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.
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.