Sorry friends, I haven’t posted anything this week. It’s been a bit crazy. Here is something I wrote about 8 months ago. It’s on my Facebook page, but since I now have readers that are outside of my Facebook friends, this article may be new to you. I have a lot of material I’ll be hopefully posting in the very near future. It’ll take years before this well dries up 🙂
I need to warn you of a few things. It’s long, I wrote nothing of comedic value, I used a lot of multi-syllabic words and even threw a Latin phrase in there; it’s a heavy topic and I barely proof read it as it is nearing 1 A.M. and I just want to post the darn thing. So it’s bound to be unsatisfying to everyone in some aspect. But the topic is serious and important, so I encourage you to grab some coffee, power through, and leave a comment, question, point of discussion, insult, limerick, whatever. Please also know that even though I have very strong opinions in this piece, I am in no way claiming to have mastered them. I am but a neophyte in such matters and should probably let someone much wiser and more learned tackle them. But in the words of a famous philosopher, “Everyone has their own opinion so just shut up and read mine already.” 🙂
In my ripe old age of 28, I’ve experienced a sundry of churches that are all over the denominational spectrum. I’ve been a pastor at a non-denominational Pentecostal church and a pastor at a Baptist church. I’ve been a worship leader at an all black church with one white guy (me) and a worship leader at an all white church with one black guy (obviously not me). I’ve ministered at a church where the senior pastor had a PhD from Yale and ministered at others where their pastors had barely made it through high school. I’ve said the liturgy with the Catholics, broken bread with the Orthodox Church, worshiped with the Anglicans, evangelized with the Evangelicals, prayed with the Pentecostals, had theological discussions with the Charismatics, and even went to bible study with the Lutherans in a bar. I went to an Assemblies of God school, married an Evangelical Free girl, and my favorite theologian is Greg Boyd, who some Fundamentalists have declared a heretic.
As you may imagine, my experiences at each of these churches were completely distinct from each other in various ways. Each church or denomination had a beautiful way of encountering God. But there was, at least in a few of the churches, a troubling theme that brewed in very subtle (and sometimes not-so subtle) ways.
When I was ministering with the Baptists and they knew of my charismatic background, I would often hear things like, “Well I’m glad you’re here now,” or “So, do you do that whole tongues thing?” or my personal favorite, “Josh, we need to find you a good Baptist girl.” On the flip side, when I was ministering at a Baptist church, I had Pentecostals praying for me like I was a missionary in enemy territory. I even had a Pentecostal preacher lay hands on me and with the most serious tone in his voice, pray, “Ohhhhhhh God! Don’t let Josh dry out!”
I don’t mean to single out any particular denomination. Nor does every church in every denomination have these issues. But there is indeed a very real problem with the way denominations view each other. And I believe it is a very destructive problem and a hindrance to the kingdom of God.
I’m sure you are aware of the stereotypes. The more conservative denominations are sometimes depicted as dry, stodgy, not fully believing everything in the Bible and without the Spirit. More charismatic denominations are often depicted as crazy, erratic, biblically stupid and having an unstable faith-based on emotions. And the ironic thing is, many people who adhere to these arguments will hotly deny so. I’ve heard contempt for other denominations with ad-hominem subtlety like, “I’ve got nothing against other denominations, but he is a Baptist.” – sort of like the way you’ll hear a racist say, “Now I’m not racist, but he is black.” Sometimes people use God as their defense, “I just wanted to cry throughout the whole service, watching those Methodists not responding to God.” Others will just flat-out show their disdain with no defense, “Believe me, you do not want to go to that church. Those charismatics are crazy!”
To be perfectly honest, these stereotypes do, in fact, exist in churches. Some conservative churches can be defunct of spiritual life and some charismatic churches can be “Jesus whacky” but devoid of proper theology. But these flaws have nothing to do with their denomination! It just means they’re a broken church. In the same way, there are charismatic churches that are spiritually dry and conservative churches that are biblically ignorant. But to be fair, certain denominations can lean towards one their typical stereotype, but this is okay. There are strengths and weaknesses in every person, tribe, nation, baseball team, laundry detergent…you get the picture. Denominations should be celebrated for their strengths, not judged for their weaknesses.
Now, we could compare and contrast each denomination in regards to topics like worship, evangelizing, etc. But I believe the topic that separates denominations the most is how each one encounters God. This is where our stereotypes are the most damaging. But what I find interesting is that every healthy church out there has the same goal of encountering God. Broken churches aside, every church wants to have a genuine encounter with God. It’s just that the ways to achieve that goal are different.
While charismatic churches exhibit more passion and zeal with their God encounters, and conservatives are typically more reverent and introspective, each way is both equally beautiful and important. But why do such extremes exist? I believe that there are vastly different ways to encounter God simply because people are vastly different. There are some people hard-wired to get excited at the drop of a hat and there are some that would only smile if they were to win the lottery tomorrow. Because of this, I believe that charismatic churches sometimes just don’t work for the more subdued and conservative churches sometimes don’t work for the passionate.
This (for lack of a better word) revelation came to me when I was sitting in different types of church services where there were genuine moves of God. Looking out in the congregation, I could see those that were having real God encounters and those that were just struggling. Now, by no means am I saying that God can’t simply go coram deo on someone who is struggling with the ways a particular church uses to encounter God. But I believe it is our responsibility to work together so that all may have a proverbial face-to-face encounter with our maker.
Growing up in a charismatic church, I had the misconception whenever the church as a whole was supposed to feel something, whether it be the presence of God, overwhelming joy, or some sort of physical manifestation, and I happen to not feel it that night, there was obviously something wrong with me. As a teenager, I’ve even had church leaders judge my Christianity for being more subdued while everyone else was dancing. I’ve had leaders tell me that I had built up walls around my heart, that I wasn’t fully engaging in my faith, or something to that extent. Strange, because throughout most of my youth, I had a heart on fire for Christ! And yet I was made to feel like a second-rate Christian.
I’ve known many people like this. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, I’ve known those who went to a conservative church most of their life and never felt like they fit in. They never felt like their faith had any life. It is my conviction that those who are seeking God but are disaffected by their church are at no fault! It is the church that has failed them by making them feel like there were certain strict conditions to experience God. Every church has these disaffected people. Sure, there may be some underlying issues these people need to deal with, but I feel that churches need to start saying more things like, “We want you to connect with a Christian community and have genuine encounters with God. If you’re having trouble doing that here, let us know and we will help you find a place where you can.”
In short, I believe that all Christian denominations need to start working together, to understand that they all have the same goals and celebrate and utilize their distinctions; to understand that the beauty of our maker comes in a variety of ways to affect a variety of people; to enhance each others’ strengths and become familiar with each others’ weaknesses; to realize that we are all part of the kingdom of God and that everyone has a place where they will perfectly fit.
So you may be asking where I fit in this spectrum. Well, I fit somewhere in the middle. I am very charismatic in some ways and very conservative in others. I am more charismatic in my pursuit of God, yet the best encounters I’ve had with God’s presence have been at a Baptist church camp with a dozen smelly fifth graders. My heart resonates with passionate worship music but the best worship service I’ve ever been to was a deaf worship service. I have more zeal in my alone time with God but am more reserved in a communal setting. I like a lively church service but get skittish when I feel like I’m being emotionally manipulated. I feel that conservatives under emphasize supernatural gifts like healing yet charismatic churches put too much emphasis on things like prophecy. I love the Pentecostals for teaching me to love the Bible, but I love the Baptists for teaching me to understand the Bible. I can gel with a church that loves God with their heart and soul, but can gel even more with a church that loves God with their mind. I am a worshipper at heart but I feel the closest to God whenever I study theology. I rarely get excited enough to dance for God, but I’ll weep like a baby at the mention of his name. I watch Finger of God but I read N.T. Wright. I don’t feel called to minister to any particular church in these categories, but rather those disaffected people who have come from both that haven’t exactly figured out where they need to be. And I can’t wait for the day when we’re all with our maker and none is this (for lack of a better term) crud will even matter.
Blessings to you all 🙂