The setting was a restaurant in downtown Chicago, and I was having dinner with a childhood friend. We were 22 years old, and had both recently graduated from college. We spent most of the evening reminiscing, laughing at the funny moments that had shaped us up to this moment.
At some point the conversation turned to the future, and we began to imagine together what might lie ahead. That is when the topic of faith and religion came up. Though we had both been raised in religious homes, we had rarely talked about it throughout the years. Church attendance had always been expected of us, but that never translated into a deep embrace of religion for either of us. Now, for the first time, we were exploring what role faith and religion might play in our post college years.
I shared first. Though faith was not a central facet of my identity at the time, it was not something I was running from either. I told my friend that when it came to faith in my post college years, I was going to search for a middle of the road expression. On one hand I felt comfortable with the idea of spirituality, and wanted to maintain a connection to that dimension. On the other hand, I was turned off by what I perceived to be religious fanatics, and I certainly didn’t want my life to resemble theirs. So I would search for a happy medium. I would strive to recognize and celebrate the reality of God, and then hope to live morally enough to avoid the condemnation I had heard so much about growing up.
My friend shared next, and he had a very different perspective than mine. He had always been the more practical one, and his thinking on faith reflected his pragmatic nature. His concerns had far less to do with doctrine, beliefs, or which religious affiliation was the right one. Instead, he focused on the quality of life he was searching for.
One of the phrases he loved and used often was what he called “the pursuit of being fully alive.” I think this was one of the reasons I liked him so much. He consistently pushed the limits of life, looking for one adrenaline blast after another. Whether it was sneaking out of our homes in the middle of the night, cutting classes at school, or asking out the most sought after girl in class, he was always ready for a risk if an adventure was possibly waiting on the other side.
But until that moment, I had never heard him express how he integrated that desire for adventure with his religious upbringing. It became quite obvious that in his mind they didn’t and couldn’t integrate.
He neatly summarized his worldview when he said, “I want to be someone that is fully alive. I want to taste and drink all that life has in store for me. That is why I have neither the time nor the desire for faith or religion.”
His last statement was what surprised me the most. “Neither the time nor the desire for faith or religion? How can you say that? You have grown up around it. That is all you have ever known. Shouldn’t that play some role in how you are going to live?” I wasn’t completely sure if it was him I was asking for or me.
He replied, “I don’t know. It’s not that I hate religion or church. It just feels like something is missing. Religion is all about do’s and don’ts. It concentrates on conforming and restricting behaviors. It’s about keeping your nose clean. I’m sure that all works great for some people. But I want to be fully alive. And I fear that religion will end up killing my spirit.”
That conversation ended up being a watershed moment for my spiritual development. Though I had not yet used the words for the internal struggle that he was using now, I had to admit that I had some of the same concerns. Though I believed in God, it seemed that those who followed him did not have an experience that could be described as being “fully alive.” If someone was looking for an experience of adventure, intrigue, meaning, and freedom, I wasn’t confident they would find it in the institution of church.
My friend and I ended up going in completely opposite directions. The thoughts he shared with me would be the same ones that would guide his path from that point forward. To this day he still moves from one experience to the next, looking for the elusive feeling of being “fully alive.” He still stays away from anything that seems like organized religion. I on the other hand, took a very different path. I realized there was no middle ground that was going to be acceptable to me, and that I had to be all in or all out.
Here is the reason why I share this anecdote. This conversation with my friend is the first that I vividly remember that brought together a convergence of different factors: he grew up in church, he believed in God, he longed for a life of meaning and purpose, yet he didn’t want anything to do with organized religion in his adult life.
I have had hundreds of conversations with people like my friend since.
Here is what eventually became clear to me. In our day and age, the people who are most antagonistic towards Christianity (or ‘organized religion’ in general) are not the ones who have no exposure. It is the ones who have been exposed to it in either an incomplete or even fractured form. I don’t sense the same type of antagonism when I interact with people who were unchurched growing up. They have questions about God, and maybe don’t share my beliefs, but they are not nearly as frustrated or antagonistic.
However, take someone that grew up in a church going family whose lives don’t match their beliefs, and that changes. Or takes someone that grew up around a church that was, well… fill in the blank (hypocritical, legalistic, judgmental, power hungry, abusive, obsessed with money, etc.), and you are going to find someone that is usually antagonistic towards Christianity and/or organized religion.
This is the first broad population of people that has influenced the way I think about the pursuit of faith and an understanding of authentic Christianity. It is the large group of men and women who grew up around church, yet walked away feeling something was missing.
That leads to the question(s) I would like to interact with you about. Do you see this? Do you know of people who grew up around church and still believe in God, or are spiritual, but no longer want anything to do with organized religion? (Or maybe that is even your experience?)
What is it that was missing in those churches? What needed to be different? And perhaps most importantly, what is it that they/you are now looking for?