(Here’s the blog that’s been brewing for a few months… Please note that it continues (for quite a while) via the “more” link after paragraph six.)
So, I was attending this emergent, relevant, post-modern church ever since my senior year in college. It was all about everything I was all about: doing stuff with excellence, being artsy and relevant and non-traditional…all that jazz. Incredible music, lots of media, coffee and more coffee. We were on A Current Affair (see video) and national media for hosting a “Porn Weekend” with the ministry xxxchurch.com. Just a lot of cutting edge ministry going on there.
I fit in for a long while. I became a lead member of the media team that ran the computers during the services, was helping them design a new Web site, led a small group with some friends, began a mentoring relationship with one of the pastors…
But almost a year ago, I started getting a little uncomfortable there. There had to be more to the church and the body of Christ than doing things with excellence and being culturally relevant. Maybe that wasn’t who the church was trying to be…but from my perspective, that’s what was coming out.
During the previous summer (’04), I had started attending a good friend’s church on Wednesday nights. A book study on Waking the Dead by John Eldredge (essential reading) got me in. And I pretty much kept attending Wednesday night services there from then on. Scott and my other roommate started attending on Wednesdays as well as we started another book study: Renewing the Mind by Casey Treat (not the most well written book, but a lot of good principles).
Eventually Scott and Clark started attending there on Sundays. But I stuck to my guns at the church I was at; I was committed to it. And as God and my good friends know, I’m pretty stubborn when I set my mind on stuff. So for about 6-9 months, I began to wrestle with the idea of leaving. I didn’t want to because there were so many things I loved about it. It just fit “me” so well. I quote “me” because it fit the “me” I knew…not necessarily the me I was supposed to be…or the me God had created me to be–just the me I was aware of up to that point.
But as I started to engage God on new levels and be exposed to the God of the Bible rather than the God of 21st century America or the God of the Thumb of Michigan or the God of Spring Arbor University…I began to get very uncomfortable with my faith/theology/what-have-you. The God I had experienced and/or was told about up to that point didn’t really line up with the God I was reading about. And thus my faith journey’s theme for 2005 became “There is more…” It was reinforced at John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart boot camp and even more so at the church I go to now: Real Life Ministries in Albion… So, I finally came to the point in my wrestle with leaving my church that I committed to supporting it through the pastor transition and would reassess things when the dust had settled. It was more a reason-based decision more than anything, but it was a decision nonetheless.
Well…the dust settled this past fall when I heard the new pastor’s first sermon. And I wasn’t comfortable with how it settled. So I left. I can only describe my reaction to the pastor’s message as “violent.” Do I feel it was heresy? No. Not at all. I actually have no idea if anyone but myself reacted to it the way I did. But my spirit was not at peace at all during the message. I could hardly keep my butt in the seat…and everybody knows I’m a very non-reactive, slow-responding, easy-does-it kind of guy. I myself was taken back by the reaction. But react I did.
I made sure the get the sermon CD so I could listen to it again and give it another shot. I listened to it with Scott without telling him details to see how he responded. He reacted to the same points I did.
At that point, I was pretty sure I was leaving, but decided to hear out the rest of the sermon series and see if the tables somehow turned. I didn’t react to the other ones like I did the first, but as Scott and I listed to a few more together, we came to the consensus that the teaching just wasn’t offering the complete truth–it was “lacking” was the word we came up with I think…
My last Sunday there, I was on duty for media and was at all three services. I recorded the last one with my mp3 player and almost teared up because I knew it was the end of an era of sorts. The Beetles played in the lobby pre-service and the worship music was magical as usual. JVo (the worship leader) busted out the mandolin during a particular intimate worship set of “Surrender” and “Hungry.” My heart just ached knowing I wouldn’t be part of it any more. But as I sang “Surrender” from the media booth, the Lord assured me that it’s never a downgrade with him…and that he had even better things in store for me.
I didn’t jump into Real Life immediately. Stubborn ol’ me still held out for a while. I can only attribute this to being an avid control freak, wanting to own my decisions and actions and prove it to people. I wanted to be the one to choose Real Life–not God and most certainly not my friends. I feel so stupid confessing this, but it’s true. The fact was…I did want to go to Real Life…but I didn’t want to admit it. I felt it would be a sign of “giving in” or a confession of sorts that I was wrong.
I then fantasized of constructing an elaborate, multi-month “tour of southern Michigan churches” in which I would sample a broad cross section of denominations and just get a sense of the Church’s status in the state. That didn’t happen. I over-slept one week and hit the default Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church, much like I did as a college student. I actually almost went to my old church that Sunday…but how the heck do you go to a church the week or two after you leave it? That seemed like quite a compromise in my mind.
I skipped another week, opting for my own worship time and Bible reading after not being able to decide what church to visit based on phone book listings.
The farthest I ventured was Holt, Michigan, just south of Lansing. Took me 35 or 40 minutes to get there…not bad considering I drive 25-30 minutes to Real Life. The pastor there had guest spoke at my old church once and I liked what he had to say. (This was actually a mini-compromise in my mind as well, finding it odd that I’d visit the church of a guy whose church was tied to the church I was leaving.)
When I met him at Westwinds, he was that guy I wished to be for all the unimportant reasons. Not wrong reasons, just unimportant. He was Joel version 1.2: a tech-savvy, smart, hip, funny, culturally-in, power-Web-using, Photoshop-friendly, ministry-working, family guy/dude with intriguing insight into scripture. I remember leaving church that night somewhat self-defeating because I thought: “What can’t that be my life: married-while-making-cool-home-videos- of-my-kids-while-working-in-the-ministry- while-building-fun-web-sites-and- ordering-cool-coffee-drinks”? I didn’t find an answer and beat myself up some more.
Anyway…the service at Holt was good. The sermon was challenging and I loved the worship time. Didn’t seem like anyone else really loved the worship time, which bothered me. But whatever. The teaching focused on unforgiveness and bitterness. And I decided the person I hadn’t forgiven and was bitter toward was God. That’s kinda scary, let me tell you. It helps you fear him a bit when you come to that conclusion. It’s something you want to repent of quickly upon realization.
After the sermon, I made a point to talk to the early-college age worship leader and get names and authors of the songs (check out bradkilman.com; you can stream his latest album) so I could check them out some more, but that was pretty much the only person I talked to. A church of a couple hundred or so, of course nobody knew I was a visitor. And I traditionally haven’t been one to introduce myself to people.
At this point, you can insert Mackinac faith-crisis, which I blogged about in September.
Well…after Sherry offered some well-deserved verbal slaps to my face, I finally choked down some pride and started going to the church I wanted to go to…though I STILL didn’t tell anyone I was officially going to Real Life. I just started showing up. (This is all so bizarre as I write about it. Why would I NOT want to celebrate with Scott, Clark and Sherry, some of my best friends, that I would now be attending church with them. What is my freaking problem?!?!!!)
And now…what the Lord promised me during “Surrender” has turned out to be so true and then some. It’s just taken a lot of that song’s theme: surrender. My faith and relationship with the Lord has advanced light years in the time I’ve been at Real Life…but not so much because of the advances I’ve made…but in the surrender I’ve offered.
As I was processing some thoughts prior to walking down this very, very, very long blog-lane, I milled over the idea of ownership…more specifically, my desire to own the decision to attend Real Life and even my desire to own my choice of Jesus as my Lord and Savior. And it occurred to me that it this just more control-freakishness coming out. Jesus says in John 15:16 that “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” That doesn’t sit well with me-the-control-freak. I want to have some ownership of my salvation. I want to play a part.
But in the end, it isn’t that I’ve chosen Jesus as my Savior, it’s that I’ve surrendered to him as my Savior. The choice is in the surrender, not in the salvation. We didn’t choose to be saved–he chose to save us and we surrender to his majesty.
He’s pursued me to such a degree–like a fanatical lover–that I just couldn’t say no…like Carol Vessey couldn’t say no to Ed. His blessing upon by life has been so great that I can only kneel before him and worship. His love and acceptance and forgiveness and patience has been so overwhelming that I can only yield to Him who sits on the throne and unto the Lamb. The Holy Spirit has enlightened his faithfulness and goodness to such a degree that life apart from Him seems overwhelming and impossible.
We choose to have control in saying no; we surrender and find life in saying yes.
A few Tuesday’s ago, a member of our small group testified to having researched other religions and spiritual practices and was proud to say that she concluded Christianity was the best one–and is therefore a Christian. Sounds great, doesn’t it? How many of us can say that? And actually, that was a point she made…that most of us were probably raised in a Christian home and have hand-me-down faith and maybe didn’t own it…or really know why we do the things we do or believe the things we believe. Up until last night, I felt that was a valid point.
Now I’m not so sure. It’s that control freak/pride factor again. We westerners have been taught that it’s vitally important to know everything and to own all our decisions. Knowledge is king…because we’re now enlightened, right?
A lot of kids raised in the church venture into secular colleges and culture and have their faith rattled because the world says: “You have to know why you believe what you believe.” “You have to be able to refute this question and this question and that question.” “What about this scripture and that one? They contradict.” And people start doubting their relationship with God because they are told it is more about fact than faith.
What about the instruction God gave the Israelites on how to pass on their spiritual legacy? Deuteronomy 6 teaches that the story of God was meant to be passed down from generation to generation by testifying of God’s faithfulness and instilling within children deep faith. He didn’t tell them to prove his existence with facts and figures beyond a shadow of doubt…but simply by telling stories about him. My Life Application commentary says it well: “The Hebrews were extremely successful at making religion an integral part of life. The reason for their success was that religious education was life-oriented, not information-oriented.” God is faithful…believe it and you’ll experience it. We shouldn’t wait for evidence and proof and then believe.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly value knowledge–probably as much as, if not more, than most of you. But I’m learning not to worship it–to not be a Bible deist as Jack Deere talks about in Surprised by the Voice of God (read the chapter). Knowledge of God gets us nowhere without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And that comes through surrender… through admitting that we can’t figure it all out… through being humble and admitting that “we know in part and prophecy in part”… through not relying on our intellect or our own carnal ability to navigate all the context clues of scripture and interpret everything properly and live perfect lives.
Heck, Satan knows the Bible and the ins and outs of God more than we do… and that will get him nowhere but cast into the pit of hell. He used to live in heaven and knows all about it and its Maker… so what! He isn’t surrendered to the Lord… and has no faith. And without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).
I could go on and on… but in summary, this finally sheds light on what’s happened behind the scenes the past few months. Let’s just say: I’m happy where I’m at, glad I’m finally here and excited about where I’m going.
5 replies on “The nine month church-change”
Good stuff Joel. Glad to see you’re surrendering.
Wow! Awesome testimony and message. Surrender and faith….you’re not alone with the tug-of-war between self control and God control. You hit the nail on the head with that one. Thanks for the insight and encouragement. Glad to hear you are in a great place.
What? You’re stubborn and a control-freak?!?!? Well, takes one to know one!
Hey, thanks for sharing all this stuff. It’s obvious to me that God has poured a lot of gifts and ability in you that He will use to build His kingdom in a unique way. Because who is more creative than God? I mean, duck-billed platypus? Come on!
Hey cousin! I just wanted to let you know that I was really blessed in reading this testimony. I know it’s been years since I’ve seen or talked individually with you. However, I want you to know that I’ve found your faith walk to encourage and inspire to my own. Thank you for this blog.
Thanks, all, for the feedback. And thanks for putting up with the insane length of the prose. Inspiration, encouragement…that’s what the body of Christ is all about :)