During the moments you find yourself in crisis and you are questioning your faith, in whom do you place your faith? As you explore your faith, see if one of the following scenarios feels familiar:
You have a strong faith. It has been growing since you were a teenager and has served you well through your young adult years, marriage, and starting a family. Then, the unthinkable happens, you lose a child to sudden infant death, or a family member is killed in a form of violence, or there is a betrayal of a close and trusted relationship. Walking through the reality of the grief and pain of that experience does not allow you the option to pretend you are fine. In fact, you finally admit that you have not been fine for quite some time.
You have kept the questions, good Christians aren’t supposed to ask about their beliefs, below the surface, but now they are bubbling up out of your control. Up to this point, you have avoided facing them head-on. You feel fine until you experience grief on a deeply personal level. The devastation has you facing your doubts and you realize your system of beliefs is no longer adequate.
You have been a Christian for over 30 years. Your faith has formed every aspect of your life, your wedding vows, the raising of your children, your relationships at work, your participation in the church, and your leadership in the community. It has formed you as a coach in the youth basketball league, your position on the town council, and as a volunteer in a service club.
You have a conversation with your most trusted friend. You say out loud what has been churning in your mind and heart for years. “I don’t really believe there is a God. Whatever faith is it does not work for me.”
Until now, you have been able to control your thoughts and emotions, but you do not want to wrestle with them any longer. You don’t want to seem irresponsible but going through the motions of your faith has you questioning your integrity. There’s something inside you that says, “I just want to feel normal, to be known for who you really am, and to have some inner peace with myself.”
Transitions of Faith
If any of what you just read feels familiar, you might be one of the many persons going through a faith transition. Mike McHargue, known as Science Mike, has gone through a faith transition from believer to atheist, and then back to a believer. He has wrestled, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally with his faith.
He writes, “Sociologists tell us that 43 to 44 percent of people will go through a major faith transition at some point in their lives.” He continues, “And that’s any faith transition. So that can be from one Christian denomination to another denomination; that can be from belief to atheism; that can also be from secularism to some form of religiosity.”
“The more rigid your faith structure, the more drastic the leap of faith required to start asking questions surrounding it.” He points out, “To ask one question will lead to a lot more.”
So, why would I want to bring up such a subject? As a pastor or a leader, you are surrounded by people who are wrestling with faith. Whether it is in the pew or in the community, people are looking for authentic experiences of care, compassion, and belonging.
You and I find such authentic experiences in Jesus.
So, the question is, why would anyone want to transition from Jesus to someone other than Jesus? The answer is, they are not transitioning from Jesus but from the objects that keep them from Jesus. Below are several of those objects. I name the following challenges, recognizing some might elicit controversy. I also recognize until we name the challenges, I cannot lead people in addressing the challenges.
Objects of Misplaced Faith
The written word of God points us to the Word of God, Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the center of faith. The Bible points us to Jesus.
Today, many Christians overstate the importance of the Bible. For some, the Bible is the focus or object of their faith.
But remember, our faith is in Jesus. When your faith is in Jesus, then you are able to have open and safe conversations about the truth of the Bible. There can be questions raised about inconsistencies and contradictions, discrepancies and mistranslations.
Raising questions about scripture does not make the Bible less important. In fact, the questions lead to the truth the writers of the biblical texts give witness. In the end, the Bible, with all its debatable mistakes and misquotes, still points us to Jesus, God’s love and our hope made flesh.
But when the Bible becomes the object you worship, when what you worship is the Bible, not Jesus, a conversation about scripture is a threat. Once you start questioning the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, the rest of your faith soon crumbles.
Faith is centered on who you trust, not centered in what you believe. Jesus never asked anyone to have a belief in God, but he did ask people to love God and to love their neighbors. Jesus called people to a way of life. He said, “Follow me, be my disciples.” Living life as a Jesus follower is different than saying I believe in God or I believe in Jesus.
Belief is important, but what you believe is not the focus of your faith. Jesus is. So, I say again,
people are not transitioning from Jesus but from rigid beliefs that keep them from Jesus.
2. The Pastor:
A good spiritual leader is essential. Having someone you trust to walk with you through periods of doubt, despair, and discouragement, who can help you keep your eyes upon Jesus, and who models God’s love feels unbelievably good.
But your pastor is not the center of your faith. Your pastor points you to the person who is the center of your faith, Jesus.
When your faith is in Jesus, you are able to listen to and follow the persons gifted and called by God to love and lead in and through the church. Regardless of gender, race, age, politics, or status, when a person is gifted and equipped by God to love who God loves, then Jesus is at the center of all relationships.
But when your faith is centered in the pastor, you focus more upon what the pastor believes than upon Jesus to whom the pastor is pointing. Once the pastor does not believe what you believe or act the way you want him or her to act, then your faith begins to wander.
When your faith is centered in the pastor, then only a certain kind of pastor will do. Or, even more misdirected, only a certain, handpicked, interviewed, and approved pastor will do. So, your allegiance is centered on the pastor and not in Jesus.
Pastoral leadership is important, but your pastor is not the focus of your faith. Jesus is. So, I say again, people are not transitioning from Jesus but from our misplaced allegiance that keeps them from Jesus.
3. The Church
It is the church, as an institution, that gets in the way. When the church as a system of hierarchical control with political entanglements, abuse of authority, lack of integrity, becomes the center of faith, pastors leave their pulpits and people leave the pews as well as the faith altogether.
Jesus is the reason the church exists. So, when Jesus is not the focus of the church, what is the use of the church?
When the church is an instrument of pointing people to Jesus, nurturing them in the faith, and sending them out to love and serve, then people are drawn to Jesus and to Jesus’ followers. People need such institutions as instruments or conduits of faith.
But when the church becomes nothing more than a club where membership has its privileges, where an open and safe conversation is discouraged, where people are received based upon their acceptability, and where the building has more value than the people to whom the church is called to love and serve, you have a problem.
The community of faith, the church, is important, but the church as an institution, as a building, as a special club is not the focus of your faith.
So, I say again, people are not transitioning from Jesus but from the lack of care, compassion, and belonging in a Christian community.
Navigating the Objects of Misplaced Faith
So, what are you to do as people attempt to navigate the objects of misplaced faith? How will you respond as people search for authentic expressions of faith? In the midst of crisis, doubt, and transition, your leadership is needed. I challenge you to do the following:
Be clear within yourself in whom you place your faith.
Is your faith in the person of Jesus? If not Jesus, in whom or what do you place your faith?
Provide space for persons to question, explore, and discover their faith.
People need non-judgmental space to ask their questions and to explore. Your church is a place where everyone is welcome. It is also a place where people, all people, can wrestle with doubt and find the faith for which they are desperately searching.
Be a person of authentic care, compassion, and acceptance
You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to be authentic. Both humility and vulnerability are needed in assisting persons in exploring faith. Pay attention to what others are learning from their exploration. It will help you become more who God created you to be.
Continue to point people to Jesus.
People are searching for deep and meaningful relationships. Be aware of appropriate moments when you can point people to Jesus, your deepest and most meaningful relationship.
The people in our communities and in our churches are looking for authentic experiences of care, compassion, and belonging. I find such authentic experiences in Jesus. The Bible, the pastor, and the church are instruments through which people discover, experience, and follow Jesus.
In the midst of such uncertain days of exploration and transition, in whom do you place your faith?