Last night we had our first meeting of a class I have been anticipating for months — The Teaching Church. It is, for me, the beginning of my real education. It was the work that I have begun to do as a teacher and the awareness of my call to teaching that has been slowly developing in me for the past couple of years that brought me to the doors of this seminary, and it was the one chance meeting with the particular educator who teaches this class that made VTS my school of choice over Andover Newton. And last night did not disappoint — there is nothing more invigorating than experiencing the teaching of a truly inspiring educator.
Much of life in the seminary involves talking to people about your faith story and listening to theirs. Each new class is an experience of getting to know new people who you might know by sight but with whom you have never had a chance to really talk, and last night was no exception. And I have started to notice something. I didn’t really notice it last night; I noticed it this morning when I picked up our text for tonight, John H. Westerhoff III’s book Will Our Children Have Faith? and began to read the preface. Westerhoff begins by telling us who he is, and where he came from, and how he recounts the genealogy of his faith life. And I was immediately struck by the similarity of his story with my own and with the stories that I hear so frequently from my fellow students: born into one denomination, drifting away from church altogether or attending another type of church, invited by a neighbor or a youth group or a college group to experience something different, and finally becoming a [fill in the blank].
It seems that many of us who finally decide to answer the call to service in the church have, well, experienced a lot of different church in the days of our pilgrimage to where we stand today. And I wonder, maybe because we have sampled and experienced and considered and finally chosen, maybe we have something special to say to those so often referred to as “the Nones.” I know that we do have something to say about the nature of denomination and community; like those who are abandoned by their families of origin and create for themselves a family of choice, we have examined our options and specifically chosen our community of worship, sometimes against every past experience we have had as a group. In my case, the idea that I would become a Baptist would have been totally absurd 10 years ago, but 10 years ago I did not understand that a Southern Baptist was not an American Baptist and I did not understand the Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy. But as I look around me in my own community, I see that my experience of “being Baptist”, of choosing to be Baptist is very different than my friends who have been Baptist all their lives.
And I wonder if, in that difference of experience, lies an answer for those of the “the Nones” who call themselves — wait for it — “spiritual but not religious”. I do not know; and I cannot yet articulate what that message might be. And I am not here to advocate “faith shopping” or even casual, non-participatory church attendance (you know, coming and sitting in the pews and never talking to anyone and then disappearing when something happens that makes you uncomfortable), because I am all about actually choosing. Maybe the message is this: choosing is within your power, God did not intend for you to be alone (there were, after all, 12 disciples — not one, not just Jesus). Maybe the message is that when you really know your own identity as a disciple, it is possible to find a community of people with whom you can share that identity and the path before you as you live out that call. Maybe the message is that if you just open your hearts and listen, you will find a community (and it might even be called by some name that is totally anathema to you) that sees your most important identity, the one that no one can take from you, your identity as a beloved child of God.
A new observation, but one that deserves more thought. I’ll be thinking about it and if you do to, I’d like to hear what you think.