Coming From the Outside In

Have you ever entered a situation that is already in progress and you have to sort out what is going on? At first it can be pretty difficult. There may be terms used that you don’t understand, assertions that are established that you don’t understand the reasoning behind, and even worse is that often people are progressing in that situation while you’re still trying to get a grasp. In many ways this is my experience with the church.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said it here, but I did not come from a religious family. The only member of my family that I knew for certain was religious was my great-grandmother who was Catholic and I was scared of her, so she wasn’t much of a influence on my faith. I remember asking my parent’s about why we celebrated holidays like Easter, and while it was known to be religious in nature nobody really knew what it was about.

So when I came to faith in my late teens, I had to enter a church for the first time. I was nervous and the image of churches I had in my mind was a hive of judgmental, hypocritical people. Thankfully, that was not the first impression I wound up getting of the the church I went to. Granted the type of person I was even before coming to faith would have been hard to judge too much against. I was the nice guy, the one who hated to get into trouble, and the one that teachers adored and subsequently compared my brothers to (sorry about that guys).

However, I was still coming from the outside in, and it became apparent fast that I didn’t necessarily understand all that was going on. I got the hang of things pretty fast, but during the first couple of years I hadn’t really questioned much of what I was taught. I was simply absorbing, figuring out this new world and getting some sort of foundation to even begin to compare to. I enjoyed the direction of my pastor and his wife who I often consider my spiritual parents in many ways.

Over time though, I ran into Christians who believed different things about certain topics. I had both of my foundations as a person and as a young Christian to begin wondering about some of these topics. I heard how some talked about drinking as if it were a sin, yet that ran counter to my reading of the Bible and of how most of my family treated alcohol. I heard of opinions about gambling, rock music, dancing, and other things being sinful or evil, and wondered where the understanding of these things came from. Yet these topics were unimportant enough to me at the time to ask anyone about, I mean these weren’t all necessarily opinions of my home church, I had simply run into these opinions.

It wasn’t until I started dating Kristen, the woman who would become my wife, that I started asking these questions. You see, unlike me she was an insider. Her parents and grandparents are all Christians, she went to a Christian High School, and she was intelligent so clearly she’d have the understanding I lacked as an outsider. So she became the one I asked questions to:

“Where does it say that drinking is a sin in the Bible? I see that drunkenness is, is there something I’m missing?”

“Why is gambling wrong?”

“Why is dancing wrong?”

“Why are certain styles of music evil?”

I wish I could say that she knew the answers to these questions, but most of the time she didn’t. I still don’t know the Biblical arguments against a number of these, and I’m not sure if there really are. I have arguments against certain kinds of behaviors in these categories, but often to brush aside things like gambling or dancing as sin wholesale doesn’t interest me too much. Even after all the questions I asked her while dating , my curiosity is still there, and she is still my sounding board. Due to this, she tends to cringe when I utter, “Can I ask you a question?” She never knows if it will be about what she wants for dinner, or if the church underestimates the danger of pride.

Despite being a Christian for about 13 years, having an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministry, and having my Masters of Divinity, I still feel a bit of an outsider. I love questions, and tend to ask questions about the various viewpoints Christians espouse. Some of the views are ones I’ve already mentioned, others are based on how we baptize, how we view creation, what theory we hold to about the end of the world, or other issues like this. They aren’t necessarily all questions about challenging authority, but more often wondering if there is only one way to view these issues and what people do about those with alternative views. I know big theological terms, but would rather talk in ways that people will understand than toss a bunch of jargon at them, not that I don’t think they are useful sometimes, but often I think churches use a lot more jargon than we think.

So after all this time I still feel like a bit of an outsider, and in part I’m okay with that. In part I don’t want to forget what it was like to be a new believer walking into a church for the first time. I want to think about how what we say in church will sound like to a new believer or a non-believer. I don’t do this perfectly, but I don’t want to stop trying. I also want to be careful of pride. When we think we, or the group we’re affiliated with, has all the answers, pride can be so dangerous. We can treat those who believe different than use pretty terribly. Again not something that I do perfectly, but I’d rather ask questions and try to understand than simply dismiss a thought. Maybe these things don’t make me as much of an outsider as I think, but sometimes it certainly feels like it.

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