“Well, I realized that the question of whether or not Jesus was divine wouldn’t change the way I live my day-to-day existence.”
I was sitting at the local coffee shop with the pastor of the church I had attended for nearly three years. I had been dropping hints that I was experiencing some significant shifts in my “Jesus paradigm” (in his words), and he wanted to meet and talk about it. I was on the church leadership team, after all, and led worship at least once a month, and helped set up and tear down the sound system nearly every week in the elementary school cafeteria where the church met.
It was a calculated response. I could have responded to the, “So, where are you at?” question in many different ways. But my response was sincere and I thought it would be the clearest and most concise way to convey my thoughts. He was unprepared for my answer. He probably expected me to say something like, “I think Jesus actually was more concerned with the poor than the rich” or “I think Jesus might have been pacifist.” The surprise on his face at my response would have been humorous were it not such a serious moment for both of us. Overall, though, I was relieved. It was the beginning of the end of one phase of my life, and the start of another, though I didn’t realize the full ramifications of it at the time.
As the conversation continued, it was clear that he and I were now in completely different worlds. At one point, when I turned the conversation around and asked him why the same question mattered to him, I knew he could give any number of responses. He blurted out in astonishment, “Because He conquered death!” Why would I want to disregard the fact that because of Jesus, I get to spend eternity in heaven? If I stayed in the club, death would have no effect on me. And the only way that could work was if Jesus was divine, because that’s how God made the rules. The fact that continuing to believe in a Christian heaven while disavowing the only way to get there would be an untenable position was temporarily lost on him. In any case, my concept of heaven had departed long before the divine Jesus did.
I can’t remember how exactly the conversation ended, but he promised we would speak again soon. A lot of changes took place in the ensuing weeks. He took me off the leadership team and the worship team, but I continued to attend the church with my family (and run the sound board and help set up and tear down, because presumably I could not directly corrupt others in the church in those positions—and there weren’t enough people to do them).
A couple months later, though, I received a phone call from the pastor just “checking in.” He asked me in a roundabout way whether I was planning to continue attending the church for much longer. I had still been figuring things out. More than that, I didn’t want to jump ship at the first sign of trouble as I had seen and heard so many other church members do in my lifetime.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “When I’m up there speaking, and I see you out in the audience, and I know where you’re at, it makes it hard for me to do my job.”
I was both surprised and a bit amused at that point. “Well, if you tell me not to come any more, I won’t come,” I replied.
“No, no, no. I’m not going to bite the bullet for you. You have to make that decision on your own.”
Why did you call then?, I wondered. “I’ll think about it.”
“Matt, I just want you to know, I love you man. I want the best for you and your family.”
“Thanks.” I never went back to the church again.
I ran into him a few times in the following months. Before, I’d helped him move, helped friends craft a video for his anniversary, attended his father’s funeral, and gone to a movie with him. After, though, it was just pleasantries. The love was lost, I guess. The church only lasted for about six more months after we and another important family stopped attending. I never found out just how significant our departure was in the death of the church, but in my more vain moments, I guessed it was significant. Anyway, he moved to lead a much larger church in a much larger area. I’d helped him go back to his roots. At one point in my informal excommunication process, he’d told me, “I thought I was pretty progressive, but you’ve helped me realize I’m a fundie [fundamentalist]!” I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t comfortable being a Christian anymore.
Of course, much more went into my process of deconversion, just as much more goes into conversion than being knocked off a donkey by the voice of God, but when you look back, you identify a turning point. This was mine.