Denomination Derby: What Cara Strickland Loves about the ELCA

Denomination Church Logo

 

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 Vineyard Movement

Denomination Church Logo

 

Today’s guest post for Denomination Derby is by Amanda Nash of the Columbus Vineyard. If you’re ever in Columbus, OH, it’s referred to as, “The Big Vineyard.”

 

I didn’t grow up in the Vineyard. I came in to the movement as a college student and a new Christian looking for a place to grow and serve with my fresh faith. I had no idea that the first church I visited would become such a major part of my history for the last 17 years. In fact, I was a slow “convert” to the Vineyard. I went through a very critical process where I explored whether this was truly the place I wanted to call my church home.

I am immensely glad that I did make that decision. Over time, I have found so many things that I love about the Vineyard. Though I know that we are far from perfect, the more I am a part of it I simply love the heart of our movement. Here are four reasons why I love the Vineyard, out of the many I could list:

 

The Vineyard and the Kingdom of God

The Vineyard movement has at the core of its theological DNA the central teaching of Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Everything we do is seen through this lens of the Kingdom, i.e. the rule and reign of God. We want to be a part of the Story of God, which is the story of His Kingdom breaking in on Earth as it already exists in Heaven. While we have the future hope of his Kingdom coming in full, that is not the end of the story. In the now we can still ask, “what would this place look like if God were the King, if he were really in charge?” We want to be a part of seeing His Kingdom in this world and at work within ourselves, by the power of his Spirit.

I resonate with the picture that N.T. Wright puts forward regarding the whole of the gospel. That is, that in Jesus, God has inaugurated His Kingdom – the long awaited putting-to-right of creation (and everything that entails). I find that concept right at the heart of my own movement. I am so encouraged to be living out the theme that was at the forefront of Jesus’ own ministry.

 

The Vineyard’s Both/And Theology

The Vineyard movement has a Both/And Theology. There are many areas that we in the Vineyard try to hold in tension. We often say we want the best of both worlds. We want to be evangelical and charismatic; we are committed to scripture and to hearing a fresh word from God’s Spirit; we want mercy and justice; we believe in the spiritual realm of healing and warfare and that the world God created includes a deep appreciation of the sciences; we want to be connected to the historical and traditional church and explore new and contextualized expressions of faith.

This tension brings many people of different backgrounds together. I love that the Vineyard movement gets to bless a lot of other traditions by virtue of holding them in tension. And in reality, we are the ones who are blessed in doing so. It means that so many people who think very differently end up calling the Vineyard their home; I love the growth and vibrancy that comes from that reality.

 

“Everyone Gets to Play” in the Vineyard

The Vineyard movement believes Everyone Gets to Play. We don’t present pastors as the religious elite that no normal person can aspire to become or be called to. The church is functioning at its best when people are released to operate in their gifts. This means that no matter how old you are, no matter what your gender is, no matter your background, we want people to operate based on faithfulness, calling, and gifting.

This means that as a young woman – 19 years old – and fairly new to the Vineyard, I was able to jump into leadership opportunities. As I have responded to a call on my life to be a pastor, there is no limit to me as a woman to how much leadership I am allowed to have. The Vineyard has promoted me as a woman and as a young person and has encouraged me to respond to the call of leadership on my life.

 

The Vineyard Gives Away Our Best

Finally, in the Vineyard movement we Give Away our Best. The Vineyard is an international church planting movement. We are constantly developing leaders and giving them away to continue the increase of the local church all over the world. This means that we fully embrace the notion that nothing is ours. Everything is for His Kingdom. Even though it hurts, we say goodbye to people for the sake of His Kingdom.

I was serving here in Vineyard Columbus (Ohio) for almost 10 years when our church decided to send a plant to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Even though I was an influential leader in our 20something community, our church sent me and my husband and 8-month-old son to be a part of the church plant team along with 5 other significant leaders in our church. I love the culture of being open-handed and making lots of space for new people to rise up.

 

I didn’t know what the Vineyard was 17 years ago, but I am so glad I stumbled into this incredible Kingdom-centered movement that has helped me to grow, challenged me to risk and promoted me in the call God has on my life, while giving me space to be imperfect. I am truly honored to call it my family.

 

photo 2About Today’s Guest Blogger

Amanda Nash is a wife and momma of three. She has worked at Vineyard Columbus for over 10 years with three years off church planting in Amsterdam. She has a BA in Religion and English Lit and is currently pursuing her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 

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.

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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How Do I Keep My Kids from Hating Church?

drum-church-music

Our son E, who is two years old, ran in front of the church’s stage at top speed, giggling and clapping his hands. He chased his friends, crawled across the floor, and even gave one friend a high five at the end of a song. We meet in a school auditorium where the stage sits about three feet about the seats and spacious front area that is left open for energetic children. This particular Sunday the worship team chose energetic songs for a service focused on children.

When the band transitioned to the “Happy Song” by Delirious, which is a kind of anthem that celebrates God’s love, I lost it. Tears welled in my eyes as he jumped and galloped to the music. I remembered the first time I heard that song in college. It was a bit weird and off-beat, but it also tapped into a powerful sense of joy and freedom in celebrating God’s love. I’d come from a fairly conservative church, so clapping and shouting and moving anything other than my mouth during worship felt a bit different.

If there was ever a high point in my days as a church attending Christian, it had to be those days in college. I was still learning about my faith and tiptoeing around more charismatic forms of worship. I envied my roommate who came from a Vineyard church. He had this sense of peace that came over him during worship that I couldn’t quite imagine for myself. As we sang “The Happy Song” and some Hillsong numbers in my Christian college’s chapel, I began to sense there may be something to this.

Worship was where my faith really took root in my early 20’s. My theology fell apart in seminary, and while I put the pieces back together, worship sustained me. Then again, worship was also the cause of my greatest conflicts within the church as generations divided over musical styles and song choices.

Seeing my generally quiet and reserved son literally jump for joy at a song that sparked my own discovery of freedom and joy in worship, I also remembered how bitter I’d become throughout my 20’s. I’d been so critical of the church, and I was especially critical of the music. In fact, the most important step in my healing from church was hanging up my guitar and taking my hands off music completely. I just couldn’t be that guy any more. I didn’t want to have an opinion. I just wanted to participate in whatever my church offered and leave things at that.

I’d been a part of the worship wars, and the thing about a war is there’s never one side with clean hands. I was critical, and I was criticized. I treated people like problems to be solved or dismissed, rather than as members of the same body of Christ. And many did the same to me. I don’t know who fired the first shot in the different churches I’d attended, but I do know there was a lot of “shooting” in other churches during those years as well.

As I saw E’s joy during worship and remembered the way I’d fallen out of love with the church throughout a series of conflicts and bad experiences, I wanted to shield him from that same crash. He’s only 2, but he already loves church. He loves the music. He thanks God for the drums at night… along with corncobs and playgrounds. He loves going to the two-year-old room with his friends. How can I make sure that joy for gathering with God’s people for worship keeps happening?

I’m not sure that my approach to church is the best option for him. I’ve basically chosen to disengage from the mechanics of the church service because it had been a source of toxic experiences in the past. However, E doesn’t have that history. He can pursue his own path, and I want to guide him as he makes his own decisions and discovers God for himself.

So much of his future seems to hinge on the course chosen by myself and my generation:

Will we welcome his priorities and the ways he worships God?

Can I advocate for ALL generations in the church, not just the ones that pay the bills?

Can I walk the fine line between giving him things to do at church so that he feels involved without turning him into a minion that serves the whims of the older leaders?

Can I give him positions of responsibility that come with enough oversight to help him take ownership for the community without shutting down his original ideas?

While we have many denominations and traditions, church has to change, at least a little bit, for each generation. It needs to feel sacred and holy and “right” to each generation. And this balance is not easily held.

You may notice that I’m addressing these questions to myself and really to us, the people who go to church today. We are the people who are preparing the church for the next generation. Will the next generation find a place where they can belong and worship God or will church strike them as a foreign place that caters only to the spiritual preferences of Generation X and Millennials?

There are things our leaders can do, but in my experience, the leaders were often willing to listen to me throughout my 20’s. They did try to bring in young leaders and train them. Some churches did this better than others, but for the most part the leaders were at the mercy of the congregation.

While some leaders asked too much of me or didn’t really want to take me seriously, things wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for all of the crap they were taking and all of the crap I was taking from the church attendees and members. I received criticism directly and others directed their criticism at the leaders. It was a huge power play. And I understand the desire for church to look a certain way. It was ironic actually. While fighting to preserve their particular form of church they accused me of trying to remake church in my own image.

It will be really easy to repeat that mistake again with E’s generation. Anecdotally speaking, so many people in my own generation had to fight for our places in the church. Others started their own churches. And still others opted out altogether. The first two, who had to fight or start from scratch, are the ones who will be deeply invested in their churches. Change for the next generation won’t be easy. And it’s not like we can plan ahead for this. Who knows what spirituality and worship will look like in the next twenty to thirty years?

As I watch E run and jump for joy in church, I want to shield him from all of the criticism and petty arguments that could come his way in the future. But even more than that, I want to tell his story and hold him up for everyone to see.

Do you see this raw joy and wonder? This is what it means to be childlike. This is what we should aim for too.

The tragedy of church isn’t that the young people have failed to conform to the standards and plans set up by the adults. The tragedy of church is that the adults have failed to become childlike. We’ve neglected the amazing gifts right in our presence that our children have been offering us. We’ve pushed and pulled and squeezed the younger generations so hard to shape them into our own images that they’ve been shot right out of the church.

Then the older generations point fingers at the worldly young people who don’t care about church and the Barna Group releases an alarming survey about the coming downfall of the church so that pastors can wag fingers and authors can write books offering the solution…

I confess, most days, it’s hard to become childlike when cynicism appears to be perfectly valid.

I don’t know what becoming childlike will look like, but for today, I want to say to my son that I’ll always make room for him to experience God’s joy and presence in church. I’ll always welcome his perspective and the ways that he learns about God. And I’ll do what I can honor the lessons his joy has to teach us all.

 

Hope for Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church

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I had the uncomfortable sense that Broderick would end up in therapy one day because of ministry. He had the look of a kind-hearted, well-intentioned lemming on the brink of charging off a hill—a hill called ministry. He asked people to call him, “Brod,” because he wanted everyone to treat him like best buds.

He was like a kid on his way to Middle School who expected everyone to be his forever friend. Brod only saw the upside of church—he was passionate about a career in ministry, committed to teaching the Bible, and putting relationships with others first. I could see how a church could leave him battered by the side of the road.

Burned out and weary from giving so much of myself to the church only to find that you end up stepping on toes and meeting opposition for even your best efforts, I’d long been disabused of the hope and enthusiasm that Brod exuded. Having swung to the opposite, more cynical side of things after several damaging church experiences, I thought to myself: you’ll see… some day you’ll see.”

I have no idea what became of Brod. As for myself, I’ve given up on any future ministry plans, but I’m finally hopeful again about church and what it can be.

When we expect church to be a place of healing, community, acceptance, and growth, it can be devastating to stumble into a series of personal turf wars, theological battles, vendettas, popularity contests, and power struggles. On the other side of things, it’s hard to see how things could be any other way. If you get a group of 200 people in the same room, any 200 people, and try to find music, learning styles, and activities that suite them all, you’re going to lose your mind. It’s only our cultural expectations and previous experiences of church that reign in our preferences and create a starting point when we gather together for worship.

I have two rules now for church. I may add to them or modify them in the coming years, but for now, here they are:

  1. Look for life.
  2. Commit to people first.

 

Looking for Life in Church

If I look at my previous church experiences, I often stuck around out of judgment or obligation. And if I did step out of a church for a season, I beat myself up with heaps of guilt.

Today my first question about church is if I feel free to worship God with these people, whether in the service, in small groups, or in other settings. Are these people experiencing the life of Jesus and imitating him in some distinguishable ways? Do I experience the freedom and joy of the Spirit with these people? Am I free to learn and be challenged by the Spirit? Do these challenges lead to more life and freedom?

You get the idea. There’s always a temptation to slip into a consumer mindset, but seeking life and “freedom” rather than what feels good is an important, if not fine line at times. We experience life and God’s presence often in the places where we are most challenged and where we are led to seek the deeper experiences of God.

If God’s Spirit is restricted by theology or an order of service, then I have no qualms with bailing. If the Bible is used to control, judge, and prove one side’s superiority, it’s time to jump ship on that church.

I’m not saying you should give up on every church ever. Just that church. There are churches that will guide you to God’s life. Sometimes we are so focused on the meager benefits of a toxic church that we overlook its judgment and harmful theology that could alienate us from God.

 

Commit to People First in Church

If you give up on having an opinion in the church as an “organization” or “movement,” you will eliminate the majority of your potential conflict with fellow Christians. In fact, I dreaded the fate of an optimist like Brod because, as a pastor, he was mandated to have an opinion of his church’s organization and future. As often as we hear about pastors who abuse their authority, there are just as many (if not more) unreported stories of pastors who have been hounded by members of their congregation. In addition, anyone who gets in the way of church members vying for control of their turf will get run over.

As I recovered from a series of negative church experiences, I found it immensely freeing to personally commit to the people rather than the church organization and its ministries. If the church stopped meeting tomorrow, would I still commit to community with at least some of these people?

That means I’m trying to depend on the people around me and to support them as often as I can. I’m not trying to keep the church as an organization going. I’m trying to keep the people going. And I know, I know, I KNOW… the church IS the people. I wasn’t going to say it, but I know someone will… so there.

I certainly have opinions about the church as an organization, but after giving so much of myself to the ministries of various churches, I was left empty and disappointed. The more I’ve invested in people, the more fulfilling my ministry has been and the less I’ve stressed about the songs we choose, the ministries we offer, the topics of the sermons, the facility budget, or whatever else.

* * *

I understand this course may not be viable for everyone. You may feel called to manage your church’s facilities for instance. Have at it. I’m not saying what you should or should not do.

I’m saying that I’ve been deeply disappointed and hurt by the church in the past. And when your source of hope and healing becomes a source of conflict and pain, you need to change something.

I’m sure that therapy could help my friend Brod quite a bit, especially if that therapy helps him face the sources of his pain and move forward with forgiveness. If Brod does need some therapy after working in a church, he may find this post helpful. I believe that we can rediscover community with Christians after a bad church experience. And while a different church can help, a vastly different outlook is actually more important.

When we’ve been damaged by church, the most important changes need to take place within ourselves. Seeking God’s life and supporting people over an organization has worked for me.

What has helped you recover from negative church experiences?

We Don’t Need Church INC, But We Need Community

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I used to really overthink what church should and should not do.

Having swung all over the map on church meetings, I’ve realized that anything from candlelit high liturgy to a group of friends gathering in a living room can serve just fine as a church. In fact, I’m grateful that we have so many different ways to worship God in community. That can actually be a tremendous asset for us because we can seek out the places where we can find life—sensing the deep, healing breath of the Holy Spirit as we gather together.

Healthy Christian community is an essential, but not because skipping church is a sin. The command from the author of Hebrews to not give up gathering together (Heb. 10:25) hardly demands the formation of a nonprofit organization that constructs a building, hires a pastor, and holds a morning and evening service every Sunday with a worship band and a sermon. The author of Hebrews was thinking of the life that comes when we worship God together (most likely with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper), encourage one another, and hold one another accountable—the details are wonderfully sparse.

 

Here’s what we need from Christian community:

  • We need to confess our sins to real people.
  • We need friends to pray for us.
  • We need to be challenged to get off our couches and serve our communities.
  • Everything about Christian growth is very specific and personal, and there is no better way to draw near to God than with the support of a community.

 

Sometimes we turn Christian fellowship into an all-or-nothing matter where you’re either fully involved in a church and its “discipleship system” of Church INC or you need to abstain from it fully. We need process more than we realize, but that process doesn’t have to be a discipleship program with study guides and graduation certificates.

Throughout the Gospels, we see the disciples and especially the apostles as people who are immersed in a process with Jesus. They frequently missed the point of his stories and failed to step out in faith at crucial moments. We don’t ever read of Jesus saying, “That’s it! You’re all fired. I’m getting a new group of apostles.”

Perhaps we imagine Jesus audibly sighing or needing to step away to skim rocks along the Sea of Galilee, but he stuck with his apostles right through Pentecost when he shared his Spirit with them. If it takes us some time to figure out a healthy and life-giving form of church, I think Jesus can stick with us.

From the perspective of American Christianity, there is a strong expectation that good Christians go to an official church service. For everyone who feels like the church has let them down or has caused more problems, these expectations can be suffocating. Sometimes we feel like our only option is escape, and for those who attempt an escape, the condemnation that follows may serve as justification for fleeing a supposedly sinking ship.

When it comes to church, we have so many options available to us. I have seen friends who felt liturgy too constricting and therefore joined a network of house churches. Other friends found that liturgy provided a wonderful order for their worship as an alternative to the three-hymns-and-punt approach in their former churches.

There come times when we need to suck it up and join a community where we can find strong relationships despite other trappings that are less appealing. However, if a particular church becomes difficult to attend, it’s not like Christians today lack options. God’s Spirit is alive and working in many places, even among small groups that simply meet together for prayer and encouragement.

We need community, but we don’t need that community to come wrapped up in the trappings of Church INC. We need the support of our Christian family to help us stay focused on God and to pick us up when we fall down. That is something sleeping in on Sunday morning can’t do.

 

This post was adapted from my new book
A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline for Faith and Growth.

 

A Christian Survival Guide