Allowing my faith to flex
The United States is out of Afghanistan after a twenty year occupation. That military conflict is so noteworthy to me because it truly did shape my life. As I wrote a few weeks ago, 9/11 changed how I thought, lived, and worshiped. I remember, as I developed a protest of the global war on terror, how I continually felt out of step and out of place with my youth group. Thank God for my youth pastor Marc Zeisloft who lovingly accepted my protest. I remember my vocal opposition to the war as I confronted even our Senior Pastor about it (and thankfully, he was gracious too). I credit my conservative Evangelical church for actually, amazingly, holding space for me as a high schooler as I developed. The reason I name my Evangelical youth group’s support for me is because they allowed me to explore and express my faith without saying I didn’t have any. They certainly held more space for me than my peers (and granted, I was an argumentative teenager).
And they were much more supportive than my college ministry, which was tied up in the sort of New Calvinism that Marc Driscoll is famous for. It was during college, where I brought my more fully-formed antiwar self, that my faith was questioned, and even the community I found in Circle of Hope was maligned as not preaching the word of God. Circle of Hope’s strong position against the war created a safe place for me, and hearing those words about my beloved community was heartbreaking. Truthfully, it made me angry. I hated being judged like that. And to this day, it burns my righteous anger because I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did in those oppressive settings.
This was all because I was questioning the U.S.’s right to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and saying that Jesus would have protested it too. It was an amazing demonstration of budding Christian nationalism and militarism that fits so well with the toxic masculinity of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement. I guess part of their aggression was trying to convince me that I wasn’t a true Christian. That’s popular with those divisive New Reformed (I say New Reformed to distinguish them from historically reformed thinkers like John Calvin, Menno Simons, Karl Barth, or Abraham Kuyper), who want to separate the true faithful from people they think of as less than faithful. This sort of judgment is exactly what Jesus warns of in the Sermon on the Mount, when he promises to return that judgment to those who judge. To this day, I am traumatized when people question my faith or suggest that I am not a Christian.
That college ministry almost stole my faith! Their fundamentalist approach constricts the people in it and forces people out of it. It limits our imagination, and how we can move with the Spirit. It punishes the doubtful and oppresses the creative. And unfortunately, it would be too easy for me to simply say it’s not Christian—but it is and it’s a mess that Christians are responsible for cleaning up.
Fundamentalism is not resilient or adaptable
Sometimes the fear of losing our faith is so strong, we isolate ourselves from possible challenges to it, and we end up creating a rigid system that is prone to breaking if it flexes. But our faith needs to flex to be resilient. If we can learn to adapt it, we will hold on to it for years to come. If it is too brittle, we may lose when we encounter any stress to it.
It is ironic that many of my high school peers, and God be with them on their journey, have lost their faith. The irony is that they thought I might lose my faith, that I might let it go, because I was falling down the slippery slope of “relativism” and “postmodernity” (today, fundamentalists call it “critical race theory”).
I don’t judge them because in some ways I think it is good for a fundamentalist to lose their faith—I believe it is a harmful movement that would be better if it went extinct. So I’m glad they are liberated from it. I just wish they found another way to express their faith. There is so much more richness to the Christian tradition and history than the tiny sliver of it that is American Christian fundamentalism. Those fundamentalist preachers might be making the headlines, but our faith is much bigger than that. I pray they find something new. But regardless, I am grateful they are free of what I thought to be an oppressive expression of Christianity. The burden for their loss of faith lies with their leaders far more than it does with them.
Fundamentalism’s expiration date might be coming because it is hard to keep a fundamentalist faith, especially as you leave the insular bubble that is so essential for it to thrive. But I am grateful that I was allowed to flex my faith, which seemed to make it more resilient. I’m grateful for how I could change the faith I grew up in and still be allowed to name myself a follower of Jesus and a Christian disciple. That freedom to explore my faith was so important, and it actually helped me keep my faith into the decades to follow. Because I knew that I didn’t have to fit a mold for my faith, I was free to remold it into new contexts.
Christianity should be a safe place for you to express your faith
That is why I am proud to be a pastor of a church that calls us to explore and express God’s love. We want to create a safe place where people can try out different expressions of their faith without judgment or condemnation. If you have doubts, whether you doubt that the material is all there is to life, or whether you doubt that such a thing like God could exist, we welcome you here. If the Christianity you know of isn’t satisfactory, as mine wasn’t during 9/11 and the war on terror, I want to help create a place for you in our church.
We want to build people’s faith by earnestly and actively showing God’s presence in the world through our tangible actions. We say Jesus is best revealed incarnationally, in the flesh, in relationships, in the community and in the actions of the community. Our cells are where God is revealed, in the metaphysical miracle that human relationships are. Also in the work of our compassion teams, who extend peace and justice throughout the region, and who partner with existing organizations to continue to do good in the world. We do justice because God moves us to do it, and we think that people who are moved by the Spirit see that passion as a way to express their faith. Lord knows, I needed it when I moved to Philly. Our artists and musicians are a creative force that show God’s love and mimic their creator in their own creations. We write our own music and make art together in worship. We want to build a fully egalitarian community where leadership is a team effort, and not run by a single charismatic figure with loyalists around him. We want a non-hierarchical community where we speak our mind freely without fear of being condemned, where we actively divest from the power we’ve inherited from the world. We want our community to demonstrate what life in the age to come looks like—so we want to be committed to antiracism, feminism, and the inclusion of LBGTQIA people. We are trying to create an environment where faith can flourish, where God can be experienced, and where we can explore God without rigid constraints or doctrine.
We want to be a safe place for people who are looking for faith but haven’t found it in mainstream outlets. We want to be a safe place for the oppressed and marginalized, especially the ones that have been oppressed and marginalized by the church, which was supposed to help them relate to their redeemer and liberator. What a disappointment it is when the church causes people to lose faith than it does to flourish it.
I’m grateful that I was given the room to flex and adapt my faith as I was experiencing new things in the world. When I saw the horror of war, I was happy my youth group didn’t condemn me. I’m grateful for Circle of Hope for creating a space for my newly adapted faith. And I want to encourage you, if you feel stuck, to flex your faith too. Ask questions, bring up doubts, take away the parts that don’t work, and see if you can’t find Jesus in it all. There are people around you who want to help with that. So if you are leaving a rigid form of Christianity, remember that we’ve been worshiping Jesus for a lot longer than American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have, and there’s room for you at the table, still.