Or, more specifically, what makes a church MY church?
I’ve always enjoyed visiting other churches during my travels. Reasons for choosing a particular church have ranged anywhere from, “I have to get on the road early, and this one has an early service,” to “This one is closer to the hotel than that one.” It’s a little different when you’ve moved to a new city and now you’re looking for a new “home.” It’s still been very enjoyable to scope out the religious environment (at least the Baptist environment) here; kind of like an extended vacation.
But let me back up a bit.
My first contact with Baptists of any sort was related in my “What’s Your Life Verse” post and the follow up. After going to the local Southern Baptist Church with Mr. G and his family for a while, I actually did make a profession of faith and was baptised. Unfortunately, while I might have been sincere about something or other, it certainly wasn’t about any desire to actually love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. After high school, I promptly told God to take a hike and would have done so sooner if I had been allowed to by my preacher folks. But there was something about that family so real that it has stuck with me to this day. (Side note: I caught up with Mr. G twice after high school. In 2004, as I sat down to dinner with he and his wife, he prayed a blessing over me that would have made Abraham proud, and there was a fourth guest at the table that night who was just as real as the three of us – Jesus Christ – and I knew that what I had sensed as “real” in 1980 was still just as real 24 years later.)
After 18 years of atheism, God stopped me in my tracks. Since I had been out of the church scene for so long and had no idea where to start (except that I remembered Mr. G and his Southern Baptist Church), I went to the church of one of the preachers I had been listening to on the radio who had been making sense to me – Parkside Church in Solon, Ohio. That got me off to a great start. In fact the first sermon I heard there after my life of unbelief still drives much of my desire to live as a Christ follower. But that church was over an hour away from home, and there was no way to really connect with other Christians at that distance. So we started looking closer to home.
There were a few visits to churches that were either odd (a foot washing service – something I had never seen before), uncomfortable (don’t know what it was at that church), or flat, we ended up at an Independent Baptist church in Spencer, Ohio, and that’s where I finally realized that whatever other motives I might have had for “accepting Christ” previously in my life – i.e., get out of hell, get mom and dad off my back, trying to turn over a new leaf, etc. – never once was there any desire to actually love God or have him take the first place in my life. That church has been my home and my family for the last 10 years.
Until June. First impression on looking in the phone book when we got one was that there are a LOT of Baptist churches here. The only place I had seen more was in North Carolina where there is literally a Baptist church on every corner (or so it seems ). So with a couple of recommendations and a phone book in hand, I started visiting. I’ll refrain from naming names, but here are my impressions:
Church number one – The people were very friendly. The adult Sunday School teacher was very knowledgeable about the Scriptures and was a very good teacher. The first time I visited, the pastor preached a largely political sermon full of a lot of fundamentalist “hear say” stuff that really turned me off. Because I had determined that I would visit each church at least twice before making a decision, I went back one more time. Again, everyone was very friendly, and the Sunday School teacher gave a great lesson. The pastor started off with a pretty good Gospel message, and then about halfway through got entirely side tracked on the number 7. Now I’m just as capable of going off on tangents as anyone else, and sometimes they’re fun and interesting. But when I go to church, I expect to hear from God – not someone’s half baked ideas about numbers or genealogies (1 Timothy 1:4). I still think A. W. Tozer said it best:
Toward anything like thorough scholarship I make no claim. I am not an authority on any man’s teaching; I have never tried to be. I take my help where I find it and set my heart to graze where the pastures are greenest. Only one stipulation do I make: my teacher must know God, as Carlyle said, “otherwise than by hearsay,” and Christ must be all in all to him. If a man have only correct doctrine to offer me I am sure to slip out at the first intermission to seek the company of someone who has seen for himself how lovely is the face of Him who is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. Such a man can help me, and no one else can. (A. W. Tozer)
Second church – This was one of my less than spiritual reasons for choosing to visit one church over another. I needed to go to an early service, and they had one. A very nice lady took the time to show me around and introduce me to people. Lots of Bible studies going on. The sermon was okay. One comment by the Associate Pastor left me wondering whether the church was more concerned about “projects” than people.
The next church I visited was one I had pulled out of the phone book and driven by and decided I should visit based on my drive by. After doing a little investigation on the Internet, I found out that 1) they were without a pastor, 2) they were Southern Baptists (I did have another memorable encounter with the Southern Baptists during a visit to Gastonia, NC, in 2007.), 3) the wife of the interim pastor was involved with Beautiful Feet. I had gone to the first Beautiful Feet conference at Cedarville University back in 2006, and so I sent her an email. The day I visited for the first time, the serrmon text was from my “testimony” verses – Psalm 40:1-3, and there was nothing goofy or off base at all. I was clearly hearing from someone who knew God “other than by hearsay”. It was also the day the church determined to call their new pastor. That week a loaf very tasty bread showed up on my door. Yummmm. Back on the Internet to investigate the new pastor. I listened to the sermons he had preached as a candidate at this church, then I found the website of the church he was then at and listened to every sermon he had preached there, along with some of the youth group stuff on the site that he had led. Good stuff. He’ll be arriving in August, so I can finish off my list of churches and see what he’s like in person. (Why the focus on the pastor? Because churches tend to become like their pastor, and so I want to make sure this is someone whose faith I want to follow – Hebrews 13:7.)
Next visit – a small church with a big heart. Good preaching and teaching. It was interesting in this church that the pastor “prayed” my testimony verses as he closed the service. I was talking to a friend about this odd “coincidence” (no such thing), and wondering what – if anything – I was supposed to do with that. She very succinctly said, “Maybe God is just telling you that either church will be okay.” I’ve chewed on that but haven’t come to any firm conclusions.
Next church – I arrived late and a gentleman in the hall showed me where to go for Sunday School. I was sitting there feeling very strange and the more the gentleman leading the class talked, the stranger it got. Finally, he said something along the lines of, “All sin has to be paid for before we leave this earth. You have to pay for your sin before you leave earth.” I waited for the next part – “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe” – but it never came. I’m sorry. If I couldn’t pay for my own sins before I was saved, what on earth makes this guy think I’m going to pay for them now. Jesus has done all that ever needed to be done in order to pay for the sins of the whole world, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do to add to that. I simply have to rely on Him.
So at this point, I can’t wait to just get out of there. I restrained myself until Sunday School was over, by which time I was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, and then high tailed it out of there – very grateful that no one wanted to stop me and talk. There was a place just a few minutes away where I knew I would hear from people who believed and preached the Gospel, and so I ended up at the “drive by” church. It was like a big tall glass of fresh water to sit in the worship service with them that day, as it has been every other time I’ve gone there.
For a few weeks I bounced back and forth between the two “testimony” churches. One Sunday I drove by another church that I had put on my list. I got there about 3 minutes early for Sunday School, but something just didn’t seem right. The building was a decent size – probably a couple hundred or so capacity, but there were only 5 cars in the lot. As I was driving in, two couples got out of two of the cars, and they were both seniors. As I continued slowly driving through the parking lot, I wondered what a nice looking church like that was doing with no kids for Sunday School. As I drove out, another elderly couple was driving in. I went to one of the “testimony” churches that day.
And at this point, I really feel like I don’t need to visit anymore churches. The Lord led me to two good ones, and now I just need to settle somewhere. I’ve been going every Sunday for a while now to the SBC church, and I’m pretty sure I know why. My last visit to the other church, I left with the impression that both the pastor and the church were “settled.” I could be wrong about that, but it seemed like everyone knew the routine. Their love for each other and the Lord is very real, but I had a hard time seeing where I might find a place there. On the other hand, at the SBC church, the new preacher, though young, is clearly someone who has heard from and is listening to the Lord. The people love the Lord and each other – this is very obvious from overhearing converesations about different people who are going through trouble of one sort or another. I haven’t heard any condemnation or malicious gossip – just a deep, heartfelt desire to care for those who need cared for. And they are moving! I don’t think it’s just the new pastor either. Things were happening before he got there.
Obstacles? It seems like all of the potential obstacles that I came up with have all been removed, so we’ll see if the Lord wants to send any further confirmation or whether I just jump in the rest of the way with both feet.by beakennedy
I was listening to the tapes from “Family Camp”, which I didn’t go to this year, but a lot of people from my church did, and in one of the messages the speaker mentioned reading through the Bible in 30 days and how it had changed him, as well as others he knew who had done it. He mentioned that for him it meant reading something like 48 pages in somewhere about 2 hours per day. Not a terribly insurmountable goal, I thought to myself. Hmmmmm….maybe I’ll try it – not so I can say I read through the Bible in 30 days. That would be kind of meaningless. I happen to be a “big picture” kind of person, and so it intrigued me to consider how my view of God might change if I could see the whole scope of history from creation to consummation in that short of a time span.
So I started out today. In my Bible, reading the entire book in 30 days amounts to about 35 pages for a total of 1044. BUT as I was beginning to read page 1, I started to think about all the times as a kid that I had read entire books of 1,000 pages or more – think the Hobbit and LOTR series – multiple times in no more than a day or two. Nothing else got done, of course, and I often read way into the wee hours of the morning in order to finish a book before going to sleep, but once I started a good book, I seldom put it down for any but the most demanding tasks. I wouldn’t even put it down to go to the bathroom (learned how to zip my pants with one hand) or go to school (I was quite proficient at reading while walking.).
What if . . . .
What if I set out to read the Bible in that same spirit – as a book that was so good and so much to be devoured in one sitting if possible – that only the most pressing necessities could tear me away from it. Hmmmm . . . .
Of course, I’m no longer a kid, and there are things like laundry and work, and such that won’t be put off, so I kind of doubt that I would have 48 uninterrupted hours to finish the entire 1044 pages, but we’ll see how it turns out. Not so I can say “I read the whole Bible in x number of days!” but so I can read the greatest story ever told.by beakennedy