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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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