By Sara Furste
I had a cool church youth group leader when I was in high school. She wore leather sandals and long flowered skirts, and she had flowy blond hair. Her boyfriend was a musician who looked like Peter Frampton. (This was in the late 70s when things like this were “cool!”).
Our youth group met on Wednesday nights in a room of the church that was wallpapered to look like a forest. It had big tan couches like you’d see on the Bob Newhart Show on TV. We’d sit in the circle and read a passage of the Bible. I recall one week in particular when we were reading a section from Matthew 10. I remember this very clearly because something very strange happened. In the middle of the Bible passage, a character named Denny appeared. All of the sudden Jesus started talking about some guy named Denny, and it seemed very bizarre. Who was this character? And why does Jesus keep saying his name over and over? It wasn’t until later in the evening that we discovered that Denny had nothing to do with Matthew 10. We were mispronouncing the word “deny.”
“But whosoever shall Denny me before men, him will I also Denny before my Father which is in heaven...”
Later, after we had resolved the Denny mystery, the leader asked me a question about how this passage applied to my life. I don’t remember my answer, but I vividly remember the feeling I had when she asked me — that there was only one correct response. The “right” Christian answer. This is what my cool youth group leader was looking for. Even though the answer she wanted me to say really only left me with more questions, I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to say it. I was in church, after all.
Finding a Place for Inquisitive People
There have been many times when I felt like a rebel when people are trying to lead me in a religious setting. I've been in church settings where the worship leader is leading songs and is trying to lead people into a deeper experience. But instead of feeling a freedom to respond to God in my own way, I’ve felt pressure to respond to God in THEIR way. I find myself thinking, “Maybe I don’t want to lift my hands and shout “Hallelujah”!
These sorts of things bring out my rebellious side, and I end up feeling like I'm flawed — like maybe I’m just too stubborn, too picky, too hard-hearted. Like maybe I just don't love God enough. These feelings caused me to distance myself from church. And when I do that, I feel like an outsider.
Unfortunately, I think that happens to people all the time. And it makes me feel sad because we’re missing out on the goodness of what a church community can be. Instead of an atmosphere of encouragement, hope and connection, it becomes a place where we sometimes feel alienated and distant from God.
Many times in church we can feel like we’re being led down some predetermined path and given pat answers to difficult questions. For many people, this can be very troubling. On the other hand, sometimes people actually LIKE these types of experiences in church. It’s odd but true. Sometimes people want to be confronted or told what to do. I think this is because there are times in our life when we desire external affirmation of what we're feeling internally.
This can help us feel more certain in our spiritual life. Faith and spirituality are naturally vulnerable parts of who we are. We all have fears — fears of not getting it right, or not even being capable of getting it right, fears of being left out and, worst of all, fears of being rejected by God. When we’re riddled with these feelings it can feel strangely good to hear someone confirm that what we fear is true: “Yes, you ARE missing the mark, you’re not doing enough, you’re NOT denying (Denny’ing?) yourself enough, etc. etc.”
It rings true because it confirms our greatest fears and worries. And somehow we begin to think that we need to feel shame and guilt in order to grow in our faith. Sadly, a lot of church experiences are like that for people.
But, from my vantage point, our progressive church in Lower Manhattan is all about relationship — with God and with each other. Saying things that bring about feelings of guilt or shame doesn't lead people to fuller lives. Can you think of any relationship in your life that benefits by telling someone how you think they should live and where they're missing the mark? That’s not how friendships thrive.
Ask the Hard Questions
As a pastor, I have often felt a pressure to have all the answers. I felt the burden of being responsible to fix peoples’ problems and answer deep questions. Sometimes people put those expectations on their leaders and sometimes it’s self-imposed.
But in my own personal spiritual journey, I’ve felt encouraged to run toward the questions of life instead of holding onto easy answers. And I’m finding God in the questions and realizing the answers aren’t really as important as I once thought. What matters most is fostering an ongoing connection with God in the midst of my questions. In the long run, I’ve found that to be most helpful. And I believe that, as a leader, the biggest gift I can give someone is to help them recognize God’s presence in their life. This happens as we focus on “loving listening” and asking “life-giving questions.” And these are skills anyone can learn that help increase peoples’ awareness of God’s presence in their lives. This is radically different than telling someone the way they should live or the choices they should make, or handing out answers (even if you’re 100 percent certain that what you’re telling them is right.)
This approach to faith is based on a beautiful promise that comes from the prophet Jeremiah where he’s referring to the “New Covenant” that Jesus would institute:
“I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me.”
This new covenant promise is that God is present and doing something wonderful within each and every one of us without exception. We can all know God directly and personally — what an amazing promise! We can trust him to do this, and we can ALL participate.
A Progressive Church in Lower Manhattan
At The River — we’re committed to helping you interact with God and experience his loving kindness for yourself. We believe those personal interactions with God bring about life-giving perspective and direction we all desire. Here are three practical tips that you can try to put this into action:
1) Try to get better at noticing God’s presence in your life (rather than trying to follow a pre-determined path to “spiritual growth.”)
2) Try getting better at responding honestly and directly to God with your
thoughts and feelings (rather than trying to “buckle down” and do the right thing.)
3) Try to get comfortable with difficult questions (rather than looking for
Author Alan Jones writes: "The art of spiritual growth lies in our uncovering the obvious in our lives and in realizing that everyday events are the means by which God tries to reach us… All along we’ve had a spiritual life and we didn’t even know it.”
Visit Our Church for Inquisitive People in Manhattan
If you would like to visit a progressive church in Lower Manhattan that is seeking to wrestle with the big questions of life & faith, we would love to meet you! Stop by for a Sunday service. Refreshments and coffee are on us!
Bible Reading Tips . . .
Start by asking God to interact with you
Ask for a fresh perspective
Expect to be challenged in your assumptions
Try imagining yourself in the story
Slow down and pay attention to your feelings, thoughts and reactions
When something bothers you, talk to God about it
Want to dig deeper? We recommend "The Bible for Normal People" podcast.