People Are Expendable: My Root Struggle with Church

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Growing up with divorced parents prompted me to become a reconciler who desires nothing more than making sure everyone gets along. Underneath this way of functioning day to day, I’ve absorbed an underlying fear of the fragility of relationships. I know that things can fall apart dramatically and horribly, and even the most basic things like your family and your home could be taken away from you, either by your family themselves or by a judge.

My two sons enjoy peace and stability where the foundational issues of their parents, their home, or their future are as solid and steady as can be. I write that without judgment of my own history, but there’s no mistaking that the things I worried about and feared as a child are completely different from anything my kids have faced so far. They have a stability that comes from knowing these relationships are steady, permanent, and secure. When I developed nervous ticks in elementary school and continue to struggle with talking fast when my social anxiety kicks in, it’s hard to communicate all of this succinctly to people who say things like, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” or “What? WHAT? I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Oh, I just spent the first 15 years of my life fearing that a judge would take away everything that I love.”

When it comes to the stability of family, our closest relationships, and our homes, their security, or lack thereof, can underpin so many of our struggles and fears. These are also some of the core issues behind why so many people struggle to commit to a church or feel like they can never return again after a church let them. Issues of control and rejection are a big part of why I still can’t attend a Catholic mass with any measure of freedom or openness.

Put bluntly: in many churches, the people are expendable.

The reasons why people become expendable vary, but the common traits between the churches where I have felt secure and able to belong vs. the ones where I have not have tapped into this deeper need to know that I am not expendable. Those who struggle to belong in churches often sense that they are in some way expendable.

Just as I feared saying the wrong thing in front of my parents, a judge, a lawyer, or a psychologist, churches can foster atmospheres of fear, suspicion, and defensiveness where everything can change after supporting the wrong doctrine or admitting to a particularly taboo action.

Extreme situations aside (such as those involving criminal activity), I wonder if our core problems in the church boil down to how welcoming we are prepared to be. Or more to the point, under what circumstances will we kick someone out of a church or make him/her/they feel unwelcome?

I have seen friends who attend fairly conservative churches with strict doctrinal statements, and these friends struggle mightily because “belonging” means they need to sign documents, take classes, and jump through various hoops in order to be a part of the group. In other words, the message is that being part of the community or even the “family” is contingent on putting a signature on a list of doctrines. If you can’t sign the doctrinal statement, then you aren’t fully a part of things.

The doctrines are essential for churches, but the people are not.

However, these aren’t problems isolated to conservative churches. Anytime a group of people gathers together to form an organization, there is an inevitable struggle to define insiders and outsiders. Those who say the wrong things in a liberal congregation can just as easily be labeled and dismissed.

As our family prepares to move to a new city, we’re going through the rather agonizing process of researching churches in the area. The stakes feel especially high since we have kids who have a very particular, and overall positive, experience of church that is noisy, joyful, and full of freedom to be themselves.

The question I keep returning to about each church is how expendable we would be if we entered into their little subcultures.

Will they value particular doctrines over us when they learn what we believe?

Will they value a quiet service over seeing my son jump around with joy in front of the band?

Will they require signatures on documents and covenants and statements over sharing in our joys and struggles?

Will they demand commitment and service before they even think of inviting us to their homes for a meal?

These tensions may appear to be false dichotomies. Perhaps reading this you think to yourself, “Our church values people AND doctrines!” That could be the case, but what happens when the rubber really meets the road? I admit that I have struggled with this myself. Where would I draw the line personally with someone? Of course there are situations where boundaries are necessary. However, what does it look like to hold out compassion and mercy for people outside of the boundaries set by our faith communities?

I have seen good people in both liberal and conservative denominations fracture when someone comes along who doesn’t fit the mold.

We all long to fit in, to become a part of the group, and to be accepted as who we are. If we make enough investments in relationships, there may even be grace for messing up or believing “the wrong thing.” I suppose the question becomes where that grace could run out. Can grace and goodwill be exhausted or negated?

I have dedicated the spirituality of my 30’s to rediscovering the God of the Bible who doesn’t turn us away or discard us but welcomes those who turn back to him. We aren’t expendable in the eyes of our loving creator. For some reason, it hasn’t been that hard to believe that he would die for us in the past before we screwed anything up. However, once we start to actually fail, mess up, disappoint people, struggle with doubts, or start to shift our beliefs, it’s easy to believe you’re expendable.

If you’ve been immersed in a church culture with clear lines you can’t cross in order to belong, it’s hard to believe that God would be any different from that. The more I immerse myself in the Psalms each day, the more I confront a God who meets us with compassion, blots out our sins, and shares unceasing steadfast love and mercy with us. I’m also convinced that believing in a God who views people as expendable will create churches where people are expendable.

A missionary friend once shared with me that we must find our homes in God, and I can’t get that image out of my mind because God wasn’t safe or a sure bet for so many years. If I was expendable to God when I couldn’t get my act together, how could I truly find my home in God? Wasn’t this the same kind of insecurity that I endured in my childhood?

Once again, the Psalms describe God as a shelter, a rock, a strong tower, and a fortress. As I reach and grasp for God, asking for help and security, I fail to look down at my foundation. When I reach out to take hold of God, I fail to realize that I’m already being held.

I often think that God acted to save me before I had a chance to mess up, but it’s also true that God saved us before we could prove ourselves worthy—worthy enough for God to keep us around.

The home I have longed for is found in God, even if I still need a home and a place where I belong here on earth.

We aren’t expendable in the eyes of God, and at the end of the day we long for a church home that reflects this. Perhaps the greatest challenge some days is to rest in the love and acceptance of God without letting that reality hinge on what those in our communities believe, do, or say.

We’d Rather Stay with the 99

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Have you seen the size of our congregation?

Can you fathom how many lives have been transformed by our hard-working ministry… I mean, by the Gospel?

Our outreach programs and community service teams are missionally engaged in the surrounding culture. We have strong attendance numbers. Our baptism services are more packed than an MTV beach party—at least, what we imagine an MTV beach party would be like if everyone dressed super modestly.

While everyone’s writing about the decline of the church in America, we’re celebrating new salvation decisions every week. Our membership classes are always packed. We’re going to open a new campus next year that will expand the reach of the Gospel into yet another unreached suburb.

It’s true that some people have been damaged, spiritually abused, and manipulated by our pastor. We’re the first to admit that he has some flaws.

We say let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Our pastor is a sinner like everyone else who is no longer under condemnation. We are all under grace, and the least we can do is extend that same grace to the leaders who are running ministries that are too big to fail… I mean blessed by God with astounding attendance numbers.

We can’t let the gates of hell prevail against the church, can we?

We know some wounded people keep criticizing the spiritual abuse, manipulation, and all-male elder boards who use church by-laws and covenants to control people. It’s not our fault that these critics, at one time at least, wanted to follow our biblical model and signed up to join our congregation. It’s not our fault that they refused to abide by the covenant that we established through our culturally bound and arbitrary… I mean inerrant interpretation of God’s Word.

Yes, it’s true that some people have left the faith or have been deeply wounded because of our ministry. Shouldn’t any business… I mean empire… I mean church, expect some collateral damage?

Those calling for “accountability” and changes for our church and our leaders simply don’t understand the numbers involved in successful business… I mean church growth… I mean Gospel-centered ministry. It really all comes down to math… and some grace… especially for our leaders… but usually not for the people they hurt since aren’t preaching to thousands of people every Sunday.

Let’s deal in some round numbers for the sake of simplicity.

Say there are 100 people in our church (Not that we’ve ever had less than 150 since our launch in our pastor’s massive basement). Through the spectacular preaching of our pastor and the extremely male headship of our elder board, 99 of those people come to a saving knowledge of the Gospel, join the membership class, pledge to tithe regularly, volunteer on a regular basis, and begin reaching friends with the Gospel in order to expand our empire… I mean ministry. That’s amazing, right? What church wouldn’t dream of a 99% conversion rate?

However, let’s say that one person out of the 100 has a run in with our pastor, perhaps while he’s jet-lagged from speaking at a conference, or a disagreement with our elders who are simply asking for accountability that requires acquiescing to their demands despite everything that person believes about healthy personal boundaries. For the sake of argument, let’s say that person is deeply wounded and even spiritually manipulated, although we’re not sure how that could happen since people living under godly accountability technically can’t be manipulated. They just need to submit to their leaders and call it a day.

The wounded person may leave our church or the faith altogether. Either way, it’s not our job to cater to the whims and needs of one person. We have important work to do. We have 99 people to instruct in theology, to train in outreach, and to engage in our latest giving campaign.

It’s an unwise allocation of resources and the highly valuable time of our leaders to chase one person out of the hundred who wanders away.

If that one person out of 100 simply wanders away from the Gospel altogether in order to pursue a sinful lifestyle, then our hands are truly tied. If the Gospel has been preached and the elect have responded, what use is there in seeking out the one person wanders away?

Whatever the reason may be for one person wandering away or leaving our ministry, the key point here is that leaders need to keep focused on their vision and mission. If someone doesn’t want to “get on the bus” or play ball with your God-given vision and mission, then let them go.

Don’t leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away. That’s a terrible way to manage an organization or to fulfill a vision.

Pastors literally can’t afford to leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away.

Can you imagine the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies doing such a foolish thing?

Stop thinking about the one who wandered away! Invest in the 99 who are committed to your vision… and to the Gospel.

We want to see the Gospel reach all people, not just one person. Judging by the size of our congregation, you should stop listening to our few critics and start taking notes on our church management… I mean, disciple-making process.

 

[A Note to Readers: In case you were wondering, yes, this is satire. It’s not based on a particular church. It addresses some broader trends I’ve observed and experienced in many churches and materials written for church leaders.]

 

 

I Would Rather Be an Atheist Than Attend the Village Church

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UPDATE: The Village Church has apologized and reconciled with Karen Hinkley, admitting wrongdoing and pledging to review all policies related to this situation.

 

When I compared the people who rejected Jesus with the people who accepted Jesus for a recent book project, there is one stark difference between the two.

Those who rejected Jesus had systems of religious practices and theological constructs to rely on and defend. When Jesus came to fulfill the law, impart the Spirit, and offer access to God outside of religious authorities, they saw him as a threat.

Those who accepted Jesus were generally the sinful outsiders who had little to no previous connection with God. They had been rejected by the religious institutions and the leaders who controlled the insiders and outsiders. They didn’t rely on laws or rules to get in with God. They were no doubt living in sin, but they also didn’t have a false sense of connection with God. They were ready to receive God’s genuine freedom, not a man-made counterfeit based on proof-texting and laws.

I’ve been following a recent series of events involving a missionary named Karen Hinkley affiliated with The Village Church in Dallas, a congregation that is led by Matt Chandler. Chandler, it should be noted, leads the Acts 29 Network, a church planting network that had long been affiliated with well-documented spiritual abuser Mark Driscoll until Driscoll’s misdeeds became too much of a liability.

I’ll offer a brief summary of the situation involving the Village Church. Karen (now Hinkley) and Jordan Root were serving as missionaries, Jordan confessed to viewing child pornography (and later admitted to abusing young girls when he was underage), Jordan also has a long history of being in situations with young, vulnerable children, Karen opted to annul the marriage and leave Jordan, the Village Church disagreed with Karen and placed her under church discipline, Jordan is allegedly a member in good standing because he “repented” despite his history of lying, Karen is under church discipline, and The Village Church has denied her request to terminate membership.

Karen has pleaded with The Village Church to be more forthcoming about the details surrounding her husband and has asked them to work diligently to uncover any inappropriate contact he may have had with children as proof of his repentance.

Rather than apologize for the creepy, cult-like “denial” to Karen’s letter terminate her membership, The Village Church dug in further and sent a rather terrifying self-justifying letter in which the church leaders described Karen as a covenant member who must abide by the counsel of her church leadership and work to restore her marriage. The biblical proof-texting in this letter is unfeeling and almost robotic. Any sense of empathy or common humanity evaporates so long as Bible verses can be piled up.

It’s as if Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you proof text one another: just as I have proof texted you, you also are to proof text another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you proof text one another.” John 13:34-45, New Village Church Translation.

The Village Church has an allegedly air-tight, biblical rationale for everything, and that is their biggest problem. They can justify unreasonable expectations about exercising control in the lives of their so-called “covenant members” because they honestly believe they have the Bible behind them. They see themselves as the direct messengers of God who have correctly discerned the authoritative Word of God, and any disagreement with the “God-appointed” elders is a direct offense against God. How else can you explain such a heavy-handed, laborious response to Karen Hinkley when all they had to do was say, “Good bye”?

I would much rather start out at square one as an atheist or unrepentant sinner than place myself under the spiritual abuse, distortion of scripture, and controlling leadership of The Village Church. Honestly, such a closed, tightly regulated system will eventually fail many people eventually any way, so you may as well start out with a blank slate spiritually.

You won’t see your need for a savior if you’re constantly looking at the ways that the Bible makes you right.

While in seminary and in the years following, I have continually been challenged by the words of Jesus about this error: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, ESV).

It’s not that The Village Church can’t preach the Gospel or hasn’t led people to salvation. It’s that the Village Church ties on burdens that people cannot bear and distorts or obscures the message of the Gospel with man-made laws. The Village Church leadership has a clean cup on the outside with shining scripture verses, but they distort a filthy inside that is rooted in over-reaching leadership and a lack of emphasis on love for the sake of being as “biblical” as possible. They have strained so hard at the gnats of “biblical leadership” and “biblical eldership” that they have overlooked the more basic commands to love one another.

I have been in conservative churches where these unhealthy dynamics have lead to spiritual abuse, judgment, severed relationships, and division. There is no doubt that people who are new to the Gospel without such a background are far better prepared to receive the Gospel. I’ve personally detoxed from negative church experiences for years and watched many friends do the same.

For every time I hear someone point to the “souls saved” by The Village Church or the Acts 29 Network, I’ll point them to the many friends I know who have either left the faith or struggled mightily for years to find peace with God after being exposed to such toxic theology and leadership.

I know that such a provocative post title must be difficult to read for people affiliated with The Village Church or who have benefitted from the work of Matt Chandler. I don’t write such words lightly. It’s my sincere hope that a post like this helps us have frank conversations about what healthy and unhealthy churches look like.

Most importantly, it’s my hope and prayer that the Village Church leadership rethinks the way it overreaches into the lives of covenant members. If they persist in their ways, I fear that they’ll be receiving a lot more requests to terminate covenant membership. Will they continue to deny the right of covenant members who disagree with them to leave?

 

Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Nazarenes

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When it comes to this small, tightly-knit branch of the holiness movement, I’ve found that my friend Zack Hunt cares a great deal for his life-long denomination–enough to ask for several writing extensions lest he leave anything out.  In the time that I’ve known Zack, he has consistently praised the Nazarenes for what they get right and quickly recognized what needs work. The fact that he remains so passionate about this tribe after all of these years is a good reason to read on. 

 

I’ve been a Nazarene for longer than I can remember.

Literally.

Except for a few years on loan as a youth pastor in the United Methodist Church, I’ve been a Nazarene since birth. And so has most of my family. Not long after the denomination was founded on the dusty plains of Pilot Point, TX in 1908, my great-grandfather Rufus left his small Methodist church in Blountstown, FL and became a Nazarene. His exodus wasn’t a rejection of Methodism, but an embrace of the American Holiness Movement, which sought to recapture and revive the biblical call to holiness.

As a product of the Holiness Movement, the Church of the Nazarene began in the hearts and minds of Methodist and other holiness minded ministers who believed that Methodism had neglected its distinctive emphasis on the call to holiness; a call which, in the eyes of John Wesley, was foundational not only to Methodism, but the Christian life in general. That perceived neglect, combined with disagreements over various social issues led these holiness minded ministers to bring their various congregations together to create the Church of the Nazarene in hopes of renewing the Church’s passion for holiness.

Though it was very much a group effort, one man in particular is often regarded as our founder, Phineas F. Bresee. Not only did he start the first congregation with the name “Church of the Nazarene” in Los Angeles in 1895, it was, in large part, his vision that helped shape the early mission of the Nazarene Church, specifically its focus on the poor. Serving the poor was critical to Bresee’s understanding of holiness, and he never missed a chance to remind his Nazarene brothers and sisters that “the poorest of the poor are entitled to a front seat at the Church of the Nazarene.” Needless to say, I’m a pretty big fan of our founder and it is because of that loving-the-least-of-these-understanding of holiness that I remain a Nazarene today.

But enough with the history lesson…

 

What do Nazarenes actually believe?

Well, contrary to any urban legends you may have heard, we don’t handle snakes. But, theologically, we are a bit quirky. I say that because while I think most outsiders and even a lot of folks within the Church of the Nazarene would consider us to be a pretty conservative lot due to our stances on various social issues, many of our other theological positions are, comparatively speaking, fairly progressive.

Now, it’s true that historically, Nazarenes didn’t drink, go the movies, play cards, or even dance. But while grape juice is still our beverage of choice at the communion table, these days, you’ll almost certainly find yourself sitting next to a Nazarene at the movie theater and you’ll probably play Uno with a Nazarene and never realize it. But you’ll definitely know when you’re dancing next to a Nazarene ‘cause we’ll be those awkward folks on the dance floor who clearly have no idea what they’re doing. Look, we’ve only been dancing for a few years now, cut us some slack.

But like I said, in contrast to some of our social stances, we’ve got several other theological convictions that don’t fit so neatly into the cliché conservative evangelical mold. For example, we’ve proudly ordained women since the founding of our denomination. While we certainly affirm that God is the ultimate creator of the universe, we don’t really care how you choose to believe God did the creating. In other words, we’re ok with evolution. And when it comes to the Bible, we don’t affirm the total inerrancy of scripture. Though we do believe the Bible does a perfectly good job of revealing all things necessary for our salvation, if you find a historical, scientific, or some other kind of similar error in the Bible, that doesn’t really bother us because we don’t believe the Bible was created to be a textbook.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t play a fundamental role in our tradition. It absolutely does. And so does the theology of John Wesley. It is through the lens of our theological forefather that we read the Bible and in doing so we find ourselves confronted with an inescapable call to holiness. As we interpret it, the call to holiness means that, as Christians, we aren’t simply called to be saved, but rather to go further and model our lives as best as possible after that carpenter from Nazareth who gives us our name. That call that gave birth to our denomination, and that call continues to unite the Church of the Nazarene today.

Now, I have to be honest with you. As much as holiness unites us, what it means to be holy and how one becomes holy (especially how quickly one becomes holy, if at all in this life) is a matter of great debate in the Church of the Nazarene. Unfortunately, some folks’ understanding of holiness has led to legalism. But at its best, holiness has been defined by folks like our founder Phineas Bresee who declared that the mission of the Church of the Nazarene is “not great and elegant buildings; but to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and wipe away the tears of sorrowing, and gather jewels for His diadem.” In other words, for those of us in the Nazarene Church who follow in our founder’s footsteps, we believe that holiness is not found primarily in a list of do’s and don’ts, but in loving and caring for the least of these.

 

So, what is a worship service like in the Church of the Nazarene?

Our style of worship is pretty diverse. Depending on what Nazarene Church you’re visiting and what part of the world you find yourself in, the worship might be more on the traditional side with hymns and a little gospel music mixed in for good measure. Or the service might be extremely contemporary with more Hillsong music than this guy can handle. You might even find yourself in a Nazarene church that’s really sacramental and feels almost, not quite, but a little bit like a high church service. And if you’re really lucky – and it’s summer time – you might just end up in a good old-fashioned camp meeting revival.

Personally, I love our diversity of worship styles. I think it reflects the big tent spirit of our church that you can also see in some of the statements of faith I mentioned before. But what I really love, and what I think what a lot of my fellow Nazarenes love about the Church of the Nazarene is the sense of family we have whenever and wherever Nazarenes get together.

You see, we’re not a terribly large denomination. There are a little over two million Nazarenes in the world today, with more of us living outside the United States than within. But that relatively small size creates a wonderful sense of family. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re talking to; if you meet another Nazarene it’s just about guaranteed that within 5 minutes you’ll discover you both know some of the same people – or that you actually know each other somehow and just didn’t realize it. For example, when my wife and I were looking for a new church home after we moved to Connecticut, we naturally decided to visit one of the local Nazarene churches. All we really knew about the church was that it was Nazarene, and it was in Connecticut. As it turned out, after talking to the pastor we discovered not only that he was the one who had rushed my wife to the hospital at church camp when she was in middle school, but he was also her stepdad’s roommate in college.

Like I said, it’s a small Nazarene world.

But I love that about the Nazarene church because it means even when you move halfway across the country, you can walk into a Nazarene church you’ve never set foot in before and yet somehow it still feels a bit like coming home.

Now, at this point, I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, you guys sound awesome! You love the poor, you empower women, and if I get hurt at church camp I can count on my future pastor to rush me to the hospital. It’s almost too good to be true! How do I sign up??”

 

Well, I wish I could tell you that we’re as perfect and wonderful as I make us sound. But I would be lying to you if I said we always live up to the Christian perfection we preach about. There are corners of our church that are still plagued by legalism. While we’ve always ordained women in the Church of the Nazarene, we don’t always do such a great job of finding them churches to pastor. We’ve got a lot of work to do in regards to our relationship with the LGBT community. And even the familiarity and sense of family aspect I love so much, can be problematic when they result in positions of leadership being perpetually filled by the same biologically related families with familiar last names, thus stifling the critical infusion of fresh perspectives and new ideas that every church needs.

In other words, we’ve been around for more than a century, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

And yet, in spite of our flaws, I am still deeply proud to call myself a Nazarene. I believe in Bresee’s vision of a church dedicated to serving the poor. I believe the call to holiness is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. And I am incredibly grateful for a church family that has shaped my faith in profound ways and helped me become the person I am today.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Zack Hunt the Defender of the NazarenesZack Hunt is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University. He blogs at ZackHunt.net. You can follow him on Twitter at @zaackhunt and keep up with his blog through his Facebook page.

 

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout their denominations. We’re also accepting posts where anyone can share what they love about their denomination. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Disciples of Christ

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I know a surprising number of people in the Disciples of Christ denomination these days, especially considering that I hadn’t heard of it until I read the fantastic memoir Any Day a Beautiful Change by Katherine Willis Pershey a few years ago. I love how the Disciples of Christ folks I know are both committed Jesus-followers while also being incredibly diverse and generous. It’s a hard group to pin down in a single blog post, but Rev. Erin Wathen does a great job sharing what she loves about her denomination: 

 

It pays to have a great conversion story. Some fantastic burning bush moment when God turned your doubt upside down with unavoidable, cosmic certainty; or a drawn-back-from-the-brink story, wherein you abandoned a life of crime/addiction/certain doom for—wait for it—Jesus! If you’re a pastor and you have THAT story, then every sermon for the rest of your life has found its starting point, its center, and/or its conclusion…with your own story.

Too bad I don’t have that story. My story goes more like this: I grew up in a mainline protestant church in small town America. I did Sunday school, vacation Bible school, church camp, mission trips, and youth group, without complaint or resentment. Then I went to college and felt no impulse, whatsoever, to go to church on the weekends. When I got out of college, I started going to church again—different town, same denomination. And like, 5 minutes later, I found myself in seminary classes going, ‘what the hell…?’ I mean, I loved church. I had always loved church. But how it got me on the hook for life, I’ll never know. Maybe it was the Bible school cookies? Or the Pension Fund. Whatever it was, it was no flaming conversion.

The church of my raising was the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and that’s where I’ve served a decade-plus of ordained ministry. The Disciples grew out of the Stone Campbell movement in the early 1800’s. The early founders sought an alternative to the divisive denominationalism of that time. They wanted a way to live faith in community without “tests of fellowship,” and with “no creed but Christ.” It was a frontier journey, in more ways than one. Most literally, it was a fellowship that grew out of rural, Central Kentucky—which was the very edge of all that lie ‘west’ of civilized America. But it was also a wilderness outside of polity and strict doctrine. This was to be a place where all were welcome to receive communion; all would be received in baptism; and all could worship together, even if they did not entirely agree on the letter of the law.

How we measure the success of that original movement, these days, is highly subjective. On the one-hand, 200 years of shifting social paradigms have led to several splits. What started as a single, unified church is now 3 different denominations; sometimes we’re speaking to each other, sometimes not. Depends on the day (and what part of the country you’re in). At the same time, the Disciples of Christ, on the whole, can still point to those founding tenets of unity in Christ and freedom of belief at the heart of who we are as church together.

But with all that freedom comes the occasional identity crisis. And what, really, has been a centuries-long marketing nightmare.

“What does your church believe?” a newcomer might ask. “Well…” we venture… “Depends on who you’re talking to. And where you are on the map. And who made the coffee this morning, among other things.”

Most of our congregations affirm and empower women for leadership; but a few still don’t. Some are welcoming of LGBT people; some aren’t. Some embrace a progressive understanding of scripture; but not all. Some of our churches use gender-inclusive language for God, avoid violent imagery of crosses and blood, and are comfortable hearing about social issues from the pulpit. Others… you see where I’m going with this.

When everybody is welcome, doubt is affirmed, questions are encouraged and nobody wants to tell anybody else what to believe… then what in the world do you put on the brochure?? The website? The t-shirt?

True to those ideals of our founders, authority lies within the local congregation. We handle our own money, own our property, hire (and fire) our pastors, select our own leaders, and are not bound by the demands of any hierarchy. Our mission is expressed from the ‘bottom up,’ in that churches support the larger structure for ministry—and not the other way around. That means the local church can hone its own mission statement, set its own vision, find its own way to serve and establish presence in the community… We are guided by the same basic principles, but not bound by them.

It is both wonderful and maddening, all this freedom.

It means we don’t always know how to sit together when we disagree. It means we struggle to navigate the racial tensions, present in the world outside our walls, when we come together within. It means we don’t always know how to share our message ‘out’ there, when we can’t always get it together ‘in’ here. It means it can be hard to focus our energy and our resources to affect real change in the world… when everybody’s idea of ‘change’ is broadly varied, but deeply valued.

Oh, and worship music. Don’t get me started.

The current Disciples identity statement says that “we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” And the world, as we know it, is indeed fragmented. It is complicated. And the not having of easy answers is, yes, a marketing problem. Because easy answers, proven growth models, and colorful packaged programming is what most folks are in the market for.

Disciples really suck at all that. We always have.

But what we do offer—and always have—is a safe place to live with all that ambiguity. A place where people worship together (however imperfectly) and try to organize for good. A place where ‘movement’ of the collective body, and the Spirit, are valued over any statement of faith; and where the communion table, at the center of worship and community, calls us back to a shared belief in Christ’s love: embodied within us, and made flesh for the world.

My own faith story was no flaming conversion… But it was a slow, steady certainty that I belonged at that table. At the center of everything, I had a place, and I had people. And for all that we embody different expressions of faith; for all the places I have moved; and for all the turns our collective journey has taken; that table, and the people around it, are the same wherever you go.

Put that on the brochure. It’s the best thing we’ve got.

 

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

profileRev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in the Kansas City area. She is originally from Kentucky, and also served a church in Phoenix, Arizona for 7 years. She and her husband, Jeremy, have two kids, ages 4 and 6. Erin blogs for the Patheos interfaith network. Read more at  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/irreverin/

 

 

 

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. We’re also accepting posts where anyone can share what they love about their denomination. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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Denomination Derby: What Cara Strickland Loves about the ELCA

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This week Denomination Derby enters a new phase that will open it up for way more writers. While I’m still inviting ministers or volunteers (with a bit of expertise/experience) to share about their respective denominations, the series is now open to writers who want to share what they love about their denominations. Today my friend Cara Strickland kicks us off with her journey through a whole bunch of denominations (including a bit of time at the same college as myself!) that landed her in a very different church than the one where she first came to faith:

 

My childhood memories of church are fuzzy around the edges. Mostly, I remember how I felt as a five-year-old in the Vineyard Church of the early 90s in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. I felt secure. I knew that God loved me. God could do anything, and I rested in that.

My parents had been part of the movement almost from the beginning. I met John Wimber as a baby, before his unexpected death.

Sometimes during worship, people would dance in the aisles. Occasionally the order of service would change and people would come forward to be prayed over and anointed with oil. We always invited the Spirit to move, and to do what needed to be done, regardless of our plans.

It was there that I got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, received my first communion, and sang about breaking the mighty “yolks” (when you shout to the Lord).

I was six when we left the church. It’s a chapter of our family history that doesn’t open often, but I know that it was a hard one for my parents. I took our leaving, moving in with my grandparents for a time, and moving to the Pacific Northwest in stride, as six-year-olds do.

When we arrived in Spokane, Washington, we started attending a Presbyterian church. Then, over my middle and high school years, we went to a series of Foursquare churches. These were the places where I began to find the words to talk about faith. I became steeped in the evangelical culture of the 90s, writing in my PB&J (prayer, Bible and journaling) notebook every day, highlighting nearly every passage in my Bible, and affirming that True Love Waits.

The first time I left the church was in high school, just before my junior year. By then, I had spent years at church camp, youth group, winter retreats and church services. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now I think I was tired of expecting so much of myself. I was already a check-box girl, and the church added further boxes to my list. I served in the nursery and made pancakes for the homeless on the weekends, I gave money, above and beyond my tithe, as I felt led. I had forgotten how it felt to be secure in the love of God. So I left.

I think of that time between sophomore year and graduation as my first desert season. I allowed myself to be held by God without agenda. I got the sense that I could rest under strong, powerful wings. I started to learn how to sing with conviction again, this time about breaking the heavy yokes.

I began attending a nondenominational church after I graduated from high school. Honestly, I think that I wanted to meet a nice Christian boy and start dating. Church seemed like a good place to do it.

Both in Spokane and in the little Midwest town I moved to for college, I attended big churches, largely filled with an ever-changing population. Every week, someone introduced themselves to me during the “say hi to someone” part of the worship service, asking if I was new. I joined small groups and volunteered. I came to events and made coffee dates, but somehow I couldn’t quite get connected (or plugged in, as the pastors were always saying). While people were friendly on the surface, they didn’t seem to be in the market for new friends.

Part of the way through college at a small conservative Christian university, I stopped going to church again. I had become tired again, and I didn’t have the energy to care about the odd looks I got in the cafeteria when I arrived for lunch in everyday clothes, my hair uncurled, on Sunday afternoons.

Along the way, I met people who seemed to understand my journey, and to be on one of their own. One of those people was my first roommate, and she gave me a copy of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. Immediately, I fell in love with liturgy. I soaked up the words, laden with meaning, spoken by so many on any given morning, around the world.

I went to a small Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. I fumbled through the prayer book, and the hymnal, somewhat self-consciously. But there was something about the church that felt familiar. For the first time since the first church of my memory, I felt safe, secure, and loved. That church became my home until I graduated from college.

I moved back to Spokane after graduation and spent some years floundering between then and now. I went to the desert. I expect that I will return again, from time to time.

But now I drive to a small ELCA Lutheran church in a community you might call “challenged.” I walk past a brightly colored mural depicting trees, people of all races, and a communion table. I slide into my seat next to friends, and my pastor winks at me as she begins the service. She knows my roadblocks to believing in grace.

Here in this place, I have begun to heal from the check boxes of my youth group days. I pass the peace, take in the nourishing Eucharistic feast, and when I allow myself to relax I feel secure. I know that God loves me. I am confident that God can do anything (and that I don’t have to do anything), and I rest in that.

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About Today’s Guest Blogger

CaraStricklandAuthorCara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know.

Come say hi to her on Twitter or Facebook. She likes making new friends.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. We’re also accepting posts where anyone can share what they love about their denomination. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Christian Reformed Church

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You hear a lot of folks these days talk about “reformed theology.” Sometimes reformed theology is mentioned with a sneer or an eye roll. Sometimes reformed theology is given a thumbs up, as if it was the greatest thing since Calvin’s Geneva (minus the burning of “heretics” of course). For all of this confusion about what it means to be “reformed,” we have the humble little Christian Reformed Church that continues to surprise me with its vitality and life. Today Paul Vander Klay, who has the appropriate last name for this topic to say the least, shares what he loves about the Christian Reformed Church: 

 

If Ed’s “Denomination Derby” is conceived of as a competitive display of self-promotion the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will certainly lose. The CRC is fabulously poor at self-promotion. Let me explain.

Unless you’re from Western Michigan or have visited Calvin College you may not have ever heard of the Christian Reformed Church. The CRC has about a quarter million quiet members scattered in around 1000 congregations three quarters of which are within a couple hundred miles of Grand Rapids Michigan. This is not a recipe for church market success in North America.

While you may never have heard of the CRC or know anyone from it you’ve probably heard of a number of her famous sons (yes, sorry, they’re mostly boys). If you’re young and Reformed and you like to read old dead white guys you might recognize the names of Ned Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, Geerhardus Vos and Louis Berkhof. If you’re into newer philosophical books you’ll probably recognize Alvin Plantinga, his theologian brother Neal,  Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw and Lewis Smedes.  Church growth lovers or haters of course will know Bill Hybels who grew up CRC.

One of our more famous rebellious sons is Paul Schrader who went on to explore his roots in his 1979 film Hardcore, not quite “safe for the whole family” but yet insightful. Many like him who leave the CRC have trouble fully leaving it behind. Ours is a thick culture.

You might notice that a bunch of your books come from Zondervans, Bakers and Eerdman’s publishers based in Grand Rapids, and if you’re really an evangelical Bible wonk you might know that the NIV translation project began in the Christian Reformed Church in one of her 4 colleges. All of this should indicate that books and education in the CRC is a very big deal. This is why its most famous conference with this crowd is the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, an institution founded to train preachers for our churches and teachers for our Christian schools.

Seeing this partial list of notables and accomplishments might lead you to believe that the CRC is a bookish clan and you’d be half right. The other thing the CRC majored in was farming, mostly dairy. The CRC’s parent/cousin, the Reformed Church of America was planted by Dutch city folk while the country folk of the Netherlands who left in the 19th and 20th centuries mostly joined the CRC.

“Reformed” has recently been tied to “young” and “restless” and too often “angry” or “cranky”. A lot of CRC folks have watched this new wave of mostly Presbyterians (more cousins) and it has brought up painful memories. The CRC used to be a lot more cranky about a lot of things but it brought a lot of pain. The most recent painful fight was over women in church leadership. It started in the 70s and lasted about 25 years. When CRC finally permitted it, about 70,000 people left. For a denomination where many folks are related to you, where you play “Dutch Bingo” trying to find mutual relatives, or who were your school mates (CRC folks start lots of Christian schools), these splits are personal and the wounds heal slowly. This is making the CRC fairly avoidant when it comes to what looks like the next big fight over same sex marriage.

If you visit a CRC you’ll probably find a rather shy but friendly group. The pastor will likely be well educated but cautious and not flashy or loud. CRC people have been called the “Jewish Hobbits” of American Christianity. Many like myself actually have Jewish roots back to the Netherlands. We’ve also been compared to Jews because of our comfort with the Old Testament. We’re kind of like Hobbits because we mostly keep to ourselves and can tend to be stubborn. The real difference between CRC folk and Hobbits is that we’re abnormally tall.

What I’m most proud of in the CRC, and why I stay, is that we as a denomination work really hard at trying to be faithful to God while also trying to engage our world. It takes a stubbornness about the Bible and the church, practical wisdom learned in a real zip code and a courage to doubt yourself to try to hold it all together. We read, think, and write a lot but aren’t usually too quick to grab onto something new. We’d rather wait, ponder and pray for a while before making a big change. This usually bothers both sides of a fight. We’re never as conservative as some want, and never as liberals as others demand. Again, think of Hobbits.

I won’t be so bold as to try to sell our church to you. That’s usually just not our way. We love having new folks come and join us. Jamie Smith is one of our more famous recent joiners. He seems to be carrying on in our bookish, philosophical tradition. So visit Calvin College for the Festival or a CRC in some non-conspicuous corner someplace. We’re proud about our institutions and accomplishments, but don’t be surprised if we’re a bit shy and slow about some things. Be patient with us and you might find you’ve made a thoughtful friend.
About Today’s Guest Blogger:

head shot w2Paul Vander Klay: I’m a third generation CRC minister. I grew up in my father’s racial reconciliation church in Paterson NJ. I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic and currently pastor a small, multi-everything congregation in Sacramento CA. I love to read, write, and enjoy the interesting people God has made. I blog at http://leadingchurch.com.

 

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

email-rss-subscribe

 

Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join a Calvary Chapel

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OK ecclesiastical purists, I know that Calvary Chapel isn’t a denomination, but it’s sort of like a denomination in America, and it has played a pretty big role in the evangelical movement as a whole. Speaking personally, a Calvary Chapel played a huge role in my early days as a Christian, so when minister, writer, and jack of all trades Trip Kimball offered to share what he loves about Calvary Chapel, I couldn’t say no on a technicality. Here’s what Trip loves about his “denomination”:

 

Calvary Chapel—Past and Present

A charismatic young man, with long hair and a full beard, exhorted us to believe in Jesus and become His followers. He resembled the iconic picture of Jesus during the seventies—a quasi-hippie revolutionary.

After prayer, those who believed would follow this young persuasive leader to a back room for more prayer and instruction. I didn’t follow that night. I had questions, lots of questions.

This is my earliest memory of Calvary Chapel and the Jesus Movement of the late sixties. It crystallizes that era and the birth of what became the Calvary Chapel Association. Even my refusal to follow because of questions epitomizes the Jesus Movement and my own faith journey.

A little history

We’re not a denomination, at least that’s what we’ve claimed for more than 45 years. Many of us joke that we are a non-denominational denomination. Our official belief for years stated—

We are not a denominational church, nor are we opposed to denominations as such, only their overemphasis of the doctrinal differences that have led to the division of the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to understand Calvary Chapel without knowing its origins.

The era was the mid-sixties and early seventies. Anti-war demonstrations, love-ins, psychedelic drugs, eastern religion and philosophy, the Beatles and Bob Dylan provided a back drop for what became a national movement. Calvary Chapel played a big part in the west coast phase of the Jesus Movement.

What set Calvary Chapel apart was an emphasis on teaching the Bible and what became known as contemporary praise and worship. Hour long Bible studies were common, as young people with beards, beads, and bell bottoms sat on the floor. The music was a blend of folk and rock, but always about Jesus.

The one-way sign—pointing a finger towards heaven—symbolized our focus. It was always about Jesus.

An eclectic mix

The founding pastor, Chuck Smith, was a Four Square pastor for many years before starting with a group of twenty-five people in a borrowed church building. It went from a small group to thousands—a small church on the edge of town, to a circus tent, to its present facility in Santa Ana, CA.

Pastor Chuck was a Bible teacher first and foremost, with a love for biblical prophecy. It was a mix of old school Christianity that merged with the hippie culture of the time. His wife Kay encouraged him to welcome and reach out to these hippies who were lost and wandering. His background was traditional Pentecostal, and most of the young people had little to no church background.

Chuck presided over the movement with his genuine, gracious, fatherly smile. His emphasis was always on God’s Word and the grace of God, which characterized the Calvary Chapel movement.

Chuck’s simple form of personal discipleship transferred easily to those who remained committed beyond the early days of revival. It was natural and grounded in biblical truth. This is an important reason why I found a home in Calvary Chapel.

A developing theology

Calvary Chapel is still too young, as church movements go, to have a well-developed theology. It’s still in the development stage. This is especially true following Pastor Chuck’s death last year. His son-in-law, Brian Broderson, has a vision to reach the present young generation, so changes will come, as he settles into the role of pastoring Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.

But Brian is one of several other pastors who form a Leadership Council. Each church is autonomous, which has its pluses and minuses. Growth pains will come, just as there have been bumps along the way. Now it must survive the passing of its founder.

One of those bumps was the breaking off of the Vineyard fellowships during the 1980’s. An over-compensation to the Vineyard movement resulted in more restrictive and conservative attitudes towards worship, prayer, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In recent years, I recall Chuck appealing to pastors during conferences to return to a more Spirit-led form of ministry, as he taught out of Galatians 3:1-3. There are other difficulties over the years, but the core elements of the early years continue to hold firm.

What do I love about Calvary Chapel?

My wife and I were baptized in the Pacific Ocean at Pirates Cove (in So Cal). We fellowshipped and served at a young age during the little chapel and tent days (1971-73). Things were simple then. We loved and worshiped Jesus, and our life reflected this simplicity.

These are the things we embraced then and now—

  • A personal relationship with Jesus, our Lord and Savior
  • Teaching through all of God’s Word, the Bible
  • Worship focused on Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit
  • Relational evangelism, discipleship, and service

Is this a little too simple? Perhaps, but it’s how we came to faith more than forty years ago, and how we follow Jesus today.

About Today’s Guest Blogger

TK1-3.09-smTrip has cleaned toilets and painted houses for a living, and planted a church in 1978. He and his wife moved to in the Philippines in 1990, and established a ministry for abandoned babies and children, and abused girls. He also developed a Bible school and training center for leaders in the Philippines.

In 2012, Trip published, The Mystery of the Gospel, born out of his ministry time in the Philippines. He’s also developed discussion-based Bible studies connected to his workbook on an inductive approach to Bible study.

He is currently involved in mentoring a few men and leading several small group studies, while working a couple part-time jobs and posting online at– word-strong.com.

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

email-rss-subscribe

 

 

One more thing from Ed…

The eBook version of A Christian Survival Guide will be on sale for $.99 on most major eBook sites until January 18th, 2015. 

Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the American Baptist Church

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We’re welcoming Elizabeth Hagan to Denomination Derby. She’s a prolific blogger, pastor, and a deeply committed member of the Feed the Children team, especially since her husband is the CEO! Today she answers the question: What do you love about the American Baptist Church? 

 

When I was 14 years old, I knew that God called me to ministry. One Sunday morning in the mountains of Tennessee, heard a compelling talk from a missionary preparing to leave America. She wanted to help people know the love of Jesus. Something tugged at my heart too saying, “This life is for you.”

When I told my Southern Baptist Church of about this spiritual prompting, they had one question: “Do you want to be a home or a foreign missionary?”

Honestly I had no idea.

What kind of question was this for a young girl who hadn’t even picked a college?

But, for women called to vocational ministry in Southern Baptist life “mission work” is the only option and preferably with a husband.

Fast-forward almost 10 years. I sat in a worship service at my college with a female preacher (gasp) in the pulpit. My upbringing full of rules said, “This is wrong. Leave!” But heart said: stay. Listen to her.

Two years later I began seminary on the preaching track. I would become a pastor too.

It should have been a joyous time. It wasn’t. I realized that the church that raised me would not engage with my interpretation of scripture and my experience of God. Neither would my local association. My new seminary friends found themselves on the “ordination track” with their denominations, but I was lost.

I would need a new church if I remained in seminary. Maybe another flavor of Baptists would accept me? And at this point, enter the American Baptist Church into my story.

I first met the American Baptists 10 years ago through a seminary internship at Calvary Baptist Church, Washington, DC.

Right away I learned this: the American Baptists’ history began in taking a stand for social justice. At the wake of the US Civil War, Baptists in the South wanted to keep segregation a part of their church life, and Northern Baptist (they would later be called American) said it was not God’s way. Groups that once had joined for missions soon separated at this moment in time.

 

In 1907 at a meeting at Calvary Baptist in Washington, DC, the Northern Baptist Convention formed. This meeting officially separated the Baptists into the Southern and Northern. The Northern Baptists elected Charles Evans Hughes, a New York governor who later became a Chief Justice, as their first leader. He championed a family of Baptists that valued the contributions of all, no matter the color their skin or their gender.

 

Over the next half century, American Baptists became known as a voice questioning the status quo on race relations during moments like the Civil Rights Movement.

Wow, now this is was something I could get behind!

 

When I took Baptist history and polity at Duke Divinity school I loved getting to know American Baptist pioneer, Helen Barrett Montgomery. A tireless crusader, fundraiser and champion of women’s rights was elected as the first female President of the Northern Baptists in 1921! (No home or foreign mission box for her! A woman in charge!) I admired her courage to answer the call of God even if she had little support too.

 

It kept getting better!

 

In 1950, the Northern Baptist officially changed their name to American Baptists—to align themselves to a larger geographic area and this name remains today.

 

Theologically, American Baptists closely align with Mainline Protestantism—the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, etc. Though American Baptist seminaries exist, you will often find ABCUSA students studying at schools affiliated with mainline Protestantism.

 

Today the American Baptist Churches USA is a body of 1. 5 million members and 5,000 churches still based primarily in the Northern part of the United States.

 

More specifically, the ABCUSA clings the historic Baptist principles such as:

 

  1. Separation of church and state
  2. Priesthood of all believers
  3. Believers baptism
  4. Autonomy of the local church

 

Nationally American Baptist meet bi-annually at a convention to make resolutions as a collective body, gather for fellowship and training. While there are state association leaders and national officers, each of these positions seeks to support churches. The local churches are kept in the center.

 

Today, women’s voices as well as minority leaders continue to be championed. Pastors who start American Baptist missions are encouraged to respect the traditions of the cultures in which they serve. For example, the only American Baptist church I found when my husband’s job recently took us to Oklahoma was within the Native American community. I learned that the American Baptist missionaries who started the congregation did not ask the new church members to stop attending to their tribal activities like pow wows and sweat lodges, as other evangelical groups had. I liked that.

 

I love that when I tell someone I’m an ordained American Baptist minister, I feel respected. American Baptists are not theological or social isolationists. They want to be a part of the larger community of faith.

 

Being an ordained American Baptist minister affords me the opportunity to pastor in an ecumenical context. For example, it is not frowned upon that I’m currently serving a United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Presbyterian USA merge congregation, as the interim pastor. My American Baptist friends bless me to be where I am till an opportunity presents itself to return.

 

Such freedom, I know comes because I stand on the shoulders of those who have walked this path before me with great courage. American Baptists who knew the gospel called them to action, unconditional love and soul liberty.

 

As I continue to discern how my vocational calling is lived out, I’m glad to have found a home with the American Baptists!

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Elizabeth HaganElizabeth Hagan became a Rev within the American Baptist tradition after graduating from Duke Divinity School in 2006. She spent six years serving churches in a full-time capacity in the Washington, DC area, most recently as the senior pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, VA.

However, in 2013, she and her husband Kevin came to be a part of a large international non-profit called Feed the Children headquartered in Oklahoma City. She recently started a new position as Interim Pastor at the Federated Church (a UCC/ Disciples/ Presbyterian USA merge) in Weatherford, OK.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

email-rss-subscribe

Why You Should Join the United Methodist Church

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If you know anything about the United Methodist Church lately, it’s that conservative and liberal factions have been hotly debating several topics and may be on the brink of dividing. However, Morgan Guyton, a campus minister, has consistently shown me the best of the UMC by both asking hard questions and reaching out to humble reconcile with those who disagree with him. He is firm in his convictions without painting others as enemies. While this is a rough time for the UMC, I asked Morgan what he loves about it and why he would suggest others should join him:

 

United Methodism: A Messy House Filled with God’s Love

We live in a world in which ideological tribes are increasingly siloing themselves in isolation from each other. We like mouthing off on social media about the hot-button issues of our idea, but it feels oppressive to see somebody from the opposite side mouth off so we unfollow and defriend them. There are very few spaces in our society anymore where people of differing ideologies congregate and build community together voluntarily. One such space is my denomination, the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodists may be the only major big-tent Protestant denomination left. Every other Protestant denomination has split into a conservative faction and a liberal faction usually along the fault-line of either female ordination or homosexuality. It hasn’t been easy, but United Methodists have stuck together. I actually did not realize there were conservative United Methodists for the first half-decade that I was a United Methodist. I had grown up in a moderately conservative Southern Baptist home. I always thought the fundamentalists were probably right and I was just an immature rebel.

 

But over time, after drifting through Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Unitarian phases, I found myself in a mostly LGBT United Methodist congregation in Toledo, Ohio.

It was in this congregation where I discovered the gospel that I believe today. I had never really believed in the gospel that told me that Jesus’ purpose was to save me from his angry father who was eager to torture me in hell forever. But I’d never discovered a viable alternative to that awful caricature of the Christian story. It was in a church book club that I attended with mostly lesbians where I discovered Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in which Nouwen argues that our greatest challenge is to actually live as though God loves us infinitely. Nouwen contends that the reason we sin and hurt other people is because we haven’t accepted God’s unconditional love. The process of accepting God’s love is a lifelong journey toward salvation.

To me, Nouwen’s account of the gospel was a much more compelling piece of good news than the angry God gospel I’d received from my evangelical upbringing. I learned years later that Nouwen was touching upon a core definitive doctrine within United Methodism: prevenient grace. Whereas some Christians believe that God has decided who to send to heaven and who to send to hell before the beginning of time, the doctrine of prevenient grace describes the premise that God offers his grace to everybody and is constantly pursuing us and seeking to win us with his love long before we are even aware of God’s presence in our lives.

I’ve discovered that there are many United Methodists out there who haven’t had their most formative spiritual experiences in book clubs they attended with mostly lesbians. Particularly in the Deep South, there are many United Methodists who disapprove of the very people who gave me the gospel that saved me from the ugly caricatures of God that had kept me from fully trusting in him. This has been a very difficult thing for me to discover. If queer Christians are an abomination, then I am an abomination even though I’m straight because they have been such a decisive influence in my journey.

It’s painful being part of a big-tent denomination. And yet, the pain is absolutely worth it. I totally understand and respect the need for LGBT people to find Christian communities where they are accepted and their gifts are appreciated and utilized completely, even if that means leaving the contested battleground of United Methodism. As for me personally, I have been richly blessed by being in a community with people who have very different ideological perspectives from me. It’s obvious to me that they genuinely love Jesus and they genuinely want for people to know how much Jesus loves them. Though our disagreements are real and painful, our shared belief in prevenient grace does give us a powerful common theological foundation.

Though at times I would much prefer to be surrounded by people who agree with me, my experience in United Methodism loving and working side by side with people who have different beliefs has given me a lot of hope. If you try finding your place in an ideologically diverse denomination like United Methodism, you will definitely find people who are completely on the same wavelength with you. You will also find people who aren’t but are willing to accept you and build community with you anyway. Our denomination may be a messy house, but it’s a messy house filled with God’s love.

 

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

morgan-guyton-methodist-umcMorgan Guyton is the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA. His wife Cheryl is a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church as well. Both Cheryl and Morgan attended Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC, where they met. Cheryl has served as a hospital chaplain in the past, but is currently taking some time off to stay home with their two boys Matthew (8) and Isaiah (5).

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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