Lots of Christian friends I meet have not gone back to church yet, and I’m wondering why.
What is it? What is it that has so disturbed our souls in this pandemic that means the previous ways will no longer do? What are we reaching for? In what ways are in-person worship services now failing to be the windows we crave to help us see God?
I’ve heard church leaders moan that people have got used to a consumer approach to worship. The leaders are exhausted though their heroic attempts to shift to online communication. Now they want the support of their congregations to get things back on track.
But I think there’s more to it than that.
I know some of my friends do not want to repeat the mistake of becoming too busy attending church meetings. They are hesitating to get back on the hamster wheel of church involvement. It means too many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.
But I think it’s even more than that. I think it’s to do with needing to rethink how we relate to God.
Before the pandemic we could plan, say, a holiday, and feel we had control over whether it would happen. We might pray, ‘Lord, let the holiday go well’ and feel pretty sure that would be what transpired. When it was successful we might remember to thank God for it, or we might forget. God giving it was only the icing on the cake that we had made.
Now we’ve experienced a situation where we can plan nothing. Every plan is provisional – deeply provisional, because the Virus can scupper it at any time. The Virus decides whether we can go on holiday, whether we can get back from holiday, whether our family can go with us, whether we will lose a lot of money when we have to cancel, whether we still have a job and can afford the final payments, whether we are even alive to travel.
The aching anxiety of the pandemic exposed a traumatic truth.
We had never really been in control of our lives.
Despite all our plans and busyness we were never the true authors of tomorrow.
It also exposed a more difficult question. If the Virus is now deciding everything, where does that leave God? Where does it leave that God we thought we knew
- who always ‘had a plan’
- who ‘would not send us anything too big for us to cope with’
- who ‘had a purpose in everything that happens’
- who ‘was in control’?
Does that God make sense in a pandemic?
When church services were in buildings it was easy to sing about a God who controls everything, and then leave that belief at the door when we faced the contradictions outside. We might not even notice what we had left behind. But when we were watching a service on a screen in our living room it became harder to ignore the disconnect between faith and life.
Personally I could no longer attend church services that did not acknowledge the darker sides of life.
- I needed sermons that mentioned uncertainty, doubt and trauma.
- I needed input that faced the reality of mental ill-health, the struggles of health workers and the desperate loneliness of so many.
- I needed analysis of the realities leading to the death of George Floyd, speakers who heard the message of wildfires and talks that looked for the learning in the exposure of abusive church leaders.
- I needed leaders who permitted a need to adjust how we see God, because my old vision of Him as controlling everything now had serious cracks in it.
Brian McLaren in his book ‘Faith after doubt’ describes how, in times of trauma, our faith certainties are challenged. If we don’t abandon faith entirely, we may enter a period of ‘perplexity’. We attend to our questions. We ask who God is in the light of our current experiences of loss, vulnerability and uncertainty. This can lead to spiritual growth, but so very few local churches allow people to grow in this way.
Most church cultures will function to punish, silence, shame or eject those who threaten the status quo. McLaren speaks of ‘gatekeepers’: people who take on the role of protecting the belief system of the group. I regret to say I’ve been one myself at times. Gatekeepers function to keep people in the tribe all thinking the same way. Anyone who has been in a meeting about removing the pews in a church will have come across gatekeepers. In some churches it will be the music which can’t be tampered with. I’ve been in meetings where it’s the notice boards. In the kind of church I’m particularly referring to here it’s the doctrine that must not be adjusted.
McLaren describes these churches as remaining at early faith stages. I understand the need for that to some extent. If you are in a family you go to the film at the cinema that suits the 5-year-old, not the 50 year old. Local churches have to provide teaching that focuses on the most immature in faith in their congregation. It has to be clear and straightforward.
The problem with this comes for those who need more grey and less black-and-white.
- Woe betide the believer, particularly one who holds any kind of leadership position, if they admit to noticing contradictions in their belief system.
- Pity the one at the stage when they can no longer avoid challenging norms; they are going to be unpopular.
Faith communities spit out people who ask too many questions. It’s too disturbing. There are too many forces that operate to prevent such rocking of the boat.
Many folk slink away from church as a result, never discovering that their questioning is a normal part of faith development. They haven’t found the few places where it is safe to be so honest. This is such a tragedy.
No one has told them Richard Rohr’s statement: ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s certainty’. No one has encouraged them that doubt is not a disaster or that certainty can be a problem.
- No one has given an inkling that by going through doubts, you can discover a peace with paradox.
- No-one has talked of doubt growing into an ability to trust in spite of everything.
- No one has modelled a deeper connection to Love huge and deep enough to hold the whole universe with all its contradictions.
I think this is why people aren’t coming back to church. The traumas of these last years have opened their eyes to things they can’t now unsee.
The certainty espoused in church services, far from being comforting, now feels flimsy, unreal and dishonest.
People need to be encouraged in their questioning, not shut down.
- They need fora where they can dialogue, not the unidirectional message of cheerful preaching.
- They need safe spaces where they can admit doubt and fear, not places where those things are shamed.
- They have needed to look for spiritual sustenance in places other than their local church, and they can’t forget finding the institution insufficient.
It is possible to move through perplexity and doubt into a faith that accepts unanswered questions. I fear that too many people leave church behind for lack of the support they need in reaching this haven.
If only they had been told this is normal faith development they could have discovered a richer knowledge of God.
The resources that have sustained me in the pandemic have almost all been found outside the established church.
I have so appreciated the Evolving Faith podcasts and their associated Facebook groups.
I have loved the input from the Northumbria Community. They have responded richly to the need to move retreats, discussion and prayer groups online. Their vow to keep questioning is so refreshing.
Books have been vital:
‘Chrysalis’ by Alan Jamieson,
‘Healing spiritual wounds’ by Carol Howard Merritt,
‘Faith Shift’ by Kathy Escobar and
‘Wholehearted faith’ by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu
Strangely the deepest, most reassuring messages about God have come from the ancient oak trees in the woods near my home. They have never stopped expressing the Life given them despite centuries of human upheaval. They speak in a way that resonates beyond words.