Confessions of a College Student
Truth and lies, hope and despair, real and fake — all tied up in a neat package with a bow and sold to us with the label of “Christianity.” The men in suits with all the words told us what they taught was true. They told us it was the only way. With piles of Bible verses, mountains of logic and waves of emotion, they constructed a package deal. And we bought it.
Then we grow up.
We go to college.
We step outside the doors of the churches and we find that the package isn’t quite what we thought. We take a science class and discover that the men in suits were wrong about the world being created in six days. We take a philosophy class in which we are introduced to the likes of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and projection theories of religion.
All of a sudden the neat answers, the trite songs, and the out-of-context Bible verses all appear to be dissonant and flat in the new world we have discovered. Church was so simple — black and white. This new world is so complex — endless shades of grey. Many of us have never set foot inside a church since we discovered this new world. Those of us who have, have clung to the answers trying to “walk by faith” and trusting that “His ways are higher than our ways,” and yet we are still nagged by the fear that this whole Christianity thing is a lie.
Then…somewhere between the aching loneliness and the lurking agnosticism, in the terrifying darkness of our doubt we catch a glimmer of hope. The voice of Jesus whispering above all the words of philosophy and the testimonies of science . His love reaching past all we’d seen done — good and bad — in His name.
He is real.
But He appears to be much different than the God we were told about by the men in suits.
So we begin the process of deconstructing our “Christianity.” It’s a long and difficult journey, and it often feels like we are navigating without a compass. We are an entire generation with broken pieces of our religion scattered on the floor around us. Slowly, carefully, we are trying to separate the truth from the lies.
Along the way, between the tears and the swear words, people ask us, “So…what are you?”
“Spiritual but not religious,” we respond.
Or perhaps, “I love Jesus, but not the church.”
Confessions of a College Minister
This is my reality.
This is the air I breathe.
I have not been a college minister for very long, but I have learned many things.
First, I have learned that it is not difficult to convince college students that they need Jesus. Undergraduate life on college campuses tends in the direction of neopagan excess. Good kids from good families too often end up using their four (six?) years at college to get drunk and throw up on one another. That is, college students are around enough sin and destructive behavior to know that things are not as they should be. Given this, Jesus is not a tough sell.
The church, on the other hand, well…that’s a wholly different matter.
The men in suits have trained a generation of children and youth to believe that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. But these children grow up. They go to college. Try convincing these now 22 year olds that they need the church when they have been trained to believe that Christianity is the direct relationship between God and the individual. For them, the church is a secondary reality to their perceived immediate relationship with God. Some of them go to church in order to express their salvation, but because they believe that they do not have to, the overwhelming majority do not.
The training that they’ve received leads them to say peculiar things like:
“I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.”
Or, “I find myself growing closer to God but further from the church.”
What produced these peculiar speech acts? What led them to say these things that cannot be true? What produced such speech is the message they received about Christianity being nothing more than a “personal” relationship with God which, when communicated without any caveats, was interpreted as a “private” relationship with God.
I firmly believe that if we are to experience a re-awakening in post-Christian American, we must recover a sense of the church that we do not currently have. If we are to make Christianity possible for my grandchildren, we must correct our message. If we do not, let’s at least stop pointing our fingers at culture — whatever that means — as the reason for decline in church attendance.
For we have no one to blame but ourselves.
God is not Enough
That’s a bit hyperbolic. Let me explain.
In saying that God is not enough, I am not denying the absolute adequacy of God. It is God who creates, sustains, and redeems. Instead, I’m indicating something about God’s own creation design. God is not enough insofar as God created the world in such a way that God’s presence is mediated from one human to another.
Modern American Christianity views the church community as a “tacked on” extra to a personal relationship with Jesus. Put differently, the church is merely the icing on our cake, which is God. Thus, we have been taught to believe that the church is ideal, but unnecessary.
The Bible, however, points us in a different direction.
Remember Adam: life alone with God is not the divine plan for us.
God creates the world and God calls it good. God creates man and calls it very good. The very first thing God says is “not good” is for man to be alone. It appears as though Adam’s pre-fall communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not enough. In order to be satisfied, to be fully realized as a creature made in God’s own image, the man needs fellowship with other humans. He was not only created, as Augustine suggests, with a Trinity shaped hole in his heart, he was also created with a human shaped void that only other people could fill.
This is part and parcel what it means to be the imago Dei. God is not a single individual, God is a community of three distinct persons, bound together in absolute oneness of love and fellowship with one another. For humanity to image this kind of God requires the plurality of humans in fellowship with one another. An isolated individual is not a full image of the plural Godhead. Thus, God is not enough. People need other people to be complete. We were made for each other.
Becoming Christ’s Body
Jesus never said, “I will build a bunch of Christians.”
Jesus did say, “I will build my church.”
This distinction is important as it is an entirely different project. God’s work among us is about building us into Christ’s body — the Church.
So allow me to put this as clearly as I can:
There is no personal relationship with God, if…
There is no personal relationship with God if by “personal relationship” you mean something that exists apart from life in community.
There is no personal relationship with God if by “personal relationship” you mean something that doesn’t relate to how you engage with the people around you each day.
There is no personal relationship with God if by “personal relationship” you mean private relationship.
There is no personal relationship with God if by “personal relationship” you mean something that is cut off from or hidden away from the church.
Because you don’t get to make Christianity up. It is received.
It is received through the tradition, the sacraments, the creeds, the people, and the grace present in the church of which Christ is the head. How else can you be sure that the God you say you believe in is in fact the God who raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt? We cannot have Jesus without the reality he created and through which he communicates himself.
In November of 1906, G.B. Cashwell traveled from his home in Georgia to Los Angeles to visit the Pentecostal revival at the Azusa Street mission.
He was a white man from Georgia in the early 1900’s.
Upon arriving, he ran to the front seeking Spirit baptism. There, a young black boy laid his hands on him to pray. Cashwell, disturbed, got up and immediately walked out of the revival. Having returned to his room, Cashwell prayed, alone, for God to fill him with the Spirit.
In that moment, Cashwell heard God speak to him, saying, “I will fill you, but not until you let his hands be on you.”
That is why you cannot be a Christian on your own. Until you are part of a Christian community made up of people you don’t understand, there will not be room for God to reveal to you the ways in which you misunderstand.
The Problem with Church
The problem with church (or at least the problem with talking about church) is that it means so many different things:
— The global body of believers in Jesus through all history, spiritually united to God in Christ. As in, “The church is the Bride of Christ.”
— The social institution of organized Christian religion. As in, “The church does not enjoy the same authority and privilege it once did.”
— A local group of Christians united around their common faith in Jesus and love for each other. As in, “We’re part of this really cool church where we love Jesus and do life together.”
— A building where Christians meet and do stuff. Including, but not limited to an auditorium (sanctuary), eating room (fellowship hall), gym, classrooms, and various narthexes and lobbies. As in, “I have to swing by the church and drop off some paperwork.”
— A particular meeting or event at a building, usually on a Sunday morning, consisting of singing, preaching, money-giving, and occasionally other assorted sacraments. As in, “Hurry up, kids! Get dressed, find your Bibles, and get in the van so we aren’t late for church!”
— A specific religious subculture, with various associated dogmatic emphases and particular political affiliations. As in, “I got really burned by the church, and now I don’t want to be religious but I still want to follow Jesus.”
All of these definitions (and more) are valid because they are not just abstract ideas. They are our stories.
The other problem with church is “the parishioners.”
Whenever human nature, especially group human nature, is involved, even the best of ideas and intentions get darkened.
Likewise, the church can be a dark, damaging, and hurtful place. But what is the alternative? The church is dark. The world is darker. But the very fact that the church can acknowledge it’s darkness (we have a confession of sin) is a theological achievement that indicates that it is, in fact, a special community.
As one who works in the church, I admit there a few things that get under my skin more than Christians. Jesus said, “love your enemies” as a challenge to his followers, but to be honest, a lot of times I find it a whole lot easier to love the people who are supposed to be my enemies, than those who are supposed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. Seeing the insanity repeated day after day with seemingly no end in sight sucks the life out of me and, to be honest, makes me want to leave it all behind, at times, too.
But I don’t. Why?
Because I feel like Peter who told Jesus, “Where else would I go?” Like Peter, I have encountered the risen Christ in my own life through the love and grace of friends, family, and strangers, which is why I’ve come to believe that there is no where I can go to be more fully in the presence of that resurrected Christ than within his own Body.
So I stay.
I stay because I know that imperfection was, is, and always will be what it means to be the Body of Christ until the day he returns to claim his bride. Until then, it will remain imperfect because that Body is made up of imperfect people. And that’s okay with me, even if it frustrates me tremendously from time to time, because it speaks to a God who loves us and has so much faith in us that God was willing to allow us to participate in the renewal of all things.
I really understand why people leave the [institution of organized religion]. Many have been hurt by [a specific religious/dogmatic/political subculture] in different ways.
However, the [local group of believers united by faith in Christ and love for each other] is God’s idea. You can’t follow Jesus without being a part of [the global body of all believers in Jesus throughout history]!
If you ask me, that’s worth sticking around for.
So I wont stop talking about the church. It matters too much. Please by patient with me as I fumble around with heavy words.
I love her, and I love you.
(If you’ve left the church, whether for a season or for good, I invite you to share a bit of your story in the comments.)