The other disciples saw Jesus. Experienced him. He was before them, in the flesh. But Thomas missed it. And as his friends recounted the story of seeing their Lord, Thomas couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen.
He had been with Jesus, watching the miraculous. But this was too much. Whether his grief from seeing his teacher die on the cross prevented him from having hope, or rising from the dead was a miracle too far, Thomas admitted to the disciples, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
And yet, he stayed.
He stayed with the other disciples for a week. They didn’t chastise him for his unbelief. For a week, Thomas could sit and belong to his faith, and his reality transitioned to something different.
According to a 2020 Gallup poll, less than 50 percent of adults were members of churches. While accurate data for the past two years is not yet published, stories of people leaving the church flood Christian magazines and blog posts and are shared among those of us in professional ministry.
I was talking with a friend one evening. I asked her how her church was doing, and she admitted she had stopped going. “It’s getting too political. It didn’t feel comfortable.”
Another friend and I watched our kids playing in the backyard when she said, “I’m not sure how I can go back to church again after two years of COVID and the current state of the church. How do I belong? How can I believe any of this is good news?”
A friend of color admitted that she could no longer belong to her church. “I’m not letting my babies die on the altar of whiteness. I’m just not going to do it.”
Anecdotal evidence testifies to people leaving the church because of the pain of the current political church climate, the real tragedies of COVID, and the churches’ response as a whole. The pain comes from a valid place of being left out by the global church. Our church’s loss of people leaves our faith community in a transition away from the environment of Christian culture we had relied on for so long, to a place that feels empty.
Just as the Christian world sits in transition, many of us in our faith are in a state of transition to a new place. The reasons our faith is changing are numerous: engaging in deconstruction, losing hope in God’s kingdom ever coming to this world that feels to be lost in a sea of pain, or just having lost connection after years of the COVID virtual dance and unable to expend the energy to head out the door on Sunday morning.
As faith transitions, some of our brothers and sisters are teetering on the brink of unbelief or have already fallen over the cliff. Like Thomas, they proclaim, “I will not believe.”
I have the privilege of working with zealous students — intense fervor envelopes college campuses, and ministry is not an exception to the environment. I was meeting with a student leader about their Bible study, and she said, “But we want to make sure that everyone believes exactly the right stuff.”
“Why,” I challenged her. “Why can’t we let people sit with us as they are in transition?” Her response, “Because then people won’t know where we stand.”
Her answer is not uncommon for the church, she just said it more bluntly. There is a fear that if we don’t hammer our doctrine down the throats of people who attend, then their “unbelief” will affect others. As though disbelief were something catchable, like a viral infection.
This fear also testifies to a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to teach and instruct. If we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to guide people, then we have to create environments where “true doctrine” is taught in perfectly digestible packets.
Even the term “true doctrine” grates on many of our nerves, because if believing in everything exactly the same way were a requirement to belong to the family of God, then the family of God would potentially be a family of one.
But maybe there is another way to deal with transition.
Thomas didn’t just stay, the disciples gave him a place to stay. What would it look like to be a community that allowed people whose faith was evolving to stay? To be a place that leaves the bible open and expects questions without shutting the Bible and driving them away?
When Jesus came into the room, he offered to let Thomas touch his scars. To reach down and fill the holes. He gave Thomas the proof he asked for, but what would have happened if Thomas had been run out of the community before Jesus had the chance to come to him?
I have a dear friend who left the church she grew up in and has yet to return. She often comes to our house to talk about her faith and ask questions. We sit in community, comfortable with questions and with differences, not needing a statement of faith to belong.
One day, she was over while a student was at my house. As she asked questions, she once again asked me why I believed. I shared again my belief in Christ, outlining my faith and responding to her questions. At the end of her questions, she said, “I still have so many,” and then she left.
The student asked, “I think I’ve heard you share the gospel with her 10 times. Isn’t this exhausting?”
I laughed, “Sometimes, but I’m sure glad others didn’t find me exhausting as I stumbled through my questions for years. Or that as I still ask my questions today, that people are willing to sit with me in the mess.”
The student continued to look confused. So I asked, “Did you feel like people sat with your questions?”
“No, I’ve always believed.” I pushed slightly and she admitted her fear of asking questions.
When we don’t create spaces for people to sit in transition, we don’t just hurt those whose faith is evolving, but those who believe, stealing people’s opportunities to wrestle with God and as they wrestle grow closer to him.
Our faith is constantly evolving. As we choose to follow God, the Spirit is continually molding our faith. And as the world moves around us, questions can sometimes cause us to move closer or further from God. This constant state of transition leaves those in the church — and therefore the church — constantly in transition.
Learning how to allow people to belong while their questions push their faith in new directions, is learning to sit with people as they wait for Jesus to come into the room.
Painting of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio