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Some of my best friends are non-church goers, and some of my closest friends over the years have been atheists and agnostics. This may sound strange for someone who is an ordained Baptist minister, and I’ve been thinking about it recently.
Growing up in Wasilla, Alaska, most of my friends did go to church, or had a church they said they belonged to even if they didn’t go regularly. When I got to college, that changed. I found a church almost immediately and started attending the First Baptist Church of McMinnville, Oregon. I went to chapel regularly on campus, attended the Sunday Evening Fellowship by the student Chaplain’s Team (I later became part of that team), and even went to Campus Crusade for Christ for a while. And while I had friends in those groups, and friends at church, those who were closest to me for the most part didn’t go to church. Some were just non-church goers. Some were agnostics, and still others were atheists.
Why did I choose these people to be my friends? In some ways, it just happened naturally. I went to Campus Crusade meetings for two years and slowly realized I would never fit in there. While I love Jesus, and I loved the music at those gatherings, I remember being told what the Bible said rather than asked to read for myself, and when I did, if I brought up a different viewpoint I was almost always put down for it. I remember even once, at a prayer gathering early in the morning, I prayed out loud for peace in Bosnia (this was the late 90’s). Immediately one of the leaders started praying after me and in their “prayer” mentioned how God did not want us to pray for far-away places and things out of our control but to pray for our own salvation. That was pretty much the last prayer meeting I attended of that group.
I still went to other Bible studies and was actively involved in both church life off-campus and in the student Chaplain’s Team. But my closest friends rarely went to those activities. And I found that the reason I ended up making friends with people outside of the church was that these people accepted me for who I was. I never denied my love for Jesus around them or my call to ministry. They accepted that about me and were open when we had religious discussions to hearing my point of view. They never put me down for being a Christian and never thought I was any less for being religious. I realize now that, at times, I may have not been as gracious to them. But by my senior year I was no longer interested in converting them to Christianity or to my church.
In seminary, all of my friends, of course, went to church. But after seminary, when I was getting married, I met a group of gals via the Internet who were planning their weddings. That may sound weird, but many of us became friends through our wedding details, and we stayed friends online as some of us had children and started new lives. Most of the friends I keep in touch with from that wedding planning site I have met in real life. We have met for lunch and dinner, had playdates with our kids, gone to each other’s events such as my son’s dedication and my other friend’s baby-naming ceremony at her synagogue. We’ve kept in touch and remained close. But many of them do not go to church. Some are seekers, some are “between churches,” some are non-church goers, and others agnostics and atheists. When I am with them, even though they know I am a minister, I am simply their friend. I am a mom who is trying to figure out how to tackle her toddler’s refusal to nap. I am a wife adjusting to a relocation because of her spouse’s job. I am an adult looking for new options in her career and possibly looking at buying a home with my family soon.
I have friends in our new church, and around here in Oklahoma, even my friends outside of our church go to a church. I’m glad for that. I’m also glad to keep in touch with my seminary friends and my friends from our wedding planning site back in Boston.
For me, having friends who are non-church goers, agnostics and atheists also just helps remind me of who I am as a person. They challenge me at times in my beliefs, but I enjoy their presence. I hope they enjoy mine. Of my friends in the non-church going/agnostic/atheist groups, none of them have ever tried to persuade me that my beliefs are foolish or that my faith isn’t real. Many of them have asked me questions about the Bible or religious traditions, questions of theology or history. I have found that while many of them may not be interested in attending a worship service for the experience of worship, there is still a hunger for knowledge about my religion and about my beliefs.
I still love Jesus, and it’s hard for me not to say I don’t hope that someday all of my friends will know the love of Jesus. But at the same time, I know that my friendships are strong and true not because I’m secretly trying to convert people, but because I enjoy them as a human being, for who they are as a person, and they enjoy me for who I am.
I remember one time, in the year after I graduated seminary, having dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long, long time, along with some other mutual friends of ours who were also ministers. I didn’t really think about it, but later I asked him if he was offended when we prayed, because I knew he was an atheist. He smiled and said “Of course not–I expect that of you, because you are religious.” And I remember feeling shocked that he had called me “religious.” I guess I never thought of myself as a “religious” person–and yes, how ironic in that I am a minister, I have a deep faith in Jesus, I have always gone to church regularly–but I guess I just didn’t see myself as a “religious” person. I told him that and he laughed pretty hard. He then said, “You know what I like about you, Mindi–you’re honest. You’re exactly who you are. You believe in God and the Bible and stuff, but you’ve never tried to shove it down my throat–yet whenever I talk to you, I hear your excitement about the Bible, your enthusiasm for your faith. You almost have me convinced without even trying.” I laughed then. “What I mean,” he continued, “is that I can tell how much this means to you and how real it is to you, and yet I don’t find it threatening, the way other people try to talk to me about Jesus.”
Our conversation continued for a while, and then he said, “I don’t think I can ever believe that Jesus was anything beyond a good teacher, or believe in God, or believe that most of what is in the Bible is true. But I do know I want to live a good life–I want to help others, I want to make the world a better place, not just for me–I really hope to make a difference. I want to help bring peace to the world, you know–and get away from materialism and greed and do what I can to help change the world for the better.” I smiled, and said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
As I write this, of course I’m leaving a lot of unanswered questions, about salvation and heaven, but I hope that in some ways, in my friendships, I’ve left a little room for more understanding, and grace.