Without further ado, here is part 1 of 3 that will chronicle our church search experience! Part 1 is all about context, just so you know the "why" behind our little experiment!
Church has been a huge part of both my husband’s and my life from infancy. We were raised in the same faith tradition—Southern Baptist—and met through Auburn’s Baptist Campus Ministries. Being Southern Baptist in the South is not uncommon, as it is the largest evangelical Protestant group in the United States, and 81 percent of its members live in the South.
It never really occurred to me that there were other denominations and other theological views out there until college, when I visited a Presbyterian church and fell in love with it. I dove headfirst into all Calvinism/Reformed theology had to offer (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, I tried to find a *brief* overview and one just doesn't exist, which is so fitting. Here is the Wikipedia page 🤣) and learned so much about a more intellectual side of Christianity, in addition to responsive readings, infant baptism and expository teaching (teaching through books of the Bible in their entirety and not skipping anything. Some of these churches will be in the book of Romans for four years—not an exaggeration. The other end of this spectrum is topical teaching, where pastors choose a theme or a topic and use Scripture as kind of a proof text for the point they’re making. And of course, there are hybrid styles).
Otherwise, being Presbyterian was pretty much the same as being Southern Baptist. The churches of my youth and young adulthood generally put a high value on the study of Scripture, had very black-and-white views on the interpretation of the text, held a complementarian view on gender (no ordained women pastors, men are leaders of the home), attracted people who are politically conservative, emphasized evangelism and were skeptical of religious rituals as well as the opposite end of the spectrum, woo-woo/spiritual/Charismatic experiences. In a lot of ways, it was a very “don’t be a weirdo” kind of message.
So that was our faith/church experience before moving to Georgia. It was honestly mostly positive. I don’t have any stories of being burned by the church or experiencing rejection or abuse at the hands of church leaders, although I know these stories exist and they grieve me deeply. In my experience, however, pretty much everyone I ever encountered in a church setting was exceedingly kind to me (admittedly, this is probably in part because I am a straight, white, bubbly girl who is a natural rule follower). Church always felt like extended family, like an anchor. I truly don’t have anything juicy or bad to say.
But a couple years ago, I began to feel increasingly disconnected from God. My social media feed was basically a PR campaign for my church—I loved the mission. I loved serving. I loved the community around us. Our music was off the chain! The teaching was so applicable to your daily life! We were reaching our community! But I was so focused on all those things, I kind of lost touch with… God. It was ALL about him, but was it really? Was it about knowing God, or was it about meeting friends? Was it about knowing God, or was it about feeling smart at a Bible study? Was it about knowing God, or was it about making a difference? Was it about knowing God, or was it about having a healthy marriage? For me, being a Christian became less and less about knowing and experiencing God and more and more about elevating myself culturally, relationally, morally and professionally. I was really, really good at being “good,” y’all.
Gradually, I found myself craving a faith that was deeper and less performative. Something simple, intimate, real and truly centered on God, not culture or morality or even evangelism. Something… dare I say... holy? Church and faith had become so familiar and comfortable for me that I had forgotten what it felt like to dwell in the presence of God, to encounter Him and experience his Spirit. I knew so much about God. I knew so much about Scripture. But there was an entire person of God—the Holy Spirit—that I felt was a complete stranger even though he supposedly indwelled me. In addition, I found myself becoming increasingly unsettled about a lot of the black-and-white doctrine I grew up with. Church was becoming a source of anxiety rather than rest and connection with God. I knew something had to change.
Right as we moved, my spiritual burnout peaked and I began to question everything. You can read more about that in a previous essay. It was a scary time for me as the thing my life had revolved around for decades seemed so fragile and weak.
What I feel God did for me through our church search was open my heart and mind to the diversity within the body of Christ and the myriad expressions of faith that exist. Each has a different flavor, and we need not fear or compete with each other.
Of course, I’m not saying “whatever goes, forget doctrine!” We did not visit churches that don't espouse the foundational tenants of Christianity. There are some straight up cults out there, and I would never want to lead someone in that direction.
I’m simply learning that Scripture lacks crystal clarity on a good number of non-foundational issues, and I think that’s by design. Just because the faith tradition I came from wasn’t working for me anymore did not mean I had to leave the faith altogether.
After this experience, I would argue that we NEED different denominations and different expressions of faith. Diversity within the body of Christ should keep us humble and curious rather than skeptical and self-righteous. God has also used this diversity to welcome people of different cultures, socio-economic statuses, personalities, political beliefs and intellectual abilities into his family for centuries.
We cannot fit God into any one box, because he cannot be contained by human understanding.
We also must remember that Scripture contains different genres of text, was written to an ancient audience in a language we do not speak and contains countless verses we must view through the lens of context, culture and history to fully understand. We all bring our own biases and baggage to the table when reading Scripture, as well. It is possible—even inevitable—that we could disagree on many doctrinal points, yet share the same faith.
The danger is when we sequester ourselves into different camps so deeply we forget the others exist, or worse—begin to vilify them. We need not believe exactly like every other member of the body of Christ, but we must respect each other, learn from each other and, ideally, interact with each other.
That’s why our church search was so incredibly powerful for us—on the other side of it, I’m subscribed to a podcast from a Reformed congregation, had Lutheran friends over for dinner the other night, know where to go if I’m craving some incredible choral music, plan on visiting the Episcopal church next door around Easter to go through the stations of the Cross, and frequently listen to sermons online from a pastor who is a person of color and shares a perspective white teachers simply cannot.
The congregation and denomination we landed in (sorry, not telling you this week—suspense!) is the right place for us, but it’s not the only church we respect in the area. It’s our home, but it’s not our fortress. It provides the bulk of our spiritual instruction, but isn’t the only source of wisdom available. It’s where we’ll serve, but it’s not the only church doing amazing work in the community. I love the ecumenical view this experience developed within us, and I'm deeply grateful to finally feel at peace about my relationship with God and the church. 🙌
I write this week’s essay in hopes of giving someone permission to explore outside the confines of a denomination or expression that isn’t working for them anymore. Sometimes, we need something different. Like me, you might be burned out and need to land somewhere that embraces practices of quiet and stillness and rest. Or you may have tried so hard for years to fit into the box certain denominations have created for your gender or your sexuality or your political views, and you’re at a breaking point. I write this to tell you there’s no need to abandon faith altogether. There is a place for you in the family of God if you want to be part of it, friend. Keep searching and keep trusting him to lead you to where he'd have you meet him.
Next week, I’ll tell you a little more about the specific churches we visited and what we learned from each of them! Part 3 will be about the church we found and why we love it. I really hope this is interesting to you guys??? If not, we'll return to our regularly scheduled randomness in a couple weeks. 😉