I know lots of folks who do lots of ministry in lots of places all over the world, so pretty regularly I run across a link to some article or another fretting over the alarming percentage of kids raised in evangelical churches who abandon their faith before reaching adulthood. We point fingers at parents, at youth pastors, at churches that make faith boring, at churches that make faith too much fun, at public schools with all their tolerance.
I am the other side of those statistics that everyone likes to throw around. My life is not a percentage point, but it is a story. The story of a girl raised in church, burned by church (again and again, thank you very much) and still committed to church as an adult. The story of faith surviving the rocky transition from childhood to adulthood.
There were lots of factors that set me up for success. I had parents who were smart, honest and committed to living their faith in practical ways. I had youth leaders who cared about me as a person and who challenged me to take specific steps to grow in my faith. I had teachers who believed in the authenticity of my story and encouraged me to speak and write about my faith even if they didn’t share it. I had a personality that was risk-averse and stubborn—once I decided what I was going to do, the “everybody’s’ doing it” argument had no chance of changing my mind, even during my moody adolescence.
But even with all of that, I think I could have followed the crowd out of church and into “spiritual but not religious” territory except for one thing. I kept encountering Jesus.
He met me in my bedroom, in the depths of my frustration and anger—with a voice so close to audible that it brought me to my knees. He met me in my English class where I read my story, the story of my conversion, into the circle and found that I was not alone in my search for meaning. He met me in my third floor dorm room, speaking comfort and grace when loss rocked my world. He met me in a tiny basement chapel, surrounded by the voices of my sisters’ earnest prayers. He met me on the streets of Camden. And Philly. And Baltimore.
And, yes, the truth is that Jesus met me in church too. In his body, broken for me. In his blood, shed for me. In his word, spoken clearly and without apology. In the eyes and voices of the faithful who let me know that it was ok to believe and question, to learn and struggle and argue, to (gasp!) think and feel for myself.
I am not naïve. Goodness knows I’ve seen sin in the church. I’ve heard judgment and condemnation. I’ve watched people say and do things in Jesus’ name that make me want to turn and run the other way. I’ve felt hurt more deeply in the church than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
But that is not the whole story.
The truth is, I stuck with church because Jesus and I found each other there.