I am afraid that in many American churches, we are not telling the truth—at least not the whole truth.
In many churches we assume that once you accept Jesus as your Savior, you get involved in church and your life gets better. This is the standard story repeated in "testimony time" on Sundays, and the unspoken assumption regarding discipleship.
This "narrative of ascendency" has become the dominant American narrative of the gospel, rooted in American optimism and confidence. It is beautiful, compelling, and powerful. But is it the whole truth?
The church in America has struggled to embrace an equally true "narrative of descendency," the part of the gospel that is grounded in the One who descended into the depths of human darkness, and who calls us to face our particular and ongoing struggle with our own darkness.
We avoid this part of the story. We want a new life without a death. We want to ascend to Heaven before we descend into hell.
But the gospel includes both descendency and ascendency. The very process of recovery is understanding that there is a death, and there is a resurrection. They are inseparable, and it's a process that continues throughout our lives. The story of Mercy Street is a story of a community of faith in Christ that sees the gospel in both of those narratives.
My snowball interviews
Thirteen years ago, I had finished seminary and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I called Jim Jackson, a friend who was the senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, to ask him to help me think through some of the decisions I had to make. He asked me to work with him for a few years and get some ministry experience under my belt.
When I got to Chapelwood, Jim asked me, "What do you want to do?" I told him that I wanted to find a way to connect people who were outside the church, who saw no relevance in the way the church interacts with culture, with the gospel. Jim said, "Go for it. What do you need?"
I said I needed a laptop and a cell phone and told him I wouldn't be at the church a lot.
I asked Jim if he would give me the names of a couple of people who had left the church because they had bad experiences. Then I found a coffee shop in the Montrose area of Houston and cold-called the people on his list.
"My intention is not to invite you back to church," I said. "I want to hear what happened, how you felt, and what you wish was different. Will you just come and tell me your story?"
I didn't realize it at the time, but I ended up doing what is known as "snowball interviewing." After those first few interviews, I asked, "Is there anyone else you know who feels the same way about church? If I made the same promise to them, would you give me their name and number?" And they did. So for nine months, every day, Monday through Friday, I sat at Dietrich's Coffee Shop and interviewed people. I'd ask questions about their perceptions, their experiences, and their thoughts about church. What I heard broke my heart and changed my life.
Through these interviews, I came to see a distinct pattern. Most people left church not because they had a deep theological problem with something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. They left because people in church have the tendency to be small and mean and couldn't deal honestly with their own sin or the sin of others. As one man put it, "People in the church were more invested in the process of being right than in the process of being honest."