I grew up in a (relatively) moderate United Methodist Church in Mission Viejo, California. We had our first woman associate pastor when I was young enough to consider it perfectly normal for women to serve as clergy. Then we moved to San Diego when I was in eighth grade. The church my mom found had United Methodist in the name, but they were different. People there kept coming up to ask me: “Have you been saved?”
“Saved from what?” I thought to myself as I glared back at them curiously.
My mom said that I was confirmed at our old church, and I should tell them that; I don’t think they were familiar with confirmation. Then someone told me I should say that I was more of a Timothy-Christian than a Paul-Christian, which seemed to satisfy people a little more. But I always felt like what they really wanted to save me from was drugs and sex. Was I supposed to go do those things so that they could save me from them?
I continued to do church with the more evangelical wing of the Methodist church through college and got my degree in Christian Ministry so that I could run Sunday school and Youth programs. But I was always more of a Timothy than a Paul, and I don’t think I ever asked anyone if they had been saved.
I struggled for a long time with this conflict between fundamentalism and progressivism, not really being comfortable in either.
It was when I watched the movie God’s Not Dead, around the same time that I was really struggling with the church’s teachings on sexuality and the question of “what is a disciple,” that I had a moment of clarity. Toward the end of the film, one of the characters says something to the effect of, “God loves you so much that if you were the only person on earth, he would still send Jesus to die for your sins.” Nope. I had heard this sentiment expressed before, but for the first time I heard how ridiculous it really sounded. So many questions…
Why am I the only person on earth? Where did everyone else go? Am I alone with 7 billion dead bodies?
What am I supposed to do? To eat? What’s the point?
Why wouldn’t Jesus just come hang out with me so I wouldn’t be alone? Or create more people?
Would I have to kill Jesus? How does that work?
Is that the only reason Jesus came to earth? If so, then why did he do so may other things?
If he had been martyred as an infant during the Slaughter of the Innocents, would he have accomplished the same thing?
The real question though, had always been this: who are you to decide that I need saving?
In order to save someone, one must also have the power to condemn. Jesus made it abundantly clear that he passed on no such authority. I was finally ready to shed whatever fundamentalist dust I had remaining, but for what? The middle of the road mainline denominations are boring; they lack purpose and passion. No wonder people don’t go to church anymore. The fundamentalists at least have passion. The progressive wing isn’t for me either, as they generally reject the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity (as found in the Apostle’s Creed), although I do appreciate their passion for social justice, .
So I was stuck in the boring middle that long ago shunned the extremes of the wings, only to lose all meaning and passion; stuck in the middle that was dependent on building the habit of regular participation. Those habits were formed by creating programs and rewarding attendance. These habits started to break down as more opportunities became available on Sundays, but they were broken completely when churches closed for months on end during the first stages of the pandemic.
But shouldn’t church be more than just a habit? Shouldn’t it be more than programs and activities?
Yes. Those of us in the middle need to step up. Instead of pushing against the extremes, our job is to bridge them: personal piety and social justice. We needed to break our old habits of boring, meaningless religion so that we can embrace the passion of what means to follow Jesus, not just accept him.
Maybe I have been saved – not from sex and drugs, but from the belief system that told me I had the power to judge, whether to condemn or to save. Maybe I’ve been saved from a boring faith. Maybe I’ve been saved from doing good just to feel better about myself. Maybe I’m more of a Paul-Christian after all!
Read Part 3: “The Bible Says So” is Not an Answer
Next Week: Discovering the Passionate Middle
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