This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference called Evolving Faith. It was hosted and curated by some of my favorite Christian writers, Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. It took place in Montreat, North Carolina. The campus was beautiful, nestled in the arms of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Walking around Lake Susan, exploring the streams and trails, there’s a deep sense of peace. You feel in your bones that you are walking on sacred ground.
Now, what is evolving faith? Each of the speakers at the conference offered a different definition. Evolving faith is a faith that changes. It adapts. It breaks down. It reconstructs. It identifies problematic narratives and strives to imagine new ones. Jen Hatmaker likened it to the story in Genesis about Jacob wrestling with God. Evolving faith is a faith that challenges, questions, wrestles and, like Jacob, has the audacity to ask for a blessing anyway. Jeff Chu introduced us to the “theology of the compost pile” where all the wretched, useless, and discarded things are transformed into rich soil that brings new life. Evolving faith acknowledges the darkness in ourselves and in the world and chooses to light a candle anyway.
What I loved so much about this conference is that it addressed head-on all the topics that are notoriously avoided in United States’ churches. Things that are whispered in the back of our minds as we sit in sanctuaries were named boldly from the stage. Speakers called out the idol of white supremacy, the strength, beauty and dignity of minority communities, the evils of the Trump administration, the immediacy of climate change, and the problematic fact that the majority attendees were white. Speakers called us to both “burn shit down” and strive to be peacemakers. There was rage. There was hope. There was the call to live in tension.
Many of the attendees have been deeply burned by American Evangelical Christianity. Many have carried these wounds for years, withering away from the margins of faith communities. Many have left faith communities entirely because the pain was too much.
I don’t have words to articulate the nuances of my personal journey of evolving faith. I don’t have a dramatic story of deconstruction, of darkness, and of rebuilding. I’ve long abandoned the label of “Evangelical”, but compared to many of the attendees, my baggage is relatively light.
For me, evolving faith is not something new. It feels like the natural progression of a journey I’ve been on for a long time. I look back on my teenage self, who held a firm, fierce love of God while navigating a hyper conservative youth group, and it this journey makes sense. Young Amelia, who questioned all the assumptions of my faith community (Christian equaled Republican, to be “pro life” is everything, evolution is wrong, Muslims are evil, LGBTQ+ people are depraved and will corrupt you, etc.), was always going to end up here. What I’m deeply grateful for is the people of faith who held me in my questioning as a teenager and loved me anyway. I’m grateful for the wisdom of my mentors and peers who have come alongside me. I’m grateful for the faith communities, from college to Bible camp to L’Abri to the church I attend now, who pull me out of my cynicism and into the welcoming body of the Kingdom of God. While I have gone through seasons where I have needed to pull away from church, there’s never been a question of walking away. I’ve abandoned the need to be certain and embraced mystery, but my firm, fierce love of God remains.
More than anything, it was an honor to be in that space. It was a privilege to hear badass, intelligent, beautiful people of color speak truth to power. It was humbling. I’m so grateful for all my fellow attendees, for their bravery to show up and share their stories. I met so many wonderful people from all across the country. It was a joy to learn that I’m not alone on this journey.
In many ways, the conference was overwhelming. I made the journey to North Carolina in the midst of a hectic, busy season that has me teetering on the edge of burnout. I feel like I was slammed by an emotional firehose. I’m exhausted. There’s so much inner work to do, so many books to read, and just not enough time. By the time I get home, I’m going to have a massive social and emotional hangover. I need an introvert vacation just to recover internally.
Still, I’m so thankful I was able to attend Evolving Faith . I’m moving out of my parent’s house next weekend after 3.5 years with them. I don’t think it’s an accident that these events aligned. My time at Montreat feels like a benediction, a blessing to launch me into my independent adult life.
I’m going to end with a quote from Sarah Bessey, who is so dear to my heart and perfectly captures the beauty of evolving faith. (She complimented my glasses when I met her and I nearly had a meltdown.)
“And now, for me, faith is less of a brick edifice of belief and doctrine and right answers than it is a wide-open sky ringed with pine trees against a cold sunset, an altar, a welcome, bread and wine, an unfathomably ferocious love, and a profound sense of my belovedness”