This past Sunday was a celebratory day in the Dunn household. It was Jonathan’s final day of work at Starbucks in Raleigh. Not only was this exciting because he has a new job and no longer has to make coffee for picky customers 6 hours a day, but most importantly because he will no longer have to work on Sunday mornings. Ever. Since arriving in Raleigh two months ago, there have only been two Sunday mornings when Jonathan was not working (despite requests not to…don’t even get me started.) Because of this we have been making slow progress on our search for a church, but now we are hoping it won’t be long before we are involved somewhere. We are (shudder) hardcore church-shopping.
I hate the term church-shopping. I hate the idea of church-shopping. I firmly believe that the purpose of the church is not to meet all of our needs, to entertain us, or to cater to all of our preferences. The church as an institution is here to facilitate believers living as representations of Christ to one another and to those in their community. A church should facilitate spiritual growth in individuals as well as corporate growth as a community. This requires active participation by the congregation. And since the congregation (and the leadership) are made up of fallible people, there is no way that any church can escape imperfections. And yet, past experience has taught me that, universal imperfections acknowledged, not all churches are equally sound. Not all churches are honoring to God. Not all churches are a nurturing and healthy environment. So the idea for Jonathan and I is not to find the perfect church, but to find a healthy church and a community we can share life with, even if we don’t love everything about it. A church whose growth and development we can become a part of. People we can love and be loved by.
As we’ve begun to explore churches in Raleigh I’ve been surprised to realize how much my past experiences in the church are carrying over into our search for a new one. In some ways, Jonathan and I are on exactly the same page. For us, the most important things we are looking for in a church are biblically sound teaching and a community we feel we can really be accepted into. But in other ways, our different faith backgrounds and particularly my experiences in the church I was raised in have really affected the way I view the church.
The church I grew up in was mid-sized, but growing fast, charismatic and non-denominational. From that church I had more or less been led to believe that people in non-charismatic traditions were in a spiritually dry place and were not passionate about their faith. I actually had really well-meaning people caution me when Jonathan and I started dating that his Presbyterian background could result in us being unequally yoked because of our different beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I got to Wheaton, and particularly after Jonathan and I started dating, I encountered people from all different denominational backgrounds, many of whom were very passionate believers who understood things about Christianity that I had never even considered and were from mainline Protestant backgrounds. These were people who were excited about their faith, they just didn’t express it in the emotional way I was used to seeing. Not only that, but I found that while I had assumptions about them being dry and passionless, the prevailing attitude was that emotionally expressive, charismatic churches lacked depth and substance. Suddenly I was the anomaly.
Over my years at Wheaton it became clear that some of the things I had been taught in the church I grew up in were just plain wrong. Not just differences of opinion or a different interpretation, but bad theology. Worship had become a concert given by the most talented people under the guise that we were “pursuing excellence”, appearances were more important than real relationships, and the concept of “spiritual authority” led to abuse in the leadership. The church declared itself to be a “family,” but there were very strict rules for how the members of the family were expected to act. The teaching was that this church was God’s family and that any deviation from the way that church was running things was rebellion against God himself. If you disagreed with something that was said from the pulpit, it was up to you deal with your sinful inability to handle offenses. In words, no one would ever have said, “This is the perfect church,” but in practice, anything that was contrary to what the pastor wanted or said was rebelling against the “spiritual covering” God had given us in our church and pastor. Although they hadn’t started out that way, sermons had subtly changed to focus on what God can do for you or on how obeying God “opens to door for his blessing” which led to the underlying idea that if you hold up your end of the bargain, God will hold up his and that if you are not experiencing God’s blessing perhaps you need to be more obedient in some area of your life. Imagine the pressure of believe that God’s goodness is conditional based on your own goodness. Yikes.
As I grew in my intellectual knowledge of Christianity and my understanding of who God is I started to identify some of these things. I was startled by how many lies and unhealthy attitudes had been ingrained in me and the ways they came out in the way I thought about God and the world. As I began to identify these things, the result was that I started to push against anything that reminded me of the church I had grown up in. Not just reminded me theologically of it, but reminded me of it at all. For example, I somehow got the idea that because the church I’d grown up in had had amazing musicians and singers leading worship which eventually led to a “concert” like atmosphere, that truly holy worship must necessarily be really crappy music. 🙂 The church we attended at Wheaton had a worship team made up of a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were not the best singers or musicians, and the music they chose was more often than not CCM music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was heartfelt.
Part of my rejecting the tradition I’d come out of resulted in my becoming highly critical when it came to sermons and teaching. While I think it was good to come to a place of examining what was being preached in the light of Scripture and not just accepting anything that was spoken in a church, in some cases I actually became overly critical to the point that one small thing I wasn’t sure about caused me to reject an entire message or service. I was afraid of being deceived, but ultimately what happened was that I became too critical to receive much of anything. I would spent the entire service on the defensive, looking for something I disagreed with. I had started out on one end of the spectrum and then, like a pendulum, swung wildly the other way.
Gradually, through two very genuine and god-honoring churches we attended in Wheaton and in Naperville I began to understand how God can work through an imperfect church and speak into our lives, even when the worship isn’t the most beautiful or the sermon is less than riveting. And in the same way, I shouldn’t reject a church with a very talented worship team or a very engaging pastor just because that is similar to the church I grew up in. The key is not rejecting anything out of fear or accepting anything out of ignorance, but instead trusting that the Holy Spirit alive in me will direct me and that I can fully trust him, even if I’m not sure about a particular church service.
The churches we went to in Wheaton and then Naperville were both very stoic in terms of being expressive in worship and very conservative in terms of their theology. In a strange way, these traditional, conservative churches have really been a stretch for me. Because I grew up in an environment where people were very expressive in church, a service that is very quiet and worship that is very stoic are actually as uncomfortable to me as loud worship with people jumping around is to Jonathan. Because everyone is quiet and still I feel conspicuous if I clap or lift a hand. I feel that my expression of worship will distract those around me, whereas in an environment where people are generally more expressive, no one is going to notice if I sway to the beat. Through those experiences though I have learned firsthand that just feeling uncomfortable does not mean something’s wrong. Being out of my element does not mean I should shut down and reject everything I hear. And in the same way, being somewhere that I am more comfortable doesn’t make everything right.
By God’s grace I believe I am now in a position where I can see both extremes of the pendulum and am praying that God will help us find a healthy medium. I want to be able to trust where I see God working and to be able to receive with discernment but without fear. I would love to find a place that I can worship expressively and still be taught the challenging truths of the gospel. I want to find a place that serves the community and allows Christ to be the most attractive feature rather than displays of opulence, but that is concerned with being relevant. I want to be an active part of the miraculous, living body of Christ without fear of being hurt or rejected or deceived. That’s far more important than what the music sounds like or how entertained I am by the sermon or how technologically savvy the illustrations are.
So, in a very long-winded way this is me saying, OK, Lord, whatever you have for us, I am ready to receive it. My sails are flung out wide, let your winds guide us where you want us to go!