In '05-'06, Kellye and I were really involved with a young church plant, based off of the Nazarene church at which we teach. There were a lot of great things going on at this church, but around Christmas of '06 we realized that the purpose and mission had changed from caring about people in real and practical ways, to church maintenance and growth. More significantly, we felt that we were losing very meaningful friendships simply because we weren't core leaders in the church any more. While my involvement in the church plant was the beginning of my re-thinking the important aspects of the gospel and the church, this experience left me feeling very hurt, frustrated, cynical and disconnected to the church.
In January of '07, Kellye and I decided to take some students to Guatemala, and we dedicated most of our efforts to that cause, and then we spent a full month in Europe in the summer of '07. So for almost 6 months we didn't attend church at any one location regularly. During this time, I was stewing about the past hurts, trying to forgive in a real way, having conversations with family and friends about church and faith. And I was reading and learning about the Emergent Church. While in Europe, I read "An Emergent Manifesto of Hope," and the ideas and stories of the authors really resonated with me. My journal from that time period includes many fervent questions, excitement about new ideas, and fear regarding the future. Here is one selection:
"What is very interesting at this point for me is that I feel like I have to hide this - that it has to be a closet conviction b/c if my Mid-Western, hyper-conservative, ultra-Republican - and yet still "Xian" peers, su-peers, friends and family and other church members found out - well, my views would not be respected encouraged or probably even recognized. I would lose my job and credibility. But when I think about past conversations, and possibilities for future ones - I know I am excited. There is something incredibly right in all of this "Emergent" thought. There is something that rings true w/ my soul."
In August of '07 I was lucky enough to find the Central Ohio Emergent Cohort, or as I told my brother before we went to the first meeting, "some people I met online." Through the first few months of sporadic meetings, and then the year 2008 in which we intentionally met almost every week, my faith has certainly changed from the hurt, frustrated, angry, uncertain and timid European traveler. As I reflected today as to how I would describe exactly how my faith has changed, I think I would simply say that it is "more."
First, my faith is more hopeful. I used to be plagued by the ever-present evangelical conviction that the rest of the world was certainly going to hell. But as I have learned that evangelicals do not have the corner on truth or the gospel, let alone God himself, I am much more hopeful. I am hopeful that salvation is much bigger than what I had previously understood it to be. I am hopeful that many more people are experiencing it in real ways in their life today, and many more will be in the future. I am hopeful for myself, and I am hopeful for those I know and love and work with. I can look back on my sketchy past and see what I've been through, and I know that people (and certainly God) will always surprise us.
Second, my faith is more confident. Even though I grew up in a Christian home, in the church every week, in the Christian school and Christian college, I always felt timid about what I believed. I wouldn't confidently tell anyone that I was a Christian, because what that meant at the time what that I had to be judgmental of their lifestyle, condemn their beliefs, and consider myself better than most everyone else. But now, especially after spending a month in meaningful, honest, incisive, and powerful dialogue and community within the cohort, I can confidently say that I follow the ways of Jesus because I believe it's the best way to live - for myself, and for the whole world. And I don't believe that is an exclusive statement, meaning that those who do not agree are "out" or "excluded" from this wonderful privileged salvation, but rather it is an inclusive statement, meaning that this way of Jesus includes everyone - friends and enemies, sinners and saints, slave and free, Jew or Gentile. Because I no longer believe that North American evangelicalism and Christianity are synonymous (although they are also not mutually exclusive), I can be proud to say I follow Jesus, because I believe that it is something much bigger, much more beautiful, life-giving, challenging, true and wonderful - much more - than what I had ever previously believed.
Finally, my faith - the faith in this something new, this something other and bigger than what I had previously believed and experienced - my faith is much more informed and intelligent as a result of being a part of the cohort this past year. Everyone in the group is so well-informed, and our conversations are very challenging. I always have to rethink and double-check what I'm going to say to be sure I really think it's right, and that's really good! Although we come from similar backgrounds, I also think we are very different, and that has helped me to learn more about myself and about God. As a result of talking about this "emergent faith" with other intelligent, well-informed, and I would say "Godly" people, has led me to be less concerned about what people in the evangelical circles will think or say, and more excited to share with others about what "more" there is to be found in the Christian faith.