>I grew up going to church. I still attend a church, but it is not the same kind I grew up with. I see a lot of that happening with Christians; growing up in one kind of church and/or denomination and switching to another as adults.
I’m sure there are as many reasons as there are individuals who make the switch. And there are are some big trends that have been well documented, such as Protestants converting to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, and vice versa. For me, I can only account for my own experience.
I grew up in a Baptist church, a church that my family, including grandparents, had been long time members. That church experience has had a long term and profound affect on my life, including my theological propensities. As a kid I was very interested in sorting out many theological and Christian questions. I wanted to know who God was, how I was supposed to live, what it meant to be a Christian in this world, what values should be at the top on my list, and so on. I am still sorting out those things. The fact that I am still “in process” as it were would not bode well in the church of my youth, though that church as it is today may have changed.
There were a number of beliefs and actions that Baptist church emphasized, including the importance of being a member of the church, the importance of being baptized, the importance of bringing one’s Bible to church, and the importance of attending church. Other things included the importance of one’s “walk” with God, one’s personal relationship with Jesus, consistently having a “quiet time,” developing a life of prayer, reading the Bible for oneself on a regular basis, and evangelizing others. Underlying all these things were fundamental beliefs in the presence of a personal God, the lordship of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the need for salvation of each individual, and so on.
There was also the culture which contained, maintained, and pushed certain ideas that, if directly challenged, would have produced some backpedalling and heavy qualifications but, nonetheless, were corporately held. Such as the demonization of Catholicism, and the strong sense that we’re still fighting the Reformation, and maybe most of all, and almost entirely unrecognized, the blending of apologetics & hermeneutics with the Enlightenment project (the belief in the power of human rationality apart from God to establish reliable, universally recognized scientific and moral knowledge).
My perspectives have changed on those beliefs and actions. Some I still hold to firmly, others I do not. More importantly to my personal journey of faith, I would say the definitions have shifted. For an example, most Christians believe reading the Bible is important. It is common for Baptists to feel the weighty expectation of bringing one’s own Bible to church on Sunday. But what does this really mean? As part of the Protestant tradition the Bible, read by the individual in the vernacular on a regular basis, is of the highest importance. What I found, however, was the tendency of those church members (including myself) to read their Bible frequently, but to understand it to say those things they have already been taught. In other words, the apparent act of reading had everything to do with merely reaffirming held doctrine rather than letting the text say what it means. To let the text say what it says is hard enough without the pressure and example of a subculture encouraging one to read, essentially, closed-mindedly. This is one of the biggest and most serious problems in Christianity as far as I’m concerned. Later, toward the end of my college years, I began to understand what it really meant to read the Bible with a mindset that would allow for my held beliefs to be substantially challenged, and it blew my mind, not to say rearranged my life as well – and I’m still not that good at it.
The reasons for my change is a long and involved story, but in short I can say that I was a person with many questions, in the midst of a crisis of religion (but not of faith oddly enough), I valued rationality as well as process, and then I found myself almost accidentally in a community that was committed to the radical pursuit of truth. I say radical because I have come to believe commitment to truth no matter where it may lead is fundamentally discouraged in Christendom and its numerous permutations. I must emphasize the critical thinking nature of this community because my shift was not so much about interpersonal relationships. Where I was coming from was loaded with good people and good relationships. I was not running from failed relationships or because I did not like the people with whom I was fellowshiping. My need to get away had everything to do with getting my head on straight and re-examining my theological assumptions and my worldview.
This community where I ended was called McKenzie Study Center and it is still around in some fashion. It was not unlike the famous L’Abri Fellowship. What that place taught me, or I should say the staff taught me, was a different philosophy of ministry, and that made all the difference. Because of my own experience I tend to think of my philosophies of ministry in terms of the “old way” and the “new way”, but the “old way” is still the primary approach in most churches I am sure. The old way has several characteristics that I dislike. These include: 1) the belief that all theological questions have already been answered, 2) apparent theological conundrums are mysteries and therefore touchpoints of our faith, 3) the role of the preacher is to proclaim the truth with passion, emotion, and rhetorical skills such that the listener is “moved” closer to God and truth, 4) a church service is not a place for questions or dialog – the preacher preaches and you listen, 5) struggling to understand and digest church doctrine is a sign of immaturity in the faith, 6) church is about an experience – created and carefully controlled by professionals, 7) the arts have a place in Christian life and culture as long as they are “in service” to God (if you have acting skills you can perform skits in the youth group, or music skills you can lead worship, etc.), 8) pastors are not to be “in process” about either their faith or their understanding of the the Bible, 9) in fact, the goal is that each of us get beyond being “in process” as quickly as possible because being a mature Christian is to have no more doubts or questions, and 10) going to church, reading the Bible every day, and praying a lot with conviction is critical for the life of any Christian.
I have just said a mouthful, and I know many Christians would take issue with some of these points. But my experience, and the experience of many others, confirms these things to be true. If a pastor or ardent churchgoer tells you otherwise they are confused or lying. There are many other aspects of our Christian culture, both present and past, that are un-Biblical and abhorrent. The wonderful irony, and what gives me much hope for myself and others, is that many, many people who regularly attend church and are immersed in the Christian subculture are people dedicated to knowing God, loving others, and working out their faith everyday in fear and trembling. And the church I currently attend is far from perfect, though it suits many of my preferences better than my old church. It’s not really about church anyway, it’s what underlies the reasons we get together and what it is we are trying to encourage.
I also must conclude by saying that not only is my journey far from over, and my seeking far from completed, but that my present “clarity” about Christianity is just as much run through with my own sinfulness as it ever was. I have come to believe that just about the dumbest thing Christians could ever do is hold themselves up as a model of righteousness or even of right living. What I hope for Christianity is that it would move out of the swamp and into a place where 1) we know that theology is an ongoing process and many questions must still be answered, 2) that “believing anyway” even though something doesn’t make sense is not a touchstone of faith but an issue to resolve, 3) that pastors must be committed to truth more than their charisma, 4) that church should be a place where questions are welcome and pastors will even stop their sermon to recognize a raised hand, 5) that the struggling to understand doctrine may be both a sign of maturity as well as confusing doctrine, 6) that church is a place for all of us to contribute in creative and different ways, that authenticity is far more valuable than professionalism, and that worship is not singing songs in church, 7) that the arts need no justification, 8) that pastors must be “in process” both personally and theologically, and that process should be made known and not hidden, 9) that our goal is not to get beyond being “in process” but that our process is the working out of our faith, including our doctrines, and 10) that our lives as Christians are first and foremost the work of God in us, all the rest is just extra.
If I had an eleventh point it would be that there are no formulas, including the list above, to making Christianity, or one’s journey in faith, better. There is only life and faith and God and us.