One of the last stories to start to come out before our national dialogue turned from the global health pandemic to the ongoing injustice in some of our communities...was a story about a Christian musician who came out and said he no longer believes in God. The mainstream media even jumped on this story - "Man Who Built His Life Singing About God Doesn't Believe In Him Anymore" - and the culture rejoiced. The world raised him up as an example of what can happen when a man 'brainwashed' by the idea of God opens his eyes and 'finally' sees 'the truth.'
It's the kind of story that you can't just trust the headlines to read. In fact, I would say this is true about every story - you have to dig deeper and get as close to the source of these things as you can. Any thing. Every thing. Because the media only tells you what fits the narrative they're selling, and even just looking at some of the articles written about this story, the musician's - Jon's - own words were quoted only in part, so that you just couldn't get a sense of what was really going on in his life or how he got to this place.
Now, let's step back for a minute and be honest about something: doubt is real. It's absolutely real, and it's nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of. It hits all of us at one time or another; some of us, it plagues for a lifetime. Faith is a choice that we have to keep making based on the experiences, encounters, and opportunities that we have to connect with God and with His truth. We don't just decide once who we are and what we believe; we are constantly deciding again and again and again. As we should be. Those who never ask questions of God cannot possibly expect Him to answer. Those are just the facts.
So the news that a Christian is starting to question...isn't actually news at all. All of us question at one point or another, and usually, at thousands of points over our lives. If you have a faith that hasn't questioned, then what you have isn't really faith; it's superstition.
God is not disappointed in you when you have questions. In fact, He loves it. It means you're seeking, you're engaged, you're pursuing, you're wondering. It means you are wanting to encounter more of Him. It means you're wanting to go deeper. It means you're not satisfied with where you are or what you know; you want to grow. He will answer every one of your questions if you'll just ask Him, and He won't begrudge you for it.
Back to our story at hand. As I dug into the headlines about Jon, I was taken to a copy of his own social media profile where, in his own words, he had made his own statement - in full. And what Jon recounts there is all-too-common in stories like these: his growing discomfort with "Christianity" was actually rooted in his growing discomfort with "religion."
Jon recounted experiences he'd had throughout his life in the church, camps and rallies and functions he'd been to that "felt" weird to him, felt forced. Felt like they were being put on for show. He talked about the pressure he felt - maybe everyone felt - to stand up, to come forward, to make a commitment to Jesus on the last day of these kinds of retreats and rallies and how it all just felt so contrived. So fake. He goes on to talk about other experiences he's had in the church that made him feel the same way. And then, he says, he started reading the Bible and couldn't reconcile the God he found in some of those pages with what he'd always been told to believe. (We can imagine this must be the God of the Old Testament he's referring to. I can't think of a single Christian in the past 2000 years who hasn't had to wrestle with that.)
The truth of Jon's story, then, is not that Jon 'no longer believes in God;' it's that there was so much religion in the way that Jon never got to know God in the first place, and Jon no longer believes in religion.
It's a story that's playing out every day all over Christianity, especially Western Christianity. Or maybe we should say Western Churchianity. Our faith has become so much about religion that it's losing its substance, and when we come to find out how hollow our programs are, we're not left with much.
At rallies and camps and programs like Jon is referring to, the ones that feel weird and contrived, our youth are often introduced to emotionality. They are given an experience, and it feels like a mountaintop, but God's voice isn't there. They are introduced to having a response evoked in them, to being drawn toward a reaction, to being told that what they feel is God, but they aren't hearing Him. We put the Cross in front of them, and maybe an empty tomb, but not as often do we put Jesus there. We introduce our young believers (in age and in spirit) to all of the artifacts of the Christian faith without ever introducing them to the Lord Himself. And often, if you ask a believer, they can tell you more about the other characters in Jesus's story than they can about Christ Himself.
They can tell you who Matthew was, who Peter and Andrew were, who James and John were. They remember Zacchaeus and blind Bartimaeus. They know the story of the woman in adultery and all the men who walked away. They can recall the woman at the well and the demonaic in the graveyard. And they can tell you all of these stories through the lenses of every character except Jesus. They simply cannot seem to remember the heart with which He ministered in these places.
And then there comes a point when the stories about Jesus and the programs about faith just aren't enough. When church isn't satisfying to the soul any more. When we're hungry and thirsty for more, for something real. So we go looking for God, and when we find Him, we realize how hard it is to fit Him into the faith that we've built our lives on. He just doesn't belong in our churchianity. We cannot reconcile who He is with the emotionality and dogma of religion, and unfortunately, this makes the whole thing - God and religion - feel like a lie. When we come to realize that God is not who our religion has told us He is - and that often means discovering He is more complex and dynamic than our simplistic presentations and small theologies suggest - then we can no longer trust our religion or the God it never introduced us to.
Then, we say things like we don't believe in God any more, but the truth is actually that we were never given the chance to believe in God at all. We were too busy being religioned to death, and what we've discovered is that we no longer believe in religion.
Which is okay. Because from here, we can go off in search of God.
And although the media tries to gloss over that, that's what Jon says he's doing, too. He's going into a season of searching, a season of questioning. He's turning his back on the church that never delivered what it promised to him, that never gave him what they claimed they were giving him, and he's embarking on a journey to see if he can find the God he thought he was falling in love with all along. And you know what? If he's earnest about it, then he will. God just loves being found. Hilariously, right next to us where He's been all along.
The headlines want to mock us and say, see, it's all just a joke. Your faith is falling apart right before your very eyes and finally, finally, you're coming to realize what this 'world' has known all along - that your God is not real. But that's just not the case. Our religion is falling apart before our very eyes, and it should be. Because it's giving us the chance to discover the truth that our hearts have been drawn to from the very beginning - that our God is real. And He's exactly who He's always said He was.
My heart is with Jon as he journeys, and with all of us as we wander our own roads. May we throw off all that hinders us and press on in search of what our hearts just can't let go of - a God who is complex and dynamic and loving and good and powerful and present and real.