Just yesterday one of my friends shared a sign that her local YMCA posted which stated this:
We welcome all sizes, all colors, all genders, all beliefs, all religions, all types, all people, EVERYONE. Welcome to the YMCA. You are safe here.
The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in London in 1844 in response to poor social conditions arising in urban centers at the end of the Industrial Revolution. These young men met for prayer and Bible study.
Fast forward to today and what you have in the YMCA serves as something of a model for us as followers of Christ. Over the past few weeks we have read as well-known Christian leaders have publicly share their struggles in the Christian faith. Although painful to read for a multitude of reasons which cover both their own struggles as well as the church’s witness and actions in our world today, we need to be clear on one thing, and that is this:
What these men are saying in public, thousands, perhaps millions, are wrestling with in private.
Faith is, as Scripture says, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Not a month passes when I don’t wish I could tangibly see Jesus—to sit side-by-side with him and have him wrap his arms around me, to hear his response to my concerns of our day—the railing injustices, the out-of-bounds verbal comments, the hopes that die daily in the hearts of so many because of life circumstances. And I weep.
We are living in a time when our faith is tested frequently. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to gather in a holy huddle, fingers in ears, humming “La, la, la.” Doing so is anathema as a world around us cries out for justice and peace and kindness and love—something the church, when at its best, can offer in overflowing measure.
To top it off, being Christian isn’t what you’d call ‘popular’ today, depending upon where you live. When once it was considered culturally appropriate to call yourself a Christian, today more than in past decades we must ask ourselves, “Is this really something I believe?” because it will inevitably have ramifications—maybe not today, but one day.
We will be asked the hard questions of racial and gender equality. We will be asked the challenging questions of bigotry and seeking forgiveness.
So the reality, made even more prominent by these popular Christian leaders’ public professions, is before us: many, too many, are questioning what it really means to be a Christian today.
Far from being bad, this is actually an opportunity for all of us to consider what it means to question what we believe and how we live.
Let me share just a few thoughts on where we go from here.
First, we rediscover the lost art of lament.
Lament is the foremost course of action when we read of people struggling with faith. Lament is the pathway to understanding and rediscovering God, who welcomes us all, whether we come in a flurry of laughter or a veil of tears. (Now might be a good time to listen to Amy Grant’s Better Than a Hallelujah.)
Lament is the deep cry in our souls that all is not right and that our deepest questions are borne out of the conviction that things ought not be as they are.
As many around us struggle to understand the relevance of the Christian faith today, we must sit with them (metaphorically and physically) and weep. True empathy never emerges in a vacuum; it only comes into fruition when we have sought to truly understand what another is going through.
May the heart-cry of the church be that no one ever wrestles with issues of faith alone. Instead, face buried, we seek to understand how God can answer even the hardest question.
Second, we repent of our own culpability.
Yes, you. And me. Not one of us is without fault or blemish in how we have responded to those asking hard questions today. Not one of us is immune to the sinful practices that can not only lead our brothers and sisters in the faith away, but also keep those far from God at a distance. May it not be so!
If we can look another in the face who is truly wrestling with their faith and say we have never wrestled with the intersection of faith and our world, then we must ask ourselves how much we have truly considered all that is around us.
For how can we look at sin and suffering and not question a God of goodness? How can we live through the loss of anything near to us and not wish for something different? How can we look at church failure today and not wonder where God’s spirit is working in the midst of such sin?
These are not bad questions. No question is a bad question. These are real questions borne out of a heart that cares deeply about the things of God.
Our confession that we’ve been part of the problem allows us to authentically be who God made us to be. When Peter was restored to Jesus after his denial, how much more was God able to use him? His understanding of his own failure allowed him go deeper in his understanding of God and his leadership in Christ’s church.
May the heart-cry of the church be that we would never look at another who wrestles with faith and believe we have played no part. Instead, with mutterings, we confess that we have not been the safe places and people we were called to be.
Finally, we open ourselves to be the people of God.
It is no coincidence that throughout Scripture we are called God’s “people,” his “family,” a “community.” As we move forward together, we rediscover that the “otherness” that too often separates us, actually unites us.
Returning to the YMCA sign, we find that as we welcome the hard questions and those who think different theologically and culturally, we become stronger. Missing pieces in our theology are found.
This is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming I am speaking of. It’s John 17 directive: “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
Our sitting with those who question the faith—and even those who have fallen away from the faith—not only can allow those who struggle to feel heard, but allow for us to feel connected to God and others as we discover God answer the hard questions we place before him.
May the heart-cry of the church be that we would live out the reality that in good times and bad, we are the people of God. And may we courageously and joyfully be a people who are open to the questions, no matter where the answer leads.
One final word
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of words more could be said on this topic. And more will be. But what next, church? Will we continue to cast stones, or will we sit long enough to see that God is at work, even in the hardest of questions and the seemingly driest of land? No, that is where the mustard seed can grow.
Laurie Nichols is Director of Communications and Marketing for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, creator of the Our Gospel Story curriculum, and co-host of the new podcast, Living in the Land of Oz. She formerly served as Managing Editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Laurie is involved in anti-exploitation efforts when she is not spending time with her husband and two kids.