I had a conversation with someone the other day on the sidewalk in front of church. I was picking up some trash that always blows into our bushes from the park across the street. A person stopped and asked me some questions about our church, which I answered. I told him about our Saturday morning breakfast ministry, and I also invited him to join us for a service on a Sunday morning. He mentioned that he’ll probably show up on a Saturday morning rather than a Sunday morning, for now, because he didn’t want to have to pretend.
He took his leave and we exchanged pleasantries. His comment about not wanting to pretend stayed with me for quite some time. As is usually the case, after time of reflection, I came up with some good responses. You don’t have to pretend, I thought, everyone is welcome. You are welcome to come as you are, I thought. You are welcome to journey along with us, regardless of where you are on your journey. Of course, he was gone, and like many people I meet, I will likely not see him again to share these insights. So at this point, the best that I can do is learn from it.
What was even more important than how I would have responded to this fellow is why he would felt as if he would have to pretend. Perhaps he was referring to the more ecstatic utterances that some traditions emphasize. Perhaps he was referring to singing songs and hymns of praise if he didn’t believe what he was singing. The truth is, however, that I will never know what he meant, and what prompted him to say that. However, what I am able to do is to reflect on what our church says not only to those who are members or adherents of our congregation, but also those who come in off the street.
Now first of all, our church is quite unique. We are a church properly organized according to our denomination’s government. However, in actuality, we function more as a mission. We are placed in a community that has a lot of churches, but also a community where a high percentage of the population is not regularly involved in a church. Therefore, our goal is first and foremost not teaching doctrine, but to introduce people to God in word and in deed.
I come from a subculture where the hot topics were debating the benefits and drawbacks of the Canons of the Synod of Dort and whether or not Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is based on sound biblical exegesis. In my current context, however, those doctrinal discussions have turned into basic, “who is Jesus and why does he matter?” discussions. Most of the people in my community don’t care about doctrine, they care about how God impacts their daily life. This is not to put them down, it is simply a reality. I have come to understand that debating and discussing the finer points of doctrine is an activity in which the privileged are able to engage.
I have found that the mindset in which I prepare sermons must change. I can no longer prepare my sermons with the assumption of faith, but I must always prepare my sermons with the intent of inviting people to faith. There are some that argue that “reaching the lost” is not the purpose of Sunday morning, however, I disagree. Even those of us who identify as Christian, or who identify as disciples of Jesus are still lost, in one way or another.
I believe that faith is a gift from God, but I do not think that faith and doubt are necessarily opposed to one another. There are many days where I’m not even sure if I have faith! After all, I think that in some way, we are all crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Even for those of us who have faith, it is only natural for us to have times of doubt. Sunday services are then, not simply a time of expressing faith, but also a time for creating and renewing faith.
The church, then, should be the best place for us doubters. Those who have iron faith should be hermit monks in the desert to whom others can visit on pilgrimage. The church is the place where we can go when we have seeds of faith, and the church is the place we can go when we are sure that we don’t have any faith. Our church is certainly not “seeker-sensitive.” However, I don’t think that our church operates on the presumption of faith either. The best thing that our church can be is “doubter-sensitive.” A place where no one has to pretend, but where folks want to have faith, regardless of whether or not they feel like they do at the time. After all, faith is a journey not a destination.
In all of our hearts, there is a voice, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I love it when people passionately express some variant of this. When it comes down to it, I am no different; I am just another pilgrim on the journey to restoration and redemption.