For various reasons, it may come as a shock to you that a church would choose to spend a whole six-week series exploring the question Why Stay Christian. But for the small, largely progressive, LGBTQIA celebrating, United Methodist congregation that I have the privilege of pastoring in the Bible Beltlands of North Louisiana, these are not wild waters to wade. Those who have known the wilderness of faith—as many of our congregants have—are not so easily shocked or offended when considering that others may walk there. They also know that making space for the hard-to-voice questions, aches, and wounds is a significant piece of staying wholly human together in God’s world. With the help of Brian McLaren’s latest book Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, The Disappointed, and the Disillusioned, we dove in.
Two weeks had passed in our exploration of the content, and I was waking up to work on sermon research for week-three when I reached for my phone and found that it had exploded with notifications from every single platform on which I am present. As a bi-vocational writer and pastor, I quickly learned that a Christian influencer with a pretty large online following had gotten wind that my next children’s book, releasing in August of this year, features a nonbinary character. Overnight, she’d rallied an angry mob of digital advocates to flood my email and DMs with vile accusations and to get my books removed from Christianbook.com, which they did.
I spent most of the day licking my wounds, cleaning up my comment sections of language that could be hurtful to people I love, locking down my privacy settings, and making blackout poetry out of hate mail. In a timely or untimely moment for sermon writing, the truth of that morning was that I didn’t really all that much want to stay Christian following the vitriol. If this is what it’s come to, I thought, if this is who it excludes, if few things feel more hateful than Christian love, what are we even doing?
One of my agnostic best friends texted me that morning to say, “Hello, abomination, how are you doing? I don’t think the company of these folks’ anger in heaven is the selling point they think it is.”
“Yeah,” I responded, “There may be a marketing problem.”
Dark humor aside, the reality was that I felt a little bit done that day, or at the very least, I felt more than able to understand those who are done. But, as can be said indefinitely in the journey of God’s people, the story wasn’t quite over.
At some point in the afternoon, I was sent a direct message by celebrated, queer, Christian children’s book writer Matthew Paul Turner. Turner’s work has also built a significant following, but one that is made up of all the beautiful souls who have been pushed into the margins of faith—the artists, the prophets, and the misfits. And the message said, “How can I help?”
Maybe you’ve read Jeff Chu’s introduction to the capstone work of Rachel Held Evans, Wholehearted Faith, which he came alongside to finish after her untimely death in 2019. If so, you know that how can I help were generous, grace-fueled, go-to words of Rachel’s for fellow writers (especially those working in the honest and inclusive places). I was taken aback with resurrective gratitude when I read them, feeling certain that Matthew—who also came alongside some of Rachel’s unfinished work in the form of children’s literature—was carrying on more of her legacy than book-buyers will ever see.
“I’m up for ideas,” I responded, “your company is a deep breath of fresh air.”
With no further commissioning, he proceeded to spend the next little bit rallying together so much love and support from countless people and places all over who have dared to ask the gatekeepers, “Who says?”
Who says that this is what the Bible means? Who says that this is who gets to be a conduit of the Holy Spirit, and this is who doesn’t? Who says that the ways in which we are desperate for Jesus to break out of stained glass and walk with us into one of the most vibrant, risky, wonderful, adventurous, connected, equitable, inclusive, full and free existences we can imagine isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be? Who says they get to have the monopoly on a caged Christ that we’ve been given the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to free for the sake of the world? Who says? Who gets to say?
The outpouring of care from curious, creative, resilient people was more than a balm; it was merciful fuel. I cried that night in gratitude, not because I felt less alone or validated—which, to be sure, I did—but because I had been given a fresh glimpse into a redemptive reminder that if all of those people who had come into the conversation that afternoon had already left Christianity because of the people who had started the conversation that morning, then there would be no one left. No light remaining to speak on behalf of God’s totally radical, nondiscriminatory love. No voice to say, “If you want to stick around a little longer, I’ll be here, too.”
Therefore, maybe, just maybe, I could be willing to not cut ties desperately. Maybe I could hang in there, free Jesus a little more, and look for the people to whom I can also ask how can I help, that they may know the light hasn’t totally left either. In fact, maybe the light is just spreading and growing in all the places that the loudest voices aren’t looking. Maybe we’ll look up one day and see that because we dared to approach all of this with such curiosity, creativity, and resilience, the light will have taken over after all.
“Do I stay Christian?” McLaren asks what so many of us have asked over the years. Maybe, no. The very valid and heartbreaking reasons that people aren’t are worth looking in the face, lamenting over, and repenting from: violent crusader DNA, corrupted institutionalism, manipulative money worship, the hierarchy of the old boys’ club, and toxic theology that further oppresses the marginalized, to name a few.
Or maybe, yes, McLaren posits, because we are free to adapt and experiment in theology; we can lose that which was dogma as our ceiling but gain it as our floor, which can become our foundation, soil, and launchpad; we can speak and write about God in fresh ways, building upon the past rather than being boxed in by it; we can uncage God from at least some of the roles and expectations we have constructed. Maybe yes, because we have been given an invitation to remember that we need each other as allies, that Christianity is relatively young for abandoning, that there are always third ways to consider, that nothing is truly disposable but all is redeemable, that the church in the margins is growing and we are being welcomed in to stand in solidarity with it rather than following our addiction to innocence out of the messiness.
But maybe, the answer is simply maybe, for now. And to that, I would say, lean in. Maybe is worth your time, too. Maybe your stir-crazy feelings within the faith aren’t signs of a defect but the song of who you were created to be. Maybe you get to say says who when someone tries to tell you where your lines and Jesus’ lie. Maybe you are being invited by the Holy Spirit to rethink what it means for us to exist intentionally, collaboratively, and reverently in this changing world and church. Maybe, just maybe, as McLaren encourages, you are being drawn in to ask the previously un-askable questions, make previously forbidden confessions, imagine previously impossible possibilities, and form previously un-formable communities as we become the most just, kind, and humble versions of ourselves that we possibly can by way of grace, day by day, practicing a faith that expresses itself in love.
Last week, on behalf of our congregation, I traveled further south to join statewide clergy and lay delegates in the voting to dismiss the now 130+ formerly-United Methodist Louisiana congregations into disaffiliation, largely over the issue of human sexuality. It was not easy to raise a “for” card to approve the process, though anyone who has read the story of Solomon and the warred-over-baby knows what will die if we keep pulling. Still, the journey was and is painful for so many, surely most profoundly our queer clergy and congregants who were first formed in God’s love in these now-leaving spaces. Chasing the grief, there’s an anxiety about what this now means for United Methodists the conference and world over.
But here’s something I shared with my peers throughout this process that I’d like to share with you now, especially as we enter Pride Month recognizing the wounds that the church has caused to so many of God’s beloveds—especially holding in spirit those who are asking if all of this is worth anymore time and heartbreak. May it serve as a blessing in the spaces you need such a blessing.
Smaller ships turn faster. Death is just the beginning. Scarcity is a distraction. Abundance is absolute. Shalom is our inheritance. The arc is justice-pointed. In tension is creativity. In desperation lies a new paradigm. Out of labor comes new life. More has been done with less. The next right thing is enough. All that we need is here. Look around to see who is beside you. Ask how it is you may help.
Something new is stirring. Something new is waiting. Something new is gestating. And God needs not for us to wear ourselves thin bailing water from sinking boats all because we do not trust ourselves as swimmers. Let sodden boards warp, and we may find ourselves walking atop waves with Jesus.
The truest truth is that God’s kingdom is not in trouble. The truest truth is that our calling has not changed. The truest truth is that we are a part of living history. The truest truth is that in the economy of the Spirit, where the last are first, the poor are rich, the least are greatest, and the weak are strong, we are in good company here in the floodlands, planting seeds.
Something will take. Something will grow. Something is taking! Something is growing! Watch closely, for when the dust settles, we’ll learn that the work didn’t stop. We’ll learn that we didn’t stop! We’ll see that something was on the other side of all that broke down in the compost pile. We’ll take the mess and mire and reconsecrate it as nutrients for the harvest.
Up around the corner? The truest truth awaits.