Experience, Community, and the Earthly Work of the Church

Small group in a gymnasium, man with hands raised
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko Pexels.com

One of my favorite examples of this is the experience portion of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. The UMC Book of Discipline says that “Christian experience gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. It confirms the biblical message for our present. It illumines our understanding of God and creation and motivates us to make sensitive moral judgments.” What that means to me is that what we’re doing here matters. Our lives on earth, our embodied experiences, are significant. Whether intentionally or not, the faith traditions I grew up in tended to emphasize the next life as the most important thing, the end goal. As an anxious overthinker, I struggled with getting excited about an eternal afterlife we don’t know anything about. The affirmation that my experiences are meant to illuminate my understanding of God and help me live right feels like the gospel to me. 

One way I’ve encountered this since joining the UMC is in small group. I grew up in church and stayed very churchy through college, so I’d always done Sunday school and student ministries, but often felt like those spaces existed in a vacuum; they were about being Christians together, not being people together who also were Christians. I had friends, and then I had “church friends.” When I was part of a pilot small group at the UMC church I joined several years ago, I saw for the first time the potential of real, authentic community based on but not exclusively about Christianity. We were already “church friends,” but as a small group, we gathered once a week over chips and dip and wine to recommend TV shows to each other and read books together and laugh and cry and shake our heads in disbelief about, essentially, everything—about our experiences. It was the first time I felt like I could share all of the mess in my head and in my heart safely in the context of a faith community and make room for others to share their whole lives with me, too. 

Not only was this first real small group experience fun, but it was also deeply freeing. Whether explicitly or not, I grew up taking in the lesson that there is a single correct way to interpret the Bible and God’s will, and that I can’t really trust myself to do it. We’re sinful and dirty and constantly under attack from Satan’s forces, and so it is reckless to listen to any voice from within us because who knows whether it’s the Holy Spirit or some supernatural evil or just my own sinful desires? Well-meaning and loving evangelical leaders in my early life emphasized that there is only one truth, and therefore only a narrow set of right theology and right habits and right thinking, and straying too far outside of those parameters is dangerous and even heretical. 

But “experience” in the Wesleyan quadrilateral acknowledges that all of us, including those leaders who taught me to fear heresy, bring our own lenses and biases and cultures to our understanding of faith. My childhood evangelical pastor and my current UMC pastor would disagree sharply on many significant points—in fact, the former would take issue with the latter being a pastor at all—but they are both loving people called to ministry and doing their best to point people to God. One of my small group friends has become one of my best friends period, and we’re not the same gender or in the same generation or pursuing the same life goals, and we are at very different points on the political spectrum, but we are both doing our best to work out our faith in our daily lives and love each other and those around us. We come to different conclusions about how to do that, but we respect each other enough to honor each other’s efforts instead of seeing them as wrong for being different. 

Ultimately, I think this is key to a way forward: honoring each other’s efforts and trusting that while God works all things for good for those who love him, those who love God can also be given space to do good work. When we strive for a lofty spiritual ideal, disembodied from and deprioritizing our messy humanness, we can too easily dismiss anyone’s lived experience that doesn’t align with our vision of the right way to live a godly life. But, by contrast, if we can learn to trust that our experiences help us understand God instead of pulling us away from God, maybe we can find the grace to trust that that same process is happening in those around us—even when we don’t understand it or it looks different than we might expect.

Long before I found myself in a Methodist church, I was approached by a friend who had just A) become a Christian and B) come out as bisexual. They were receiving messages that these two parts of themself couldn’t exist together, and they wanted to talk to someone who could encourage them. To that point, most of my faith leaders would have agreed that my friend was living in contradiction—in sin. But, by the grace of God, my friend stirred my spirit in a different direction. If they felt themselves in love with Jesus and wanted to follow Him, and also they might sometime feel themself in love with someone not of “the opposite sex,” how could it possibly be my responsibility to tell them they were wrong? I don’t remember the conversation we had, but I hope my friend was encouraged. I certainly was changed. I likely wouldn’t have recognized the name John Wesley, but already the experience portion of his quadrilateral was a key part of my theology. 

The legitimacy of our queer Christian brothers and sisters is a hot-button topic in the UMC right now, but this is certainly not the only example of the need to honor experience. If I’ve never been the victim of a hate crime, and I can’t bring myself to see or believe in a Black person’s lived experience or I think it weighs less than my experience (or lack thereof), I put spiritual ideology ahead of real-time justice. If I believe that Jesus alone can heal mental illness, and I try to encourage my friend to pray instead of going to therapy or taking antidepressants (in combination with prayer), my bad advice could have real consequences. If the most important thing about my faith is knowing that I’ve got a ticket to heaven when I die and that everything there will be better than anything here, how tempting is it for me to dismiss the grief of a friend who has lost a loved one or to minimize a neighbor’s chronic pain or financial trouble? 

A familiar Christian cliché is about being so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good. I tend to refer to heavenly mindedness as just wait ‘til you die theology. Sorry about the poverty or the depression or the cancer, but, you know, heaven! Well-meaning Christians can and do inflict such harm with this kind of thinking. Besides, if this is all a crappy rehearsal for finally getting to be in glory in the afterlife—not that that’s not wonderful, but if that’s all there is to look forward to—then why are we here? Why do this part? Why would a lonely God put us so far away for a while instead of just populating heaven with us? Why would a creative God make us with our different features and loves and desires and quirks, in our different times and places, if none of this ultimately matters and we’re really just supposed to wait ‘til we die to come alive? To me, the experience part of the quadrilateral isn’t just about believing and validating each other’s experiences, but about having experiences. I don’t know why God put us here, but I know that God put us here. It’s one of the only things I feel like I know for sure. 

The theology of experience is tied up with the theology of the body. I don’t believe it’s true that we don’t have souls, that we are souls who only have bodies. I believe we’re both; we’re all of it: soul, body, spirit, joy, despair, personal and corporate, in this life and, God willing, in the life to come. We would do well to think less of this life as prologue or rehearsal and more as act one—a significant part of the story, not to be taken for granted. And when our fellow soulbodies share their stories with us, instead of looking for plot holes, we would do well to listen and learn, to celebrate and mourn with each other, to affirm each other’s realities, to revel in the mystery and the clarity of our experience. In Luke 17, Jesus himself renounces wait ‘til you die theology: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21 NRSV). It’s among you. It’s us. What incredible good news, if we let it be.

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Catey Miller