There's a river, swift and raging and growing bigger every day, of people who are leaving: leaving church, leaving evangelicalism, leaving orthodoxy, leaving God altogether. They are wounded, cynical, discouraged, and angry. And more than a few of them are sad to be leaving, but feel there is no place left for them in the traditional church. The reasons are as varied as the people who make them, but there is one theme that flows like a strong undercurrent, forcefully lending speed to the waters. There is one accusation that recurs again and again, murmered, whispered, shouted, or thrown like a dagger to strike a mortal blow:
"My questions weren't welcome."
I have read so many stories of sincere and intelligent, tenderhearted people who were earnestly seeking to understand God and the Bible - people who asked honest, difficult questions - who were made to feel unwelcome by Those In Charge. Their questions, their very presence in the church, were viewed as a threat. Their struggles and doubt and openness to shades of gray were viewed as a disease, which, if given a voice, might spread and infect others in the church. Some were silenced. Others were asked or forced to leave.
Not all of us have such scary questions. Some are content with a simple faith, one that doesn't ask much but trusts completely, and nestles into the comfort of unquestioning faith. Some have questions but have learned through trial and error which ones are safe to speak out loud, and which are better left unasked. Some have no questions left because they presume to have found all the answers. But others - a growing number in our postmodern age - are full to bursting with questions that cannot be silenced and will not be pacified with pat answers.
The Church is full of people in the first three categories - these ones contribute to the stability of the Church. They guard orthodoxy as a treasure to be protected against contamination by impure doctrine. These faithful ones are committed to the church no matter what.
The Church also has a smaller number of folks in the last category - they challenge the doctrines, the traditions, the assumptions, and the hypocrisies of the Church. In doing so, others may feel that they are challenging the stability of the Church. These "troublemakers" are committed to truth no matter what - whether or not it is found in a church.
And somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the fact that we need each other.
The Questioners need to be welcomed - fully - into the community of believers. They need friendship, authenticity, generosity, and freedom to be honest about their struggles. They need us to remember that God is bigger than our words, that God is mystery, and wrestling is one of the great verbs of the Christian life. They need us to be just a little more comfortable with doubt. They need our love and support as they journey toward faith and truth.
The Comfortable Ones need to be discomforted, to have their worlds shaken up a bit - for stability walks dangerously close to stagnation. They need to exercise gentleness and patience and humility so that they may hear from those who think differently. They need us to remember that God is working in them too, and so we must be gentle and patient with them as well - for having one's foundations shaken is very scary indeed.
I find myself somewhere in between the two. I quite like being in the middle of these two groups. The Comfortable ground me in a faith that is ancient, that has arisen amongst of a vast community of saints. The Questioners challenge me to step beyond what is comfortable, to broaden the path a bit, and lengthen my stride, and find that perhaps God is bigger than I'd allowed him to be before.
Let's not part ways with our brothers and sisters who think differently from us. Let's remember that we are all journeying together, and we've each something to learn from the other.
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. - James 3:17-18 (Message)
PS - I was excited to find a recent post by Addie Zimmerman, who spells out in so much more compelling detail what the cynics need from the church. Please, give it a read: An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics.