In my quest to re-examine my faith, ministry and beliefs about the Church, there is one voice that led the charge. I was introduced to him as a main stage speaker at the National Youth Worker’s Convention. One of my favorite talks I heard him give was a year later. He engaged the hearts of thousands with a teaching on the ancient Jewish prayer shawl. He talked about the beauty and necessity of going to that quiet place and the sacred gift of being honest with God. He promised us that God could handle anything we had to say. Right on the convention room floor, I crawled to my hands and knees, put my face on my chair and wept.
And then something transformational took place. He wrote a book. About faith. And called it Velvet Elvis. That should say so much about this guy. He was clear that he did not speak in the language known to be safe and Jesus-y. I loved every word. To this day, I have multiple copies on my bookshelf at anytime to hand out to those wanting to ask questions. His name was Rob Bell and he still speaks truth to hard places in my life.
Rob was a gateway drug of sorts. When I began to think and dream about my model for church and ministry, I allowed myself to think outside my box because I saw brave and forward thinkers that were more concerned with the heart of the world and less concerned with accepted religious practice. This sounded so much like a guy named Jesus that I happened to admire. In addition to Rob, books like Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives and A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren helped propel my mind into new conversations. This was before the days of podcasts on every corner, but the voices that were sparking new conversations in the Church were rallying together in ways that could be heard. They were making video films and publishing regular interviews. They were doing live events and speaking at conferences.
What I quickly discovered was that their voices, their message and often their way of doing Church flew in the face of the establishment. What I was drawn to was not just the weird factor (although I never minded that), but rather the unwavering desire to see every person included in the message of the Gospel. And unlike many churches that I had experienced, there were no rules to enter the ring. Each, in their own unique and individual context were committed to reaching the ones most forgotten and uninvited to the party. The ones with the messy story. The ones with the broken hearts. The ones that had been told they don’t fit. The ones that didn’t match the dress code. And they weren’t just tolerated, they were given the seat of honor. Now that I could get behind.
In 2005, the first graduating class that I served in student ministry turned 28. What I had sadly discovered was that they were successful. They were thriving. They were even beginning to have spouses and babies. But most of them wanted nothing to do with the church. There was not a place for them. And I bore a huge responsibility because in an attempt to create a love for Jesus, I had perpetuated a love for programs. Many of them had gone to college and beyond and had yet to find a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening church experience that left them feeling like youth ministry. I realized in this season, that we were failing our kids. Programmatic ministry was missing the mark.
We were producing kids that loved youth group, but they didn’t love the Church. And in come cases, our efforts to make faith fun had stood in the way of them falling in love with Jesus. With all that I had hoped to offer, I failed to teach kids to ask hard questions. I failed to prepare them for the times when their faith would not feel sufficient. I had not lived before them the honesty of the days when I wasn’t sure I believed the lines of religious talk, and in the process had failed to show them what working out your faith is all about.
In those moments of confession and truth, I grew to dislike the Church. My ability to tolerate and forgive was almost non-existent. I walked the fine line of wanting to fight for change and wanting to walk away. But there was something that kept me grounded. And in my weakest moments, it was the Monday night gathering on Sawgrass Court that helped me see a third way. It was not an either/or, it was a both/and. And in that light, the only option was to get to work.