5.28.2014

What Makes Christianity Christianity?

THE APOSTLES’ CREED, TRADITIONAL VERSION (As printed at 881 of the United Methodist Hymnal)
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
This may stir some things up, but...

I was just thinking about putting together another blog post about "church baggage" and how being raised in the Church of God influenced what I look for in a church. Specifically, I was interested in collating my thoughts on church membership, which is so important in some denominations and literally does not exist in the Church of God (I still hope to write that post, another day). But I came across something else, instead.

I found a really great pamphlet, entitled "What We Teach" that lays out the history and foundational beliefs of the Church of God (Anderson) Reformation Movement™and I honestly found a lot of it troubling.

For some context, I also recommend checking out this post on heresy from Rachel Held Evans' blog. I'm currently reading Justin Holcomb's book, discussed in that post, Know the Creeds and Councils.

From its outset, ChoG was started specifically to battle what its founders saw as unbiblical sectarianism. A noble idea birthed from the sectarian-battle-to-end-all-sectarian-battles The American Civil War. As such, it eschewed the idea of rigid creedal statements meant to separate "right" from "wrong" doctrine. ChoG therefore did away with the idea of membership, as "joining" would thusly require affirming some sort of set of beliefs.

The issue, though, is that my understanding of ChoG foundational beliefs is that they likewise refuse to affirm any historical creeds. Here's the relevant verbiage from "What We Teach":
We appreciate the value of the historic
Christian creeds, but we are unwilling to
make any of these creeds a test of Christian
fellowship.
This seems problematic to me, as I study the historic creeds and councils of Christianity, because doing so rather quickly leads one to believe that they're extremely vital to sussing out what is Orthodox, what is not, and why that's so important.

As I tweeted while reading through "What We Teach" the first time, if you're not willing to affirm Nicaea, I don't really even know what we're doing here.

Because ChoG still exists in America today, and hasn't been blasted as heretical by The Gospel Coalition or any of a thousand other possible parties who might choose to throw such a charge at it, and since I have some working knowledge of the denomination having spent half my life in it, I know that it practically does affirm the tenets of Orthodox Christianity as they are understood. Surely it wouldn't be operating several successful universities if this was not the case.

I do find it strange, though, that the denomination I grew up in seems not to find the need to state a definitive adherence to classical Orthodoxy. In 2003, however, the faculty of Anderson University drafted a new Statement of Belief that touches on many, if not all, of the points that these creeds do, but their blatant omission still leaves me more than a little ill at ease.

Briefly, it's also worth pointing to another statement in "What We Teach," as it pertains to my other problem with the Church of God:
We recognize the church as the universal
body of Christ. Each local congregation is
called to be a manifestation of this one
body. We recognize the importance both of
freedom in the Spirit and mutual responsi-
bility among Christ's disciples.
This point speaks to what I can only (experientially) describe as the impotence with which the Church of God has dealt with the lawlessness that has taken hold at my former church. Without a desire to affirm what is, or is not, doctrinally correct, and without a willingness to sow discord in the body (by which I mean, take a stand--any stand) I think the ChoG has succeeded in its mission to minimize infighting on a sectarian scale while utterly failing in its mission to provide a Christlike worship space for the bride of Christ.

I recognize these are serious charges, but I can point you to a whole lot of folks who'd be able to tell you that their experience bears them out.

And this is why I looked to a denomination with a more episcopal governance.

THE NICENE CREED (As printed at 880 of the United Methodist Hymnal)We believe in one God,The Father, the Almighty,Maker of heaven and earth,of all that is seen and unseen.We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,the only Son of God,eternally begotten of the Father,God from God, Light from Light,True God from True God,begotten, not made,of one being with the Father;through Him all things were made.For us and for our salvationHe came down from heaven,was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Maryand became truly human.For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;He suffered death and was buried.On the third day He rose againin accordance with the scriptures;He ascended into heavenand is seated at the right hand of the Father.He will come again in gloryto judge the living and the dead,and His kingdom will have no end.We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life,who proceeds from the Father,who with the Father and the Sonis worshiped and glorified,who has spoken through the prophets.We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.We acknowledge one baptismfor the forgiveness of sins.We look for the resurrection of the dead,and the life of the world to come. Amen
- - -

CONCLUDING AFFIRMATION - STATEMENT OF BELIEF, ANDERSON UNIVERSITY
In devotion to Christ as the head of the church, we desire to be a biblical people, a people who worship the triune God, a people transformed by the grace of God, a people of the Kingdom of God, a people committed to building up the one, universal church of God, and a people who in God's love care for the whole world. 

5.22.2014

How We Settled On A Church

So in light of the fact that I've made such a big, public deal of how Melissa and I are "church shopping," and especially after making such a big, public deal of naming and shaming the places we wouldn't be considering, I felt it was important to explain where we've been attending the last three weeks, and why we (after only three weeks) think that we may settle in already. I'm planning this as a 3-day series on my blog.

Late in the evening on Saturday, May 3rd, Melissa and I agreed on a plan for the church we were going to visit the following day. As we'd decided that we liked my parents' home church (Grace United Methodist, in Perrysburg, OH) we would check out a nearby UMC church which offered a contemporary worship service. Best of all, the service started at 11:45, so we could sleep in!

Sometime after ten that night I kissed Melissa goodnight and sat down at my computer to read and tweet and waste time until I felt tired enough to head to bed myself. While I was at it, I thought it might be fun to check out the podcast of the church we were planning to visit the following morning. I made a few discoveries along the way.

While I knew that this church was considered an extension or second location of another nearby UMC church, I didn't realize that it was truly a multi-site operation. If we attended the 11:45 service at the "campus" near to us, it seemed we'd watch the sermon on a video screen and, obviously, have no opportunity to interact with the pastor who was giving it. This was a big turn-off, but not necessarily a dealbreaker.

As I pulled up the podcast page for the church, though, I realized I could actually pull up the previous week's video message just as it had been sent from location to location, so I gave it a look. As I began skimming and fast-forwarding through the introductory portion of the message, I happened to pause on something that DID feel like a bit of a dealbreaker. The pastor was describing the events of the quasi-religious memoir Heaven Is For Real and explaining that it 1) was based on true facts and 2) was providing the theme for the day's sermon (part of an ongoing series).

I guess that I knew that there was a Heaven Is For Real series going on, but I'd assumed it was more of a cash-in. We'll use this popular book and movie to get folks in the door and then we'll tell them what the Bible actually says about what happens to those who believe after death. After all, the afterlife was a topic I was acutely interested in as of late, as I'd spent that week plowing through N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope.

It's possible that the whole of the message hewed closer to what I hoped it would be than what I feared it was, but at the time I was turned off enough by what I saw to turn off the video and begin looking for somewhere, anywhere else to go.

- - -

I want to make a quick aside here to explain the importance, and recognize some of the shortcomings that I think come from podcasting.

I think podcasting is a tremendous tool. I LOVE the fact that some pastors (Greg Boyd comes to mind) see their podcast listeners as a potential extension of their church family and cultivate that audience in various ways. I also understand that you simply cannot get pastoral care, mentorship, counseling, or prayer support from a podcast. It's an mp3 file and not a relationship.

But I have grown tremendously in my walk as a result of listening regularly, and extensively, to the likes of Rob Bell, Matt Chandler, Jonathan Martin, Andy Stanley, Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, Francis Chan, and more via the incredible power of the iTunes Music Store.

In the archives I listened to Matt Chandler's Village Church grow into the church that it is now. I listened to Bell, Martin, and Chan as they left their churches for exciting new callings. I was challenged in the way I viewed God and even the cross by Zahnd and Boyd. These were not simply a matter of hearing a nice little message during a commute, these were life-altering and worldview shaping experiences.

Podcasting, or something like it, is how Melissa and I got marriage advice from Tim Keller before saying "I Do." It's how I learned that things at my former church had truly gotten as bad as had been reported to me (why you'd podcast what they were podcasting, I'll never know). It's how I heard Mark Driscoll launch into a 10 minute aside about the "heresy" of the book The Shack during a message purportedly about Orthodoxy and the Trinity, and assured me I just wasn't ever going to come around on the guy.

It's a form of dissemination of message that I don't think warrants dismissal, and it's one that I think allows for tremendous insight into the kind of church that is putting out what is being put out.

- - -

On a whim, late that Saturday night, I pulled the previous week's mp3 file off of the website of www.mayfieldchurch.org. A big, pretty, new-looking UMC church in Chesterland that Melissa and I had passed on the way to Lena's pediatrician.  I was quickly so enamored that I began live-tweeting the experience.

With considerable humor, Pastor Scott was leading his church through a series called "Shift Happens" (be careful how you say it!) and in this message on "Attitude Shift" he grabbed my attention IMMEDIATELY by sharing an anecdote from Brian McLaren. He then proceeded to namedrop several of my favorite pastors and bloggers within the faith and praise their importance to the future of Christ's church.

I broke into tears.

Pastor Scott then launched into a message about greeting people with the basic dignity they deserve, about not being a traffic cop, and about trends in young people that found them wanting to follow Christ without ascribing to labels like "Christian" or "evangelical." I could scarcely believe my ears.

Sometime after one in the morning I decided I knew where Melissa and I needed to visit the following morning, and thanks to my live-tweeting the event, Melissa got up for a 3AM feeding and read all about my decision.

So we went. And as I promised twitter I would, I told Pastor Scott about how it had happened. And I can't overstate the importance of this: I was able to tell him because I was able to meet him. He was in the building when we visited.

But something else wonderful happened, too. Pastor Scott didn't preach on the 5th. Pastor Jan did. And in addition to delivering an even more soul-stirring message still, I was overcome by the added sense of glee that came with knowing that Melissa had been given the opportunity to hear a woman preach from the Word from a pulpit in front of men and women on a Sunday morning. We were hooked.

We've gone twice more since then, we have no interest in stopping anytime soon. In fact, the more we learn about the place the more we fall in love with it. Everyone's friendly with us, their various missions and outreach programs impress and inspire us, and we cannot wait for Lena to be old enough to participate in their children's programming.

I don't know that it wouldn't have been equally possible for us to swallow some pride or look past some minor disagreements on things still well within orthodoxy and then feel equally at home someplace else. I don't know that we won't find some glaring problem with this place just like all the others some day and have to consider that our standards are just too high, our wants just too ridiculous. But for now I can tell you that we've settled on a place.

And honestly, we'd love for you to come visit with us next week.






TuesdayA look at the many churches I've visited or attended since moving to Cleveland, why I left them, and how they led me to keep looking.
YesterdayOur baggage. How our experiences in Catholicism, and a failed/fallen church influenced our church shopping experience.

5.21.2014

(Some of) Our Church Baggage

So in light of the fact that I've made such a big, public deal of the fact that Melissa and I are "church shopping," and especially after making such a big, public deal of naming and shaming the places we wouldn't be considering, I felt it was important to explain where we've been attending the last three weeks, and why we (after only three weeks) think that we may settle in already. I'm planning this as a 3-day series on my blog.

Today I thought it would be insightful to explain a little bit about my church background. I've already shared a bit about my faith journey (and lack of faith journey) on my blog here, but as much as my politics and half-decade of atheism influenced my wants and needs in a church, so too did my church experience prior to all that.

For starters: my family went to one church for something like four generations. The church where I was baptized, where my parents were married, was also the church where my great-grandfather participated in setting fire to the mortgage papers of the building he and his contemporaries had just paid it off. I remember joking that I might as well be an honorary member of the board because I knew so much of the inner workings of the place--as a pre-teen.

North Cove Boulevard Church of God was our home. I was there minimum three times a week. Services Sunday and Wednesday night, visiting my great-grandmother as she quilted with the other quilting ladies (thursday mornings?), and usually a drop-in or two in addition. I still remember every square inch of that building (save for the boiler room, kids weren't allowed in there). I have countless incredibly fond memories of attending North Cove, being baptized there, and developing a deep devotion to Christ and his church there.

Unfortunately, North Cove no longer exists. As a church we decided to move out of Toledo to the suburbs and build a large, modern, beautiful new building. The decision was hard and the task was daunting, but my mother played a very large part in its execution. We did it for the health of the existing church community, and so that we could hopefully reach others like us, who had (as most of us had) moved away from Toledo to the suburbs. My 95-year-old great-grandmother turned over the first shovelful of dirt.

Sometime thereafter, the newly re-named Heritage Church of God and its longtime pastor began to lose its way.

Mortgage payments are stressful. A megachurch buying and moving into the property next door is stressful. Losing a ton of money in some deal gone wrong is stressful. I understand. Unfortunately, the Church of God is a denomination that intentionally, or not, has utterly failed to notice problems or staunch the bleeding. The focus on un-checked independent local church means that no one has had to account for the fact that the pastor of this church has stopped preaching biblically sound teachings, allowed his church to devolve into an almost cartoonishly virulent hotbed of gossip, bullying, and infighting, driven away an impressive percentage of its original membership, and grievously injured countless wonderful people in the process.

This experience, which I have admittedly mostly only had to deal with second hand, has still had a tremendous impact on what I look for in a church. I have practical, as well as biblical, reasons to care about how a church is governed, and what it's relationship to other area churches and its denomination is. I have seen what lacking it has done to a community.

This, tied with my strong desire to find a church that was open to all, egalitarian in its understanding of gender roles (especially in church leadership), and my liberal politics led me to look to the mainline denominations.

But there was a complication there.

Melissa was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. She attended St. Paul's parish in Euclid, Ohio, made her first communion and was confirmed there. She also attended St. Paul's elementary school and worked in the church rectory.

This upbringing left her with a strong love for God, but a sometimes fraught relationship with his church. She witnessed a church office that seemed bizarrely consumed by money. The culture rubbed her the wrong way, to say the least. (And the dysfunction local seemed to eventually play out as dysfunction Diocesan as our regional bishop shuttered tens of parishes only for their congregants to either successful appeal to the Vatican to be re-opened, or to break away from Roman oversight entirely.)

Probably more importantly, she struggled to connect her church experience, filled as it was with its ritual, its recitation, and its old, old selection of music with the Jesus she heard about from friends who attended evangelical churches. She left the catholic church and discovered an even deeper faith in the passionate teaching and rousing worship of evangelicalism.

As we've lived together for the last three and a half years, however, we've found that our marriage resembles the egalitarian vision we've read about online far more than the complimentarian one we were taught to expect. And with this, we've looked hard at our desires in church and in life and with much prayer decided together that what we feel we needed in a church.

Somewhere we could seek mentorship from people whose marriages truly looked the way we wanted ours to look.
Somewhere with a contemporary style of worship we could both find moving.
Somewhere with robust programming for our daughter.
Somewhere with local and regional (at least!) oversight of doctrine and belief.
Somewhere with teaching that would challenge us to be better Christians instead of challenging us to stay (or stay awake).
And we think we've found the place.

YesterdayA look at the many churches I've visited or attended since moving to Cleveland, why I left them, and how they led me to keep looking.
Tomorrow: How we chose Mayfield Church, and why we already think we may stay.

5.20.2014

Our Shopping List

So in light of the fact that I've made such a big, public deal of how Melissa and I are "church shopping," and especially after making such a big, public deal of naming and shaming the places we wouldn't be considering, I felt it was important to explain where we've been attending the last three weeks, and why we (after only three weeks) think that we may settle in already. I'm planning this as a 3-day series on my blog.

Today, here's a list of all of the churches I've attended in the last six-ish years. Why the ones that didn't work didn't, why the ones that did work DID, and how this all led us to where we are.

I don't intend for this to be prescriptive so much as just reflective of our experience. We know attenders and members at many of these churches whose experiences are much different from ours. It also deserves to be said that a lot of our objections to places came down to style more than substance, or came down to differences of opinion on things that are still well within the realm of orthodoxy. Nowhere we visited was evil, nowhere was even necessarily WRONG, but many places just weren't right for us. To try to drive that point home, I have recommended several of these churches to others whose needs or tastes were different from ours.

I've left out the names of the churches that we did not stay to try to mitigate the impression I'm simply talking bad about a bunch of places, but many of them are likely easily discerned by folks who know the area, or us, well.

Sevenoseven / Cuyahoga Valley Church - Broadview Heights, OH (SBC)
We attended here for several years and attended membership classes (though never joined). We also attended (and briefly led) LifeGroups. We took premarital counseling/courses here. Melissa was baptized here. We were married here. We left largely due to a perceived calling to worship in our local community, and the long commute. We decided not to return due to our desire to find a church with more inclusive and egalitarian values, and because we struggled with the lack of couples to "look up to" in the mostly young and unmarried 707 congregation.

3-Year-Old Missional Church Plant - Berea, OH (United Brethren)
We attended this church for several months as their method of "doing church" was very much in line with what we felt called to do in our own community of Cleveland Heights at the time. It was also started by a good friend of ours. Around this time we travelled to Sheffield, UK for a missional church immersion experience with Church Doctor Ministries and came back ON FIRE to start such a movement in Cleveland Heights. The 35+ minute commute paired with our very hurt feelings over communication breakdowns surrounding our desire to partner with this church for mentorship caused us to eventually stop returning.

3-Year-Old Church Plant - Cleveland Heights, OH (SBC)
A recent plant in Cleveland Heights, Melissa and I attended here for a couple months before leaving. I was never comfortable with the SBC/A29-esque vibe of the place, though we both enjoyed the worship. We were also made very uncomfortable with the intense emphasis put on becoming members of the church, and the not becoming members seemed to be a certain path to eventual ostracism. It's possible our perception of this wasn't quite the reality, but it was definitely what we felt.

5-Year-Old Church Plant - Lyndhurst, OH (...SBC?)
We visited once with some close friends who were new Christians. We were taken aback by the warm, inviting atmosphere and friendly congregation. The worship was charmingly rough around the edges, but we were both unmoved by the preaching. The sermon we heard essentially boiled down to "You should believe in Jesus because crucifixion is incredibly painful." It hinged on an anecdote wherein a youth group member renounced his faith, and so his pastor stood him in front of a crucifix and made the boy say to "Jesus' face" that he didn't believe. The kid found himself unable to do so. ...and scene.

A United Methodist Church - Cleveland Heights
An insanely beautiful stone church building. A bizarrely 70s themed worship service (including an intro video that I think was from the film version of Godspell). And a very well written sermon that was very drily read verbatim from a script by the pastor. Pass.

A PCUSA Presbyterian Church - Cleveland Heights 
We only attended here once. I liked this church for its liberalism, it's intellectualism, its activism, and its liturgy. Melissa couldn't engage with the highly structured, Catholic-resembling order of service.

Another PCUSA Church - Lyndhurst (PCUSA)
This church was a little more laid back than the first PCUSA parish we checked out. It also holds a "contemporary" service that is reportedly more laid-back still. We wouldn't know, though, as two attempts to attend it in three weeks were thwarted by them not holding it. We decided to check out another area church after the second week we planned a failed visit here, and that other church is likely where we're staying.

IMPORTANT VISITS ELSEWHERE:

St. Thomas Crookes - Sheffield, UK (CoE)
This church is a part of the Church of England/Anglican and has been occasionally called the fastest growing church in Europe. They are responsible for much of the recent resurgence of "missional" church and if you met these people you'd immediately see why. I get chills describing the place, it's that impactful. We lived among them for a week and believe me when I say that once you've seen this it's hard to go back.

Threshold Church - Toledo, OH
This church is attempting to replicate the St. Thom's model in Toledo, and we met their leadership team on our trip to England. We love Tom & Scott, and what they're doing in Toledo. (And, far from teetotalers, they're also opening a brewery in downtown Toledo).

Grace United Methodist Church - Perrysburg, OH
My parents' home church. This warm and welcoming place boasts impressive missions work, engaging teaching, a moving and modern worship service, and cronuts in the lobby on Sunday. This church was very much the model for what we eventually decided we wanted in a church.

Quarry Ridge Community Church - Sylvania, OH (Church of God - Anderson)
My grandparents' home church, this church plant is one I only attended twice, but the engaging and well-researched preaching was incredibly important to me. It is affiliated with the Church of God (Anderson) denomination I grew up in, and seeing a non-dysfunctional version of that kind of church in Northwest Ohio was very encouraging to me.

Tomorrow: Our baggage. How our experiences in Catholicism, and a failed/fallen church influenced our church shopping experience.
Thursday: How we chose Mayfield Church, and why we already think we may stay.