A family strolled their baby in the shaded park, surrounded by the tall buildings and overpasses of downtown Memphis. Young trees flanked well-kept sidewalks, which held the foosteps of carefree pedestrians enjoying the beautiful June day.
As we continued driving, my eyes transfixed out the window.
A Panera Bread passed on my right and a CVS pharmacy on my left. A university, a seminary, and more signs of a bustling community kept me lost in my thoughts.
A well-kept, attractive city, Memphis seemed to be. The concept was entirely foreign to me.
Not What I Remembered
My grandfather had lived in Memphis all of my growing up years, and my family and I visited him a few times per year. What I saw out my window wasn’t the Memphis I remember from my childhood.
Papaw lived in a tiny home in between other identical houses. Metal bars lined his doors and windows. My dad never let us spend the night and we always left before sunset. Although I never felt unsafe when I was there, as a child I wondered about the gun in the corner of Papaw’s bedroom.
Memphis, from what I had observed, was filthy and dangerous. If you had to visit, it was a place you wanted to get in and out of quickly.
But the Memphis I saw on that June day was nothing like what I had seen as a child. I’m sure much of this development happened since my childhood. It was like a different city, and I couldn’t reconcile the experiences of my youth with the view out my window.
When a Bad Experience Clouds Our Vision
As I took in the scenery, I started to think, this is how many must view Christianity. Maybe their childhood visits of church left them feeling like they had to follow unobtainable rules to be accepted. Perhaps they saw corruption and hypocrisy under the veil of holiness. Maybe a deep hurt occurred to themselves or a loved one at the hands of those who professed faith in God.
And they don’t even want to go there. They think they know all there is to know about Christianity and church, and they want no part of it. They’ve even stopped seeking a relationship with God because if these people who claim to love Him are like that, they don’t want anything to do with God either.
But like my drive through Memphis, what they’re missing is a whole section of faith they have never seen before — people who are humbly following the God they serve, not perfectly, but trying.
And yeah, maybe there are still pockets of corruption and hypocrisy and people hurting people. But from what I see, the people of the church are rising up to put away the old trappings of religion and are putting feet to their faith in all manner of ways. They’re starting nonprofits to feed local hungry children; they’re traveling abroad to offer assistance to refugees; they’re fostering children and adopting orphans; they’re caring for prisoners; they’re purchasing Fair Trade items to support impoverished women around the world; they’re rescuing children and women from sex trafficking.
And they’re doing it all in the name of Jesus, yes, because they know that everyone’s deepest need is Him.
Pushing Back the Darkness
A short time before my Papaw died, the city demolished the neighborhood where he lived. Do you know what was built in this formerly drug- and crime-striken neighborhood? A school.
Like the city planners in Memphis, people of faith are working hard to push back the darkness, to bring light and love to the desolate places.
And if those who had a bad experience with Christianity in their past would just take a risk and visit again, they just might see that something beautiful is rising. God’s people are breathing in the Word afresh, seeking His guidance in bringing hope and healing to our generation, with grace and truth.
Of course, I would be remiss not to point out that we should never make our personal faith decisions based on other people — whether the church you’ve observed is rocking it or miserably failing. Ultimately, we will each be held accountable for only one thing: if we believe in Jesus for forgiveness of our sins. But for those who have had a bad experience with the church that has either caused you to leave it entirely or question your faith, I hope this article encourages you to look again. Beauty IS rising. The church will — as it has since Jesus rose — continue to push back the darkness, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.