How Many Souls Shrink in Church?

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I am concerned about how theology affects lives. It is why I went to seminary. It is why I dedicated the better part of the last decade to studying Scripture and theology. In the prolific writing about church and theology, we forget that lives are impacted by the theology we choose and by how we choose to live it out. In a recent writing seminar, I was intrigued with the idea of telling stories about people whose experience with God and church are much more complex than faith statements and theological arguments. Can a story, not fully true but a composite of many I hear as a pastor, tell a greater truth?

The church buzzed with hope. The young family standing on the chancel was their justification and salvation. Their existence justified because this handsome man with a darling wife and three beautiful and well-scrubbed children had chosen to be their pastor. Their existence saved because other young families would surely be attracted by the young man and the changes he would bring. Soon, they envisioned, children will be running around in the halls like they had forty years before.

I had my hopes as well. A young mother with three children of my own, we were one of four younger families in the church and I hoped for more. My husband left me last year, just a month before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Episodes of numbness, loss of balance, and exhaustion now come without warning. This church isn't the hippest place in town, but it embraced me and my children. They never judged. They gave me space to mourn. They didn't try to make it all okay. They fed us lots of lasagna and brownies, the taste of love in action.

I had questions. Why did this happen to me? How could God allow it? Is God good? My search for answers birthed a new kind of faith in me. It was not the sure faith of my father and mother, the faith that said it was heretical to ask questions. I moved into a more open space of faith that was full of doubt and honest questions as well as freedom. 

We shook hands that first Sunday and his eyes were welcoming. I introduced my children as he looked subtly around for my other half. Ignoring the obvious absence, I said, "I'd like to meet with you sometime. I have a lot of questions." 

"Sure, sounds good," he responded. "Anytime."

He was full of answers when we met. Answers like "God doesn't give us more than we can handle," and "Everything works together for good for those that love God." Answers I had heard all my life but I didn't believe anymore. I was in over my head and there was nothing good about my children losing their father. The pain and exhaustion from M.S. was more than I could handle. I said just that. He looked offended and uncomfortable. Squaring his shoulders, he said one day it would all be clear.

His sermons were full of answers too. Behind the video clips and flashy PowerPoint slides, there was talk about the sovereignty and power of God, the importance of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and a biblical worldview. All the people who had cared for me nodded along, while my soul shrank, recoiling like a snail hiding in its shell. 

I missed one Sunday and then two. One person from the church called to see how I was. "We are so busy," was my excuse. I tried to keep going for another six months, mostly out of obligation to those who had loved us so steadily.

The newsletters from the church began to focus on problems in the denomination, blaming shrinking membership on the ordination of gay pastors. I don't really know what I think about gay pastors, but it just didn't seem like they were to blame for declining attendance. Who would be the next target: single parents? The community embrace that had sustained me drifted away.

These days, when I have the energy, I take my kids on walks in the woods near town on Sunday mornings. I miss the church: the music, the opportunities for my children, the reminder that I am not alone in my journey. But my soul finds a better sanctuary in the woods. My questions go unanswered, but there is space for them in the trees. In the gentle breeze whistling through the branches, I know I am not alone.

How many souls shrink in church? While I believe a walk in the woods is a wonderfully acceptable form of worship, I also believe churches embody the grace and truth of authentic spiritual community that is found nowhere else. Sadly, many don't experience that.

Churches that have space for the great unanswerables of life are essential. Forget the latest church growth technique. Stop worrying about the quality of your social media.Drop the need to have airtight theology. Ask yourself: Is there room in our church for questions—real questions, the ones without answers? Do we love people for whom life does not fit into neat and tidy boxes?

11/10/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Jenny Warner
    About Jenny Warner
    Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality, and Community at First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in Intercultural Studies and Psychology in 1992, and in 2010, received a Masters of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a trained spiritual director, certified by Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle.