Dabbling in doubt: a plea to my church

Weeks ago, it was announced that the next small group study would cover a series of “pressure points” – that is, a series discussing difficult questions and circumstances that cause many Christians to stumble and question their faith, following the Sunday sermon on the same topics.

This announcement felt like an answered prayer. A series for doubters and skeptics to openly discuss their issues? I couldn’t wait to get involved.

Browsing through the study booklet, I quickly realized that this wasn’t quite what I expected. To the church’s credit, the most obvious topics were included: concerns about God’s goodness regarding evil, suffering, and death, issues about sex, etc. Other topics surprised me: “the workplace” (apparently addressing the pressure some Christians might feel when it comes to being open about faith at the office), politics (no explanation required), and parenting (raising godly kids and whatnot).

Maybe my expectations were misplaced. No current atheist I know left his faith because he never got advice about how to proselytize to co-workers.

Of course, for many people, these are relevant topics, and they deserve to be addressed. My concern has to do with mis-marketing, and the injustice of cramming topics like suffering and loss into one night as part of a six-week long series. The reality is, a topic like suffering could go on for weeks, months even, and is relevant enough to just about everyone’s lives that it really deserves its own study series. Furthermore, the guiding discussion questions – “How is Jesus a model for suffering?” “How do you handle suffering?” – may be the questions that the church staff thinks we have, but those aren’t the questions that I have.

The way the discussions were structured didn’t allow for much diversity. Each group had the right to go off the grid and launch their own discussion based on the individual needs of its members, but at the end of the night, that was it. Next week the sermon would cover a different issue, and we were supposed to move on. That toughie could now be checked off the list, it’s been ‘solved,’ and we don’t have to dwell on it anymore.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a “tough topics” course structured like this.

For people like me toeing the line of agnosticism, this method of “study” is a bit of a tease. It promises to go deep, when one sermon per subject just barely scratches the surface of the issue. One sermon per week will bring up questions that deserve more mulling over than one follow-up discussion can allow, and I would leave feeling quite bereft.

Have you ever played with a cat using one of those plastic sticks with a feather at the end? You dangle it over the cat’s head, teasing them by bringing it close and then pulling it away, as they hilariously jump and try to catch it.

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When this series was announced, I’m sure my face looked something like this.

That’s what a series like this feels like to me. I commend my church for addressing doubt, I really do – but the actual execution leaves much to be desired.

Furthermore, there’s another troubling aspect of the Doubt Issue that I need to address. A little doubt, like what we see in Abraham, Joshua, and other biblical patriarchs, is all well and good…but only if it resolves neatly and doesn’t lead to something really drastic, like leaving the faith altogether. My friend Cassidy explains it well in an old blog post:

Doubt is much like mourning; after a certain period of time, the mourner’s and the doubter’s friends and family get a little tired of hearing about it and stop being able to show sympathy or support for the mourner or doubter.

Every single doubter who comes to the wrong conclusion, or who otherwise doesn’t follow the standard approved narrative for doubters, is a contradiction of Christianity’s teachings about doubt–which is, itself, probably the biggest reason why Christians both desperately ache to be thought of as friendly toward doubt and yet also are completely hostile and dishonest about engaging with doubt. They are perfectly aware that doubt leads to deconversions so of course they want to address the problem, but they also can’t really engage with it in a way that actually would lead to honest inquiry and sincere examination–because both would quickly unearth a number of reasons to reject most of the childishly over-simplistic doctrines of evangelicalism.

I want to have better expectations of my church, but a sermon series like this really makes me…well, doubt.

This isn’t to say that pastors should only teach about doubt, and I realize that it’s impossible to cater to the individual spiritual needs of all 10,000+ members in attendance (yeah, it’s a big church). But a big church like this has plenty of resources. What about an on-going support group of sorts, for people to come and have a safe space to express thoughts and ask questions they’d get reprimanded for in bible study? A space where “You’re not a real Christian” isn’t allowed, because we’re all in different places on the journey, and only God can determine who is “real” anyway. A place without specific structure – no discussion manuals, no pre-written questions – just open, honest discussion and encouragement. Often, I’m not looking for answers so much as an affirmation: You’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you.

Or how about this: conduct an anonymous survey to find out what the congregation’s real struggles are, rather than just assuming them. Structure sermons around the results.

For anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve given the “wrong” answer in bible study, what we need is a support group – not another sermon series. And like Alcoholics Anonymous, what is said in the room stays in the room – for many people, expressing doubt is a serious offense that can risk being disowned by relatives, so privacy would be absolutely paramount.

Week after week, I continue showing up, hoping to hear something – anything – that will make me feel fed. I cannot be blamed for lack of trying. But showing up week after week, feeling pushed further and further into the margins because my concerns are not others’ concerns, and I must not be “doing faith” correctly, will not guarantee my presence forever.

Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.

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About Beth Caplin

Just an author, blogger, and editor working hard so my cats can have a better life.
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19 Responses to Dabbling in doubt: a plea to my church

  1. amyj says:

    💗💗, except that for me, it’s probably too late … even so, I connected deeply to this. I almost lost my faith a decade ago, but wasn’t psychologically ready to handle it. At the time, member of a megachurch, I found a tenuous grasp on a way back in with a similar study.

    The problem is that it didn’t ultimately fix anything, but if I’d had a community like you describe, who knows?!

    The recent election has birthed an insane desire to spout indicting Bible verses at conservative evangelical family members, so evidently I still feel some ties to the faith … I only wish I’d had the kind of group you describe.

    As one who lives among solely evangelical family members, your words are like water. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Random (Former) Methodist Reader says:

    How are you doing, given the election results? I found the result disappointing.

    Like

  3. Onisha Ellis says:

    The best and most in-depth teaching possible is only a tool to explore doubt. Use that tool to fuel your personal study. The resolution of doubt takes place in your soul, between you and God.

    Like

  4. socalkdl says:

    Beth, excellent article. I liked what Cassidy had to say too. Evangelical churches (I attend one too) treat life’s problems like a “God is Not Dead” movie, simplified problems with simplified answers. You’d get a lot of worried looks and furrowed brows if you brought up the ethical problems with eternal punishment, for example. The church is woefully unprepared to read the Bible critically yet faithfully. I suspect one of the reasons is that conservatives simply dont have answers for really deep, critical questions. Modern, American Evangelicalism tends to be theologically shallow and one-sided with a sort of over-blown sense of self importance.

    I think Evangelicalism is at a crossroads right now, and there are glimmers of a New Evangelicalism forming. Society and science are putting unprecedented pressure on conservatives to change or face becoming totally irrelevant. There are frantic efforts from some evangelical leaders to shore up a crumbling conservative edifice, but I am hearing more and more Evangelicals coming out in favor of Gay marriage or against racial bigotry. Our new lead pastor recently preached about how the church, when it does its job faithfully, should be a “messy” place. no pat answers, and the realization that we dont have it “all together.” Where hurting, imperfect people can come together. It gives me hope.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Mueller says:

      socalkdl, I’m reminded of the lighthouse/lifesaving parable, and I’m wondering if the Church hasn’t reached that crossroads where the group of people splits off from the original group and starts all over again. I think that’s where the evangelical church is headed, and I think that’s not a bad thing.

      I’m tired of feeling like I’m contagious because I express doubts.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Lydia says:

    This is such an important thing for a church to have. I hope that your congregation decides to allow this kind of conversation soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Eleanor Skelton says:

    Ohhhhhhh wow. Wow. This is where I’m at too.

    My church recently started a group for discussion with everyone in our local community at a coffee shop. I wasn’t sure if I’d be really disappointed or not. They said they wanted to open up a place to discuss hard questions that you can’t ask in church in the middle of the pastor’s sermon or where everyone already shares these beliefs.

    To kick off the series, the pastor preached a sermon series on the 6 questions we were going to cover. I didn’t find that satisfactory.

    But the discussions I’ve had at the coffee shop so far? Real and genuine and priceless. They had the first decent ideas I’ve ever heard about God and suffering that doesn’t make God into a sadistic prick.

    But yeah… a lot of these programs can leave you feeling really unsatisfied.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Bob Mueller says:

    Oh, I LOVED Cassidy’s thoughts! That almost perfectly describes me, and where I feel I am right now. Probably 90% of the people I know here have ties to my denomination, and I feel like they’re all getting tired of me expressing my doubts. “Can’t you just get over it?”

    But right now, I’m in such a droughted time I can’t even read the Bible without getting caught up in the inconsistencies that pop up.

    Did you feel like something of a bait-and-switch had happened when you realized where the study was headed? I would have.

    Thanks for nailing it again.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Liz says:

    P.S. I am the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Liz says:

    How moving this is, and thank you for writing with such vulnerability. And how it saddens me that the modern church (because I fear your church might be all too typical) falls so short of acknowledging the natural doubts that anyone with an ounce of intellectual freedom will sometimes entertain. I have found that I usually have better luck expressing my doubts to God Himself in my one-on-one time with Him, or poured out onto the pages of my prayer journal, than trying to discuss them in a group at some (not all, but some) churches I have known. I’d like to affirm, though, that there is no one right way to “do faith,” and that you in fact are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. You’re just seeking, that’s all. As for churches: well, I don’t know how I’d make it without the love and support of my church family, but it is composed of mere mortals, and I learned long ago 1) that sometimes the church expects more from me than God does; and 2) I do well to choose carefully the individuals with whom I share the more difficult passages of my spiritual journey. Some people just can’t handle it. But I have found that God can.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. AthenaC says:

    “How is Jesus a model for suffering?”

    I really, really, don’t like that as a starting point. It’s one of those questions that’s academically perfect yet useless to all non-canonized actual human beings. It’s the question that should be tackled at the very end, after we’ve explored how actual human beings experience suffering and get through it.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I relate to a lot of this. I too toe the agnosticism line, and my doubts occupy my mind far more than beliefs. And I want people to actually wrestle with questions instead of assuming one quick discussion will satisfy my doubts (for instance: why is sex outside of marriage often considered wrong if it can actually benefit people? I’ve asked that even in fundamentalism – not because I want to go sleep with someone, but simply because I like logic and reason, and this doesn’t make logical sense to me – and I’ve never received a good answer. Everyone just acts like it’s the common, neat conclusion we’ve reached throughout history, so it’s settled no matter what, and, uh, that’s really not sufficient).
    Anyways, sorry for my tangent. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • AthenaC says:

      W/r/t sex outside of marriage – I have that same question. The logic of “the rules” hangs together to perfectly, and yet clearly people benefit from breaking “the rules.” The only answer I have come up with so far is that principles of interpersonal relationships and mental health exist independently of “the rules.” Not a very helpful answer, except to the extent that it opens us up to the idea that very little is simple and easy to understand in its entirety.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beth Caplin says:

        I brought up the issue of sexual compatibility (or lackthereof) and was met with several blank stares. I guess they had never heard of such a thing. Sometimes the topics can be really good, but the group itself is not the greatest fit for them.

        Liked by 1 person

        • AthenaC says:

          Sex is still such a taboo topic. And part of the problem is people who follow “the rules” about no sex until marriage seem to feel so desperate to convince themselves that they made the right decision that they have to invalidate the experiences of everyone else.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Beth Caplin says:

            Many of the topics, this one especially, cannot be properly understood outside the context of someone’s personal experience with it. I’ve been that person before to take the plunge, so to speak, and get personal in hope that others will follow that lead. But you have to feel out the dynamic for a bit to determine if that’s a worthy risk to take, and in this case, I didn’t think it was.

            Liked by 1 person

      • socalkdl says:

        Athena, sex is just the tip of the iceberg with Evangelicalism. Its the “rules thing” that is at root here. The church, the whole church, not just Evangelicals, has historically convinced itself that we need rules. Despite Jesus’ problems with the legalism of the Pharisees and Paul’s renunciation of the Law in favor of a Spirit filled life, the church seems to prefer to have “rules” to follow. When I bring this up with other Evangelicals who try to resurrect Levitical Law, they invariably pull out the “Moral Laws” card. Christians find it hard to let go of the OT legal system, for one thing it allows them to be “Christian” and still find the mote in other’s eye.

        When the church drops legalism, then it is free to move in the Spirit of Love and exercise the gifts of the Spirit. It operates on “Kingdom Principals” rather than rules. To give an example pertinent to your remark on sex before marriage: I recently had a conversation with a Gay man who thought it perfectly fine to “fool around” and have fun with multiple sexual “hook-ups” before settling down. He was trying to prove that I, as a Progressive Christian, was just as legalistic as Conservative Christians, because I felt sex was best enjoyed after marriage. What he didn’t understand is there is a difference between breaking rules and simply being sexually irresponsible and immature. A difference between using another as an object to satisfy our own desires and building that of taking the time to build a solid romantic relationship to stand the tides of time.

        Living a Christian life based on love rather than rules can be messy but it is oh so much more satisfying and real. Mistakes will be made but God is very patient.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. letahawk says:

    Did you hear it? Did you hear me all but scream GOD BLESS YOU when you suggested a support group for doubters, where it’s safe to express our doubts and concerns without being reprimanded? Our church has had a rough couple weeks (not going to go into details), and I feel like my faith is shaking. Do I feel safe saying that in my church? Nope. Maybe I’m being unfair to them, but I’ve had too many experiences where I’ve been told I shouldn’t ask the questions I ask.
    As always, this was a wonderful, very thoughtful post.

    Liked by 2 people

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