Courtney Ball

On Faith, the Bible, Church, Jesus, and Community

On Faith
I have my doubts about God. That isn’t to say I’ve ruled out the possibility of God’s existence or even God’s influence on my life. In fact, there have been plenty of times when I thought to myself, How could this have happened without God? 

Still, there have also been too many times when I wondered, How could God let this happen? It’s tough to believe in a God who seems so inconsistent, so undependable.

And I can’t make myself believe something that I don’t believe. I gave up on that nonsense a long time ago. Instead, I try to remember both sides of faith/doubt. In the times when I am sure of God’s guiding presence in my life, a part of me always asks, Yes, but what about all those children who this very moment are being starved, bombed, beaten, enslaved? Is God guiding their lives?

In those darker times when I am overwhelmed by the world’s brutality, I remind myself of the love others have poured into my life when I most needed it. Doesn’t that love feel like a gift from God?

On the Bible
The Bible is a collection of both kinds of these experiences, and as such, it can’t be wrong because it tells the truth about the human experience: faith/doubt, struggle/blessing, and an abiding desire to find meaning in our stories.

However, as important as the Bible is, the human narrative moves on. I believe it is a mistake to claim that the stories collected thousands of years ago are more important than the ones we write today. Nor are those ancient tales more true.

It always astounds me how many people still believe that the Bible is an accurate, factual, historical account of events rather than a collection of special stories. But then, plenty of human behavior is strange.

On Church
One habit that always puzzles me is people going to church.This especially bothered me once I became a pastor. Week after week, year after year, all those people came to church and sat through Sunday services. Why? What did they get out of it that made it worth their while?

Most people, according to Gallup research, say they attend church “for spiritual growth and guidance”. Hmm. I wonder about that. Listen, when I was a preacher at a church, I tried to make the worship services I led both interesting and instructive. I have won awards for my preaching, and I am still frequently invited to serve as a guest preacher at other churches. The lead pastor under whom I served also gave high-quality sermons that I found challenging and insightful. The church, being in a university town, had intelligent, well-educated people capable of digging deeply into important spiritual questions, and helping others do the same. If people attend church for spiritual growth and guidance, then those folks had come to the right place.

There were many wonderful people in that church who I quickly fell in love with when I was there, but can I say that the members of that church were more spiritually mature than any other random sample of the community’s population? Probably not. I rarely got the impression that what we did together on Sunday had much of an effect on their lives.

If any part of church did have a lasting impact, it was something that took place outside of worship: a mission trip, service project, retreat, or small group experience. So why come to worship?

Personally, I’m much happier when I sleep in and eat a late brunch with my family on Sunday morning than when I go to church. And honestly, that’s what we do many Sundays. We don’t regularly attend church.

We’re not alone. According to this article, less than 20% of Americans attend church regularly. Why? I can think of a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s inconvenient (remember the sleeping in and brunch I mentioned above), usually boring, and often leaves us feeling frustrated rather than nourished.

I can’t tell you how many bad worship services I’ve sat through and thought, Why am I wasting my time here? How can people sit through this Sunday after Sunday? Occasionally I’ll attend a service where the liturgy is more than a monotonous drone, where the music is meaningful and the preacher gives a thought-provoking sermon, and I’ll think, I could come back here.

This, however, is totally self-serving and makes me into a church consumer rather than a member of a community of faith. If an entertaining worship is the only thing that draws me back to a church, eventually those extra hours of sleep and homemade waffles are going to win out. Besides, if it’s entertainment I want, in-home movies are much more convenient and reliable than the gamble of Sunday worship attendance.

I know, I know. I sound like a spoiled brat in the above paragraphs. Maybe I am. Maybe the discipline my grandparents exercised by life-long weekly worship attendance would do me some good.

I can promise you one thing. We will never know. I am free not to test that hypothesis. Like four out of five other Americans, I choose to engage in the other experiment: Let’s see what happens if we don’t go to church when we don’t want to.

On Jesus
“But what about your children? How will they learn about Jesus and grow in their faith?” This is a concern I hear from time to time, even if it is not always voiced in those exact words. Sometimes it is simply a look of disappointment when I occasionally decide to show up at church without my kids in tow. Or when my in-laws hint to my wife for the 100th time that we should be taking our daughters to church every Sunday, that we should have had them baptized when they were babies, or that our oldest should be in confirmation classes.

My response would be this: I love Jesus. I studied religion in college, attended seminary, became a pastor, created a Christian community service organization with my brother (who was also a pastor), and I’m currently working on two books focused on Jesus and his message. All this, and I stopped attending church regularly when I was nine.

Church worship had little to no positive impact on my faith development. Learning about Jesus did. And I learned about Jesus outside of the church. It’s not to say that the books I read, the teachers I had, and the communities in which I participated weren’t connected to the church body in some way. Most of them were. However, those who gave me the best instruction did their work outside of the local church, where they felt more free to follow Jesus.

I believe Jesus was a man who is still worth following, and I am deeply thankful that the church has preserved and proclaimed his story. I don’t particularly care if he was “The Son of God”. Heck, I’m not even sure there is a God, remember? But I do think he embodied the love that makes me believe in God when I do.

Jesus embodied that love by challenging systems of oppression, by putting forth the Kingdom of God as an alternative to hierarchical community. He embraced those whom his society deemed less-than. He claimed that holy purpose was more important than high position. He built a movement outside the temple, focused on equitable relationships rather than supporting the continuation of priestly power. He died, not to wash us from our sins but because he dared to speak uncomfortable truth to the most powerful empire on earth, and those actions had their inevitable cost.

His example has inspired others throughout the last two millennia to follow his lead, to build inclusive communities who work for justice and stand up to oppressors, even at great cost to themselves.

On Community
In spite of the long decline in church attendance over the last half-century, people still hear the story of Jesus. Many who do are truly inspired by his life and teachings, and they want his story to have a real impact on their lives. They seek transformation for themselves and their communities. And they look for other would-be disciples who will help them put their faith into action.

Maybe they read about or even visit communities who practice the kind of purposeful faith Jesus calls us to. Then they look into their own communities, and all they can find are churches.

This typically presents them with three options:

  1. Deal with their disappointment and join an existing church. Hope to find some way within that church to have an impact.
  2. Move to join that organization or community they visited or read about.
  3. Create something new in their own location.

According to the Church Leaders article I cited earlier, more people today choose option 2 or 3. Mega-churches (over 2,000 members) and house churches (under 50 members) are on the rise in the United States, while traditional mid-sized churches continue to decline.

After I had been a pastor for two years at a mid-sized United Methodist Church, I was ready to leave. My wife and I had no desire to join a shiny suburban mega-church, and I only knew of one house church nearby; nice people but way too fundamentalist. We did consider moving to Georgia to join a Christian community called Jubilee Partners we had visited in college.

Georgia was a long way from all our family in Iowa, however, and we had two small children. Grandparents would have been quite unhappy with that move. Luckily, as we were contemplating our options, my brother—also a pastor at the time—asked me if I would be interested in starting a new ministry with him.

Together, with the help of multiple existing churches and supportive individuals, we created Matthew 25. That was eight years ago, and even though I am no longer employed by Matthew 25, I still keep up with the community, attend events, and maintain friendships with the people I met there.

I don’t know how to follow Jesus without a community. The table and relationships were so central to his ministry that isolated Christianity seems like an oxymoron to me. Still, I don’t think that community has to be a traditional church, or even a community made up of believers. There should be doubters around the table too, so long as there is a table.

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Courtney Ball

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