Monday, December 10, 2007

A Christian Believer

At thirteen, I professed my Christian faith through a confirmation ceremony at a United Methodist Church. I had attended weekly classes, spent a night alternately chasing and fleeing girls through church hallways, written hard questions like, “What about homosexuals?” on slips of folded paper and memorized the Apostle’s Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth / And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord...
My parents had become Methodists by consumer method. When we moved to St. Louis the summer before I entered the sixth grade, we treaded the Protestant waters for a few Sundays, weighing factors such as hymn-count and quality of mingling, before declaring a victor by four-person vote in our car.

I remember feeling betrayed by my family’s spotty attendance during my first Sunday school class, as my peers rattled off the books of the Bible like a list of their favorite films.

I may have become a Christian the day that the baptismal water met my screaming infant head, but I haven’t exactly felt like one since. The chubby, pre-teen just showed up and read the provided texts. The almost-adult still hasn’t mustered the conviction for renunciation or embrace.

Before I sat down for coffee with Matt Miofsky, the minister at the United Methodist church that my parents have recently joined, I tried to assess the state of my faith.

I believe in Jesus, but I’m not sure how I believe in him. I don’t know if I believe that he is the Son of God. I don’t know if I believe in him to the exclusion of other prophets and systems of belief. I don’t know if belief in him requires that. I don’t know if he has saved me and I don’t know if I should feel like a fraud, occasionally singing and praying alongside the congregates in my parents’ and grandfather’s churches.

“You’ll hear the cliché that people are spiritual, but they’re just not religious,” Matt said during our second conversation, over gyros. “I think what that’s getting at is that they’re interested in questions. They just don’t know what they believe about it and are uncomfortable tagging themselves as something.”
I guess I’m living that cliché. I sometimes pray in the morning and at night, but I don’t pray to Jesus. I may pray for creative inspiration or for assistance finding a job (I’m still praying for that), but I mostly pray as an expression of gratitude for my family, friends, health and the presence of love in my life.

I also do yoga, limberly toeing the line between exercise and something deeper that I don’t define. I’ve sat with spiritual mediums and I know that those insights and experiences were real. I’ve been inspired by people of various faiths, in person and in writing, particularly Mahatma Gandhi. What a stud.

I met with Matt partly because my mother wanted me to. She never said that, but she was happy when I finally attended Matt’s church, and she spoke about young people, “your age,” that would benefit from such a community. Mom sees that something interesting is happening inside the modest, steepled building on McCausland Avenue, at the edge of St. Louis City, and I see it too.

The Gathering United Methodist Church held its first worship service on September 17, 2006, having exposed the brick and a massive oak frame at the front of its sanctuary, installed outlets for microphones and amplifiers and torn out pews in favor of cushy, but supportive chairs.

The church had been conceived in Matt’s living room. As the associate minister at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Webster Groves, Matt and his wife, Jessica, hosted study and discussion groups, mostly for people under the age of thirty-five. By the second year, attendance had grown from two to forty and Matt began to recognize a certain demand.

“It was kind of a constellation of events and experiences that led me to want to start a new church in this city,” Matt said. “When I was in college, Jess and I were like, ‘Maybe we’ll try to find a church.’ And we’d kind of shop around a bit and there was just nothing that, this sounds a little selfish, but nothing we were interested in. It seemed like work for us.”

“I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m a person that’s toying with ministry. I actually want to go to church and I can’t find a church. What about people who are just indifferent to neutral about church?’ It just indicated to me that there seemed to be a problem or, at minimum, a need for compelling communities of faith.”

Both the leadership at Webster Hills and the regional United Methodist bishop supported the establishment of The Gathering, but the endeavor contradicted some accepted assumptions.

“The city was seen as sort of a graveyard of churches,” Matt said. “Where we were starting new churches was in O’Fallon and St. Charles County, these fast-growing suburbs. [The city] just wasn’t seen as a place where you’d start something new because so many things were dying.”

“My argument was that they’re dying because these are places that have been around for a hundred and fifty years. They still look like they did fifty years ago. We have a real opportunity to start something new that incorporates and is created for and by people who are living in the city now.”
When I crossed the threshold of The Gathering for the first time, I was met by a greeter’s smile, flanked by coffee and pastries. The original stained glass windows filtered out all but the loveliest light, supporting my impression that the gatherers were disproportionately attractive. More than a few were rocking infants to the live music, following a cascade of projected lyrics that I didn’t recognize from the hymnals of my youth. In combination, all of the freshness and sincerity made me feel a little weird and a little defensive.

On paper, the service was more familiar. The order of events detailed on the bulletin wasn’t much different than the one followed by my grandfather’s church in Cuba, Missouri. There were scripture readings and interpretation, an offering, an invitation to exchange greetings, a communion service, a sermon and a benediction to send the congregants home.

“A lot of people asked, ‘What’s going to be different about it?’” Matt said. “It was almost the assumption that if you started something new, it needed to be wholly innovative, and I didn’t want to feel like, ‘Church is irrelevant and boring. We’re going to create something completely new and call it church.’ I actually had a deep belief that at its core, the practice of what the Church was supposed to be about was a compelling idea.”

What Matt found frustrating was the “social club model,” which came to define Protestant churches in America after World War II.

“The Church was not that different from the Optimist Club or the Elks,” he said. “It was an organization that had meetings, where you could become a member, that did things for the community, and yet, in about the seventies, that was no longer a compelling kind of community. People didn’t want to be involved in that. If you look at a lot of those old social organizations, they had their peak about the same time that churches had their membership peak in the twentieth century.”

In the struggle to defeat the temptations of televised football and sleeping in, Matt believes that many churches have over-invested in appeals to the social interests of their communities.

“When I was at Webster Hills, we had a thousand and one programs,” Matt said. “We tried to be the YMCA, the social club. I mean we had all these classes. The problem was the YMCA did athletics better than us, book clubs at Barnes and Noble were more interesting than our book clubs, and we had a coffee hour, but Starbucks was better.”

“That was really built off a model of the small town American church at the turn of the nineteenth century, where the church was the bookstore, the Starbucks, the YMCA, but it’s not that any more. It doesn’t need to be that. So the Church needs to figure out, ‘Who are we then?’”

“In some ways I think that we lost faith in our core work,” he said. “What I wanted to do was get back to, ‘Okay, where would you go in our community to learn how to pray and meditate?’ We ought to be well-equipped to do that. ‘Where do you go to wrestle with questions about who God is and who God calls you to be, if God works in the world at all?’”

This last question made me set down my fourth cup of coffee. I took it for granted that Matt was serving a community of believers.

“I think the Church has put an overemphasis on belief, to its detriment,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past has been kind of, ‘Believe, belong, behave.’ Meaning you come in, if we can get you to believe the right stuff, then you can become a member, and once you belong, then we’ll get you to start doing the things we think you ought to do.”

“That’s a bad order. It might happen that way for some, but more and more now, and what I want is, people come to a church and they are first going to experience a sense of belonging and then begin to let that community shape the way they behave and that will lead to a shaping a belief. It doesn’t always work that way, but if we put belief up front, as the litmus test of whether or not you belong in a community, that’s a bad choice.”

In addition to worship, service, giving, prayer and meditation, The Gathering United Methodist Church identifies small group learning as a central practice that Matt hopes “would help to shape us into people who experience God, form deeper commitments to God and allow God to shape our lives.”

Matt’s favorite small group is for skeptics. Over the course of seven weeks, participants consider the opinions of both atheists and believers, who each address questions of God and religion from a distinct perspective.

“A true atheist is a very rare thing,” Matt said. “So given the fact that we all cobble together our own worldview about life, whatever’s beyond life, God and our own role in this whole thing, the question is, ‘What’s the something going to be?’”

“There are people who are content with cobbling together their own thing and never placing themselves in a larger stream, but they, in fact, are in a large stream of people who cobble together their thing.”

At this point, he put down his gyro and laughed.

“There’s something attractive about never having to choose,” Matt said. “Some people can never choose one religion because they think that there’s some truth in all of them, so they choose to become this sort of scientific observer of religious life, rather than a participant in religious life. Even though they observe truth in religious life, they never themselves commit because they have a fear of particularity.”

“I’m a big believer, though, in particularity over things general. I think there’s a lot of danger in assuming that the best we can hope to be is an objective observer of all the things around us without ourselves ever diving into something and claiming it as our own.”

“That’s the hardest thing for people,” he said. “They look at Christianity and they say, ‘You know, it’s okay, but I don’t believe in all that. What I think is a little different than that and there’s truth in some of these other religious traditions, so, therefore, I can’t be part of that community of faith.’”

In researching my recent article about Islam and Muslims in St. Louis, I attended a lecture at The Ethical Society and began talking to a Muslim woman who was sitting next to me in the audience. When she asked me about my own religion, I said that I was raised as a Methodist, but no longer identify myself with a particular faith.

“A lot of Americans are like that,” she said and seemed disappointed.

“When having an ecumenical or interfaith conversation,” Matt said, “what you don’t want is a bunch of wishy washy Jews, Muslims and Christians who shed particularity.”

“When you went out and interviewed for your article, my sense is you wanted to find a Muslim. You wanted someone deeply committed to the particularities of Islam so that you could discover what it is that’s compelling about that.”

Matt acknowledged that by accepting any one faith, an individual makes certain claims about the world, life, God and truth that may contradict another’s beliefs.

“We’re having to struggle with a philosophical worldview that’s really shifting away from the notion of one absolute truth that dispels every other possible truth and into some sort of philosophical landscape that says somehow two things can be true that both overlap and contradict. And that’s a weird thing for us to conceptualize, but I find that it meshes well with my experience.”

“What’s liberating about that is it sort of frees us up to claim our story without having to claim exclusive status for our story, so we no longer have to become afraid of who we are and what we believe.”
For me, the fear of claiming beliefs and identity is familiar. In the same way that choosing a career sometimes feels like a negation of all the other possible lives that I could be leading, joining a community of faith might mean accepting one version of myself over another. Non-participation isn’t really an option in the working world, but maybe with religion it’s just not as interesting or instructive.

I find support through my family and friends. I enjoy the intimacy of prayer without wondering too much about its effects. I also have questions, and I don’t know how to claim the answers.

On Tuesday mornings, The Gathering holds a brief prayer service at seven o’clock. This includes a reading from scripture, chanting, prayer, silence and a cup of coffee in a to-go cup. This seemed like an opportunity to step into a vulnerable space and try something different, but I stayed up late the night before and overslept.


Edan said...

A terrific post, Ryan--and this is coming from someone without a religion, and no desire for one. Is that cross made of books (or representations of books)? It's really beautiful.

katie brad said...

What an incredible article Ryan. You addressed many issues that I confront with religion. Thanks for sharing your struggles and the wise words from Matt. He seems to be a great leader with an open heart and mind.

Your writing keeps improving with each post. This was a very captivating and engaging article. Thanks.

Biased Mom said...

Yes, it's true - I was ecstatic that you met with Matt. Yet I also know that whatever church you do or don't align with - you have strong beliefs. This is a revealing expose and an interesting read. Thank ou.

Matthew said...

Ryan, thanks for the chance to sit down and talk. I very much enjoyed reading your take on the church, and our conversation. I am eager to hear what others have to say. You are an excellent writer. Oh, and for all those people who are wondering...Ryan came to Tuesday morning prayer the following week!