Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Church & I: Part One

I have had a 34 year-long, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes eye opening, and sometimes wonderful history with that Body of Believers called "The church." I have been reflecting on these experiences recently, and have begun to ask myself how each experience I have had has impacted me. It is important for me to get this out on virtual paper, as I feel it has colored so many of the beliefs I have and hold close to my heart. Some of these beliefs are so intertwined with who I am, that I doubt I even make conscious decisions based upon them. I don't want this. I want to know the truth. Some of what the church has given me has indeed been truth, rooted deeply in scripture. But the majority of the rest is opinion, handed down to me from misguided leaders of the church.

I think about my salvation experience, and I hold it dear to my heart. In fact, I hesitate to share it here, as it is precious to me. I remember, very clearly, the Sunday in the tiny church we attended during my childhood, accepting Christ as my personal Savior. I can remember that tug I had in my little six year old heart to confess my sin and trust the one who made me. I know that was the Holy Spirit doing his work in my heart. However, I also remember feeling weird afterwards, like everyone was looking at me. I felt like a specimen under a microscope for some reason. I do not know why, but I remember having that feeling. Looking back, I am convinced it was the first attack on my faith by an evil that you cannot see.

This little church was like so many struggling rural churches in North Dakota. I remember a long succession of pastors who stayed for a year or two, and then went on their way to bigger and better things. I don't remember much theologically about this church, as I was so little. My memories of it are relegated to my precious salvation experience, and sitting next to my wonderful grandma making crosses out of pennies on top of the hymnal. I am sure, however, there is probably much more from this first church experience that colors my worldview that I am not even aware of.

Fast forward a few years. My family had decided to drive an hour to a larger church of the same denomination as that little rural church. It was this church that I spent the bulk of my formative years as an adolescent. There are wonderful memories I have of my time there, from church camp-outs, to Teen camp (and all the drama there, spiritual and otherwise), and older people in the church that I still have a special place in my heart for today. There were other things that also affected my view on God and religion. What it boiled down to was this: We were right, they were wrong. And, we could give you a list several pages long on why we were right and they were wrong. There were alot of "rules" and alot of things you could not do and remain a Christian. This church adhered to the philosophy that one could be above sin...that you could live a life without intentional sin. I am not sure if this is true or not, but I was hurt deeply by leaders of this church who claimed to be "sanctified" and living above intentional sin. To me, their sin seemed very intentional.
All in all though, my years in this church were probably a bit more about my friends and a bit less about truly having a deep relationship with Christ. I think I leared a lot about how to act "right" during these years. I became a perfect teen-age Christian, if there is such a thing. Don't get me wrong, I know my committment was real. But, many of the things I did or didn't do were based more on my church's "rules," and what others expected of me, and not based a lot on the Bible.

Off to college I went, in a new state, in a big city. These four years were definitely a time of me testing and solidifying my faith. This is due in part to the wonderful Christian professors I had at the Christian college I attended. Because of conveinence, I attended the very large campus church during those four years. It was not a church I became involved in at all, but learned a few things about the church during those influential years. The "lesson" that I recall most when I think back to this particular church is that there are the "haves" of the Church, and the "have nots." I remember someone making the remark that only the "cream of the crop" attended Wednesday night college services at this church. There was a picture I had of the ideal college student that attended this church, and I didn't fit into that pretty little package. I was too North Dakotan. I didn't have enough money, or the right last name. I probably wasn't Christian enough.

After my college career, we married and moved to Fargo. The first church we attended after we married is the church we attend now (although we have had a couple of stops in between). It is our "default" church. I can't say I have ever really loved this church, or felt as though I belonged there, but it is where our car drives to every Sunday morning. After the first few years of attending this large church, I think I longed for some belongingness. I wanted to not be just a number anymore. That's why, when we were approached with being part of a new church that was just getting started, the idea appealed to me. I wanted to have friends, and to be involved in something larger than myself. We didn't have children yet, and although I was fairly consumed with getting a master's degree at that time, I had lots of time to give to the church. And time is what we gave. We were instrumental in helping this church launch. We were there for anything and everything that had this church's name associated with it. I remember (with great disdain now) cutting family vacations short so we could be there for Sunday morning church. How I wish now that I could exchange those Sunday mornings for memories made with my family. This church, above all others, was the one that left me with the most bitterness for the church. It's something I struggle with still.

A couple of years into our experience with this church, we began to see that all was not as it seemed to be. There were philosophies this church held that did not hold up when compared with scripture. I remember the pastor saying to me once, after I shared my feelings with him, that there were "some things in the Bible that were not appropriate to talk about on a Sunday morning." This church was about welcoming people (and did a great job at long as you fit into the right demographic), but left out some really key things, like sin, spiritual warfare, the second coming of Christ, etc. etc. etc. Anything that would "offend" or "confuse" was checked at the door. This applied to the message of the sermon, and to the music we sang on Sunday morning. This church's motto was based on relationship being the foundation of the church. Yet, I watched as an elderly couple that had been leaders of my little rural church, attended this church and were completely ignored. I went to visit them a few times in their high rise, but soon my visits tapered due to the "busy-ness" of life. To my knowledge, they passed away not having a church they belonged to, after spending so many years dedicated to the church. This makes me very sad.
When I was first getting the idea that this church was not biblically sound, God gave me a dream. At the time, I knew it was significant, so I recorded it in my journal. But, I didn't not know what it meant until I went back later and read it. Basically, the dream was about a counterfeit gospel versus the truth. I am not one of those people who think God speaks to them through every mundane detail of their life. Not that he can't use ordinary things to speak to us, but I just don't think a good cup of coffee is an answer to prayer. However, I know God spoke to me through this particular dream about the church, however strange that may sound to someone else, and it is something I will keep with me always.
Of the church experiences I have had, this one did the most to solidify what I really believed. Not because of anything I learned during the message on Sunday morning, but because I knew the philosophies this church was espousing were not right. I had to figure out why. I dove into the Bible, and realized how important it was. I began to really revere and respect the Word of God after this, and I realized how precious it really was. This church was like a club, where the church itself, it's goals and successes, replaced the Bible and truth as the primary focus. If you had ideas outside of what the club believed, it was time for you to move on. Move on we did.

After this difficult time of growth, we moved away and began attending a church in another large city in another state. I really feel this church was our "healing" church after the previous experience we had just went through. We have great feelings associated with this church. The pastor was a teaching pastor, and had a great love and grasp on the Word of God. We got to know a few people in this church, but overall, we became anonymous. Being anonymous was something we desperately needed after the level of involvement we had in our previous church, and the negative break we had from this church. Part of us didn't want to become involved, because we were afraid of what we would find (although theologically, we knew this church was on the right path). We had learned that churches are comprised of people. People are sinful. I wanted to believe this was the "perfect" church, although I knew it was not true. For some reason, God has allowed me to continue in my delusion. Although I know there have been struggles within this church, God has not allowed me to know the details of the struggles. I am happy in my ignorance. However, one thing I do know, is that the pastor of this church lined everything up with scripture, and was dedicated to the truth. That is the most important thing. It was refreshing to find an oasis in a sea of churches going the opposite way.

So here we are, back at the church we started out at when we were first married. Again, we are here by default. I do not love it. In fact, there are times I don't even like it. For instance, like when I was told I couldn't put a friend Isaac had brought to church with him in Isaac's class at AWANA even though he really wanted to be in the same class. He was a bit older than Isaac, but small for his age. He told me he didn't want to go to his class because kids his age made fun of him for his size. I explained this situation to the leader, and was met with staunch adherence to "the rules." They would not make an exception for this child to come and be a part of a class he felt good about being in. This left a very bad taste in my mouth regarding this church.
There have been other issues with this church that have left me scratching my head recently. Part of me fears the leadership of this church is falling into the same "seeker sensitive" trap that so many American churches have fallen prey to in the last couple of decades. I believe this movement is a very sneaky ploy of Satan to lull Christians into a deep sleep. And, most churches today have taken the bait. One is hard pressed to find a church anymore with a pastor who preaches strictly out of the Bible, and uses it as the basis for all truth. I have had a great deal of fear regarding what is going on in our country and in the world today. I go to church with the expectation to receive a word from God, only to go and get another boring sermon on a topic that really doesn't matter in the scheme of things. I feel myself becoming bitter toward the church, and I don't want this to happen. Maybe my expectations of the church are too high. And maybe we want too much, without being willing to give. Maybe it is me, with my critical eye and avoidance of involvement, that is to blame.
I don't want bitterness to take hold. I keep thinking of the verse that says, (of the end times) "the love of many will grow cold, but he who endures to the end shall be saved." I want to endure, and I want to know the truth. I don't want the church's "take" on the truth. I don't want the latest church fad shaped by surveys. I don't want tradition. I don't want cutting edge. I just want Jesus and the Bible. I want to be taught. I want to grow. I want a refuge from a life that can be brutal and harsh. I want a place I can go for a couple of hours on Sunday, where He is free to speak to me, unhindered. I want Peace. Where is that? Does it exist here?

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