Being a church that’s open to questions isn’t always easy… but it’s worth it.

Being a church that’s open to questions isn’t always easy… but it’s worth it.

I love the way kids never shy away from hard questions.

If you spend any time around children, you’ve probably been hit with a hard question or two. If you’re a parent, probably before you’ve had your morning coffee. “Mommy, how does it feel to die?” “Uncle Joe, what is a soul made of?” “Grandma, why is there war?” I can still feel the mild panic I experienced when my own kids asked me impossible questions in the early morning hours. I’d do a sleepy mental scramble looking for the right, good parent answers to give them. Answers that I often didn’t even have.

Hard questions can be… well, a lot. They’re jarring. They throw us off balance, catch us off guard. It’s tempting to say “Because I said so!” and flee the scene as fast as possible. But those hard questions my kids asked also led to some of our best conversations. Conversations that gave us a chance to learn about each other, to share what we do and don’t know for sure, and to try to figure things out together.

I’m grateful for those hard questions. After I’ve had my coffee, of course.

If you spend any time here at Winnetka Congregational Church, you’ll probably notice that talking about big questions and having a lot of big conversations is a central part of who we are as a community.

It’s a way we are different from a lot of religious spaces — places where there’s just one right answer, one way to see things, one set of acceptable beliefs.

Around here we’re committed to keeping our house — and hearts — open to questions and hard conversations. Some days, it’s the easiest and most beautiful part of who we are. Other days, it can feel demanding, even confusing.

But, I believe this commitment to remain open to questions and conversations is important. Really important. And it’s one of the main reasons I’m here.

As a lifelong member of this church, I’ve seen firsthand what a difference this kind of intentional openness makes. And I’m not alone in this. In fact, I recently asked a few other folks in our church to share their thoughts on what it means to be a church that is open to questions and conversations.

Kris had this to say:

I was raised in a UCC Congregational (mainline protestant) Church. I wanted my children to experience the same open-minded perspective that I did growing up, and to have the freedom to choose what they believe. Being part of a church that is open to questions means that there is space to consider many points of view. WCC acknowledges and welcomes that there is no single ‘right’ way to have a relationship with God. I appreciate the WCC mindset of choosing my path while loving neighbors who may choose a different approach. Beliefs are not forced, ideas and scripture are presented for each of us to process and absorb.”

The work that Winnetka Congregational does every week to honor and make space for each other’s unique spiritual journeys, as wonderful as it is,  is also precisely that work.

And that work holds the door open for families like mine. This church has always been “my” church. I’ve been a member for over 40 years — as a child, an adult, a wife, and a mother. My husband Brian and I were married here, and our three kids were raised here. But Brian has only been a member for the last four years. His beliefs about God are different from mine, and it took many years for him to decide whether or not there was a place for church in his life. Our kids have also each taken their own paths. As teens, they chose not to be involved with church at all. Our daughter Katie and her family are now active members, bringing the next generation into our midst. Katie’s brothers are not attending church, any church. And that’s okay. They know they — and their questions — are welcome here anytime.

Because WCC stays open to questions, each member of my family has been able to ask and explore their own questions here in their own way. And we’re not the only ones.

Lisa said this:

Coming from two very different Christian religious backgrounds, we joined WCC over 30 years ago because we both felt comfortable and fully accepted. There were no judgments and there was complete openness to various interpretations of Christianity.

Junia had this to add:

“It is refreshing and encouraging to belong to a church where I can ask questions, where my doubts are acknowledged and discussed, where dogma is not the rule, and where Jesus’ message of loving everyone – even one’s ‘enemy’ –  is more important than striving for perfection. WCC is truly a ‘house of worship for all people.’ Everyone, no matter their background, etc. is accepted.”

Let’s be honest: part of staying open to questions and hard conversations is acknowledging that we don’t all, and probably won’t all, agree. Some of us wish we could spend even more time talking about doubts and tough topics, and some of us, very understandably, are concerned we might be spending too much time doing so.

What’s the right number of questions and hard conversations? I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits all answer to that. But I’m happy that we’re open to the question.

And I’m grateful that this is a place that’s open to my thoughts, experiences, doubts, concerns, hopes … and open to yours as well.

I’m grateful to be a part of the kind of community that listens. And I hope anyone who comes here figures out quickly that their questions- even the hardest ones – belong here.

Because when you’re here, you belong. That’s one thing that’s never in question. 

I’ll leave you with what I heard from Nancy:

“Sometimes when I walk through the sanctuary, I pause on the WCC Covenant Stone which reads ‘To Walk Together In All God’s Ways.’ This pause allows me time to reflect on walking in harmony with all in our congregation and, indeed, with all whom I encounter, even through disagreement. Then I am struck by the admonishment to observe All of God’s Ways. The phrasing calls me to discernment, lest I choose only those Ways which are familiar or convenient for me. The WCC Covenant invites me to sensitivity towards and participation in all of Creation and Its Mysteries.”

May we continue to walk together, imperfectly, with all of our questions, our hard conversations, our doubts, our messiness, and our commitment to grace, in All God’s Ways. 

Patti Van Cleave is a lifelong Winnetka resident with a passion for helping those around her. Her husband, Brian, and three adult children will attest to the fact that she is always busy, always involved in something new! Her role as Executive Director of Operations at WCC helps her feel fulfilled professionally, personally, and spiritually. And of course her three grandchildren are an integral part of her day-to-day life.