February 1 was a typical Sunday morning at the Grace Presbyterian Church in Water Mill. The adults settled into their seats for the service as the children scampered off to Sunday school. The church’s band had already put aside their instruments and the 50 parishioners quieted down as minister Mark Middlekauff took the stage.
Middlekauff posed an unusual question to his audience of devout followers of Jesus Christ. “Isn’t the Bible just a bunch of made-up stories?” asked Middlekauff rhetorically.
The discussion stemmed from “It Pays to Question God” a program the church has been sponsoring for the last few months. “It Pays To Question God” was originally set up as a website where South Fork residents could submit their questions for God. With each submission, the church donated $5 to a local charity of the person’s choice. Middlekauff gathered the top 10 questions asked, and has compiled them into a 10 part sermon series that began last Sunday.
Of the impetus for the program, Middlekauff said “I asked myself ‘how well do we know what our neighbors think of God? What questions run through their minds?’”
“In order to have a vibrant faith, one needs to continue to question and seek,” said Middlekauff. “This is a campaign to re-investigate and challenge some people’s presumptions about faith. We want to open up that dialogue.”
Middlekauff said that of all the queries he received, those pertaining to human suffering and the presence of evil were high on the list. To fully address these concerns, Dr. Os Guinness, a noted lecturer, spoke in a discussion forum called “God, if you are so good why does evil exist?” at The Wolffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack on February 3.
Middlekauff’s sermon series will continue every Sunday through April 5 with a different question addressed each week. The questions range from the co-existence of science and faith, to broader inquires about the afterlife. Other people asked why God doesn’t prove his existence and why he sends sinners to hell if he is a God of love.
Middlekauff hopes to guide his parishioners, and other members of the community, through these difficult questions in an effort to deepen their faith.
Fifteen years ago, Middlekauff was anything but a spiritual guide. Middlekauff was in his 20s and living the life of a successful bachelor. He owned a computer business in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent his down time with friends. Although raised a Christian Scientist, Middlekauff defined himself as an atheist throughout college and into his 20s.
One night, however, Middlekauff woke up with a strong and inexplicable sense of “something above.” The following day Middlekauff bought a Bible. With that purchase, Middlekauff’s investigation of Christianity had begun. For the next three months, he read the Bible and other noted texts on Christianity, including C.S. Lewis’ work “Mere Christianity.” He volunteered with the junior high youth group at the Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
“I was investigating Christianity as a plausible belief system,” said Middlekauff. It was a journey that ultimately changed the course of his life.
Eventually, Middlekauff sold his computer business, accepted a position as the youth director at the church and later entered seminary. While working for the church in St. Louis, Middlekauff met his wife, Lesley, who was hired to run young adult programs. After earning his masters degree in divinity, Middlekauff and his wife were ready to leave St. Louis and start a parish of their own.
With help from the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the Middlekauffs raised enough money to lease space from the Hamptons Alliance Church in Water Mill in the summer of 2006. At first, the parish had only five families who regularly attended. Last summer, nearly 80 people consistently visited on Sunday mornings.
Middlekauff is hoping the “It Pays to Question God” sermon series will not only attract new followers, but also re-invigorate the faith of his regular attendees.
“A lot of people aren’t raised as followers of Jesus Christ, but I think that knowing Jesus can change their lives,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have said that.”