On Dying and Reviving: Reflections on a Faith Community

The clock on my dash marked 10:18 AM by the time I pulled into a parking spot at my church. Though it was only three minutes after the start time of our worship service, it was enough for a single piercing thought to pass through my mind—I could just leave.

I didn’t leave that day. I sucked it up, got out of my car, and slipped into the sanctuary under the cover of darkness. (You know the one—when all the lights go down as soon as the slow song starts.) But I could just leave went deeper than I initially realized. The next week, I didn’t even get up for church. The week after that, I was sick. And by the third week, though I had all intention of going to church, I was still sitting in my pajamas at the kitchen table by the time service began. It turns out that I could just leave went beyond attendance on a particular Sunday. It was a thought that seeped into my bones. It was the quiet cry from a desperate soul, yearning for more.

But how did I get here?

It was a sequence of events really. Perhaps I could start with getting hired as a pastor at a university instead of a local church. The plan, since I was 4 years old, was to work in a local church. But now, my biggest contribution to the kingdom of God was taking place outside the walls of a church. That meant that my service at the church was a different kind than what I was used to. I was not a pastor there; I was a lay leader. It came out of my personal time, and it felt like too much.

At first, I was somewhat relieved when responsibilities were given to others and my load was lightened. But I was also hurt. One duty at a time, I was removed from leadership. Now, I wasn’t even a leader. I was just lay. It didn’t come from any ill intention of pastors on staff. I was simply the casualty of streamlining, but I found myself in the tension of wanting to support the direction of our church while personally feeling the pains of getting left off the bus.

What did church even mean when I was no longer contributing?

Now I was only left to consume. But I found no sustenance. I sat in the pews and left emptier than when I came. Though only a few things had changed on the surface, internally I felt like my soul was dying.

So on that third week of skipping church, I knew this wasn’t me. I absolutely love, adore, and believe in the local church. I’ve preached countless messages on its importance, on how it’s impossible to survive as limbs severed from the body. So how in the world did I get to the point of feeling that survival felt impossible if I stayed?

I got out a notebook and started writing. After delineating my internal struggles, I surmised:

Thus, I conclude that the primary impetus for me to attend morning Sunday worship gatherings is cultural expectation. Ironically, that’s enough for me to give in and keep going. It’s not enough, however, to keep my heart engaged.

What does this mean for me now?

I don’t yet know the answer (though I have some inklings), but I am always committed to Christ. To Him I cling. In Him I dwell.

And then, I started dreaming about the kind of church I’d love to be a part of. Unexpectedly, I drew out a house church structure. That had never been the plan, but it had somehow become what my heart craved. I needed interactive discipleship. I needed a place where I truly knew and understood others, and where I was known and understood by them. I wanted a place where my soul could rest and heal.

Over a period of months as God was challenging and changing how I viewed the role of the local church as a covenant, faith community, He also began reconnecting me with old friends who had similar experiences, dreams, and passions. As we met together over meals, shared our lives, and prayed together, it became clear that God was doing something special. Before long, a fledgling little house church was born.

So far, healing has meant rest and unlearning. I’m holding my plans, skills, and training loosely as God invites us simply to be with Him and each other. We have times for silence. We play board games. We worship with song and hear each other sing, and a friend’s young daughter plays toy instruments. And in all of this, my soul is learning to thrive.

It’s been just over a year since December 4, 2016, when I began sketching ideas about the kind of faith community I yearned for, and even in inchoate stages, it’s still better than I ever dreamed.

Surely, the CHURCH really is the hope of the world. The local church just might look a bit different from what I was raised to believe.


Musings of a Millennial 2 – Building Bridges

I woke up this morning with a text from my mom, worried about my post from yesterday. “I hope you trust your dad and me,” she wrote. This confirmed in my spirit that I needed to write a follow-up post. So Mom, this one’s for you.

There’s a particular theme that, when it appears in stories, arrests my interest and intrigues my heart. I first encountered it in Richard Stearn’s The Hole in Our Gospel. Stearn tells the story of how he became the president of World Vision. He had advanced his way in the business world to become the CEO of a company that manufactured high-end dinnerware. This was the second company where he had served as a CEO. He had everything of which he had ever dreamed. And then God called him to forsake this dream, give up his status and salary, and go serve in the leadership of a non-profit organization. I’m captivated by these kinds of stories—of people who relinquish their previous aspirations for advancement and give up worldly benefits for the sake of Christ.

These are the kinds of stories that make the gospel most compelling to me. They’re stories in which the protagonists value two things above all else, enough to incur the cost upon themselves: First, their love for God. Second, their love for others.

When the love for God and others becomes paramount, all other ambitions in life must be subjected to these two things. In Christian theology, these two loves are actually one love. For we say that you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. Nor can you truly love your neighbor without being filled and propelled by the love of God.

To truly love well costs us something. Each relationship is unique, but anyone who has loved someone else purely knows that he or she had to sacrifice something for that love. Down every road of love, we learn that, at times, I may want or be offered things that are not for my beloved’s good. How then shall I respond? I can choose to take what’s offered, but if I do, I am not really loving the one I claim to love. Or I can choose to reject the offer for the sake of the one I love. In order to do this, my values must hold that the flourishing of my beloved is worth more than anything else I could possible obtain.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, when I think about the generational divides in our society and in our churches, I think love is both the impetus and beginning means to bridge the gap.

Not only does love require us to spend our lives on the flourishing of others, but it also awakens a desire for intimacy within us. This is what our culture does not understand. If the first thing we think about when we read the word intimacy is sex, then we do not know what intimacy is. Intimacy is about safe vulnerability. Those I’m emotionally intimate with are those with whom I feel safe to be vulnerable. In essence, we’re all wondering, “Is it really safe to be myself with you? Will you love and embrace me for my true self?” Our true selves are not what people see as we stand on public platforms. We are more than that.

We are more than our public images. We are more than our social media profiles. We are more than our resumes.

Love is what opens each of us to share more. Thus, part of asking, “Do you love me?” is asking, “Can I share more? Can I be honest?” As people share more, as they go deeper, we choose as hearers how to respond to their vulnerability. I think we have two options of response: 1) embrace, or 2) reject. There is no in-between. To not respond at all is a rejection in itself.

So how does this relate to the gap in generations? I’ll give you two images. See if you can depict which is an embrace and which is a rejection. Both are true stories. Both are my stories. Both involve me sitting in the office of a boss and crying in a moment of vulnerability.

Image 1: Boss A
We meet in his office, sitting with a desk in between us. I bring up a recent point of tension. I had been given the responsibility to follow through with a task that fell under my area of leadership. He had superseded me by making the decision without me, so I’m upset and want to discuss it. As I begin to advocate for myself, that I want to be part of the decision-making process, he curtly informs me that he has the right to make any decision he wants about any employee. Honestly, I remember I cried at this point, but I don’t remember anything after.

Image 2: Boss B
I have made a mistake in judgment as a leader that no one else knows about. It has been bothering me for months, stuck in my spirit and I can’t let it go. I decide to talk with my boss about it. He invites me into his office, coming out from around his desk so we can sit in chairs directly across from each other. As I begin confessing my error—or let’s just put it in Christian terms, my sin—I begin to cry. My boss’s shoulders and voice soften. He asks me questions, welcoming me to share more. I open up about how I have been struggling in multiple areas and now I’m in a bit of a rough place in life. His response? “Thanks for sharing; it’s good for me to know that you’re broken right now.” And I understand, it’s good for him to know so that he can show me more grace.

So let me ask, for which of these bosses would you rather work? For me, I get to continue working with the one who treats me as more than an employee; he loves me as a person.

As I think through elders in my life, I have had many like Boss B—family, friends, colleagues, pastors, community leaders. They have loved me genuinely, compassionately, gently, fiercely. They have taken time and care to get to know me for me, welcoming me to share more, and embracing me when vulnerable. They’ve proven themselves as safe people time and time again. (I even have one former boss, who will send me sporadic notes that he’s thinking about and praying for me—even five years after we’ve worked together. Now that’s love and care! I admire him immensely.)

The biggest problem with generational gaps is that people like Boss B are few and far between. I’ve been amazingly fortunate to have been raised by parents who take the time to listen and invite me to share more. (I’ll also comment that it’s AMAZING having a mom who’s a counselor! She’s the best!) But while working with young adults and college students, it’s shocking how many of them do not feel known by their parents. For some, they experience an older adult who cares for them deeply, who takes time to listen, for the first time during their college years. And these aren’t inexperienced young adults. These students are sometimes children of pastors and missionaries. They’ve served in church internships, worked substantial jobs, and been active in student leadership roles. So what’s going on that’s keeping them from experiencing healthy mentoring?

Our culture is in a crisis of love. We’re in emotional cardiac arrest. We promote people for task and skills, dichotomizing leadership from character. The good mentors out there are working hard, but there are too few. As long as personal development is separated from professional development, the divide will only continue.

So what can you do? Regardless of your age—whether you’re a millennial, gen-x-er, boomer, or builder—pay attention to whether you’re embracing people in their vulnerability or rejecting them. Though we have certain structural problems in our society, they won’t be changed unless we first learn to look and care others as individuals.

Find someone from another generation and commit to loving them, choosing to promote their flourishing even if it’s a cost to you. Listen well. Ask questions. Go deeper. Welcome people to share more. Embrace them. Only through this consistent, messy process can trust be built.

And let me assure you, trust is messy. Trust looks like my mom reaching out to me after a blog post, making sure I’m okay and that our relationship is solid. Trust is evident when we can lean into the tension, reach towards the other, and expect a safe embrace.

Musings of a Millennial

I keep all kinds of random notes in my phone. When an idea intrigues me, I write it down so I don’t forget. Today, while looking through past notes, I came across the following and think it’s worth posting. Here you’ll find the random musings of a millennial, considering the divide that exists between my generation and many of our elders.

We want to learn from you. The problem is we don’t trust you. True trust only grows through relationship. It grows not by speaking, but by listening. And once I feel that you listen and understand, when I feel like you truly know me–not just about me, but you know how I think and the intentions of my heart–then I know you love me when your actions promote my good. Unfortunately, that’s not how many of our relationships work. Particularly across barriers that keep us apart.

Right now, the barriers are most evident as we scrutinize people with power, and how they use it. Two years ago, the riots in Ferguson captured my attention. I began hearing stories from people of color, whose experiences in our country were so different from my own. Then about a year and a half ago, I took a course at seminary on the church, justice, and society. I learned from an amazing professor, Dr. Johann Mostert, who is a white South African man. He was a minister in South Africa during apartheid, and for the beginning of our class, he shared his story of what it was like being a white pastor caring for orphans when apartheid began to be abolished. Stories of how his black brothers and sisters had been violently treated and discriminated against were revealed. He came to realize the privileges and power he had of which he had been completely unaware.

Since this time, I have been working to listen to the stories of my friends who have different experiences from me simply because the pigment of their skin has a darker shade than mine. Though both of our passports–if they’ve been afforded the luxury of traveling abroad–mark us as American, the culture of our families and local communities have many unique distinctions from each other.

I’ve been learning that things like my skin color, my upper middle class family, and my education, grant me a kind of power that my friends lack. So how will I use my privileges? Will I use my power on behalf of those without it–the vulnerable and marginalized? Or will I use my power for myself, to keep and grow it, to protect and advance me?

I cannot truly love my black or brown neighbors without listening to their stories and acting for their goods. I cannot guarantee I will be perfect, but I am certainly trying.

Fear marks our divides, because I think we all feel a sense of powerlessness, and we fear how the other will use his or her power. As young people, our elders have power that–it often seems–is used to burden us. Yet our elders feel that they are losing power, and fear how we will use the power we gain. They fear that we will act foolishly and forsake the good they’ve worked to accomplish.

Our fear keeps us on opposite sides of the table, throwing accusations and growing our divides. But imagine if we came to sit side by side.

Imagine if we listened and sought to understand each other. Imagine if we said, “Let me speak on your behalf,” and we acted for each other’s good.

Let’s Talk About Race: A Letter to My Pastor

*Note: I first emailed this letter to my pastor on July 12, 2016. After discussing it, he has given me his consent to post the letter here. I have merely omitted any names mentioned from the original.

Dear Pastor _____,

Normally, I wait until Preaching Team to share my reflections on the prior Sunday’s service. This week, however, I want to carefully craft the concern I feel for the following subject, while not having to worry about being heard amongst a large group of voices. So thank you for being accessible enough for me to write you this letter and for having a shepherd’s heart that’s open to hear the cries of your flock.

This Sunday, I felt deeply disturbed that during our pastoral prayer we lifted up the policemen in Dallas who were shot and killed, yet we entirely omitted the two black men who were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Certainly, we needed to address the murders of the five officers and the wounding of the other six in Dallas. Our silence concerning the racial tension that caused this violence, however, spoke louder than our prayer. The Dallas officers’ deaths did not occur merely because of “lawlessness.” Those men died for the same reason that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died last week: Racial prejudice plagues the heart of our nation, causing division and enmity amongst our people.

As Christians, we recognize that any behavior or action that attempts to devalue another human being derives from a fallen nature and a sinful disposition. Our Scriptures consistently teach that the hidden thoughts in our hearts are inextricably linked to our outward behaviors and how we treat others. The link between inner feelings of hate and the murder of another human being is too close for comfort. Thus, in the Old Testament, jealous Cain killed his only brother. And in the New Testament, Jesus taught the religious leaders that those who thought about hatred committed murder in their hearts. Ultimately, then, we have a major heart problem. And how are we instructed to address heart issues? Through confession.

When we are silent, therefore, we allow an inner heart problem to become an outward disaster.

Our silence on issues of race is what allows racism to continue. Because we are so uncomfortable with the term, we ignore it altogether. Racial prejudice that leads to the murder of policemen merely becomes “lawlessness” in our vocabulary. And the manslaughters of two black men at the hands of white officers is never spoken.

In our attempts for comfort, we create an in-group by surrounding ourselves with others who resemble us. If you looked around our church community during the second service on Sunday, you could count on one hand the number of colored faces. All others were white. We can then make excuses as pastors, saying that we care for the needs of our people. And as white, middle-class Americans, we care about others like us. We more easily relate to the police officers, because they have jobs like we do; it hits closer to home. But we do not connect with a black man in Louisiana, who had a prior record. And we can turn a blind eye to the black man in Minnesota, because he’s just different enough from us that we do not have to feel his pain or loss. Thus, praying for our police brothers while ignoring our black brothers becomes justified.

For the majority of our church, I presume, people felt the tragedy of the police officers’ deaths and paid little attention to the tragedies of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths. If my presumption is true, then we as a community are wrong and demonstrate a lack of compassion.

We are ignoring the needs and injustice against an entire population within our nation. We are allowing for the cries of our black brothers and sisters to go unheard, because we do not care enough to listen—because we can look out in our congregation and see no black sibling, whose burdens we must help to bear.

If any black neighbors were to step foot into our doors, and if they had the courage to give up their personal cultural preferences in order to worship with us, they would learn that we do not care for their weights and burdens. They would learn that we shake their hands, but do not listen to their stories. They would infer that we are a church that would not keep their best interests in mind; that we do not care about the things they care about. And they would gather, rightly, that they are not truly welcome; for when they enter our gatherings, they must leave their blackness at the door. All this, because of our silence. Our silence teaches more to our black friends than anything else we say.

And what about our white members? What we teach in our services, we encourage our people to live out in their ordinary lives. Thus, as we remain silent in leadership, we teach them that they, too, can remain silent. Rather than engage courageous conversations on race, they can ignore them altogether. Rather than listen to the plights of black friends, they can think people of color are crazy for saying racism still exists. They can continue in their small groups and circles of people who look, think, and act the same way they do, never being challenged to broaden their perspective by learning from people who are different.

But imagine what could happen if we truly became like Christ and cared for the marginalized in our community. What if we proactively engaged the divisive current ripping through our country? Perhaps we could go to a black church in our city, asking them how we can embrace them as our brothers and sisters. We could ask them how they’d like us to use our voices and our influence on their behalf. We could plan times to worship together and invite others to join in. We could represent the incarnation of Christ by entering into hard conversations and leaning into the pain of our friends instead of running from it. Perhaps, we could then join with ______ and ______ as they minister to officers as chaplains. As a black and white church together, we could seek to serve our police officers. We could share stories of brokenness and how Christ has brought healing. Perhaps our church would even begin to look more like our city with 90% Caucasian and 10% a beautiful array of diverse ethnicities.

If we learn to start speaking openly about race and other tensions that plague our inner hearts, I believe that we will experience greater theosis in our local congregation as our worshipping community transforms even more into the likeness of our Savior. If we refuse to engage these issues, however, I believe we will miss out on Christ’s power without even knowing it; for our church community will never know the difference, but our black and colored brothers and sisters will be left to fight the battle alone. In the very least, can’t we at least pray for them?


Dwelling in Him,
Starla J. Gooch


P.S. If you have not watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot, I encourage you to do so—despite the graphic nature. It is vital for us to know why these manslaughters are causing so many significant waves across our nation and for us to genuinely grieve for their lives alongside our black brothers and sisters. I don’t know how we could see these men die with our own eyes and not talk about it.

Here are links where you can watch the videos:
Alton Sterling: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/06/new-video-shows-alton-sterling-was-not-holding-a-gun-when-baton-rogue-police-killed-him.html

Philando Castile: http://heavy.com/news/2016/07/philando-castile-falcon-heights-minnesota-police-shooting-facebook-live-video-watch-uncensored-you-tube-police-shooting-man-shot-lavish-reynolds/

The Bible Is Not Crystal Clear

A recent Christian news source published an article that stated, “The Bible is crystal clear about [insert controversial topic].” Contrary to such dogmatic statements, the Bible is not crystal clear about anything. For example, think about something that seems undeniably crystal clear in the Bible, beyond any dispute. How about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Most Christians would probably say that the Bible is absolutely clear that Jesus experienced bodily resurrection from the dead. Yet church history teaches that within the first century after Jesus’ death, people tried to deny that Jesus had physical flesh. They called this docetism. Docetists believed that Jesus was only a spiritual being, more like an apparition, that people only thought or perceived him in physical form. “But what about Thomas?” Some may say: “He doubted, so Jesus invited Thomas to physically touch his hands and feet to prove he was physically there.” This is absolutely correct. But even with such documentation, people—those who may have seen Jesus himself or knew others who did—still thought that he was a bodiless spirit.

Things that seem crystal clear to one person may contrast what seems crystal clear to another. Our cultures, worldview, age, gender, and race—along with many other parts of our personhood—contribute to our understanding of the world around us. When it comes to Scripture, we cannot help but read the text through our own cultural lenses. Most often, we read into the text what we already believe.

Is all Scripture ambiguous? Certainly not! The Bible is the inspired word of God, spoken through approximately forty individuals to communicate God’s truth to humanity. When we read the Bible as a whole, many themes repeatedly appear as we navigate over thousands of years of history. When each theme occurs, we have to study each individual passage where the theme occurs to discover what the author was trying to communicate to the original audience. Then we extrapolate the major principles from the passage and compare it to the overall evidence of Scripture to see if it still weighs true. If the principle stands, it must be true for all people, at all times, in all places. It must be just as true for a twenty-first century American female as it was for Mahatma Gandi who lived in India over a century ago. This is where the issue gets sticky.

Our culture wants to say, “You do what works for you, and I’ll do what works for me. You live your truth and I’ll live mine.” Simply put, such a relativistic philosophy cannot succeed for long in a society. Societies can only function by upholding shared values. Without absolute truth, societies no longer have values to share, which breaks any sort of communal bond by isolating individuals. This is why demanding that the Bible is crystal clear on an issue can be so damaging. Taking the Bible at only face value allows readers to believe something without understanding it. This also encourages people to shut down those who do not see as they see. The Bible becomes an individualistic endeavor for interpretation that excludes those with differing perspectives, making each reader his or her own island.

When we read Scripture, we can never assume that we fully understand it. Even what initially appears obvious, we should seek to study more. Studying well does three things in us.

  1. Embracing our lack of understanding points us to the all-knowing, omniscient God.
    We become most aware of our finite status and limitations, humbled before the God who is greater. We must open our hearts and minds for the Holy Spirit to give us truth that we cannot come to on our own.
  2. We must rely on the community around us.
    When we do not know the answer to a question, we must ask and learn from someone who knows more than we do. We ask others whose experiences and worldviews differ from our own. As we learn to see through the eyes of others, we gain a fuller picture of the God who is entirely other from creation. We begin to see things to which we were once blind. Such learning grows us into fuller, mature persons.
  3. As we become confronted with God and also with our peers, we discover what we truly believe and develop ways to explain it.
    Shallow faith cannot endure in the presence of God or others. God sees through to our shallow hearts, and others see through to our ignorant minds. We are forced to dig in, to explain coherently our beliefs and have the integrity to live them out.

Words are important. How we say something is just as important as the message we seek to communicate. Setting an ultimatum by declaring that something is crystal clear shuts other people and opinions out of the conversation. If we want to engage in genuine dialogue, we need to use language that intentionally keeps the discussion open for other people to engage with their own ideas. If we refuse to listen and understand, no one will want to hear what we have to say, and our input—whether true or not—becomes useless.

Vision For A Thriving Community

The Christian Church’s influence on American society diminishes daily, and as a twentysomething Millennial, I quite personally feel its effects. Though many Boomers still fight ardently for “conservative values”, and I absolutely believe we need to encourage and empower more disciples of Christ to enter into politics and law-making, many of the battles we choose seem futile to me. I have embraced the fact that we no longer live in a Christian culture. The values and belief system I hold exist in tension with the world around me. I speak, think, behave, and interact quite differently from the majority of my peers. And I’m actually really okay with that, because if I’m going to live as if I’m from another world, I’d rather people notice.

I wish more churches and spiritual leaders would embrace the fact that Christendom has passed. Maybe then we could begin to focus less on the number of people walking through our church doors and more on the quality of Christ-followers we’re sending out from our community into the world. I’m excited to see more literature being written that emphasizes the need for mature discipleship, but I still worry that churches will respond by simply creating more programs.

For thirteen months, I experienced the honor of serving as the discipleship pastor in a local church. After overseeing the academics for a nine-month residential discipleship program for young adults, I learned two important lessons:
1) Programs do not work well.
2) Listening to God does!

In the first semester, I labored intensively to rewrite all of our academic guidelines. I created syllabi, prepared lessons, taught fervently, and graded papers diligently. But even with all of my effort, the impact on my students’ lives remained minimal. Why? Because my primary relationship with them stayed at a teacher-student status, and no one was succeeding. Very few of my students exhibited proficiency in their academics. And out of those who performed well, some displayed significant character issues. What good would it do if my students learned to read the Bible correctly, but they never allowed the information to transform them?

So for the second semester, I decided to change things up. I set aside two hours each week to meet with students one on one. During each hour, I got to know one of my students personally. It’s amazing how deeply you can get to know someone when you purposefully spend one hour listening to them share from their heart. (I also learned a major transgression for pastors: running out of tissues in your office!)

Choosing to spend time with my students individually drastically increased the impact of the ministry. Why? Because as I listened, I received the opportunity to truly know each one of them, and while doing so, I diligently sought to hear from God on their behalf. Though I initially sat aside only two hours in order to guard my time, I soon did so to guard my energy. I quickly discovered how much more work goes into an hour of listening well than an hour of lecturing. Self-control proved trying when I had to choose patience and compassion over defensiveness with an angry student, and when my flesh wanted to tell them blatant truths, but God’s Spirit subtly warned me to hold my tongue. Though difficult, the intentionality that it took to listen to the voice of God was worth it every time.

I believe that the greatest need in our churches is mature believers who hear and respond to the voice of God. In Hebrew, the verb for obey quite literally means “to listen.” It carries the idea that as we listen to God’s voice, our hearing demands response. If we do not obey, we have not truly heard.

Imagine with me a community of Christ-followers who actively hear and obey the voice of the Lord in everyday life. A community in which you and I participate. Compassion for the broken and the lost come naturally. We become people who embrace the tension of grace and truth. We address problems boldly, but in timely manners. We speak life into dead souls and spirits. We call forth potential and hope in individuals and communities. We cast visions of redemption. We know the mind of Christ, because He regularly reveals hidden truths to our hearts. The Spirit speaks through our mouths and lives to engage those who need to experience the living God. We are a community that brings healing to all who choose to participate, because the Holy Spirit moves freely through His willing vessels. Broken lives are made whole and new.

This is the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring. It’s not just a romanticized dream of idealism. No, this is the message of the gospel. This is why Jesus called it good news! Such a life and community is fully accessible to us now.

So will you choose to participate with me? I’ll warn you: it will cost you much. Your pride must go. You must be willing to submit your mind, heart, spirit, and body to the lordship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in return, we will all gain more than we could ever dream.

Maybe, just maybe, if we become people who attune our hearts to hear the voice of God, we won’t have the problem of a diminishing Church. I’d even take the risk to declare it thriving.

Experience Vs. Theology

In June of last year, the hardest season of my life began. As I concluded my year of service as the Discipleship Pastor at my home church, God spoke a whisper in my heart. Though I had an inkling about one immediate consequence of that whisper, I had no clue of the ramifications that would result from it. Even now, I’m sure many are still unknown.

Within a matter of weeks, I moved 600 miles from home to continue my studies at seminary. I had many plans, but God didn’t seem to care for many of them. As God decimated my idea of safety and allowed every aspect of my life to be marred, I found myself in a place where I had never been: caught between my experience and my theology. They no longer matched.

The God I had known relationally for so long, had studied for years, and had taught so many people about seemed different from the God I was currently experiencing. His actions appeared separate from His character. And as I shared my story with others, I discovered many who felt this same tension. It caused me to ask myself the question: What am I supposed to do when my experience is in tension with my theology? When the God I see in Scripture seems so different from the God I’m choosing to follow now? 

I’m sure there are ample responses and possible answers to this question, which are likely unique for each person. But for me, God kept telling me to stop trying to do something to change my circumstances and perception. I wanted to be able to explain my problems somehow, when in actuality there was only one who fully understood them—and He wasn’t me. I was trying to defend God, when finally He helped me realize that was never my job. There is no way that God can be fully rationalized, for even when we may be able to explain Him intellectually, we are not able to fully rationalize Him to our hearts. This requires faith, many say. Yet that’s not really my job either. My responsibility is to be faithful, yes. But how can I have faith without God first demonstrating that He is worth having faith in?

I was reminded of how many times people in Scripture called out to God, pleading for Him to show Himself strong for the sake of His name. David begged this of God constantly, like in Psalm 143:11, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!”

I am utterly powerless to defend God, whether it’s to myself or to others. But I believe that He’s strong enough to defend Himself, and that He actually quite enjoys it.

So when what I know about God does not match God in my current life circumstances, when my theology is at odds with my experience, I have to learn to embrace the tension. I choose to trust that He’ll come through and redeem Himself to me. What stinks is that He might let me sit in the tension and distress for a while. But if I allow for the tension and let God be God, He will prove Himself and come through. And if He ever doesn’t, I’ll let you know.

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” – Psalm 9:10

**Since this is an issue that God must deal uniquely with for each individual, I wonder, what have you learned about the times when your theology and experience are in tension? I’d love to hear your story and/or thoughts, so leave your comments below.