Isaiah 43: 18-21; John 4: 5-19, 25-30
One of the greatest works of theology I’ve ever come across is not found in some thick, hundreds-of-pages classic written by authors named Calvin or Barth or Moltmann. No, the one I continue to garner great inspiration from is this – a small square book, as thin as an iPhone, titled Children’s Letters to God. Within these pages are simple questions and statements – just one sentence long – crafted by young souls and accompanied with colorful drawings. They are honest, direct, and rich with meaning. Here’s a sampling:
- From Adam: Dear GOD, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.
- From Kelly: Dear GOD, did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?
- From Katherine: Dear GOD, I wonder if you really meant for us to “do unto others as they do unto you?” because if you did, then I’m going to fix my brother!
- From William: Dear GOD, Is it true my father won’t get in Heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house?
- From Allison: Dear GOD, what does “begat” mean? Nobody will tell me.
They’re great, aren’t they? But not because they’re cute – which they are. No,
they’re great because there is a common thread that runs through all of them, right through their honesty and frankness, and it is this: every one of these young authors, in some form or fashion, believes in God. Right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have written to God in the first place.
All of which makes me a little melancholy the more I think about it. Because I cannot help but wonder what has happened to these budding theologians as they’ve grown into adolescence and adulthood; into a 21st century world that has seen one in five of us no longer claim a faith community or house of worship as our own – who we’ve taken to calling the “Nones.” This book was published in 1991, so these kids are probably in their late 20’s now. I quoted five of them. The Nones are one in five. Do the math. So who is it – Katherine? William? Adam? Kelly? Or Allison?
Whoever it is, I wonder if they’d ever feel the need to write another letter to God as they grew up and grew older, letters that might read something like this:
- Dear God, why did my wife have to get cancer?
- Dear God, I’m so confused about homosexuality. Is it okay, or are we just kidding ourselves?
- Dear God, I have a Latin exam tomorrow. I hear at Pentecost you gave your disciples the ability to speak foreign languages. Come, Holy Spirit, come!
- Dear God, I think she might be the one, but I don’t know for sure. A neon sign right now would be fantastic!
- Dear God, I’m 50 years old and I have no idea where my life is going. Help me.
What grieves me most about the ever-growing number of Nones among us – and as a quick aside, a very recent study that came out just this past week suggests that the number may actually now be one in four, not one in five – what grieves me most is not that these folks aren’t active in a church or don’t see a need to be. What grieves me is that when they face these big questions, we are not there for them. We are not there as a community of faith to surround them and embrace them and provide for them a solid foothold for the swirling tide of the highs and lows of life. We are not there for them, and that makes me sad.
But in all of this uncertainty, in all of this decline, I sense something afoot. Something happening among us and around us. Something God-inspired and Spirit-filled. I don’t usually talk like that – I was born Presbyterian, for crying out loud! But I feel it, all the way down to my bones, with everything that I am as a pastor, that something is changing. And I’m not the only one.
In her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing And Why, noted writer and theologian Phyllis Tickle suggests that church history tells the story. Every 500 years, she claims, the church undergoes what she refers to as a “rummage sale,” significant change where we keep what is important and leave behind what is not, and move into something new. It is Spirit-led and it is beyond our control. It isn’t something we make happen, nor is it something we can stop from happening. The first emergence: the end of Christendom in the 6th century. The second emergence: the Great Schism in 1054 and the Eastern Orthodox church. The third emergence: the Protestant Reformation in 1517. And the fourth? What’s 500 years from 1517? Do the math.
We find this echoed in scripture. In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Sounds a little like a rummage sale, doesn’t it? He goes on: I am about to do a new thing; says the Lord; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? That rhetorical question at the end – almost as if it’s so obvious. Maybe too obvious.
And it’s not just pastors or religion scholars or the scriptures that sense this emerging change. It’s the Nones too. I remember one of the last poolside conversations Greg and I had, a much longer chat taking up a much longer break. Somehow we got around to talking about what one believes. And this is what he said:
I don’t know, Steve. I’m not really sure what I believe.
I feel like I have more doubts than beliefs.
I asked him to say more about that, and he said:
What I mean is that I can’t always understand God the way the church wants me to. All those doctrines and creeds. I know they’re important, but they don’t speak to me, at least not yet. To be honest, sometimes I feel like I’m a lot closer to living into faith than understanding it.
Now there were two things I took from this conversation with Greg, two things I think are critical for the church to acknowledge as it seeks to minister to and with the “Nones” in the midst of this emerging change. The first is this whole idea of “living into faith” and what that means. Living into faith
In his book The Rise Of The Nones, author James White makes the convincing case that there’s been a shift in the way people become part of a faith community. For decades, the entry point into the life of the church hinged on what one believed – namely, professing Jesus Christ as Lord. This profession acted as the key to get through the door, so to speak. So you believed first, and then you learned in the faith community how to live out that belief in worship, study, and service. But it began with profession.
That, White says, is in the process of changing. Has already changed. Today, he claims, people first enter the church by doing, not believing. Practicing Christianity, living out their faith. And then, through that, coming to terms with what they believe and what they profess. It’s reversed.
You see how this becomes a conundrum for the institutional church, don’t you? When we demand profession first, it’s like standing there with keys to a door that no one cares to enter.
And truth be told, this “new thing” shouldn’t sound all that strange to us. After all, when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t say, “Believe in me.” “Profess me.” No, he said what? “Follow me.” Come with me as together we practice hospitality, generosity, fellowship, healing. And from that, Peter would later profess on behalf of them all: You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Action followed by profession.
This “practicing-then-believing” way of being church is a big reason why your Associate Pastor Nominating Committee created a job focus for our new associate pastor of Missions and Church Growth. Someone to help us go outside our doors and engage our community like Jesus did, practicing with them hospitality, generosity, fellowship and healing, so that with them we can then grow into belief and grow as the body of Christ that is Trinity Presbyterian. I have colleagues in ministry who’ve seen our job description and are blown away by. And they say to me, Steve, what your church is doing is exactly what the church that is becoming will be. You’re ahead of the curve.
I think that’s one of the things Greg was trying to get at in our conversation that day. Let me be with you as I am, as you are. Let me learn from you, and you from me. Let’s practice faith together. And then maybe, we’ll all know better what it is we believe.
There was something else I heard in Greg’s words; something that he said about doubt and what that means for faith. I’ve heard it before – and not just from the Nones, but from those in church. That, for a long time, there’s been this assumption that doubts are the antithesis of faith. That they have no place in church. That they make us weaker Christians and less worthy of being followers of Jesus.
Let me be as clear with you as I was with Greg – doubts are the friction of faith, trying to gain traction in a slippery world. They are, in fact, a sign of great faith and not the lack of it. Everyone has doubts. It’s part of the human experience. I think of Mother Teresa, as revered a follower of Jesus as there ever was; and yet in her journal entries over many years she openly confessed the crippling doubts that haunted her; doubts of God’s goodness and very existence, lamenting the way in which she – she, of all people! – felt utterly alone and consumed by darkness. And yet day after day after day, there she was, serving the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta because of her doubt-ridden faith.
Which is why I believe that the church is not a place to avoid doubts but to dive head-first into them. I told our confirmands when I met with them a few weeks ago the same thing I tell them every year – the most important thing they can do in confirmation is to ask questions. To not take everything at face value. To go into their doubts and skepticism, knowing that the church goes with them into those doubts all the way.
I mean, what if our church was known within and outside our walls as a place that truly embraced the messiness of faith? What if we intentionally opened our doors to people who struggle with belief, so that together we can practice hospitality, generosity, fellowship, healing; and figure out profession on the other side? If it sounds like I’m casting a vision for a new missional identity for our church, that’s because I am.
After all, it’s an identity that is grounded in the very marrow of our faith story. I love the way, in our second scripture today, that the woman invites her friends to see Jesus. She doesn’t say, “Come and meet this man who is the messiah!” She says, “Come and meet this man – he couldn’t be the messiah, could he?” There is a deep sacredness in the uncertain certainty of what we practice and believe. Of what it means to be church.
So where does all of this leave us? What has been the point of these conversations the past four weeks? Here’s what I think: we have been told that the church is in decline, and to a point I’d agree. The numbers play it out. One in four, y’all. Do the math. We are fooling ourselves if we claim that the church is not undergoing some seismic change.
I have come to believe that this emerging change is God’s will. I have come to believe that what has happened is not somehow our fault. And as I believe that it is not our fault and we have done nothing wrong, I also believe that God is doing everything right. And therein lies our hope. Yes, being the church these days is a lot like riding a roller coaster, the Fury 325 they’re building just down the road at Carowinds: it is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, and all you can do sometimes is just hold on for dear life and hope the straps don’t break. It’s going to be that way for awhile. That’s what happens when you’re smack dab in the middle of the fourth emergence.
And I know there are some of you who find this all very disconcerting. Maybe you don’t see the need for change. Maybe you wonder why we should change when what we used to be worked so well.
I get that, okay, I really do. Trust me, being a pastor would so much easier riding the lazy river instead of the Fury! I really like the lazy river. But that’s not our calling. That’s not where we find ourselves. May I humbly suggest that the change that is already happening around us is not pulling us away from who we are, but is in fact taking us deeper into it than we’ve ever been. Deeper into God, the God who tells us he is doing a new thing – not the same thing but a new thing – and deeper into the world we were created to serve, a world where the Nones are waiting.
That is why I feel great hope for the church universal, and great hope for Trinity. It is why I came here to be your pastor. Because I see in you a congregation uniquely primed and ready to emerge into this new thing God is doing. And that gives me great hope not just for the church, but for the Nones too. For all of us. Always and together and forever, God making all things new!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing And Why, by Phyllis Tickle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books; 2008).
 The Rise Of The Nones: Understanding And Reaching The Religiously Unaffiliated by James Emery White (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014), 99-102.
 Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint Of Calcutta”, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday, 2007)