On Faith, Churches, and Never Becoming a Pastor

“Why wouldn’t you go for the M.Div?” McKenna asked.

“Because I am NOT going to ever work for a church,” I said.

It is unusual for me to make definitive negative statements. I’ve learned they typically push people away and only serve to cover up something more tender inside of me. However in that moment on the phone, I had a lot of feelings about my choice to pursue a Masters of Theology part-time at Western Theological Seminary, and McKenna’s curiosity was probing at the very heart of my ambivalence.

McKenna is a brilliant academic and aspiring theologian, training at Boston University. She writes the most gorgeous liturgy and sometimes makes me uncomfortable in how she talks about God, pushing me outside of what I’ve always assumed. She continually prods me forward in my faith in beautiful, uncertain ways.

That day on the phone she responded to my statement matter-of-factly: “You don’t have to become a pastor if you choose to get your M.Div. But the degree would challenge you more, and it would be more widely recognized. Why are you getting this degree? What is the question you want to research?”

My skin prickled a little uncomfortably. “I guess I wonder where our stories are really going, beyond the easy answer of ‘heaven.’ Is God drawing the world into deeper love with himself? And if so, what does that really look like?”

I’ve watched our world and felt my soul sink with heaviness at all the death and injustice. I’ve walked the tired and lonely places of death in my own life—picking up pieces, trying to love well and hope, trying to be brave. All of the loss prompts so many questions, and the standard answers—“it will all be better in heaven” and “God’s ways are not our ways”—aren’t satisfying answers.

Because while heaven is certainly lovely and God is indeed mysterious, Jesus came here. He came to this place, for these people: the broken and the addicted. The ethnic outcasts and racially diverse. The sexually “promiscuous.” The bad businessmen and the woman who couldn’t stop bleeding. He leaned in to our dirty, disappointing now, because he cared about the pain of this moment.

And post resurrection, Jesus didn’t immediately beam the entire planet up to the perfection of heaven. Don’t you wonder why?

I don’t think the last two thousand years have been the world’s longest halftime show. What started on the cross is not going to suddenly pick up again after Coldplay stops singing and Jesus returns with a fresh plate of nachos.

I think right now matters.

There’s clearly something about this daily, gritty life that God loves and believes in.

There’s something about when our broken hearts keep beating, and fighting, and reaching out to hold on to one another that God adores.

I don’t know what to do with pain. I don’t know how to hold hope that gets hurt over and over again. I don’t know how to bear a world where fathers leave and rapists go free and women yearn for babies that don’t come and mothers sob for sons slain. I don’t know what to do when money and greed and “my rights” take precedence over community and generosity and your life. But here we all are, hoping for better. The good within us, it is unyielding, pulling us into something more.

I’d like to take some time to sit with God and some people far wiser than me to ask hard questions about where we’re going. I’d like to gain a deeper sense of the story that is happening, and where I belong in that story. Maybe that means I spend the next few years chipping away at a Masters of Divinity.

As to my passionate declaration to McKenna that I don’t plan to ever be staffed on a church. Yes, I carry ambivalence for how the body of Christ as a whole is choosing to show up. I am highly aware that I’m part of a generation that is leaving the church. Not leaving God, or faith, or prayer—as a whole our generation believes in and practices those things at similar percentages to the generations before us at our age. However 18% of our generation has walked away from their religion of origin without affiliating with another, perhaps because the church isn’t engaging in the ways we long to.

Many of us long for conversations focused more on love and less on conversion, more on honesty and less on appearance, more on acceptance and less on behavior, more on grace and less on shame.

When I think about our hopes for church, I think about something written by theologian Shelly Rambo. She says faith “is not a matter of the individual and her movement towards God; it is a matter of those gathered around and their ability to witness suffering that often remains unacknowledged and untended. On the part of the community, faith requires ongoing and embodied practices of testifying to the often inarticulable depths of human existence, whether experiences of ecstatic joy or excruciating suffering.”

The people who have spoken back to me, reminding me who I am in the midst of suffering–that’s why I’m still at church. Not 3 point sermons, not behavioral accountability, not Bible Studies or prayer groups or worship sets or trending videos. I’m at church because of the people who have suffered with me.

What if faith means we are brave for one another? So together we can keep bringing goodness to the hurt in one another and the world? What if it is the way we fight for one another that God finds so captivating?

I think about that and it shifts my focus a bit for waking up each morning and engaging my friends or my coworkers or the latest CNN update. I want to be here to carry the faith of my loved ones in the moments they can’t, just like I hope they’ll continue to carry mine.

DSC_0429Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world.  She’s a 27 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart.  Her favorite creative project right now is called The Someday Writings, and someday, she may let those writings see the light of day.  For now, she shares her thoughts here.