Last Summer I moved to a village about an hour and a half away from where I have lived for the last 14 years, and so left a vibrant church community I had become a part of.
A year has passed, and I am still unsettled. Why?
This post includes reflections on my search for a church community.
My assumptions about churches
I’ll start by explaining where I’m coming from in regard to churches.
- The world-wide, past, present, and future followers of Jesus Christ are the church.
- To claim that any single Christian denomination has some exclusive mantle of righteousness is frighteningly short-sighted in regard to the power and reach of God’s Word in this world, and the power of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
- In terms of the traditional term of “church,” that being a local or regional congregation, I have never visited one that I think is perfect. This is the nature of man, and it is in spite of our foolishness that God’s work is done. I do not expect to find a “perfect” church. Paul’s letters to the early churches suggest to me that we have never had a church that is beyond reproach.
- The attitudes and attributes of a church are determined by the leadership of that church, the traditions and rules the church holds to, and the community and context in which it serves.
What I want in a church
- I want the leadership of the church to be humbled servants of the Word of God, willing to be corrected on long-held doctrinal stances out of reverence for the sovereignty of God. How can I trust them otherwise?
- I want the people in the church to serve earnestly for the common good, to be there for each other, to challenge, encourage, and enrich each other to grow in knowledge and spirit, and to hold each other accountable as needed.
- I want a community of believers that I am comfortable raising my daughters with.
The church I grew up in
As a child, before I believed, I attended a church called the First Apostolic Lutheran Church. The messages were always based on scripture and usually returned to the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. During services we often heard the pastor remind the congregation that our sins are forgiven in the name and blood of Jesus Christ. The congregation responded with those words back to the pastor. Let me be careful to point out that we were not actually forgiving any sins, we were reminding each other that our sins have been forgiven.
I am thankful for this upbringing, because it was during one of these church services that I, as a spiritually wayward 16 year-old, first truly believed that I am a forgiven child of God. The good news is very simple and very profound.
Fall of 2008: The pastor forgives my sins?
I attended a service at a church that shall remain anonymous. This particular service was a bit formal, with a pastor wearing a robe, deacons, an altar girl, and probably other trappings that I missed.
The message was about anger, and, ironically, I thought it was weak. During the service I could have sworn that the pastor said he forgave our sins. That’s not okay. I don’t expect to go back.
Winter 2008–2009: Baptist churches
I have attended a few Baptist churches recently. I have heard nothing that I take issue with, but I don’t think I am a Baptist. Perhaps I will end up in a Baptist church, by default.
Attending these Baptist churches has helped me realize that I do not like the idea of being labeled by any particular denomination’s stamp. My faith in God is fiercely independent of any local church I may attend and serve in. I look with skepticism on church-endorsed viewpoints, products, activities that do not root in God’s Word.
Social validation and manipulation
One church that I have been to a few times included an “altar call” in each service where the pastor exhorted people to self-identify, come forward, be prayed for, and so forth.
This can be a good opportunity for people to take that step of acknowledging Christ as savior. However, the line of prompts from the pulpit came off to me, a believer, as a sort of mass manipulation relying on the band-wagon effect—social validation to get people to make some sort of emotion-driven public statement.
Salvation is a spiritual act. Emotions are often tied to it, but by manipulating people, I feel like the pastor was using a dirty trick. This leads me directly to question whether the pastor was doing this to make himself feel good, or whether he was doing it to preach the gospel.
Spring 2009: A spinny church
Earlier this Spring I attended another church. It was fairly charismatic, with about an hour of worship music and dancing before the more sedate portion of the service ensued.
A tall woman in a long red robe waved her arms in wide spirals and spun around and around, her robe twirling with her. It was quite pretty. Another woman walked around the room waving a blue banner with symbols and writing that may have been Jewish over peoples heads. Others danced. Some laid down and cried. Others shouted, “JEEESUSSS.”
One song was about spinning for God and God spinning over us, and that God is happy when we spin over him.
That’s happy and all, but show me this in scripture? It is important that worship is based on truth.
I was reminded of whirling dervishes in the Middle East and of prayer banners in Tibet.
Let me say this: I believe that God’s work is being done in that church, and that there are sincere believers who are furthering God’s plan.
However, I won’t attend that church, because they have women pastors (I know, controversial—read Timothy 1 and Titus and then argue this in comments to this post if you like) and secondarily it seems like they are worshiping too much to their own glory and not enough to God’s. I could be totally wrong on this point.
Summer 2009: So where does this leave my quest?
I believe that as a Christian I am supposed to be engaged with a community of believers. As a father, I need to demonstrate that to my children.
I may continue to seek, or may end up settling in a tiny Baptist church nearby that I have attended quite a few times. It doesn’t have the richness of activities you get with a larger congregation, but more importantly the leadership and congregation seem to be humble, sincere followers of God. That is sufficient.