“We need to push away the notion that church is something to which some people sign up in one go and one way.”
– Rowan Williams
There are many doomsday nay-sayers who either bemoan or rejoice whenever they hear of a “study” that indicates a massive decline among Christians of the younger generation. Often some think tank like The Barna Group or The Pew Forum will announce that the percentage of Christian ages X-Y has declined “this much” over a period of so many years. Christians in their forties and older fret that their children will not share their religious values forgetting that they had to go through the same rejection-to-rediscovery process when they were younger. It is common for young Christians to reject their religion as they reach the college age only to rediscover it has resurrected when they become parents themselves, at least this is what a recent study out of Baylor University suggests (see the WSJ article, “Religion and the Bad News Bearers”).
Now I am not a parent so I cannot imagine the sense of panic that is felt by parents who hear their children tell them, “I don’t believe in God.” My mother went through such an experience with me when as a thirteen or fourteen year old I discovered the word “Deist” and owned it. If atheist know there is no deity, and agnostics aren’t sure, deist presume that a deity or two likely exist, but that they are busy doing their own thing as the world spins. I did not find the God of Christianity plausible since he refused to answer most every prayer I prayed. I assumed that our existence demanded something other than mere chance (to this day I cannot fathom such a suggestion), but I was quite sure that whoever may exist he didn’t know or care that I did.
By the time I graduated high school I had become a Christian. In part this had to do with the emotions related to what C.S. Lewis called “Heaven’s Hound” in that it felt like the Spirit chased me biting at my heels until I admitted that Jesus is Lord. While my mother was a Christian who pressed me to reconsider my faith my father was an atheist, so either path was available to me. I don’t deny my mother’s influence in my “conversion”, but I don’t think it is as simple as some sort of cultural conditioning. All that said, I feel like I am still becoming a Christian. Some become Christians, accept the teachings of their local church, and move on with it. I reconvert every other week it seems.
Above I mentioned a quote from Rowan Williams. It is taken from a talk I embedded as a video below. He speaks of the long road to becoming a Christian and how it isn’t the same journey for everyone. This is true. In the Gospel of John we have disciples like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. If it weren’t for the insight provided by 19.38-39 we’d have no idea that Nicodemus converted. When we left him in the third chapter he was baffled by Jesus’ statements about being “born again”. In the next chapter his failure to understand Jesus is directly juxtaposed with a Samaritan woman who understands Jesus. He seems like a lost soul, yet he emerges as a disciple. Joseph’s story isn’t as detailed, but apparently his friends didn’t know he was a disciple.
Sometimes I wonder if disciples know they are disciples?
I have friends who forsook the Christian religion either in their late teens or early twenties. Some have returned, some are considering returning, some don’t seem interested. One thing that I’ve come to understand is that I don’t have to know where they are in relation to Christ. I pray for them. I ask the questions when appropriate. I try to answer theirs. Yet it isn’t my task to force reconversion, nor do I have the right to judge whether or not in some mysterious way they are walking with Christ as I am, though they are less public about it, or even self-aware.
The disciples in the Gospel of John who are “secret disciples” are another reason why I refuse to predetermine how God works and how God saves. While we examine people in the moment God can see the whole life, beginning to end. God is not limited by whether someone accepts his Son as Lord right now at 7:30 AM PST on the 29th of February in the year 2012 (when this line was written). God knows the beginning from the end and he is patient. God wants all to come to him, but he doesn’t often intervene like he did in the life of Saul of Tarsus.
To my friends who want to be Christians, but who struggle with the church (something I struggle with several times a week), or who have been hurt my other Christians, or who have found the Christianity they received to be incompetent in addressing the world around them, I ask that you keep walking. You may find one day that you’ve been a disciple of Christ for quite some time and you didn’t even realize it.
Brian said: “Sometimes I wonder if disciples know they are disciples?” or worse “Sometimes I wonder if some think themselves disciples and are not!”
Brian (also) said “One thing that I’ve come to understand is that I don’t have to know where they are in relation to Christ.” This comment resonated with me.
When I was in Afghanistan, one of the ‘locals’ I knew in Kandahar province (a small store owner) was named something like Ahmed Jan (not his full name to preserve his identity), but he asked us to call him “John”.
I asked him why call him “John”, and he was elusive about it (for months). Eventually he revealed it to me. He ‘secretly’ read ABOUT Christianity, and had a ‘private’ interest in in. He was particularly interested in John the Baptist as a follower of Jesus. His interest, though subtle was clearly an expressed interest in Christianity.
Had other Afghani’s known he possessed such an interest, he would have been killed for his apostasy to Islam. He revealed this to me only after I made frequent efforts to stop into his store, buy small knick-knacks and built up trust with him (over a period of months).
This revelation, however, had a huge impact on me. I fell a huge weight to facilitate his conversion, but the danger to him was far greater than my wisdom (and in uniform, my purpose was not to evangelise for my nation; it would have also been a breech of my obligation to my military). So I was conflicted.
I was worrying about this until one day a friend pointed out [John 4:37] and said in a pithy manner “Perhaps God only wants you to water the seed, and leave the harvesting for someone else.” As great as the weight I bore was, when I found out about ‘John’s Interest in Christianity’ it was lifted when my friend suggested that though I might play a role (in John’s conversion), I didn’t need to do everything.
That we don’t know where people are in relation to Christ is true. We should not see that relationship as ‘binary’ either, since it is actually a gradient where at some point a person becomes confronted by the Holy Spirit to make a decision, and that point is entirely a function of the Lord’s work, not mans. I hope that in my interactions with ‘John’ I was able to water the ground making it more fertile for what I hope will have happened.
Thanks for a thoughtful and compassionate piece. I’ve come to understand that equating religion and church with discipleship and adoration of Christ isn’t everyone’s call. I wanted it to be mine, because I love church and religion. I won’t repeat what I posted on my blog regarding my call in this matter.
More and more for me the church became as some say, the finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon. But oh what gorgeous fingers, robes and candlelight!
There really are true disciples who don’t attend church. They do pray, read holy scripture and serve. I’m less shy about my faith since leaving a church, where I’m not constantly minding myself lest I act the Publican, the Pharisee or the phony. Not that my church cared; actually some folks seemed to hold my adoration of Christ against me ; )
He told me “Go into all the world…” and some have that call. But I think you know that. The institutional church is a good place too and I’m jealous at times of those whose station remains there.
Then I remember Hebrews 11 and all the seemingly weird things God has asked his beloveds to do. I so enjoy sharing Jesus with anyone who is interested. At first they want to know my church, and I explain…and so often they relax and tell me their own journey. I feel a little like Jesus might have in those moments of grace and truth, listening and befriending the non-religious and labeled who keep the fields of life running while church people don their robes ; )
Indeed, there may be those who see themselves as disciples who are wrong, but that is for our Lord to decide, not me. Your story about John is a great example, and I think this type of experience relieves us of playing the role of the Spirit. We are the ones who proclaim, not those who convert, per se.
Agreed, Christ isn’t limited to the institutional church. Now I do think it is important to be involved in a community, but that could be a house church of three or four.
Comments are closed.