Church and me

This page at a glance

This blog is about ideas for how we can follow Jesus in the 21st century. One of the main topics is what’s wrong with churches and how we can improve them. So I thought it might be worthwhile giving some background on my own experience.

In almost 60 years as a christian, I have been involved in six churches and several independent groups. In every case, we have changed churches for clear, and differing, reasons. In the process we’ve been challenged a lot and learnt a lot.

This page is based on a chapter I wrote for a book, Finding Church, edited by Jeremy Myers, which I blogged about in 2012, much updated to 2020.

Growing up Presbyterian

Although my parents were not believers at the time, they sent me and my brothers to Sunday School, and encouraged us to stay on for the youth group and attend church. I don’t know why they chose the local Presbyterian church, but it worked out well. I gained a lot of Bible knowledge in Sunday School, and although I first joined the youth group for more social reasons, I learnt a lot more there.

It was a strongly evangelical youth group, with a mild Reformed basis, and so the teaching was systematic and logical, and I was challenged to commit myself to faith in Jesus. Around 17, in my first year studying Engineering at University, I did so, and so began a life of exploration and challenge.

At first I accepted the teachings I was given, but I couldn’t help feeling something was lacking. Three key areas of faith challenged me, and have continued to challenge me ever since.

Firstly, I had a strong interest in apologetics. I wanted to know that christianity was true, and I wanted to be able to argue effectively with those who didn’t think so. So I read CS Lewis and other apologetic books.

I also wondered why Jesus’ public ministry was so different to twentieth century evangelists like Billy Graham, so I began to read historical scholars to anchor my faith in the reality of the historical Jesus, something that is still important to me.

And I began to question the systematic theology I had been taught.

A different sort of Presbyterian

When we got married, in our early 20s, my wife and I were invited to move to another Presbyterian church, to help lead teenagers in the Sunday School. We didn’t know to pray about these things then, but we made the move away from our friends and our comfort zone into a new congregation. Before long we were leading the youth group, superintending a Sunday School of a hundred plus primary school children, and beginning a number of adult Bible study groups (none had existed before). During this period I also completed a Bachelor of Divinity degree by private study, doing all my reading in my spare time.

But this was a more liberal Presbyterian church, so we were challenged to think through whether the evangelical-reformed faith we had been taught was actually true. And more challenges followed.

We were studying the Bible with the youth group, and reading books from the burgeoning charismatic and simple church/simple living movements. The book of Acts particularly challenged me. I couldn’t help concluding that the early christians lived more simply than modern western christians did, their churches were more organic, their faith was stronger, their experience of God was deeper and their mission was carried out more effectively. We were obviously missing something.

We tried to explore these ideas, especially in our youth work, inviting the small group of keen teens to our house twice a month to interact with our young children, share a meal, listen to music, study the Bible, and share our lives together.

I was an elder by then, a position that is lifelong in the Presbyterian church, but I came to believe that we were doing church all wrong. When the other elders didn’t see things the same way I did, I resigned as an elder and a member of the church – not out of pique, but out of honesty. If I no longer believed what I had affirmed to become a member and elder, I should resign.

I had always intended to stay in the church and continue with the other ministries we had taken on, but the church decided otherwise, and told me that I was no longer allowed to teach or lead. We stayed on for a year, with my wife leading Sunday School on her own, but then decided enough was enough, and left.

This was a difficult time for both of us, with occasional anger and tears, and a lot of confusion, as we met with several groups of elders and ministers from the parish and outside, to try to resolve matters. But like Luther, I could “do no other” and the church was unable to change its stance. We realised more than ever before that sometimes christians can hurt each other deeply, especially when church rules are interpreted pedantically. For a decade afterwards I couldn’t return to that suburb without going over the events in my mind. However I am pleased to say that we were invited to, and attended, a church reunion many years later, and there was no ill will on either side.

Not exactly the wilderness

It was more than nine months before we found another church. We wanted our three young children to understand that meeting together as christians was important to us and we didn’t want them to miss out on regular teaching, so we started a family Sunday school in our home. There were at that time a number of similarly aged children in our small street, and they spent a lot of most days over at our house. They asked if they could attend also. And so it was that for about 18 months we had an informal Sunday club in our lounge room with about a dozen children aged between about 4 and 10 – an example of God working things out for good.

During this time I tried out a number of new churches, mostly Congregational (because of my interest in a less hierarchical church) and Pentecostal (because of my ongoing interest in deepening my spirituality). I learnt a lot, but none of them seemed to be right, and our next step was more pragmatic.

The Baptists and baptism

A friend invited us to their Baptist church, and since we wanted to give our young children the opportunity to mix with other children in a more formal Sunday School, we went along. It was a good church, and after a while the youth leaders asked me to join them in leading the fairly large youth group.

I took up this opportunity enthusiastically, but then I was informed that I couldn’t continue in this role unless I was baptised as a believer. I had already been baptised as an infant but I declined being re-baptised at this point. I felt baptism for that pragmatic reason had no integrity, although some years later I came to the point of being baptised in the sea by friends. And so, in Bob Dylan’s words, we were “on the street again”, and again because of pedantic church rules.

Spiritual growth with the Pentecostals

A Presbyterian minister friend invited us to join his church, and it seemed the obvious choice, because we would have been welcomed, and given opportunities to preach and lead. But a friend at work had been quite surprisingly converted by attending a new Pentecostal church in the inner city, and we wanted to check this out.

We decided to give each church a month trial, and then decide. Again, I don’t recall much prayer together about this decision, but at the end of the two months, we both agreed on the surprising choice to join with the Pentecostals. Our reasons were different. I felt I needed to balance my more intellectual approach to belief with the more spiritual emphasis of the Pentecostals, while my wife simply had found her feet in the life of the Spirit, and wanted more after experiencing the rather dour Presbyterian church. It was a steep learning curve, and one of the best decisions we ever made.

The church was full of hundreds of new young converts, and, in our middle thirties, we were among the more mature! The music was amazing, the people enthusiastic and very mission-oriented. They prayed and praised like mad, and we felt a little bewildered, but persevered and soaked it all in.

We eventually became leaders in the children’s ministry and for a time I was the leader of a home fellowship group. We made many good friends, experienced inner city life (novel for a couple from the suburbs) and learnt so much. I never took on all the Pentecostal doctrines, and, despite praying for it, never spoke in tongues, but it was the time of greatest spiritual growth for both of us, and we’ll never forget those dynamic, challenging days.

The biggest lesson we learnt there was to pray. The Presbyterians are not so strong on prayer, because why would a sovereign God need our advice on what he should do? But with the Pentecostals, we learnt that God doesn’t always exercise his sovereignty, and has delegated some of his work to us. If we want him to be active on our behalf, we need to ask him.

And so my wife and I committed to pray every morning for each other and our children, something we had only previously done sporadically. Soon our praying expanded to include our ministries, our friends and relatives, the people we were involved with, and whatever else seemed important. Since then we haven’t made any decision about ministry, church, family life or work without much prayer. We learned that the two of us have very different gifts and ways of being guided (she more intuitively and Spirit-led, me more factually and logically), and have learned to trust most those decisions where we have consensus for quite different reasons.

But there came a time when we knew it was time to leave that church, for we felt the “presidential” and autocratic leadership style was contrary to the New Testament. We prayed for almost a year before God made it quite clear to both of us during one Sunday morning service that it was time to leave. The sermon was about Paul moving on from other ministries to make his way to Rome in the later chapters of Acts, and we both felt that God was giving us directions to leave.

New lessons, new difficulties

We decided to join a small but growing Uniting church where a relative attended, because it seemed like the church was wanting to try out new approaches to ministry in the community. The church was going through several transitions: from traditional to more contemporary, from mostly older people to an influx of young families, and building new premises because the existing property had been taken over by the expansion of the local hospital.

I was part of the group that made plans, and we decided to avoid having a building that was used only a few hours per week. Instead we sought community input on how we could serve them via our building. We bought two old factories, set up a long day care centre, invited the local childcare centre and community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other ’12 step’ groups to meet in the centre.

And so began a new stage in ministry for us. We ended up leading services, leading a small but very creative Sunday School group, getting involved with the small group of teens (which by then included our own children) and starting to get to know the community groups meeting in our building.

For eight years we ran a Sunday evening ‘cafe church’ for whoever wanted to come, and it was mostly people with addictions, mental illnesses and/or the unemployed. We provided a free meal, the ‘teaching’ was via video (such as the Jesus movie), discussion and interviews, and it was another challenging time. We learnt a lot, made a lot of mistakes, had some ‘hairy’ experiences and saw God at work in the lives of people who found it difficult to be part of your average church. A number of these friends who were struggling in life decided to put their trust in Jesus. And we came to better understand that caring for the marginalised is as much part of the good news as is personal salvation.

But this time wasn’t without its problems, for the church was theologically split between the more theologically liberal who preferred a more traditional approach to church, and the more evangelical who were thinking more outside the box. And so we knew our days were numbered there, because after sixteen years we had no peace about staying (Colossians 3:15), although we had no specific “leading” to leave. We prayed for the whole of our last year for God to lead us to our next assignment.

Back to the suburbs

We were invited to join a friend in beginning a new independent church community, but, despite the attractions of this idea, we decided in the end this wasn’t where God was leading us. So we joined a large middle class, suburban Anglican (Episcopalian, but more evangelical) church where interesting things were happening with the youth and young adults. Again there was no specific leading, just an agreement between us that this was the right course, and faith that as we had prayed, we could trust God to guide us.

For various reasons, things haven’t worked out exactly as we’d hoped. The innovative approach to ministry didn’t last long, and the church has become somewhat ‘monochrome’, built around sermons and not much else. It has become dissatisfying for many people.

Nevertheless we were able to take up our new understandings about social justice by building and growing a Justice and Mercy group, developing new programs and seeking to educate and encourage the pastors and congregation to see this as an essential part of the good news of Jesus.

Almost by accident, we also became part of a small house church originally linked to our church but later independent, and for eight years we shared life and mission with an enthusiastic group of mostly young adults, while still attending “big church” – just as George Barna has predicted would happen.

Urban missionaries

Our concerns about these issues led us, after much prayer, to agree to join a ‘church plant’ in an area of great ethnic diversity and lower socioeconomic status, but for once our guidance went awry and we had to withdraw.

But as soon as we made that decision, we were asked to assist in the large youth group that meets in our church. We began with serving food, washing dishes, tidying up and putting out rubbish, but gradually our role expanded to include informal mentoring of the young adults who were the youth group leaders.

In recent years we have led home fellowship groups and found ourselves supporting young adults who are questioning and reconstructing their faith. They are looking for a christianity that is more accurately based on academic learning, truth and reality, and less upon the dogma of the past. A christianity that cares about the poor and the marginalised, where women are treated equally and there is freedom to explore questions and doubts. The existing church doesn’t seem able to meet their needs, and this has led us on new adventures in the past few years.

Pushed out

Our mentoring and leading of a bunch for very smart young adults has started us on a new phase in our lives and ministry.

Our church’s pedantic approaches to what I see as non-core doctrines, an inability to understand young people, and a determination to exercise control, led to many of our friends being pushed out of our church. It also resulted in us no longer being allowed to lead a mid-week home group.

And so the same group has simply moved outside the church’s control and we continue to encourage these young adults to serve Jesus and reconstruct their faith. The current Covid pandemic has only emphasised the distance we have all moved from the traditional church.

So for now we continue nominally in our present church, confident that God will show us his next steps for us, and determined to finish our lives in his service. As we look back, we are amazed and grateful to God for the journey he has led us on and the things he has taught us.

The world is on our doorstep

The last decade has seen other opportunities to spread the word. I established an apologetics blog (Is there a God?) because I felt most christian apologetics was too adversarial and too little based on genuine scholarship. Later I established this blog for christians wanting to review their faith and the way they lived. Both blogs have led to many interesting conversations, and in recent years I have had long correspondences with many people around the world, as they sought to discuss faith and doubt issues with someone sympathetic who wouldn’t judge or pressure them. It has been an amazing blessing to see many of them come through to a more thoughtful belief and a more vibrant faith.

We have also developed relationships with a number of young married couples, some still in Sydney, others who have moved elsewhere in Australia, and we have enjoyed continuing to enjoy fellowship with them and supporting them in the very diverse ministries they are all engaged in.

The past is a far country

This last decade has been a time of consolidation in my faith, as I “bring it all back home”. I can see the need for better apologetics and a more historically accurate view of Jesus, the importance of prayer, dependence on the Spirit and caring for the marginalised, and the weakness of a church where the priesthood of all believers is subsumed by the professional clergy and spiritual input comes mainly from one limited perspective.

All denominations have their strengths and weaknesses, and christians can benefit by learning from each other. We’ve learned that it is crucial to depend on God for our security and significance because churches, ministers and fellow christians sometimes let each other down, and otherwise it could lead to a falling away from faith. And we have learnt to pray faithfully and trust that God will lead us, even when we have no real certainty.

It still seems to me that we are a long way short of the personal and community faith the early church had, so we keep hoping, searching and learning. The life of an urban missionary is never boring!