An Old Friend Who Is Now a New Friend

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I’ve known Holly since high school. We went to prom together, actually, in our junior year. I remember her as a deeply passionate, and yet somehow wonderfully free, person with bright hair and an even brighter soul.

Like with most high school friendships, ours ended the day we graduated. Facebook kept us very loosely connected, but it would be twelve years before I decided to call her again, precisely in response to one post she wrote on Facebook. In high school, Holly loved Jesus and church passionately, openly, and graciously. She seemed, by all accounts, to have a genuine, authentic, freeing faith. I envied her faith. But twelve years later, she posted this:

“I think I’m done with church. And religion. Phewf! That feels good.”

By the next day, she had received about 50 reactions and 30 comments on that thread alone, rather large for a non-celebrity for a singular post. I decided to break our 12-year disconnection and ask her to talk to me about her journey toward that post.

I really didn’t know what to expect, except that Holly would, of course, still be the wonderful, bright soul that she always was. It turns out that not even a decade has changed that, for which I am very thankful.

When I asked about her journey, Holly was very forthcoming and honest, just as she always had been. I did note, however, a sense of anxiety in her voice. Her first sentence on the topic, really, was a disclaimer:

“I have not lost my faith in God, not in the least…”

Her need to say this is not surprising. I didn’t ask, but I imagine she feels a very present resistance to her transition out of the church she knows. She probably thinks that she has announced, in some way, a resignation of her faith in Jesus, and she wants to make it clear that she has not rejected Christ, just church as she knew it.

“…I just need to find a community and a way of accessing God that is different than what I’m used to in church.”

Holly describes her journey over the past year, one that is surprisingly familiar to me. She began to have panic attacks over the last summer, she even felt she was losing her mind at points. She thought she might need psychological help, until she noticed a trend:

“I realized I was only feeling this anxiety when I was thinking about going to church…I literally, physically cannot go to the place I have always gone.”

It wasn’t necessarily the act of going to church that caused the anxiety, she clarifies. It was thinking about it. She notes that her church community had always been a place where she sought comfort, to “feel better, to lean on people for support.” But, and she says this with a note of funereal finality, “something shifted.”

I ask her what shifted, but she says it’s not just one thing, it’s many things that have shifted over time. “My ideas, the way I think about God, they just don’t jive anymore with the Christianity I’ve known. I just don’t believe a lot of stuff that is at the crux of Christianity.”

Of course, at this point I have to ask what it is she doesn’t believe in anymore. Yet again, her first response is a disclaimer:

“I feel anxious even saying this that I’ll be condemned as a heretic.”

I comfort her by explaining that, so far, her journey is much like my own and so many others.  And that’s all it took, one tiny note of affirmation, just the hint that she isn’t alone, and her objections flowed out instantaneously. It turns out there are really only two:

  1. “I do not think people have to pray a prayer to earn salvation.”
  2. “I do not think believe people have to invite Jesus into their heart.”

She summarizes her objection in one clarion sentence that is so powerful, I cannot believe I haven’t heard it before:

“I think Christ reconciled everything to himself when he died on the cross, no matter what we do. Therefore I’m not worried about salvation.”

And there it is, the central idea behind why she left the church. She hasn’t expressed it fully yet, but she’s on to something with this. The church she knows is essentially missional, right at its very core. The church insists that it exists to save people from their sins by pointing them to Jesus. This was the mission she was on when I knew her in high school: to save everyone.

But that mission was not freeing for her. Rather, it burdened her. She felt like she had to commit herself to that mission with every conscious thought and action, or else she was ultimately not loving Jesus well. She says she felt “this intense burden to be a missionary all the time, even though that’s not what I want to do.”

The pressure this put on her relationships and on herself was overwhelming:

“It’s not my place to tell people what to believe, and I get really uncomfortable being in a place where people are told what to believe. I find [when I go to church] that I’m constantly fighting so much stuff when the preacher is speaking.”

I connect with that immediately; I’ve had the same experience. What was she fighting at church? It wasn’t that the preaching was false; it was that the preaching was graceless truth. It was necessarily exclusive and, in many ways to her, demeaning.

Holly started to realize something about her faith that troubled her:

“My faith was absolutely more in the community itself rather than in Jesus.”

The mission was faulty from the get-go. Holly expresses that the church’s mission isn’t to save people. That’s what Jesus does. The burden of salvation is on Christ alone. The church’s burden is neither to convict sin nor to forgive it, but rather to love those whom Christ has loved, and that’s everybody.

And therein lay the problem with her high-school faith:

“I thought that I had this amazing personal relationship with Jesus, when it was more that I had incredible role models and friends in that church, and that’s how I felt God speaking to me and loving me. But when I wasn’t there, I was like ‘Where is God?’ It was all about that community for me. That’s valuable and valid, but I didn’t realize that wasn’t the pure divine relationship that I thought existed without any other person in the room.”

And so Holly has struck out on her own, at least for now, in hopes of finding the relationship with God she craves most of all. I ask her what that will look like, and that’s when this conversation surprises me most of all:

“I know it will involve community. I don’t know where that community is, and I suspect I will have to create it.”

Holly expresses that so many of her friends are in the same place that she is. She wants a freeing relationship with Jesus, and she wants a community that’s honest about that journey. She feels like there’s so many people out there with stories like hers that they’re bound to make a new kind of church community out of it. One that’s open and honest about doubt and that embraces people’s spiritual journeys, no matter what those look like.

I, for one, look forward to watching her create such a space.

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