My husband and I recently moved back to his hometown after a few years away and started going to a new church. Everything I believe about God has changed so much in the last few years, largely because of disappointment with the church and disappointments in my life. But we want to be part of a community of believers, because I’ve felt like the tension between me and God will eventually iron itself out.
So, since we’re trying to make friends here and be part of a church, we joined a small group. The problem is, everyone in our small group, though in our life stage, might as well be living on a different spiritual planet. We are reading through a book everyone in the group loves, but I can barely stomach the cheesy platitudes. It’s about “going all in for God,” and everyone is very excited about that, but I went through that process about ten years ago and I feel like I’m now on the other side of a large, cynical mountain range.
My question is, How do I engage with people honestly while being respectful of each person’s own spiritual journey? I’m not really afraid to say what about relating to God is hard for me right now, or to bring up tough questions. But it feels like to do so would be discouraging to other people. They all seem so eager to grow and “get more of God,” and I’m just not sure there is any frame of reference for my doubt and different viewpoints.
Should I throw in the towel here? We feel like this church is a healthy place for us as far as the preaching and serving the community, but actually relating to people is a little bit like nails on a chalkboard.
Thanks for your perspective!
My husband, Andrew, and I moved into our first—and current—home nine winters ago. It seems significant in my mind that it was winter when we moved in. The January Minnesota world was stripped as bare as our marriage and our faith seemed to be during the weeks when we unpacked boxes and painted the walls.
The searching for and buying of this house was our act of faith. Over the previous couple of years, my faith had crumbled while his had grown, and a gulf had formed between us. Everything had shifted and fallen apart that summer, and it was either walk forward or walk away. We chose the former.
We bought the house, moved to the suburbs, and drove one Sunday to the first church we saw online that promised small groups. We didn’t have it in us to embark on a long “church hunt.” We made an emergency, crash-landing into the first church we found, and then we sat in the office of the associate pastor and told him we needed a small group. Right then.
The phrase I kept using in those days to describe what I was searching for was our people.
I wasn’t totally sure what I meant by that, but I knew it had something to do with finding others who were at the same jagged point in their spiritual journeys we were.
I’d likely stolen the phrase from an early episode of Grey’s Anatomy. In this particular scene, Cristina and Meredith—two surgical interns who have been vaguely ambivalent toward each other up until now—are sitting together at a bar. In an unprecedented act of vulnerability, Cristina tells Meredith she’s pregnant . . . and has scheduled an abortion.
(I know! Evangelical hackles raised! Remember, this is fiction! And the abortion is not the point of the story!)
What follows, of course, is one of my favorite relationships on TV. Cristina and Meredith are sarcastic and unapologetic and they are on each other’s side. They fight and make up and compete and get drunk and have dance parties in the living room. They’re best friends, the kind of friends who can look at each other and ask, “Are you in the dark place?” They’re each other’s person, and what I wanted from a church small group was that.
I wanted people who were just as “dark and twisty” as me. People whose faith had taken an equally sharp turn and with whom I could use my growing glossary of swear words to describe the angst I felt.
The small group we found was not like that. Not by a long shot.
Three couples were in this small group, all of us young. James and Bree* were younger than me by a year, starry-eyed for Jesus, and pregnant with their first baby. Mike and Liz were engaged, and he played the drums on our church’s worship team.
They were not angst-y—especially not James and Bree, whose house was full of devotional books and Angel Tree figurines. They all wanted to do the church-wide group studies written by mega-church pastors. Studies with titles like One Month to Live and Love and Respect. I, on the other hand, wanted to drink a lot and cry and sort through my doubts.
I remember one night in particular when we were gathered around a circle in James and Bree’s tiny townhouse living room, having our weekly small group meeting. Were we talking about miracles? Or God’s presence? I can’t remember.
What I do remember is James propping his laptop excitedly on the coffee table and saying, “You guys have to see this.” He pulled up a YouTube video, then, of some popular Christian band at some wall-to-wall-packed Christian conference, and I immediately began to feel cringe-y. (I have a host of complicated feelings about Christian bands and Christian concerts, both of which had factored prominently into my own complicated faith history.)
“Wait for it,” he kept saying, as we squinted at the screen and watched the wobbly iPhone video. “Wait for it.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my spot and studied the carpet.
And then, “Hear it?” James practically shouted. I couldn’t really. Kind of? Maybe? I could concede that there might have been the slightest shadow of a high-pitched voice singing a harmony.
“That’s not the singer,” James said. He looked at us all wide-eyed and amazed, still, even now, watching it for the fiftieth time on his laptop computer. “It’s an angel, you guys.”
I don’t know if I disguised it. I hope I disguised it. But the eye roll I remember giving that guy at that moment was so cynical and deep and not impressed that it went all the way to the back of my head.
I thought, What are we doing here?
I thought, These are not our people at all.
I know that steep mountain range you’re talking about, Courtney, when you talk about your cynicism and disillusionment. When I say I have been there, I mean I am intimately familiar with the shifting and rupturing that happens when the tectonic plates of your life shift and the entire topology of your faith changes.
To be somewhere “on the other side” of that is no small thing, and I hope that in your journey across those desolate spaces, you found people to walk with you. I hope that they’re still there and that every now and then you can get together and drink tequila and rage and doubt and continue to do that hard work of moving forward together.
I have a couple of friends like that, and while they live far away and I don’t see them as often as I would like, they are my people in the way of Cristina and Meredith. They are my dark and twisty outlet. They are the women who know every bit of my past and know what I’m thinking before I say it. They are the space where I can lose my way and dance it out and cry and laugh and be every inch the mess that I am.
Over the years, I have had lots of small group experiences. Many have been good. Some have been hard. None have been that deep, gut, TV-plot, you’re-my-people kind of friendships that I have with those girls.
It has taken me more than a decade to finally believe that’s okay.
Over the course of my own faith shift and slow reimagining, I’ve come to believe that a small group or a Bible study group or a church community is not meant to be our people in that easy, seamless way of best friends. Maybe they’re meant to be our people in that complicated, frustrating, beautiful way of family.
Maybe that’s the reason these spaces of intentional Christian community are so valuable: not because we are besties who can finish each other’s sentences, but precisely because we can’t.
In Christian community we find people we understand and people we don’t, people we agree with and people we don’t. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and In-Betweens. Starry-eyed believers and rough-faithed cynics and everything along the spectrum.
We are different races and colors and personalities and sexes. We have baggage of different weights and shapes and colors, and it informs us each differently. We love different music and shows and activities and food. We are married and unmarried, glass-half-full and glass-almost-empty, and we all belong.
We all bring something to the table.
We look at the Bible differently. We bring our own takes on things, our own harmonies, our own voices. And without that, without that diversity of opinion and thought, without the way they rub uncomfortably against one another . . . without that, we might all actually think we’ve got it right.
We might start to mistakenly believe we actually understand God.
And there’s something to it, isn’t there? To being stuck in the living room with someone who hears an angel when you can’t? When you won’t? When you refuse to believe there could ever be one again?
And there is something to it for him there, too, isn’t there? That guy might get an entirely different glimpse of the holy if I will have the courage to look up from the carpet and say, “Let me tell you how my faith has been manipulated by faith leaders and Christian conferences and laser light shows. Let me tell you why I struggle to believe that’s an angel.”
I know. It’s a good answer, theoretically, but it’s not one that actually helps you while you sit in someone’s living room listening to them say cringe-worthy things about going all in for God while you have terrifying flashbacks to that mission trip in the Dominican Republic when they made you wear a mime costume and disciplined you for talking to boys and when shaving your legs was considered vain and ungodly. (Or, you know, some other flashback specific to you and your faith baggage.)
Here is what I can tell you that might be helpful: the tenor of that weird little small group changed that month. We decided to back off from doing any kind of study and instead to take some time to share our stories.
Andrew and I went first, and I think there’s something to that, to going first. To being the one to jump in all the way. To setting the tone with the whole messy, complicated truth. To not sugar coating it or dressing it up with platitudes; to refuse to moralize it with should. To say it out loud, and to let it hang in the air like a prayer, like the most honest kind of worship song you know how to sing.
That night, in Mike’s bachelor pad of an apartment, I talked about my growing up and the disillusionment that began to creep up on me in college, and then, later, in our exhausting search for a church home. I talked about the depression, the drinking, and the doubt. I confessed how alone I’d felt in that house church we’d attended, the one Andrew really loved, and then I told them all about the almost affair I’d had. I cried a lot. I said shit a couple of times. I was as honest as I knew how to be. By then, I’d figured out that all I had to offer was this.
And here’s what surprised me, Courtney. Those sweet, on-fire people who just wanted more of Jesus? They had their baggage too. They were just waiting for permission to say it out loud.
Granted, their faith still looked different from mine. Things that had sent me careening away from anything that smacked of spiritual cliché had served to deepen the meaning of those phrases and words in Bree’s life. James could still hear the angels. Our experiences were all different, and our responses to those experiences were all different too.
Sharing our stories did not make them our best friends. But they made them our people.
Or no—not that. They were always our people. They were our people because we all belong to this wide, varied family of God. But sharing our stories helped me to, finally, see it.
So that’s my advice, Courtney. Go first. Tell your story. Ask them to tell theirs.
I know you’re afraid of discouraging them, but I don’t think you will. I think they will finally begin to see you. And when they share their own stories, maybe you’ll see them—understand that there is more there than all this talk of going all in for God.
Maybe, in that way of imperfect, messy, dissimilar families the world over, you will see you belong to each other in spite of it all.
* Names have been changed. Obviously.
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