When I Had No Church
- Stephen Sanders A/V Editor, Salem Web Network
- 2013 4 Feb
Unless you are still in the same church you were raised in as a child, chances are you’ve had a bad church experience. Maybe someone in leadership got caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. Or perhaps, after studying your Bible, you discovered that the teaching you were exposing your family to wasn’t scriptural. Whatever the case, leaving a church isn’t an easy thing to do. It sometimes results in losing touch with friends you’ve served beside for years. It could mean uprooting your loved ones and trying many churches before you discover a new place to worship.
Such has been my life for the past two years. After leaving our church home of nine years, we regularly attended five different churches from four different denominations. The amount of lessons I’ve learned during this time cannot be contained in a single article. But I would like to summarize a few important steps that helped my family survive this in-between time and led to us finding a new and healthy church home.
1. Remove the Term "Church-Hopper" From Your Vocabulary
I don’t know who originated this evil description, but if you are going to survive your bad church situation, you need to treat this damaging phrase as if it never existed. When church leaders begin tossing the term "church hoppers" around, it’s basically a way to guilt people into not leaving their church. It is an unedifying and cruel thing to call someone not only because it’s selfish, but also because you don’t know the details of their situation.
There were many times in our transition where my wife and I felt like we were disobedient christians because we hadn’t yet found the church for us. I can’t help but imagine that this is a point where many people give up on church altogether. Leaving an unhealthy church requires a lot of patience. It can require thick skin, deaf ears, and a great degree of un-learning false doctrines.
2. Take Bible Study Very Seriously
I’ve found that there are two types of Bible readers:
Type A: reads the Bible out of religious duty, but allows some "other thing" to govern their behavior. Maybe that other thing is their emotions. Or maybe it’s the laws of the church they serve in. But the Bible isn’t the authority in their decision-making; they never allow the words on the page to have a true impact in their lives, and they read to prove what they already suspect. Their priority is quantity over quality.
Type B: takes time to process the Bible. They take the time to wrestle with the things they are reading. They realize the importance of letting the Scriptures indicate who God is, how He relates to His creation and ultimately, who we, His creation, are supposed to be. Their priority is quality over quantity.
I’ll never forget the moment I decided that I’d been a Type A, but needed to be a Type B. I was driving home from my grandmother’s funeral a few years ago. I was reminiscing over the life she’d lived, the multitude of people she’d touched, God’s grace upon her life and the lives of her children and grandchildren. I remember being blown away that God used this woman, a widowed little granny who didn’t speak in tongues or cast out demons or hold crusades overseas. She allowed God to transform her world. As a result, she touched the lives of so many people.
Up to that point, I’d taken a lot of pride in the life I lived as a Christian. Most of the examples I had in my life were Christians who had great material wealth and tremendous power over others. People would cheer at their sermons and give them special treatment in public. They prayed in tongues and prophesied. They laid hands on people who’d fall to the ground under the power of God. They taught college-level Bible classes. They traveled the world conducting massive crusades with hundreds of thousands in attendance. These people were my heroes.
It’s funny how perception can change at the blink of an eye. When I compared the lives of my heroes to the life of my granny, I realized just how shallow and materialistic I’d allowed myself to become. All of those things… the money, the power, the cheers… they were only skin deep. The empire that my heroes spent the majority of their lives building had become the top priority in their lives, and their relationships and the spiritual health of those that followed them had suffered because of it.
This was how I came to realize that I had to take Bible study seriously. That is why I process the things I read in the Scriptures and allow them to mold me. As followers of Christ, we need to allow God’s word to pick us apart and form us into who God wants us to be. Without that, I seriously don’t know if any of us can know what a healthy church really is, or if we could ever really trust the pastors who are tasked with watching over our souls, loving God, honoring His word, and loving His people.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Mix Things Up
I'm a firm believer that you won't truly understand something unless you take the time to become involved in whatever that "something" is doing. I see this error a lot in our contemporary Christian culture. Unfortunately, a lot of division takes place that really shouldn't. I used to look at denominations in this light. That is, until I went out and experienced a few of them.
Take the assemblies of god church I visited for four months. It's a very well-known church with a good reputation. They believed in things like prophecy and speaking in tongues, but they never allowed those things to occur outside of the biblical context of 1 Corinthians 14:26. The worship services were more charismatic than many of the other denominations I attended, but it was always done in a intimate and respectful way.
A seemingly polar opposite from that church was the southern baptist church we attended for a couple months. They taught that spiritual gifts like praying in tongues had ceased with the Apostles. I may not have seen a whole lot of charisma during the worship there, but I saw a whole lot of charisma in the way they treated one another. Biblical teaching on loving God and loving others was not lacking in that environment... and that is something of which you can't have enough.
Then there was the acts 29 church plant that gave me a great deal of hope for the future of the American church. I'd estimate that about 80 percent of the members were college-aged singles and young families. I don't think I've ever witnessed such a tremendous thirst for biblical knowledge and action. Even though we chose not to make this church our home after nine months, we value this experience so much because of the teaching we received and the lifelong friendships we made.
When we arrived there, they were in the middle of a teaching on the Book of Acts that would end up lasting a few more months. For those of you who are unfamiliar with expository teaching, I can't stress enough how vital it is in our churches. In a time where so many things in the Bible can be pulled out of context, going through the Bible verse by verse in our sermons would avoid so many problems.
We also attended an evangelical presbyterian church for 4-5 months which we also grew to love for a number of reasons. These folks really understood youth ministry and missions. It was the lifeblood of the body and seemed to drive everything they did. This was also the environment where I learned the difference between "closed-hand" issues and "open-hand" issues.
For example, some of us may be interpreting Scripture to say one thing while others may be interpreting it a slightly different way. Almost always, our love-walk with those we disagree should trump whatever concept it is that we fail to agree upon. When I began looking at tolerance through this lens, it inspired me to search the Bible for those things that were "closed-handed," or non-negotiable. I will tell you that, so far, I haven't found a whole heck of a lot of them.
Finally, we come to our new church home. As I write, I realize that it is an even mixture of all of the things I grew to appreciate about the other churches we attended. It's funny; people began inviting us to this church almost as soon as we had begun to transition out of our former Word of Faith church, but I let a little thing like location keep me from going there. It's downtown. It's incredibly hard to imagine where someone might find a parking spot. It's so far from ideal in so many ways... until you actually visit there, that is.
You know what else is really awesome? I honestly don't think I would have appreciated our new church if we had just visited there right away. By attending all of these other churches, we were able to make an informed decision about where our family would begin the next chapter of our church life. It's not only given me tremendous hope for the future, but a greater respect for God. After all, He knew the journey our family needed to take before we did.
Stephen Sanders is the Audio/Video Editor at Salem Web Network. He is also a student of Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute and author of the blog, thin line between faith & denial: a journey from charismania into the unknown. Stephen is husband to Kasie and daddy to 3 beautiful daughters. On the rare occasion that he isn't working, studying, blogging or being a husband/daddy, Stephen enjoys music, sports, people watching, solitude, coffee and experiencing new things. Follow him on Twitter @1stephensanders.
Publication date: February 4, 2013