What I learned at my old church : lessons after leaving

We left our church in October and set out on a journey to find a church we felt called to, Aaron and I. It wasn't easy to leave our church, especially our dear friends who were our first and deepest relationships in the Eau Claire area when we moved back in 2004. Even before we were married, I started traveling on short term medical missions led by the senior pastor, and have memories of some of the most intense periods of spiritual growth in my early adulthood during those trips to El Salvador and Honduras.

It has been hard to know what to say or how to say it, here to friends and strangers, and to those in the community who've asked questions about what caused us to leave. I am finally at a point where I can say it "out loud" - "yes, we left our church. We're at a different church now". Months later, I find myself reflecting on the things that I learned at that church that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. Here is a list.

1. At my childhood church, if you'd asked me to draw a picture of someone worshiping God, I would have drawn you either a stick figure with folded hands, or one bowing low. The only worshiper I could really picture being myself was the stoic with folded hands. The drawing below is by Rosy, and shows how she thinks of worship. Yes, that's my daughter with her arm raised high, surrounded by the "cloud of the Holy Spirit" as she sings. At our last church, the tension in every fiber of my body started to slowly ease over the years and yes, every now and then I, a reserved Scandinavian, raised my hand in worship. Our old church taught us to practice I Timothy 2:8a: I desire that in every place, men should pray, lifting holy hands. I am really glad my kids learned it at an earlier age than I.

2. I learned to serve my community and made some attempts at local outreach. This is not something I had experienced, attending a church quite far away from my home through my childhood and teen years. Going to a church that was truly local offered me the opportunity to serve the poor, homeless, hurting, and those searching for God right in our community, where we spend the bulk of our time. I (and we as a couple) started to develop a mental folder of ideas for outreach and service that we will carry with us to our new church.

3. I grew more comfortable with praying aloud in groups. Public prayer wasn't part of my growing up years (other than around the family dinner table and at bedtime). The first time I had to pray in front of people I didn't know, I nearly had a panic attack and I think I might have stuttered. I am glad I'm more comfortable with this practice now, as the Bible frequently portrays group prayer (notably Acts 12:12 and II Chronicles 6:13-42).

4. I learned that music can be relevant to the culture and times. Using a drumset is not inherently wrong. Prior to coming to this church, a "band" was anathema to my understanding of "church music", the cornerstone of which was, of course, propriety and staidness. I was rather shocked to read that, back around 1200 B.C., Miriam ran around dancing with a tambourine and a bunch of other young women (never mind that she was a prophetess..that's an issue for another post). (see Exodus 15:20) A new understanding of music and performance style has opened my eyes to a vista of worship and praise that I had previously deemed sinful. I know some readers will disagree, but I don't think repeating a chorus 3 or 4 times in a row is any more "vain repetition" than repeating the chorus after each verse, as older sacred music is fond of doing.

5. I found out there are other Bible translations than the King James Bible...and learned that the King James Bible is also a translation (contrary to what I had heard about the KJV being the "literal Word of God"). Unless you feel like grabbing a scroll and learning Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, you will be reading from a translation of the Bible as a modern-day English reader. At our old church, the favored translation was NIV. Although I myself prefer the ESV, which is a more literal translation of the original language texts, I often study in a parallel Bible that includes NASB, NIV, NLT, KJV, NKJV, and Amplified. For an academic discussion of the history of Bible translations, read on here. I recently discovered The Message (after resisting for years), which is an idiomatic translation of the Bible done by an excellent Bible scholar. Themes of grace and (rather ironically) God's sovereignty became clear to me while reading The Message, themes that I had missed in many other translations of the Bible. Although I can't recommend reading that one all by itself for Bible study, it is similar to the older Phillips New Testament used and oft quoted by the likes of Elisabeth Elliot, and can be useful for understanding some of the more emotional or heart level themes of the Bible. It can also be useful for rediscovering connection when you feel distant from God. Often The Message echoes the cry of my heart in the loneliest of times. I would liken it to reading the blog of a Christian struggling through issues of faith: although you need to study a good translation of the inspired Word, sometimes the viewpoint of another Christian is very valuable. Again, there will be readers who disagree with me on this point #5 (or parts of it), but this leads me directly into point #6:

6. I learned more about the principle of "freedom in Christ". I no longer felt like a heathen if I was wearing pants at church. I understood that tomboys, female sports fanatics, artists, songwriters, and all around average people were accepted at church - and even allowed to serve. I felt like I had to hide my identity at the church of my youth, and, for many years, my last church was a haven for me to show others parts of the "real me". Although I felt pressure to conform in some ways, there were many elements of my personality and gifting that I expressed for the first time at my old church. I am thankful for entering a new realm of "freedom in Christ" there. Although there were parts of my personality and gifting that were not welcome or celebrated there, this church was a major step in my ability to express my God-given self in a corporate church setting.

7. I was introduced to missions. I alluded to this in the introduction. Prior to being part of my old church, my idea of "missions" was an inner-city outreach. Although I heard quotes from late greats like Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael, I had no current exposure to people involved in missions. My very first experience was my exposure to an entire family of missionaries, who became friends as I tended their son/grandson/nephew for nearly 18 months on the bone marrow transplant unit at the U of M where Aaron and I met. This family was integral to our falling in love and marrying, so I had a pretty positive first-time experience with modern day missionaries! At Cedarcreek, I had the opportunity not only to support other missionaries and missions, but to participate in them as well. The very first trip I took felt like a dream come true. I credit this church with introducing me to the long-term calling God has placed on my life - on our lives as a family...to be part of long-term out-of-country missions, most likely to Central America, where both Aaron and I traveled for our first ever short term mission trips.

8. Finally, this church has taught me volumes about relating to people within my community, whether or not I attend church with them. I have learned a few things about passive evangelism (in Judges 14 and the life of St. Frances de Sales, my favorite "saint"), contrary to my childhood church, which would be labeled a "Bible-banging" or aggressive evangelism church. An interesting article on 3 types of evangelism (pulpit, passive, and aggressive) can be read here.

At the moment of choice, there is always conflict. Whether you're deciding which can of spaghetti sauce to buy for dinner, or choosing whether or not to leave a church, there is conflict, albeit on different levels of intensity. Choosing to leave our church was something we did with a lot of prayer, seeking advice, guidance from the Bible, and trying to take things as slowly as possible. By the time we left, we were sure we were being "called" by God to do so. On the other hand, you never leave an experience with only negative reflections. As we seek Him, God is faithful to teach us as we journey along. No matter which church we choose to call home, He has lessons for us to learn. I am thankful for this last church and the many things I learned about God's character, my response to Him, and how to share my faith. I don't know exactly where He is taking us next, but I see His faithfulness each step of the way.

Excerpted from my Gratitude Journal, #116-146:
116. Wool sweater that smells like Aaron
121. Bible in 90 Days
122. Story of Tamar
123. God's vigilant pursuit
126. The best babysitters in the world
127. Grace = "one-way love"
128. Walking without crutches
129. Elevating leg forces me to hold my baby boy
130. Driving with the window down
133. Seafood dinner with my lover
138. Owl punch set
139. A break coming soon
141. Heidi Frank
143. Sunrise on melting snow
146. "So if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness may be many." (Eccl. 11:8)