My church is full of heretics

Last week, something happened that had never happened before: people read my blog (a lot of people!).

Outside of a handful of gracious friends and family members, my blog had remained relatively unread for the past three years. But something about my most recent post apparently prompted a whole bunch of shares (I’m guessing it was the click-bait title), because I had over 16,000 readers check in over the course of three days.

One of the side effects of this surprise boost in readership was a sudden onslaught of feedback, mostly from complete strangers. The majority of comments were supportive and encouraging, but not everyone loved what I had to say. The criticism that came back varied, but the most prominent and intriguing rebuttal went like this:

“Choosing a church because they treat you like family seems unwise. Shouldn’t your choice of church be based on the accuracy of the church’s theology, not on the strength of their hospitality?”

Unlike some of the less articulate critiques of my post, these comments really made me think. Was my reason for joining my church foolish? After all, good churches aren’t the only communities capable of hospitable acts; cults, gangs, and Klans can be just as welcoming to those in need of a family. If any community, regardless of integrity, has a capacity for hospitality, what makes my reason for joining my church compelling?

To be honest, I’m not sure I picked the right church, nor am I sure I picked it for the right reason. The point of my post wasn’t to recommend a process for choosing a church, nor was it a sales pitch for the Church of Christ. I was just hoping to offer an honest depiction of the journey that led me into this particular family.

That said, my reason for joining the Church of Christ still doesn’t seem so bad to me.  In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the primary—if not best—reason people join a church.

While I understand the “choose the church with the right theology” argument, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve never met anyone for whom theology was the initial, central on-ramp to church (they probably exist; I’ve just never met them). Everyone I know—from first-time Christians to church kids choosing churches as adults—joined their church because someone in that church loved them. Grandma took them to mass before Christmas dinner. Their college roommates invited them to small group. The church across the street bought them groceries when they were most in need. Someone sometime extended the welcome of Jesus, even before they knew the family that was welcoming them.

“People must belong before they believe” has become a sort of catch phrase among church planters and evangelists as of late. This observation is descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s simply true that for almost everyone, belonging comes before believing. Hospitality precedes theology.

More significantly, choosing a church based on its theology seems impossible because—and this is the point that I’ve wasted 450 words trying to get to—no church contains a single, homogeneous theology. Each church family is filled with theologies; within every congregation exists a widely diverse collection of beliefs and opinions about God.   

Take my church for example. There are all sorts of views on God, church, the Bible, and society in my little congregation.  If we took enough time and asked enough questions, we’d discover that no two people in our family agreed entirely on every theological issue. Each of us is the only individual in our church who believes exactly what we believe.

Which means that we all must be wrong about something (or at least all but one of us). Each of us holds inaccurate/incomplete views of God and God’s people. We’re all heretics.

This doesn’t mean that theology doesn’t matter to my church, nor does it mean that we have no theological agreement; the vast majority of our family shares a number of central beliefs and values (one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, one God, etc.). There is an expectation that every committed member of our family confess these core beliefs, and rightly so.

However, no one could choose our church because our theology perfectly matches their own, because there is no such thing as my church’s theology (at least not in the intricate, systematic sense that most Christians have in mind when they ask about my “church’s theology”). If there was, whose beliefs would it be based on? The elders’? The ministers’? Each of the members of our church leadership team holds beliefs that are unique to them. Imposing a complex, monolithic theological system on our family would compromise the integrity of each individual and stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our community.

So instead, we choose unity over uniformity. We’re convinced that our diversity is a strength, that our disagreements over truths draw us closer to the Truth. In our plurality of theologies, we embrace a single hospitality, welcoming strangers—even those strangers within our own family—in the same way God welcomed us while we were still strangers.

Hospitality may precede theology, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The hospitality that welcomed me into this family is central to the identity of our Father. It’s deeply theological.

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Why I joined a Church of Christ (and why I might leave)

This summer, I joined Parkside Church of Christ as one of their ministers. Ever since, I’ve been consistently asked, “Why did you choose the Church of Christ?”

The question itself betrays an interesting/alarming reality currently at work in the Church of Christ. The two dominant narratives in the Church of Christ today seem to be “Everyone is leaving!” and “We must keep on keepin’ on.” As a transplant into this community, I fall outside those two narratives. I didn’t grow up in the Churches of Christ; I was raised in an Assembly of God church and a fundamentalist Baptist school (my dad used to call us Bapticostals). But somehow, I’ve found myself pastoring a Church of Christ, which seems to astonish more than a few people. In a church where leaving or staying seem to be the only two options, a newcomer—especially a young one—presents a fascinating anomaly.

So how did I end up here?

It wasn’t because I fell in love with the elegant simplicity of acapella worship music. It wasn’t because of the Church of Christ’s high view of baptism. It wasn’t because of this community’s deep love of the Bible, nor was it due to their weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, their commitment to intergenerational friendship, or their flat(ish) church hierarchy. I’ve definitely come to appreciate each of these things (in an evangelical culture saturated with cool, cool musicians leading a room full of people who look just like me in low-impact personal experiences, it’s surprisingly refreshing to sing stripped down songs and share an ancient meal with babies and old ladies). But I didn’t choose the C of C for any of these reasons.

I’m here because this is the family that welcomed me.

When I had pretty much given up on organized churches, it was a couple Church of Christ professors who taught me the value of the local church community.  When my parents split up, it was a handful of Church of Christ families who mentored me, nurtured me, and allowed me to heal. When I could no longer afford school, a stranger from a local Church of Christ paid part of my tuition. It was a Church of Christ that provided my first internship, and later, my first preaching gig. When I moved away to plant a campus ministry, the majority of my budget was raised by members of the Church of Christ.

I didn’t choose the Church of Christ because it’s the one true church, or even because I think it’s the best church. I chose it because it was the community that embodied the hospitality of God when I needed it most. “Chose” isn’t even the right word for how I wound up here; I ended up in this family the same way I ended up in my biological family—they just happened to be the people through whom I found life.   

That said, I’ve found this to be a fairly dysfunctional family. There’s a surprising undercurrent of gender inequality in many Churches of Christ; it’s a lot more fun to be a man in this family than a woman. There’s also often an ugly combination of legalism and nasty in-fighting. You won’t believe the things some churches split or “disfellowship” over. Likewise, I can’t help feeling like many members of the Church of Christ family care much more about what goes down in the building on Sunday morning than what happens out in the world throughout the week. This really isn’t my ideal church.

But it is my family. And as a family, I’ve come to expect brokenness that requires long-lasting grace; I’ve never met a family that didn’t need daily forgiveness. Grace is the thread woven into every sustained relationship—why should I expect my church experience to be any different? It’s not like I’ll ever find a church that gets it all right, a family with no hints of unhealth. I’ve been a part of enough congregations to know that the Churches of Christ don’t have a monopoly on dysfunction.

This doesn’t mean I’m content with the ugliness in my new church family. A number of my sisters and brothers across the country are being abused by this family and need to get out. Grace does not require toughing it out in an abusive situation, even when (especially when!) it comes to family.

But my situation is definitely not abusive. And yet, it’s not the healthiest family either. As a member of this family, I’ve been welcomed to the table, invited to effect healthy change. As certain as I am to bring my own brokenness into this family, I also have the opportunity to join in God’s healing my church.

So dysfunction won’t make me leave the Churches of Christ. However, I might leave if I’m ever convinced that this family has ceased to move. We can’t follow Jesus standing still. If our dysfunction ever becomes our identity—if our mission to maintain our peculiarities usurps God’s mission in the world—our body will die, cut off from our source of life.

But, as far as I can tell, that’s not a risk right now. There are so many glimpses of life, so many signs of motion in the Churches of Christ that I’m tempted to label movement as the norm, not the exception. The missional impulse of Mark Love, the patient compassion of Sara Barton, the prophetic imagination of the Woods, the unwavering trajectory of Rubel Shelly, the merciful insight of Richard Beck, the courageous storytelling of Naomi Walters, the persistent call for justice from Josh Graves, the commitment to embodied hospitality of Coleman Yoakum, the Christ-centered inclusivity of Rochester College, and especially the faithful love of Parkside all give me reason to stay put.

This is my family now. Thanks for having me.

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