Faith Via Conversation

17 Jul

A few years ago I was asked to sum up, in one sentence, how the

Wesley Foundation at Vanderbilt promulgates (evangelizes?) faith on campus. This question was not printed on a yearly assessment form, but was posed by a new member on our Annual Conference’s Board of Higher Education. It was a fair question that got to the heart of our campus ministry’s style of Christian witness. It was a question that rightly persists as we contemplate the form and function of authentic evangelism within a religious marketplace that peddles every variety under the sun.

This question shouldn’t have caught me off guard, but it did. After all, I fancy myself as a seasoned professional who anticipates every conceivable challenge to interpret the mission of our student ministry to our boards, local churches, prospective and new students, alumni/ae and other stakeholders.  It was a question that was simple, direct and yet all-encompassing. Prone to intellectualize, I would have preferred taking that question back to the office to draft a theological prospectus. Instead, I had a nanosecond to conjure up a clear and truthful reply that, once it arrived, surprised even me.  More than a decade’s worth of preaching, teaching, counseling and mentoring was somehow distilled into this maxim that I stand by to this day: we share the faith through conversation rather than proposition.

Like I say, this has become a maxim that, on occasion, I recite as a mantra in order to remind myself of a personal confession that, unrehearsed, rang louder and more true than anything I could have speculated upon ad nauseam. This is not to say that “propositional truth” doesn’t play a role in the faith development of students. The wisdom contained in the creeds, doctrines and affirmations of faith that we rehearse weekly through prayer, liturgy and study are core teachings that help shape, and maintain, personal continuity with tradition. And yet what vitalizes these timeless truths has less to do with intellectual assent than with experiential authenticity that grapples with these truths. And we can only grapple with truth within the free-flowing, all-doubts-are-welcome dynamic of the Holy Spirit.

I close this blog with an example of how “faith via conversation” allowed our student ministry to grow in ways that would never have been realized had we been a more doctrinally austere group. In the middle of his senior year, our leadership counsel president began experiencing a profound crisis of belief. He came to my office weekly, sometimes several times a week, with his head in his hands, crying, cussing and arguing with soul wrenching anxiety about the philosophical implausibility of the faith. He knew that my office was a “safe sanctuary” by which his doubts could be aired, but he became increasingly unsure about his fitness to maintain his office. His inability to embrace, without reservation, certain propositional beliefs made him feel the hypocrite and not a good role model for the underclassmen in our ministry. A few weeks later he asked if I would accept his resignation. I said “maybe.” I asked if, before resigning, he would be willing to share his struggles with his peer officers in a confidential closed meeting. I told him that his resignation needed to be an agreement shared by all, not just him and me. He agreed.

As this called meeting unfolded a marvelous thing happened. Instead of recoiling in disgust or reprimanding him to “repent and believe,” his fellow officers, one by one, listened to his story and admitted that they, too, could identify with many of his doubts, confusions and dark nights of the soul. The group discerned that their president’s crisis of faith was not a liability, but a gift to be cultivated and addressed openly through a covenant of ongoing conversation. As a group, they embraced him and he, in turn, was enabled to see that the integrity of love among fellow believers is far more critical than the purity of confessed dogma. Our president graduated, went away to graduate school and is now grounded in an authentic faith that was forged in the crucible of doubt, trust and holy conversations that liberated him to choose faith freely.

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Reverend Mark Forrester is the United Methodist Affiliated Chaplain at Vanderbilt University.

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One Response to “Faith Via Conversation”

  1. Maggie Gillespie July 24, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Beautiful story. Thanks for articulating the concept, faith via conversation. This is what we do, too, and the students who participate cherish the conversations we have, knowing that they will have a chance to learn from one another and grow together.

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