For the past several years, I have taught a class at our church called "For Skeptics Only." Usually populated with spouses and friends of church attenders, they all had one thing in common: disbelief about the Christian faith. Since it was a class for non-Christians we told everyone up front that if they were Christians we would kick them out. And boy was it easy to spot them, with their ironically serious questions about the rapture and whether or not we would still be here for the tribulation. You might imagine how difficult it would be to talk about whether or not the Bible was true with a room full of skeptics when you have a Christian in the room.
The past few years however, a new breed of person began to show up to my "For Skeptics Only" class. They looked like Christians. They talked like Christians. They even answered questions like Christians. But when I gave my usual introduction about how this was a class for non-Christians only, they would stay. And I couldn’t get them to leave.
And as the walls of pain or just plain shyness began to come down during the course of the class, I was appalled at the stories of this new breed. They were outcasts, come to my class as refugees. On the one hand, they had no trouble believing in a God and believing that Jesus was the resurrected Savior. This of course exiled them from the land of true atheism or skepticism. But they had also been kicked out of the land of Christian faith, simply because of something they said in a small group (or several somethings), something they prayed at the dinner table, or said to a friend. Perhaps it was as innocent as “Is there really a literal hell?” or as controversial as “So, why can’t my gay friend be a part of the church?” Their family, friends or church community had told them all that their questions were a symptom, that they weren’t Christian enough. In fact, it was often at the request of these friends or family members, who no doubt did so with good intentions, that they came to my class.
Like an emotionally abused child, after months or years of being told they couldn’t be Christian because of the questions they were asking, they started to believe it themselves. And so, broken and in the midst of an identity crisis of epic proportions, they would make their way into my class on a Sunday morning, not exactly sure why they were there except that they knew they didn’t belong with “normal” Christians. Not surprisingly, it ended up that the content of the class was not at all helpful for them. They often found it downright boring.
But for many, as I later learned, it had been the most meaningful Christian experience they ever encountered. That’s right: for many of this new breed, being in a room full of atheists pulled them closer to God than they had been in recent memory. It was not only helpful, but meaningful.
Because a space was created where questions were not an indication of spiritual sickness. While the atheists had no trouble with this concept, for this new breed, our class was a recovery group where you could once again be affirmed for the way God had made you, curious, inquisitive, and thoughtful.
For so long they had been told that there was something wrong with them and their faith. The class was not helpful to them because they already believed in the Christian story, but it was extremely meaningful because they were finally told that doubt does not make you unchristian, but might in fact be a useful part of Christian growth.
And in this new breed I have found the redemption of my own story. What has helped me to stay true to the Church has been the incredibly rewarding experience of finding those who, like me, have been abused or neglected by their Christian community because they were misunderstood as troublemakers. And then to lead them out of feelings of self-hatred and loneliness, into a Sabbath rest with a God who loves them despite their doubts, despite their questions, a God who does not fear an upended faith.
Here’s to many more stories of people finding Jesus, a God who truly knows the human condition, does not fear it or ignore it—and so loves us anyway. Here’s to a Church of people who reflect this Jesus by creating spaces of grace for questioners, doubters, skeptics and everyone else who makes us uncomfortable.
Jared Byas is a full-time dad, husband, and follower of Jesus and a part-time writer, editor and professor of ethics and religion. He blogs about Christianity and culture at http://jbyas.com.