Not an Oasis, but a Desert

For the past few days I have been attending a United Methodist Campus Ministry Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee (a.k.a., the Methodist Vatican City). We have been privileged to hear from some wonderful speakers including Tex Sample and Peter Rollins. Both have provided stunning theology and reflection on the nature of the church and on faith. But it was something that Peter Rollins said in his conversation with us that struck me the most.

For a long time it has been obvious to many of us that the church was engaged in consumerism. That is, we were selling a product to the masses. We’d rail at the corporate world trying to sell you Coca-Cola, Lexus automobiles, or Viagra as a way to fulfill you. But then we’d turn right around and say that we had the product that actually brought fulfillment and meaning: God. That much has been apparent to many of us for quite some time.

But Rollins spoke to us of an alternative (and ancient) model of church: a church that sought not to sell people relief from their problems and a “cure for what ails ya,” but instead became a place for people to face those problems head on, to explore their own brokenness in a community of love and grace. That is, the church should not be an oasis, but a desert. A wilderness experience wherein we do not cover over our problems with a narrative—”It’s alright, God’s in charge and you’ll go to heaven”—but rather challenges us to face what Rollins calls “our own monstrosity”.

For example, many (if not most) people have doubt. They wonder whether it’s all true, whether the hopes that they have are vindicated. Their pastor tells them that everything is fine. Most of them, however, don’t believe it, but they can perpetuate this situation because their pastor believes it for them. But what if the church were a place where that doubt were confronted head-on and not papered over by acts of piety and religious ritual designed to make us feel better? What if church were a place were we were honest with our own doubt, our own darkness, our own failings, and were able to embrace that brokenness in the concept of beloved community?

I have found this to be a convicting vision of church. We are not the place that fixes peoples’ problems. We are not the answer to peoples’ hopes and dreams. Rather, we are the place wherein people are encouraged to own their brokenness and loved as the broken people they are and in that love and grace, there is the possibility of transformation and true healing.

There is much still I am in the midst of processing of this vision. But I know that as a community committed to ministries of healing and of welcoming all people, this may be providing a moment of opportunity for us to do a radically new (and very old) thing: to create a space in which we share our brokenness and find healing. And through finding healing, finding God already in our midst.

Members of our campus ministry community, what are some of the ways that we might create such a space? How can we live out a grace so radical that all feel welcomed and free to share with one another their doubts, their fears, their darkness, and their brokenness and in so doing find healing and God-with-us?