–Daniel S. Ferguson
Yesterday, I helped to launch a new church in Pensacola, Florida. That in itself isn’t odd. Minister’s kid volunteers at a church? Not exactly breaking news.
But I don’t just volunteer in a traditional sense. The giant words on the signs that declare this church’s values? I wrote those personally. Our statement of faith? I crafted that, too. The language on our invitations? Penned by me. The sermons? Edited and vetted (so far) by me.
If I have a soul, it’s made of ink. So it’s my very soul that I’m pouring into this church. Why?
Why, when I’ve been hurt by churches so much, spun about so much, rejected so much, and infuriated so much, why pour my soul into a church?
There isn’t anything particularly special about this church. It’s not like it’s some great new wave of Christianity, the likes of which you’ve never seen. It’s dedicated to the mission of reaching hurting people with the hope of Jesus Christ. That’s good, but it’s not new. There are certain elements that I’ll help to prevent, and others I’ll help to ensure. But really, the church isn’t some big new thing. It’s just a normal church.
Given that I openly criticize church on a regular basis and given my natural friendship with others who do so, my decision to stay in church is, by itself, an oddity. But I haven’t just stayed; I’ve doubled down. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked just in the last year why I haven’t left church.
It’s a question almost meant kindly (toward me, anyway). People want to see me spared the pain I feel almost every Sunday morning. But I’ve chosen to embrace that pain and make it my own. Here’s why:
1) My pride refuses for me to leave.
If I’m honest, it starts here. Yes, this isn’t the most Christ-like answer, but it’s honestly where it starts for me. The number of times I’ve been accused of “having a head knowledge of God but not a heart knowledge” is both absurd and yet fair. Those criticisms, many individually legitimate, have coincided with my doubts about my own spiritual estate, leaving me to wonder if I’m really just some sort of spiritual lemon, beyond the scope of grace.
It took me fifteen years to overcome this core negative image of myself. I refuse to go back.
So if I’m honest, my willingness to remain in the faith is partly to prove those critics and self-doubts false. I flat out refuse for those to be proven right. Is that pride? Absolutely. Does God use that pride to draw me into Himself? You bet.
When things get really bad, when I am just about to pull the trigger on leaving the church forever, it is this pride, however momentarily sinful, that often keeps me in the flock. There are some people I just can’t stomach having been right about me.
2) My marriage collapses without it.
Again, not the spiritual answer I’m sure churches are hoping for, but it’s absolutely true. When I was convinced I was done with church forever, it was my relationship with my wife (then girlfriend) that kept me coming back, even when it was most painful. It was her empathy, her grace, and her forgiveness that showed me what church could be, even when church was just the two of us.
We’ve structured our marriage on a foundation of faith. It has been infused into every consideration of who we are as a couple. That’s intentional on a marital level for us, but it’s also something I did on purpose as a spiritual fail-safe for me. I knew that if we built our marriage on faith that I couldn’t abandon that faith without doing serious harm to the marriage. It’s not that I worship my wife, or any such idolatry. It’s an intentionally crafted guardrail for when my doubts and objections start to take serious form in my mind. I remind myself that I love my wife, and in doing so I remind myself of all the grace she exhibits so regularly and amazingly. That reflection of Christ is enough to bring me back most of the time.
3) I found a church that openly embraced doubt and brokenness.
This was crucial for me in the long run. The first two are basically momentary stopgaps. They prevent me from responding to the spiritual panic of the now. But for the longer-term maintenance of my faith, I needed a church that could handle my doubts, my brokenness, and my objections.
No, not just handle them. Embrace them. Not a church that saw them as a problem, but one that recognized the value in them, to know that doubt can lead to faith and weakness to strength.
I was incredibly blessed to find such a church. For years, I didn’t believe such a church existed. I theorized that one could exist, but I had never found one. It was like a unicorn. Sure, one might exist, but I’ll probably never see one.
But then I did see one. And once you’ve seen even just one unicorn, you can’t go on believing unicorns don’t exist. Such it has been with church.
And that brings me back to yesterday. Why did I, a long-term doubter with serious objections and decades of pain from the church, invest my body and soul into a church?
Because I want there to be more unicorns in the world.