Baker Book House
New Year’s Eve 1988 was the night everything clicked for Wayne. As he held the small paper candleholder—issued to each of the faithful attending the church’s Watch Night service—his mind wandered. The pastor’s voice droned from the platform, creating a hazy backdrop for Wayne’s thoughts. Minutes passed. Outside, someone leaned on a car horn and yelled out a party whoop to celebrate the turning of a new year. Jolted by the sudden noise, Wayne realized too late he had jiggled the candleholder, and a drop of hot wax spilled onto his hand.
A silent prayer took shape before the wax could harden: “Lord, why can’t I be out there having fun? Does Christianity have to be boring?”
God’s unconventional response surprised and delighted him. Wayne sensed the Lord inviting him to go outside and celebrate the New Year with him. That answer triggered an awakening in Wayne’s spirit, which had dulled over the years of trying to live for God and be a “good Christian.” The affirmation that God simply wanted to be with him seemed revolutionary.
As he drove home from the service, Wayne replayed images from the Gospel account of Jesus’ first miracle. The Son of God had been at a wedding—a festive celebration with dancing and drinking—when the Father issued a quiet “Now!” that unleashed the divine spark into the world of men. That one act—turning water into wine—would resonate throughout the rest of time, marking Jesus as divinity in the midst of our humdrum existence. Yet he chose a party, of all places, to announce his divinity. Was there any significance to that?
If you ask Wayne today, he will assert unabashedly that there is. But, far from turning him into a freewheeling reveler, that spiritual awakening transformed him from a burned-out, jaded believer on the brink of suicide into a man whose faith lights up a room. Those who know Wayne know him as a person of laughter—and those who don’t know him are not in his presence long before they hear the reason for his joy. But there’s one key difference in the way he shares his faith today. Rather than Bible-thumping and emphasizing the need for repentance, he tells people about the amazing love of God and how it changed his life.
It’s contagious and very effective. “I want to infiltrate churches with the good news I now know and infect them with a grace virus,” Wayne says. Those raised in the church know the term “good news” to mean simply the gospel. Of course it’s good news, we say defensively. Yet often people we meet experience it to be otherwise—largely because of the hypocritical, legalistic conduit it is sometimes delivered through. In his book Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Philip Yancey includes a riveting quote from one of Walker Percy’s characters in The Second Coming. The character speaks for perhaps much of the Western world—and even a few church-weary saints: “I am surrounded by Christians. They are generally speaking a pleasant and agreeable lot, not noticeably different from other people. . . . I cannot be sure they don’t have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth? . . . A mystery: If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?”
Yancey restates that last question and then adds: “Bible college professors insisted, ‘We live not under law but under grace,’ and for the life of me I could not tell much difference between the two states. Ever since, I have been on a quest to unearth the good news, to scour the original words of the gospel and discover what the Bible must mean by using words like love, grace, and compassion to describe God’s own character. I sensed truth in those words, truth that must be sought with diligence and skill, like the fresco masterpieces that lie beneath layers of plaster and paint in ancient chapels.”1
The good news—the gospel of grace—is indeed catching. As we talked over coffee at a bookstore café, Wayne couldn’t keep his voice to a low pitch. His decibels increased with the momentum of his story, but the results were worth it. When he got up to leave, a young man sitting directly behind him jumped to his feet and stuck out his hand. “I couldn’t help but overhear your story,” he said, eyes shining. “I can relate to everything you talked about.”
The young man said he yearned for a faith experience that matched the revolutionary, even mystical, union with God he had read about in the New Testament. Why couldn’t he find that in churches? he wanted to know. Why had the very word Christian become a turnoff to so many?
Like most transitions, Wayne’s spiritual burnout didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it resembled the “frog in boiling water” phenomenon of change so gradual it was hard to detect until the damage was done. Things had started out so differently. In the early days of his faith-walk, Wayne never dreamed he’d one day nearly turn his back on God.
“When I first became a believer it was incredible,” he recalls. “All my life I’d been to church, but suddenly there was no more striving for God because he was right there. I was on a honeymoon with the Holy Spirit.”
Growing up in a mainline denominational church, Wayne heard about grace, but the church also emphasized the need to measure up and “get right” with God. Wayne did his best to “get right with God” whenever he erred, but of course his best wasn’t good enough.
“All these teachings mixed together in my head and started to make me weary, because the sin issue was never over with,” he says. “I was taught that you had to perfect yourself in the flesh to be acceptable to God, even though we said we believed in grace. I’d had a glimpse of real grace when I was a teenager, but once I was inside the institution [church], everything was like ‘10 ways to be a Christian,’ ‘25 ways to pray better,’ what music to listen to, what music not to listen to. After a while I thought, What’s up with this? I got to the point where I was closing out the world so much I was losing my mind.”
After fourteen years inside what he calls “churchianity prison,” Wayne reached a turning point. He had hit rock bottom. “I finally just said, ‘Forget God.’ If he’s still counting my sins against me, I don’t need him. People were constantly telling me I needed to get right. What is getting right? How do you know when you’re finally right? All those years I never drank or smoked or went to bars. I thought my righteousness was first-class, but I was miserable.”
Wilderness—it’s a word that conjures up images of reality TV programs about rugged men and women surviving with nothing but their wits to guide them. For some it brings to mind biblical nomads, their headdresses flapping as they lean into the wind to follow God’s cloud. But find yourself in a wilderness drift of the soul, and the picture changes dramatically. Suddenly the canvas is painted in dark hues. You discover the ground under your feet rocky, the way hard-going, and God silent. Yes, God—that once benevolent deity who called you to him—now seems to have disappeared.
As the 1990s gave way to the new millennium, the topic of spirituality heated up on all fronts. Sales of religion titles soared, prompting secular publishers who once scoffed at spirituality to sample a piece of the marketing pie. With the world careening toward the unknown, God drew ink from major newspapers and magazines, stirred conversation at coffee bars and college think tanks, and beckoned to us from highway billboards and the Internet. Suddenly God was in. People no longer looked at you funny if you mentioned his name in casual conversation. And the admission that you actually prayed about something was almost avant-garde.
Yes, the century of evangelicalism ended on a high note, and the new millennium promised to maintain that momentum. But while new churches sprouted like dandelions across North America—and spirituality-based websites dotted the digital landscape—a quiet change was taking place within the Christian infrastructure: Lifelong churchgoers bid farewell to the institutional church and found God through house churches, conversations at coffeehouses, monastic retreat centers, and even labyrinthine prayer walks.
None of this happened overnight. But by anybody’s standard, the last third of the twentieth century witnessed enough changes to give church historians writer’s cramp. Cradle mainstream churchgoers traded in their staid services for the charismatic renewal, leaving their home denominations in droves. The rise of “televangelism” ushered in the era of glam-gospel, replete with big-haired celebrity preachers and prosperity teaching (remember the “Me” generation?). After years of emotional/spiritual highs, many believers jaded on “charismania” chucked their too-lively congregations for traditional forms of Christian worship. Some flocked to new “liturgy lite” churches that combined traditional worship and symbolism with contemporary music and other cultural trappings. Others embraced Orthodox liturgies or headed for remote monasteries to experience the “cloister walk.” Messianic Jewish fellowships cropped up, attracting Jews and Gentiles alike to their first-century-type church gatherings. And some former Protestants shocked their brethren by becoming Catholics.
Ironically, at the same time, the word Christian itself had become a loaded term. It’s so tainted with images of TV money changers and Bible-thumpers that a whole generation of young Jesus-followers now avoids it like the plague. Books aimed at the Christian youth market often don’t use the word Christian—even in sentences that refer to reading “Christian classics.” Now those books are called spiritual classics or religion classics. Anything but Christian.
“That word turns them off,” one editor said. “They hear the word Christian and immediately shut down.” Paradoxically, those same young readers are excited about God and boldly identify themselves with Jesus. An earlier, best-selling book published by the company that editor works for provided hard evidence—in the form of bookstore sales—that these same readers are hungry to learn more about God. They just don’t want it wrapped in Christian clothing.
It’s safe to say that all this spiritual activity beams a spotlight on the deepest cry of every human heart—the longing for God, or the longing to fill that God-shaped vacuum of the soul Blaise Pascal wrote about. And when we don’t find the source that can fulfill that longing, we invariably go looking.
The steps that follow a believer’s honeymoon phase with God often lead straight into the wilderness. By definition a wilderness is a dry, bleak place—the kind of place you don’t head into by choice. But it’s also true that the wilderness is a proving ground. Having entered this barren place, you eventually emerge changed. Sometimes changed to the core.
In his novel The Visitation, author Frank Peretti tells of a burned-out pastor’s first glimmering recollection of when things began to go wrong:
By the time I reached my front door I felt nineteen again. Not young, just burdened with an old sorrow, a deep loneliness, a familiar despair.
Certain smells, like the odor of your grade school or even the scent of an old girlfriend, remain in your memory forever. An old song can bring back the feelings you had when you first fell in love. You may think you don’t remember how the back door of your childhood home sounded when it swung shut, but if you could hear it again, you would know the sound.
As I sat on the couch and picked up my banjo, I knew this feeling. I knew when and where I’d felt it before. I was nineteen at the time, sitting alone on the bed in my room in Seattle. I still remembered the “new house” smell of that room, the texture of the Sears bedspread, the feel and color of the blue-green carpet on the floor, the exact position of my Glen Campbell poster on the wall. I had a banjo in my hands then too—a brown, fifty-dollar Harmony with a plastic resonator, and I could have been playing the same song I was playing now. . . .
It was a pivotal moment, I suppose, frozen in memory like a historic photo from the LIFE magazine archives, a passage out of childhood and a painful end to illusions. I’d been in love, but lost the girl; I’d been a prophet of God, but proven wrong; I’d prayed for the sick, but they didn’t get well; God had called me to a faraway city, but hadn’t met me there; my friends and I were going to change the world for God, but they had all scattered after graduation. I had been a young man of such hope and faith, but now my hope and faith were gone, slowly suffocated by disappointment and disillusionment. . . .
Jesus seemed far away, and strangely enough, I was content to leave him there. I didn’t want to talk to him; I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me.
I was saved, sanctified, born-again, and Spirit-filled, but Jesus and I were strangers.2
Later in the book, Peretti paints an allegorical picture of the wilderness phase of spirituality. Through the mind of his protagonist, he likens this troubling bend in the road to leaving your childhood home. Mom and Dad stand on the porch watching as you walk down to the front gate, turn to look back, and wave before passing through to the world beyond. You know you can never return. You’ve stepped outside the boundaries of that place forever. You may long to return to the place of innocence, but you can’t. You’ve changed, and you can’t erase the new version of you that’s come into being.
The good news, however, is that when you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.