About six months ago I was at a coffee shop waiting for my friend, Helen Mo, who was studying at The University of Toronto taking a PhD. in religious studies. Her focus was on the topic of the identity of the second generation Chinese Christians in Toronto. My friend’s study stems from her own journey as someone who was part of a local church and has not attended or participated regularly in a local church for the last few years. At a recent conference I invited her to share her story and she described herself as a “quasi-Christian maybe agnostic post-evangelical humanist.” As a pastor (and a second generation Chinese pastor) I really appreciated her studies, her insights and her friendship. She has helped me recognize how significant and impactful her story has been for me in understanding the culture and the world around me.
The first time I had heard my friend describe herself as a “quasi-Christian maybe agnostic post-evangelical humanist” was at the first ever New Leaf Learning Party in Toronto. I had the honour of inviting her to share her story with a group of church planters, starters and pastors. Almost everyone present that day was challenged and blessed by her sharing. Today, I want to share her story with you as I remember my friend, who won’t be able to share her own story again, because Helen, sadly, passed away suddenly this spring. I would like to share a couple of postures for us to consider in our ever-changing culture:
Posture of listening:
How often we forget that scripture reminds us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. I have found this is not often the case, as an evangelical who grew up in an era of apologetics. We are called to defend our faith, our beliefs, the truth, etc.; to be ready to give answers and to speak into every situation. However neglecting to understand and to hear the narrative of the gospel shaping culture is something that has been detrimental to the church.
Helen reminded me how important it is to listen. When we met for coffee to discuss her educational journey. More than just listening, I am always blessed to have a friend who listens intently to my own church journey. Not as an outsider, but someone who is empathizing with each twist and turn in my story. I have also learned to hear the journey in and out of the church, and know that there has been hurt that needs to be addressed, dreams that need to be reimagined and perhaps a fresh insight into the gospel that needs to be experienced. This is the posture that I believe we need to have in our ever-changing culture. Notice that it is not just about our own posture of listening, but also inviting our friends to listen and enter into our narrative, too.
Posture of finding the common:
Though she is not part of a local church and a PhD. student studying about the growth and trends of the Chinese Church in Toronto, and I am a church planter in a very non-Chinese neighbourhood of Toronto, it is amazing to find those common experiences. What I found was interesting is when she left the church and when I left to plant a church we had similar experiences. One of which is this experience of loss. The local church in many ways is part and parcel with one’s own identity. When one is removed from that community there is a big part of their identity that is lost; whether it is a social identity, a religious identity or perhaps even a status identity. What I find interesting about finding this common experience of loss is that in the ever-changing landscape of Canada, planters, starters or re-thinkers of church have a lot of commonality with those who are “done” with the church? Perhaps these are the points of intersection where we need to be more aware of as we are interacting with those around us.
Posture of seeing Jesus:
In spending time with Helen I learned that, though she no longer is part of a church community, she always spoke fondly about the church. Much of her upbringing was within a church and she knew the system inside out; perhaps she may even know the Christian rubric better than some Christians. Yet something along the journey of faith has soured her relationship with the church. But as I listen to her, I find that her values and the significance of the beauty of the gospel is evident in her life. I can see how she cherished people and saw beyond the façade of situations to the potential in people. Once she spoke to me about her experience as a teacher in an inner city school and the need to practice those values of love she had learned in the church. She in fact lived a beautiful life that reflected compassion, mercy, grace and love. I had the privilege to speak at Helen’s celebration of life. It was one of the hardest messages that I had to write. What I have been left wondering is how the gospel message impacted her life? Perhaps it is true what Dan Kimball writes about; that my friend loves Jesus but just not the church (in its current form)?
I can go on and on with the numerous reflections and lessons that I have learned through my friend Helen. As I was taking time to reflect and write this post I am humbled and privileged to journey with my friend. If there was one lesson greater than all that I have shared thus far is this: having a friend like my quasi-Christian maybe agnostic post-evangelical humanist friend challenges me, as a pastor, to consider a true posture of humility. Helen was by far smarter, and more knowledgeable than I am, especially in the Christian religion.