The students that I work with at American University did something this past semester that might seem strange to most church folks.
They tabled outside of the student center with huge sheets of paper and invited passing students to write on the paper the things that they don't like about Christianity.
The point wasn’t to argue with people or defend Christianity. The project was born of a genuine interest in campus conversations about faith, and a feeling that a lot of people have some pretty negative feelings about church and churches.
Some of the responses were flip or sarcastic, but many of them came out of a place of real, deep hurt.
Some students shared that church had always been a place of shame for them—about their body, or about their mental illness, or about their family.
Others shared stories of being ostracized or prevented from taking on leadership because of their gender or their sexual orientation.
Some talked about bullying.
Some recalled times of mourning or doubt when they had been given insensitive and simplistic “answers” instead of empathy and presence.
There was a lot of pain on those pieces of paper.
After the tabling was finished, the students who had come up with the idea sat down with the sheets of paper and talked about the responses, and about what it would look like to offer a space of healing and love for people who are have feelings of hurt and anger about the church. What it would look like to live up to their mission statement: Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All.
We are in the season of Epiphany, in which the church celebrates the dawning of the Light of Christ throughout the whole world. We begin the season with the story of strange people from far to the East discovering God in an unexpected place. Who was more surprised—the learned astrologers from a great civilization who found the Light of the World in a backwater town in occupied territory? Or Jesus’ family, finding weary foreign travelers at their door? Looking for Jesus means meeting strangers.
During Epiphany, it’s worth asking ourselves: How are we looking for God in unexpected places? How are we looking for God outside of the walls of the church?
If we commit ourselves to asking that, then we will—as my students did—find that there is a lot of hurt, pain, and anger, much of it directed at the church.
Will we respond defensively? Or will we take it as an opportunity to find Christ in those places of hurt, anger, and disappointment?
May we find the Light.