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Faith’s Shifting Landscape: The Conversation Continues by Allison Vander Broek
I wrote a post two weeks ago on millenials, religion, and the shifting faith landscape in America. In that post, I discussed the difficulties of transitioning to a different sort of faith or of leaving faith altogether and pointed to a few resources that have been helpful for me as I’ve navigated my own changing understanding of faith and spirituality. The post brought up some good questions and comments from readers—questions about the nature of these difficult conversations about faith, the complex emotions often attached to leaving faith, and the obstacles we face when we try to have honest conversations about why millenials and others are leaving the church. Given these insightful questions and comments, I figured that first post could use a follow-up.
So why are conversations about changing spirituality or leaving the church so difficult? Why is deconstruction/reconstruction such a tough topic to talk about—both for those who left faith and for those who stayed? There’s a lot to say on this topic but today I offer just one anecdote from my own experience—an example of a tough conversation about deconstruction that I thought was handled so well by my rector and friends at the current church I attend and that reassured me that it is possible for such conversations to take place in a safe and affirming church-setting.
To make a very, very long story short, I attended two evangelical churches when I first moved to Boston and ended up getting burned by both. Those experiences, along with several other factors, led to my final break with evangelicalism and led a friend and me to the Episcopal Church. We’ve now been attending our small neighborhood Episcopal church for several years. But even though the people at this church are very nice and our rector is wonderful, I’m still very wary of church people and church-related activities thanks in part to my experiences at those first two churches in Boston.
After about a year of attending our local Episcopal church, I took a chance and started going to the church’s young adult group. Needless to say, I was hesitant to dive back in to a group that even vaguely resembled the last two churches I had attended. Though everyone in the group seemed nice enough, I was not convinced it was a safe place. I had a lot of questions and concerns about Christianity in general, and in my experience, church people did not want to hear your questions or your divergent opinions, and they could turn on you for the smallest infraction.
I kept attending the group, despite my wariness. I mostly observed and listened at first, trying to see if these were Christians I could trust. I had a turning point in April. At this point, I’d been attending the group for about seven months but still wasn’t sure it was a safe space for the kinds of questions and conversations I needed to have about church, faith, and spirituality. On this Wednesday evening, we were talking about the Easter Triduum and what the most meaningful part of Holy Week had been for each of us. Everyone else shared. I sat in terrified silence. I had reluctantly dragged myself to church on Easter Sunday but had skipped out on the rest of Holy Week. It seemed that this year I had more questions than ever and honestly didn’t find any part of Holy Week particularly meaningful. I had nothing to add to the conversation, and in that moment, that church group felt like a totally unsafe space. Warning bells were going off in my head, and I wanted nothing more than to run from the room.
Everyone else had shared, and finally, Amy, our rector, turned to me: “Allison, is there anything you’d like to share with the group?” I took a deep breath. And gave an honest answer. I’d hated Easter week—I was mad/sad/anxious/confused and I couldn’t go to church because I had no idea what I thought about any of this anymore.
Guess what? The world didn’t come crashing down around me. Perhaps most refreshingly, no one tried to fix me. No one offered to pray for me or recommended some book or sermon series or Bible verse. They all just listened and reassured me that my questions were welcomed and that we didn’t all need to be on the same page. No one made me feel like I was bad or wrong or pitiful for having the reaction I did to Easter this year, and clearly no one in the group felt threatened by my response. Though it might seem like such a basic conversation, that ten minutes reshaped my whole view of the group. Their responses made it clear that all questions were fair game and weren’t going to be punished or dismissed.
It all could have gone terribly wrong. If anyone there had responded like the people at my previous churches, I probably would have run for the hills, never to return. I’m not saying that all my questions are answered or that my faith in the church has been magically restored. I don’t totally trust the church yet, but am at least reassured that maybe authentic and honest conversations about faith deconstruction and reconstruction can take place in the church after all.
Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with a PhD in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.