainty, through doubt, to faith. It’s not about the answers I found but about the questions I asked.” She had the courage to ask the questions and stay on the journey.
Hurt by the Church
Unfortunately, she may be in the minority. If Kinnaman is right, there are many more who are hurt by the church and eventually leave altogether because they feel punished for asking questions and beginning a difficult journey.
My faith journey was similar to Rachel Evans’s. I was the youngest of two daughters and a son born to a professional couple that worried about appearances above all else. When my brother began causing trouble, my parents made excuses for him.
Trying to be good, I became invisible. In fact, my parents were so focused on hiding the sins of my wayward brother that they turned their eyes away from the physical, sexual, and verbal abuse my brother was perpetrating against me.
Unfortunately, I have come to realize my story is not unique among Christian families. As I said, my parents were focused wholly on appearances.
Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, or any other time the doors were open, we were at church. The faith of my parents began with the umbilical cord, and as I grew and began to explore the world, I was taught it was not OK to explore my faith. In fact, questioning my faith was tantamount to questioning the order of the planets.
As a child of a church leader, I was expected to be the example for everyone. There was no room for error; therefore, I was conditioned by everyone to hide my doubts and fears. And being a good little girl, I could not bear the shame when I failed. I figured out how to bury the shame and grow into my role of the “perfect” Christian wife, mother, and church member.
Permission to Change
As I have grown as a wife, mother, and Christian, I have finally given myself permission to change. In A Room Called Remember, Frederick Buechner wrote, “The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are.’’
I did not begin that “sifting” with the gentle hands of a miner looking for gold hidden in the dirt of my past. I began with a shovel, a truck, and many trips to the dump. I threw it all out. I wanted nothing of the past. I wanted a fresh start, a new beginning, and a new faith.
Unfortunately, our images of the church and God are interwoven with our images of our family. My faith became about trying to be good, earning favor with God, and protecting the family secrets. But after the painful experiences of adult life began to accumulate, I began to doubt and ask questions. Why? Where was God? Why did he not protect me as a child?
But this is the instruction I received from the church: “You need to focus on forgiveness. It is all in God’s plan, and don’t throw your faith out because something bad happened.” Feeling like I was wrong to question, I took my small children and left through the back door. But faith is like family; it is the roots to our past and the branches of our future.
Getting to the Root
In Colorado in mid-July, the bindweed is in full bloom. It is everywhere. Bindweed is a green vine that intricately wraps itself around other plants and squeezes the life out of them. What kills them, however, is not what happens above ground. It is what bindweed does to their root systems.
Bindweed can be more than 8 feet long above ground, but below ground the root system can be as long as 800 feet. It sends out shoots throughout its root system, which makes it nearly impossible to kill.
My neighbor, a farmer, took a class on weed control at the local state university. The professor told the class of a time he went to a cornfield and gently unwrapped the bindweed from the cornstalk and laid out the vine. Then he began to dig out the root, excavating it like an archeologist digs out prehistoric bones. He slowly cut away the root of the corn stalk, killing the plant, so that he could unwind the bindweed’s root and stretch it out. The professor said the system of roots and new shoots of the weed went for nearly a mile!
Above ground, bindweed doesn’t look so noxious. In fact, it looks quite lovely. Bindweed is a delicate, funnel-shaped flower whose petal edges appear to be painted with pink watercolor that fades to white as it approaches the center. It is all set off by broad, dark green leaves.
Bindweed describes my life! There are roots in my life that are good, but there is a weed down there that has wrapped itself around those roots and is stealing all the good life away. I have been like that professor; I have been killing off the good host roots in order to protect the noxious weed. The weed weaves itself down through my history and into my past, and binds me to the ugly and the rotten. Many people see the pretty little flowers my family and the church have cultivated, but they do not see what lurks beneath. I don’t need to kill the good roots of my faith; I need to kill the bindweed.
I took a chance and reached out to a pastor I thought I might be able to trust. He reached back, listened, and accepted me. Over the months, I revealed my story and began the difficult journey of healing and growth. He eventually introduced me to a small group of women with whom I have felt safe to ask my questions and express my anger.
Although I am still unraveling the bindweed in my life, and I have more questions than answers, I have come to believe that within the walls of the church I have found a room called remember, where I can go and sift the faith of my past. I can sift without fear of judgment or rejection, and unwind the weeds that choke and destroy. I am working to cultivate the good of the past as I cultivate a faith that can feed and sustain me.
And so my journey continues. I unravel the bindweed of a toxic faith, and replace it with thriving relationships in a church with a room called remember. I know in many ways the journey has just begun, but finally I am unafraid of what tomorrow might bring on this journey of faith and life.