Over the course of twenty years of ordained ministry, I have seen a number of churches devote enormous amounts of time, energy, and money on campaigns to convince the public that their church “welcomes” anyone, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. When they discover surprisingly little response, church leadership often concludes that if they would have just tried harder, or made their welcoming message clearer, then surely their pews would have been filled with newcomers. Yet very few churches seem to be aware of the biggest reason why the “unchurched” shy away from churches.
The problem is not that people feel unwanted, though lack of welcome may ensure that a visitor never returns. The main reason many won’t darken the door of churches is mistrust.
What causes the mistrust is a conscious or (more often) unconscious propagation of a pious, but damaging fiction. The fiction takes a wide variety of forms, but when you strip the religious language away, it boils down to this false message: “It is possible to arrive at a set of beliefs and/or practices that will ensure that your struggles will be over. Life will never hurt you; the rug will never again be pulled out from under your feet; the bottom will never drop out; and you will never again experience the pain of failure, uncertainty, ‘lostness,’ or temptation.
Have you heard of the expression, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”? A great number of the folks who make their way to my church in Omaha, Nebraska, have been fooled by this false message in the past. They are bound and determined never to let it happen again. So they have their guard up when they step inside. If they hear the same old promises being made—even a more “progressive” version of them—that’s the last time we will ever see them.
The message people are yearning to hear is not that their struggles will magically disappear if they just have a little more faith. They seek a faith that provides a context in which their struggles become meaningful, and thus hopeful.
Years ago, during a particularly low point in my life in which I wondered if I had accomplished anything of value or significance in my ministry, I took out a pad of paper and listed any accomplishment I could think of that I was remotely proud of. I did, in fact, come up with a few things. Yet, looking over my list, I was struck by the realization that nearly everything on it was directly or indirectly the result of some failure, loss, or disappointment that forced me to look at my situation differently and produced a creative result. What I experienced as “loss,” in hindsight, proved to be the loss of an old way of life that was in the process of giving way to something new. Many times when my expectations had been disappointed and I felt like God was furthest from me, God had actually drawn closest but had approached from a direction I wasn’t expecting. What I experienced as “emptiness” often was an emptying of old patterns of behavior or thought that prepared me to see that the direction I was heading was no longer working. A new direction was revealed that would yield more promising results. My frequent experiences of uncertainty were what developed a deeper sense of trust that emboldened me to follow a call into uncharted territory.
This realization led to rediscover the essential truth reflected in the scriptures: That all of the Bible’s great heroes—from Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, Esther, and Jeremiah, to Peter, Paul, and even Jesus—struggled profoundly in this life. They did not become heroes by moving from uncertainty to clarity. They moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. While they experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure.
Seeing the scriptures through this lens caused me to refocus my preaching on the struggles of our biblical heroes as well as my personal struggles and the meaning to be found in them. Much to my surprise and delight, my congregation responded strongly to this new focus. They saw that they were not alone in their struggles, and that God is present in the heart of them.
After years of preaching and teaching the biblical stories through this lens, and reflecting on my personal experiences of time spent in the “dark wood” and the experiences of others, I wrote my book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). My hope is that this little book will help others find meaning in their own “dark wood” wandering—and help churches proclaim a more trustworthy—and ultimately hopeful message.
Eric Elnes is a pastor, speaker, and media host. In addition to serving as senior pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC, Omaha, Nebraska), his interactive weekly webcast “Darkwood Brew” has gathered people from around the world for an engaging exploration of Convergence Christianity. His book Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith on the Highways of America was the result of his 2,500-mile walk from Phoenix to Washington, DC, that promoted awareness of progressive/emerging Christian faith and inspired a feature-length film with the same title.