My day of birth was on a Sunday in 1968. From talking to my parents, I believe they had me in church the following Sunday, and as a ‘good’ Baptist, I was at church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening the entire time I was growing up. As I went to college and moved off to another state, I continued following that pattern. Even when my life went through a major crisis when I was 27, I steadfastly continued active involvement in church. But, as I approached the age of 40, I realized something was not right. I had to make a change. At first, I wasn’t sure of where I was going, but I knew I could not stay on the path of my first 40 years. This led me down a path of spiritual discovery, helping me to understand what was wrong not only with my own theology, but with the path that non -historical Christianity has headed.
I use the term non- historical Christianity because so far I have not found a better term. By this term, I have a very specific definition. By non-historical Christianity, I mean those churches that profess that the Bible is the only guide to a Christian systematic belief system. I include most all Baptist churches, and most all non-denominational churches. I define historical Christianity as those denominations that believe that in addition to the Bible, it is important to look at over two thousand years of church history to serve as a guide to interpretation. In non-historical churches, the guide to interpretation is the pastor of the local church. It is this focus on the pastor of the local church that is at the core of the problem.
Rapid theological changes in Southern Baptist theology led me down this path of theological and social dis-connectedness. The Southern Baptist denomination of my childhood was very simple in theology, but mostly fairly consistent. As far as organization, most all churches were organized along a strong congregational model, with lay people serving the day to day leadership functions of the church, and the pastor served as teacher as well as a shepherd of families during times of celebration and grief.
During the decades of 1990’s and 2000s’, the Southern Baptist Convention to which I had devoted so much of my life changed rapidly, and in ways I would have never imagined. The reasons are many, but the overall effect was the SBC has broken down into a series of sects, each with very different viewpoints. There are many of these sects, but let me describe a few. One sect has headed down a path of being culturally relevant, even to the point of diluting the gospel. This sect tends to have sermon series similar to “How to have a better family in …. easy steps”. Another sect has a focus of evangelical salvation combined with culture war. For this sect, most all sermons center on “How to be saved” intermixed with rants about the path our country is taking. Another sect has taken on aspects of the Pentecostal movement, focusing on the Holy Spirit as a power that enables Christians to do great things. Probably the most influential sect within the SBC is a modification of Calvinism combined with certain aspects of old independent baptist fundamentalism. These churches often change their church name to include the word “Grace”, and a key belief is that a Sovereign God delegates authority to the father in each family, and to the pastor in the local church. It is essential in these churches that wives submit to their husbands, and husbands submit to the pastor of the local church.
For now, I do not want to discuss the merits of each sect, but to describe the key problem. For each of the sects, it seems to be the pastor of the local church that decides which sect to join. This decision is not made by any study of historical Christianity, each pastor decides. In many cases, a pastor joins one sect, causes division in the church, and then moves onto another church. He is often replaced with a pastor who leads the church down the path of a different sect. As churches transition into and out of each sect, there is a mass turnover as disenfranchised attenders move on to a church of whichever sect they enjoy the most. Pastors usually encourage this movement, even saying “If you don’t agree with the path I have taken, I encourage you to leave and find another church home.”
Years of dealing with this mass turnover within the SBC churches has taken an emotional toll on my life. By personality, I develop relationships slowly, and I crave long term relationships. This mass turnover of church attenders has made it almost impossible to develop long term Christian relationships within an individual church. I have developed casual relationships with people who now attend church all over our city, but I find myself unable to have a long term relationship within one individual church. Each time I start to develop relationships, the pastor changes sect, or a new pastor arrives, and the mass turnover of attenders happens again. I feel like the single person who has a long series of roommates, but never gets married. This constant change of church attendance leads to a pattern of shallow Christian relationships. Then, it seems whenever a time of stress or grief occurs in my life, it coincides with a period of pastor transition where all my relations have left for another church.
I have crossed the 40th year of my life. If God chooses to allow me to live past 80, I am at the halfway point in my life. I am shocked as I have seen the changes in the past 20 years. If this pattern of breaking down into sects continues, I wonder where will the non-historical churches be 40 years from now. I realized there must be something better.
I believe God has led me to something better. I found a whole other world in what I term the historical churches. These are denominations, usually formed early during the Reformation, that believe that in addition to the Bible, is it important to use 2000 years of historical Christianity as a guide to their belief system. Instead of rehashing the same old theological issues over and over and reinventing themselves, they tend to change slower. In addition, this change is usually not in the control of a single pastor, but tends to happen over time. These denominations long ago realized the danger in giving too much power to a local pastor, and have developed various systems for providing guidance and accountability to a local pastor. These denominations do not tend to grow in our society, but I have reached a place in my life where I am content to go to a church that may not ever grow rapidly. I have found that in changing slowly, they still retain a focus on God the Father, God the Son, and God The Holy Spirit that is sorely missing in non-historical churches. I have also found that in general, the pastors do not see themselves as CEOs of a corporation, as is prominent in non-denominational and Baptist churches, and tend to see themselves as shepherds and care givers.
I do not expect these churches to be perfect. I know that over time I will find many issues that we may not agree upon. But one thing seems clear, I don’t worry about going on a vacation, and coming back to the chaos of a pastor and/or sect transition. In historical churches, people do transition in and out, but the turnover seems be much slower, and many people I meet have attended the same church most of their lives. I also realize that I will be labeled. Already, some have tried to label me a ‘liberal’. The label does not match my belief system, but I am to the place I do not worry about labels. I do not yet know exactly which of the historical denominations I will join, but one thing I do know is that I cannot go back to the Baptist or non-denominational world.