Sometimes we get stuck. While getting stuck is commonly taken to be a bad thing, it depends on where we’re stuck or what we’re stuck in.
Perhaps you’re stuck in a family that keeps on loving you even when you act unlovable. You try to pull away, try to go your own way, but wherever you go, you end up back with the people that love you unconditionally. You’re stuck.
Maybe you’re stuck with Jesus. Like the disciples in John 6 you’ve seen Jesus do some wacky things – things that make no sense to you at all. Other folks fall by the wayside. You think of going away yourself. But you say to yourself, “Who else has the words of life?” And you stay with Jesus. You’re stuck.
Sometimes being stuck isn’t so good. Years ago at one of my previous churches I stopped by to visit a family. The man of the house was home alone so I visited with him. His wife was the church attender in the family so I usually only saw him at his house. I’d visted with him a few times before, but this time in the midst of our conversation he blurted out, “I’m not a believer. Everyone thinks I’m a Christian, but I’m not.”
At that point I’d been pastoring that church for a while. I’d never seen him at church. When I consider what the bible says and what I find in the Christian tradition, it seems normal for believers to spend time with other believers. A primary way that happens in our culture is by doing what we call “going to church.” Since I had never seen this fellow do what I thought was a normal activity for believers, I was not shocked by his admission.
In small town Texas our culture has a veneer of Christianity. Except for those real sinful folks, we assume everyone is at least sort of a Christian – especially if they’re from a church family. Some of them will even tell you, “I’m a Baptist.” “I’m a Catholic.” “I’m a Methodist.” We assume: Nice person, faithful to his family, hard worker, good citizen – must be a believer. But he’s not. And he finally built up his courage to tell someone. He’d never told his wife. He’d never told his kids. Never told a soul.
You know what? He’s not the only one. I’ve talked to several folks over the years, people outside the church like him, as well as every Sunday attenders, who finally admit that they’re not believers. They’ve heard the sermons, they’ve read the books, they’ve considered the arguments, they’ve been on the retreats. Nope. Nothing there.
I think there are more out there. Maybe they’re still actively trying to believe. Maybe they haven’t admitted to themselves – let alone to another – that they don’t believe. They keep thinking: If only I do this, then I’ll feel it, then I’ll believe. But they don’t. They’re stuck.
Part of that stuck (“stuckness” might sound better grammatically, but it sounds just plain bad) might be that they’re not really open to God. They say they are – they tell themselves and others that they are. But they’re not. It might be that God just hasn’t broken through to them yet.
I think believing in Jesus is a good thing – when understood biblically, the best thing. I want people who are stuck on the outside of belief to become unstuck. What can we do?
In the first place, I pray for my friends. I’m not just praying for sinners or lost folks. I’m praying for my friends. I believe my relationship with them matters.
Secondly, our churches need to admit the reality of this phenomenon. Instead we get stuck on numbers: Attendance, membership, offering, budgets. Or stuck on routine – doing what we’ve always done. Or stuck on keeping up appearances. We need to learn to tell the truth and become a place where people can safely tell the truth about themselves. I’m not assuming, however, that we have infallible insight into ourselves, or that telling the truth is simply or easy in any way. It’s hard. Some of the things we take to be the truth aren’t. When it comes to believing in Jesus this works two ways. Sometimes we say that, yes, we are followers of Jesus. But we’re fooling ourselves. We might think we’re telling the truth, but we’re not. Other times, we might say, No, we’ve tried to be believers, but we’re not. But that’s not quite right either. Jesus has more of us than we even know ourselves.
But assuming for a moment that at least some of the time we know the truth about ourselves. We need churches that allow people to openly identify themselves as seekers. None of the churchly or semi-churchly non-believers of the type I’m talking about are excited or proud of their lack of belief. They sound like they’d rather believe. What would happen if we allowed them to be open about their seeking? In such a setting perhaps others could come along side them – not with condemnation and lecturing, but with love and encouragement. I’m convinced that really healthy churches will have more than just believers showing up on Sundays.
A final thing we need is genuine work of God in our midst. Excellence is good, but we need more than excellent bulletins, sermons, studies, & music. We need more than clean restrooms, convenient parking and friendly people. We need God. We need the movement of God in our midst doing the unpredictable and the uncontrollable in our midst.
Sure, there will be rationality involved. God doesn’t desire us to leave our brains home or in sleep mode. But we need more than rationality (but surely njot less).
Sure, there will be emotion involved. God doesn’t desire that we somberly mourn the passing of our loved ones every Sunday. There’s joy that Jesus has defeated all the powers of sin, death and hell for us. The very stones would cry out if we didn’t. But we need more than emotion (though surely not less).
We need God. We need God’s work in the lives of individuals and families, work that is inexplicable by any other means. We need people to step into the story of God and then report what they see, hear and experience. We need God if anyone is going to truly come to faith. Then we might become unstuck and help other become unstuck – and stuck again with Jesus.