I have been involved in the organized church for nearly 60 years. I know my parents took me to church the first Sunday I was home from the hospital and ready to be out.
I have so many good memories over the years of growing up in church. When I say church I am talking about the building, the organization, the traditional religious system that we all think of when we say church.
I remember all the usual parts of church like going to Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, Children’s church, Junior church and Youth group. I liked going to these activities and I never asked to stay home or miss them. Actually I was disappointed if I was sick and could not go.
In the first church I was part of I remember during Sunday school the main thing I was taught (at least in my eyes) was how to eat a cooking with my finger through the hole in the middle. I do not think my parents were to happy with that and it was not long afterward that my parents moved to another church where I stayed for another 20 years.
There we were taught all the traditional bible stories and were rewarded with pins for good attendance. I enjoyed learning and was presented a bible for doing so well with quizzes and attendance. I enjoyed meeting new kids my age and getting to know them although it took a long time to do since I only saw them for an hour one day each week.
I was always part of Vacation bible school each summer. My mom helped as an assistant or a teacher and I enjoyed hearing the bible stories and making crafts. I remember at the age of ten I accepted Christ at Vacation bible school. I can remember listening to a nice older lady talk about how God loved us and sent his son to die for us. I remember raising my hand when she asked if anyone wanted to accept Christ as savior, then I walked up front and was led in a prayer. Even at the age of ten I realized that just because my parents were Christians I needed to make a decision for myself. It was the best decision I ever made.
As the years went by I moved up to the Youth Group and the various activities young teenagers get to do. I can remember one time I was on the phone with our Youth Leader for well over an hour as he tried to talk me into going on a youth camping trip that I wanted nothing to do with. He was sure he was going to talk me into going but in the end, I won out and did not go. I wondered why he spent so much time trying to convince me to go when he could have talked with three or four other kids who may have really enjoyed it.
Of course as a teenager we would always find the best seat in the Sunday morning worship service, which was the back row. I think the pastor was just happy we were even in the service at all. I also was on the church basketball team and met more new people. I thought it a little weird that many of the kids on the church team were hot-tempered and foul mouthed. I knew that most were not regular church attendees and they only came to church during basketball season. I also knew they were required to be at church as often as possible if they wanted to play. Once basketball was over I never saw them again until the next season.
Once people found out I could play the drums and the piano they quickly enlisted me to play for special services and the children’s church. I did not want to do it since I was extremely nervous about being in front of people, but I felt I would be wrong to turn down using my ‘talents’ for the Lord.
Once I said yes to something the ball really started rolling. Next I was helping with Junior church, going on youth conference trips out of state, doing visitation with the pastor and then added to the Administrative Board. Wow, that was an eye opener.
I had always had a high regard for the church board members who were the ‘backbone’ of the church. I thought what spiritual people they must be to be entrusted with the plans and happenings of the church.
It did not take long to see that what went on in the monthly meeting was certainly not very spiritual. I had never seen so much arguing and disagreement in my life up to that point. Needless to say I did not stay part of the board very long. I decided to leave that to the much older and wiser people (who knew how to argue much better than I).
Well, so much for the early years of my church attendance. It was pretty typical and non-eventful, but I really enjoyed the experiences. I learned a lot and met many people who I enjoyed being around, although most of them I never saw outside of the church building or church planned events. This pretty much brings us up to my church history as a young adult which will be discussed in the next article. Can any of you relate to similar experiences?
As a young adult I continued on with the weekly attendance at the same local church, although the particular place would be changing over time.
At my ‘home’ church my parents were always active and well known. My dad was Sunday school superintendent and Lay leader. My mom helped in Junior church, Vacation bible school and worked in the office on Sunday. As a young adult I have to say I enjoyed the popularity of being known by about everyone in the congregation. I even had my own key to the church building so I could go in anytime I wanted and pray or play the piano or just talk with a friend or two.
I think it was around this stage that things began to change for me. I began having questions about things I was reading in the bible but I knew that it was best to keep these questions to myself. I figured there were logical explanations that I would figure out as time went by, or it was a matter of not completely understanding the bible yet I knew they were not questions I should bring up openly or people would begin to question my faith.
A friend of mine invited me to his church for a special service. After the service he introduced me to his pastor and we talked a little bit. The pastor was very friendly and seemed interested in having me there. He kept talking about getting together with me to play checkers and talk a bit, but when I told him I had a home church he all of a sudden lost interest, thanked me for coming and took off to talk to someone else.
After twenty years or so in my home church I felt it was time to move on. I thought I had come to a point where I was not learning or growing and a new church would be the answer. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a long drawn out process of eventually leaving the system.
As I began to venture out and look at other churches I first went to a church of the same denomination, thinking new people and a different pastor was what I needed. It did not take long to realize I was not satisfied anymore than I was at my previous church. So off I went looking to a different denomination to try out.
A friend of mine at work suggested visiting his church because it was friendly and exciting and had a pastor that preached the ‘full gospel’. I thought I would give it a try and after a couple visits thought I had found the most spiritual people in town. I also found a woman there who later became my wife. It was a non-denominational church and openly participated in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I was on cloud nine for a while thinking I had found what I was looking for, a place where the Spirit was falling on the congregation and God would show up for each service.
It took ten years but as I got to know people on a more personal level I found out they were not as spiritual as I had first thought. It turned out that many of them only used different spiritual words and terms but were no different than any other christian I knew. The church service, although more lively and exciting was still pretty much the same format and way of doing things.
So what did I do? Yep, my wife and I headed off for another church. This time we landed at a different style church than I had never been in before….a mega-church. Wow, talk about exciting. They had a full band and the service was televised so there were lights, sound systems and performers in make-up. Again I thought I had found the most spiritual people I had ever known.
After about three years it all kind of lost its excitement. I again noticed the same underlying system was in place. It was a little different in the fact that the pastor, if seen anytime off stage was escorted by body guards. When I wanted to walk around the large church complex and take a look at things ushers stopped me and told me I was not allowed in that particular area. Now to someone who used to have a key to the church building this was a big blow. I just could not get used to the tight security and the TV professionalism the pastor and musicians carried out each week.
About this time my marriage of thirteen years fell apart. Things just did not work out and we went our separate ways. It was a blow to me because I was always taught in church how much God hated divorce. I had seen many pastors and church workers in the past be told they could no longer participate in leadership roles at church due to being divorced. So I ended up dropping out of church due to guilt. I figured I would no longer be accepted there and actually thought God might be mad at me. This went on for about three years.
Now the best thing for me happened when I met my current wife. Yes, we ended up getting married even though I was taught divorce was wrong but remarriage was even worse. We both felt very much in love and believed that the love we felt could not be wrong and we believed God brought us together to live a happy life for him. I also felt good when we agreed we needed to get back in church. Fortunately things began to change when we found our new church.
This time we ended up back at a denominational church but much smaller and more like the church I grew up in. The pastor was different. He seemed to have an enthusiasm and preached with excitement that neither of us had seen before. It was a friendly church, yet as time went on we realized it was a church that was pretty much run by two different families. As we got to know the pastor more we found that he was frustrated from the pressure put on him by these families who wanted things done their way. We also found out that the pastor recently had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and he was preaching with new power and enthusiasm, something we really enjoyed but this particular denominational church wanted nothing to do with it. The pastor was a great help to my wife and I telling us about grace, forgiveness and the love of God like we had never heard before.
Unfortunately this did not last but for a few years. The pastor moved out of state and the church kind of fell apart. So again, off we went looking for something else. What we found next was the beginning of the end of our time in the organization. This will be talked about in the next article.
To begin this final part of my church history, remember I have been part of the traditional church organization for 40 some years at this point.
After our last pastor moved out of state and that church faded into history, we found a church that had interested us and excited us for a year or two. A friend of mine had told me about it and it sounded great to us. It was a non-denominational church and since our last church was gone we decided to give it a try.
This church was a little larger than what we were used to but was not a mega-church. The people were very friendly and there were so many activities in which to participate. We really liked that they gave food to the homeless and the poor in the area, they handed out water at parades and did several community related activities. After some time we noticed that very few people tried to get to know us or spend time talking with us because they were so busy staying in groups with people they already knew. My wife actually called two different home group leaders and tried to find out information on joining the group but was met with resistance from leaders who did not seem to want ‘new’ people in their group.
It was at this time I was feeling a real dissatisfaction with the church system. I felt there must be something more, this did not seem to be what Jesus meant when he said he would build his church. There was so much division and separation, no one was allowed to talk or discuss anything and only a select few had control of the service yet what I saw in the bible said we should all have a word, or a song, or a prayer. I read that Jesus was the head and each of us are equally important parts of his body. And what about the verse telling us we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and he dwells within us. I kept thinking about this and wondering why so many said the building was the church and they kept saying come to our church because the Spirit is going to fall and God is going to show up at this particular meeting. Yet the bible said the Spirit fell a couple thousand years ago upon the Church which was the people not a building. The Kingdom of God is within us and God is always with us, he is not going to show up at a special service when He is already within us.
It took us ten years at this particular church of going through the motions of getting up on Sunday morning, going to a service where we sat quietly looking at the back of someone’s head, going through the typical three songs, prayer, offering and listening to one person tell us their view of God, then getting up and walking out the door not seeing or hearing from anyone until the next Sunday. After several years of questioning and much dissatisfaction with the way the organized church seemed to be, we made the decision to leave the system and look to God for guidance. We began seeking the Holy Spirit to teach us because the bible says with the Spirit we do not need anyone else to teach us.
Of course we were told by several people that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves with other christians, yet I could not find in the bible where that meant we had to do so in a building on a specific day at a set time. My wife and I started asking God to lead us to people who we could encourage and who would encourage us. It was not long until we started having chance encounters with people, most of who were going through or had gone through the same thoughts and feelings we were having.
We have found we have been more open to meet and accept people who were outside our style of worship, belief or lifestyle. We read in the bible where Jesus loved people and he did not separate himself by denominations or beliefs. Jesus was God in human form and God is love. We certainly did not always see a lot of love within the system because many seemed to think they were better than others or they had to stay away from certain people. So many felt they needed to point out the sins and mistakes of others or they were denying God.
We feel the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin and it is not our job do point out where others may be wrong, if they are wrong at all. The Spirit will do the job of pointing out what needs to be changed and dealt with, we as followers of Christ are only called to love.
Since being out of the system for about two years now, neither of us have any reason to return. We have put our dependence on God and the Spirit for guidance and we are finding more and more believers to have fellowship with outside the walls of the traditional church. We would certainly not tell anyone not to go to church if that is what they want to do. For myself I had many years within the system that were good and meaningful. I learned many things and had many good experiences in the system. My wife and I were not abused or hurt by the church but we felt a real unrest with the system and after being out of it we have found more meaningful fellowship and a closer walk with God than we ever did in the past.
Will we ever return to the church system? I do not know. Right now I would say no because we have found a freedom and a dependence upon God that we never knew within the system. Yet we want to follow God and do what he leads us to, so if that would be where he wanted us sometime in the future then we would return.
I personally feel the system is wrong, not the people. There are many people within the organization that truly love God and are seeking to do what pleases him. There are many pastors and church workers who feel they are doing what they were called to do and I will not fault them for that. I think the organization is the problem. The organization is dependent on human leadership and human interpretation which causes division. I do not believe the church system is what Jesus was talking about when he said he would build his church. The Church is the people, not a building, not an organization.
If you are satisfied within the church system then stay where you are until you feel God leading you to something else. If you feel the same unrest in your soul that we did for many years and are thinking of leaving the organization then do so without any guilt. The Kingdom of God is within us. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We can have fellowship any day, any place, any time when God brings us together for a meal or a time of talking or praying with another person or two. We want to live each day of our lives in fellowship with the Spirit, listening for his guidance and showing the love of God to any he brings along our path.
So this brings us to the end of my church history as I knew it growing up. Yet it is not the end of my Church history because I am, along with every believer, part of the Church. It is not a building, it is not a system, not a man-run organization but it is each and every one of us. Each of us are equally functioning parts of the body following Jesus who is head of his Church.