Drawn by the glow of the cross in the moonlight, I opened one of the glass doors at the back of the sanctuary. On Sunday mornings, the doors are closed at the beginning of each service to separate the sanctuary from the cheery chatter of those who attend other services but stay to catch up with friends. But on that evening, when I was there for a meeting in another wing of the church, the stillness of the sanctuary beckoned. I stood by the doors and felt a Presence in the soft moonlight.
I’ve thought of moments like that many times in the wake of the most recent Pew survey, as religious pundits grind their teeth and ponder how to draw millennials back to church. My favorite response, though, came from author Phyllis Tickle, who has written much about sea changes in the Church since the birth of Christianity. Tickle, who is 81, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, and her doctors have given her four to six months to live. In an interview with the Washington Post, she responded to a question about the future of the Church with the same thoughtfulness and grace she has always manifested in her life:
“Christianity isn’t going to die!” she exclaims, almost offended at the suggestion. “It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.”
“Christianity is reconfiguring,” she says. “It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.”
Her response to the reporter tickled my brain—called to my mind a time when my daughter, as a teenager, had a negative experience in her confirmation class that I feared would drive her away from God. As I had talked with my daughter then, I had a revelation that, in retrospect, seems obvious: Our Creator doesn’t need churches or synagogues or mosques to come to us. While I wanted my daughter to stay connected, I realized that leaving our faith community wouldn’t mean that she was deserting God.
Human beings are not the future of faith or of communion with our Creator. As a Christian, I believe that Christ is one with God—as all human beings are one with God. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32, RSV) I don’t believe that the Spirit that is in us all needs another human being to do that. I feel the presence of God in that moonlit sanctuary just as much, and perhaps more, than when the crowd gathers for services. I feel the presence of God when I walk on my favorite beach with the sand creeping between my toes and the water lapping over my feet. I even feel—and perhaps most feel—the presence of a higher Power in the ugly places and dark moments of my life.
We humans are the ones who need community. We can do the work Christ commissioned us to do—to minister to the broken, to feed the hungry, to care for the poor—much better when we pool our resources and work together to lift up those in need. Here’s the thing, though: the Web has given people effective ways to fight for social justice without the Church. Nonprofit organizations and even motivated individuals can change the world for the better without Christians.
So what does the Church have to offer to those who have chosen not to affiliate themselves with religious institutions? What does my church—one it took me half a lifetime to find—have to offer that I can’t find in any other assembly of people? People who walk away from the church aren’t walking away from God; they’re leaving because the church no longer fills a need.
I very nearly became one of those people when the church of my childhood seemed to offer only escape from hell in the afterlife but little that was meaningful in the life I was living. As a college student, I learned in history courses what no one in the Bible Belt had ever dared voice to me—that some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts were waged in the name of God. I learned from poets and writers to appreciate a plethora of perspectives on what playwright Thornton Wilder called that “something” that is eternal in all of us. As a young adult, I rejected those who had lured me through fear, and I questioned the stridency with which they voiced their views. As a middle-aged woman, I became increasingly disgusted with smug politicians who expounded their “family values” and tried to erase the line of separation between church and state.
When my daughter asked for the first time, “Does our church really believe that?” I began to search for a community of faith that offered something different. It took a persistence I might not have had if I’d had to visit church after church as I’d done before organizations began to create their own web sites. Instead of physically visiting churches, I visited them online, and I learned to recognize the subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—use of language that would tell me this was a church I didn’t want to visit. I finally found a site where the pastor posted her sermons online, a church that shared what they called “sacred space” with a Jewish congregation, a unique and special place.
Each time I’ve moved, it’s taken me a long time to find a church that’s open and welcoming, one that invites questioning and seeking rather than certainty and judgment. And until churches can offer the “nones” something that they can’t find elsewhere, denominations will continue to close their doors, leaving only the moonlight on the empty cross.
But that doesn’t mean the world’s people won’t be able to find God.