When I was a Junior in college I remember collapsing into a chair in a professor’s office. I’d just had an encounter with the type of anti-intellectual attitude which would eventually drive me from Evangelicalism, but at the time it was like be blindsided.
“I just don’t know why I’m even doing this, if that’s the way Christians treat each other.”
My professor chuckled a bit to himself before he answered. He often did that when he spoke with students, probably because he was able to see a lot of himself in the motley crew that made up our major.
“Wes, why do you want to become a pastor?”
I thought for a moment and said, “To serve the church.”
My professor shook his head, and after a another chuckle he replied, “No, that’s not right. It’s to serve God.”
I left soon after that statement. There was more to the conversation, but that was the bit which has always stuck with me.
I sought to become a pastor in order to serve God. That means loving people, as well as helping to administrate the institutions we call the church, but my faith isn’t based on either people or institutions.
To be honest, there was a time in my journey when my faith was based on both people and institutions. I felt validated when Christian artists “crossed-over” into mainstream entertainment. I wanted to be part of “successful” churches, and valued bigness. I was angry at the wider world for not being like me and figuring out that Jesus is Lord, and thought the culture wars were a good idea. Looking back now I realize a lot of the things I felt were nothing more than a desire to belong, but that my belonging was not a two way street. I would either toe the party line and fit in, or ask questions and be shown the door. I belonged to the culture, the feeling was not mutual.
That conversation in my professor’s office was the beginning of the end of that part of my journey. I began to see that seeking the validation through the folks among whom I served and worship was a dead end. People will hurt us, its probably the certainty that Benjamin Franklin missed 1, and if my faith wound up being built around how my fellow Christians responded to me as I asked questions or proposed a direction then I would eventually flame out.
It might seem like a small distinction, but in moments of history like the one we are living in it makes a huge different. When the vast majority of Evangelicals jettison their own theology of moral purity to gain political power, and leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham don’t even bother to hide their partisan bias, a faith based on how people who claim to be Christians just can’t hold up. As I look around the landscape of the Church and see the state of church institutions, a faith based on the institutions of church also doesn’t make sense – the mega-churches are beginning their slow decay, neighborhood churches are mostly empty, and denominations are either in survival mode or riddled with scandal. These can’t support the weight of faith.
So why am I a Christian if all this is true? Because of Jesus. At one point in my past I had an encounter with the living Christ, and it changed me. That encounter has never been duplicated, though I sought after it for a long time 4. Even still, that singular moment has been embedded in my being since I was seventeen years old. From that moment came a compulsion for introspection, a willingness to serve, and a thirst for understanding 5. These are the holy impulses which have guided me for almost thirty years 6. The journey has been, to be honest, a mess. I screw up, I fall down, I fight the urge to hide in a corner and cry 7. But Jesus still pulls me through, and always has.
Does this mean I can just walk away from my fellow Christians 8 and give up on churchy institutions. No way 9, I need both. It’s just that I recognize that it’s the fellowship and the institutions which are empowered by Christ, and not Christ who is empowered by either the fellowship or the institution.
- The others being death and taxes. ↩
- Even as I hate people. It’s tough being an anti-social pastor. ↩
- One of the words for worship in the Bible can also be translated as service – it’s how ministering in the Temple can be described. ↩
- I thought, as many young Christians do, that dramatic encounters with God should be an every day occurrence. Faith doesn’t work that way. ↩
- Not knowledge, which is also cool but not the same thing. Understanding is a wisdom word. ↩
- How the heck is that possible? ↩
- All.The.Time. ↩
- Or, more honestly, does it mean they can walk away from me? ↩
- Well, go ahead and walk away from Christian radio and TV. But I don’t consider those “churchy” so they don’t really count. ↩