Thursday, May 12, 2005

The place where God wants you

Parableman, responding to a blog by Baldilocks, makes a few points about why he thinks men have difficulty with the modern church. Too much singing, not enough preaching, the two bloggers suggest.

It got me thinking about my year-long search for a church here in Sacramento. Gender had little to do with it. I believe some people -- myself included -- are guilty of looking for the perfect church (it just doesn't exist in this age) when we should be looking for God's guidance, because often times where we want to be and where He wants us to be can be at odds. It's even more important to be flexible when a challenge such as interdenominational marriage enters the decision-making process.

My wife and I are spawn of preachers, a distinction which comes with some dubious connotations about our behavior as children. Less recognized is the stigma many PKs are left with as adults. We are privy to the absolute worst behavior in church and some grow away from the Lord because of it. I know my wife and I are still scarred from the wounds of attacks from church members who were merely attempting to injure our fathers. PKs are often the most instinctive critics of any church they may come across. Cynicism is the order of the day. If you already have denominational bias, a PK backround only serves to exponentially increase the bitter point of view.

That aside, I grew up as a Christian after I left the bonds of my father. I chose my own church and blossomed under a pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Arizona. The pastor, who would become my closest friend, served as a much-needed mentor as we planted this new church and grew it to the point it was a self-sufficient ministry. He even forced me to deal with my bitterness towards the church, but his correction was always more gentle than I feared it would be. I did not realize at the time those 14 years had such great impact on me. Although I attempted otherwise, I probably spent the past year attempting to find that exact church, forcing biases on others while not paying much attention to where God was leading us.

We moved back to Sacramento in Feb. 2004 and had struggled to find a place of worship. We tried many churches, including one from each of our own denominations. It became immediately apparent that finding a place we both agreed upon would be a task. She was raised in a Calvary Chapel, which presents some strain since Vineyard grew out of that organization and the two have had a tenuous relationship at times because of harsh (and at times, unGodly) criticism from a very visible member of their church. The Vineyard was certainly guilty of poorly managing chaos typical of non-denominational, neocharismatic asssociations, but it hurt that so many piled on without much grace. The strain between the two organizations is odd, since they are nearly identicial in both theology and methodology.

My wife and I have never been at odds over the issue, and we both understood we needed simple guidelines to help us move out of our denominational biases. We tried to reduce our requirements for a church to the most simple elements:

- A balance between worship and the word.

- A loving congregation.

Perhaps the guidelines were too streamlined, but I struggled as we visited many churches. I did not care how long the praise/worship lasted or whether or not the preacher was entertaining. I just wanted to find a place where I knew we would be fed. My conclusions about some of the churches we attended include:

- A megachurch that was fundamentally solid, but was wholly focused on new Christians. The worship, which was played with outstanding technical ability, was more like a concert -- people sat on their hands and watched. The sermon was always very entertaining, but I felt it was short on substance for a mature Christian. My wife loved this church because it was affiliated with her father's organization. I felt like I was going to wither on the vine, so to speak.

- A broken church of about 25. This church was affiliated with my organization. It's pastor had departed (or was he booted? I'm not sure) and while I was impressed by the loving nature of those people, it seemed wholly consumed with the methodology. Worship was an hour long and the leader seemed to be in more of a trance than someone attempting to lead the congregation into God's presence. The sermon, obviously given by someone without any kind of formal training, was wildely improvised. Neither of us felt comfortable there. There was no leadership. Given what I know of the Vineyard, there would be no one checking in on a regular basis to see the direction of the church. The thought of an abandoned congregation fending for itself with literally no oversight scared me.

- A nice church that was a bit heavy on the legalism. The worship was right out of the Vineyard songbook, full of references to God's grace and love. The sermon was right out of the 18th century, full of calls to the kind personal holiness that seemed at odds with the evangelical nature of the organization. I'm all for obedience, but I also know it's God's job to make me holy, that submission to the Cross is my only source of real holiness. I didn't hear that balance in any of the three sermons given.

All of this nearly led to my surrender in a search for a church. At one point I told my wife to just pick one and I'd attend without further comment. This frustrated her because she knew I would be dissatisfied. My wife was suggesting I had a critical spirit, but I felt -- and I still do feel -- there were multiple churches out there that met my criteria, I just had to eliminate all bias about denominations.

This led us to the Foursquare church in our neighborhood. Now, I've had a bad experience with a Foursquare church and I had serious reservations. A congregation split with my father's church to form a Foursquare church. They spread nasty lies about my father, sometimes daring to tell me, as if I needed to be warned of what they perceived to be sin. The split was about power and nothing else. They wanted a more charismatic church, and some of their emerging "word of faith" beliefs even conflicted with what I've come to know as Foursquare theology. I didn't know that then, though. Until a few weeks ago, I just assumed Foursquare churches were all like those people I knew, even though I have much respect for Jack Hayford, the Foursquare national director. Hayford is a formidable teacher.

I suppose it's God's sense of irony that we would end up in this place, because my wife and I both are committed to this Foursquare church. We immediately felt at home. The worship, the sermon, the people, the ministries -- our needs are immediately being met in ways in which we are most comfortable. It is still somewhat foreign to us. The worship in a slightly different way. My wife is not used to topical sermons -- Calvary Chapel teaches verse by verse, book by book, to teach the whole bible. The vernacular they use for ministry is different. But there is a distinct feeling this is where God wants us, and for once, we are content in our spiritual place.

I mention all this because I feel churches should not change who they are to accomodate a certain type of person. There are SO MANY churches, I can assure you there is a church for everyone. I think it's critical for a married couple to find a church where they are BOTH comfortable, because it's a union God ordained. There should never be any excuse for a couple to not attend church together. It may take some compromise, but I can't think of any fruitful part of marriage that doesn't.

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