While flying home from Chicago, after attending an incredible Immersion Conference hosted by the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), I reflected on some of the many things I learned and experienced. This conference was a small group (about 50) of likeminded community developers. It was an intense week of learning, worshiping, and touring partnering ministries across Chicago. It was a great week! I left encouraged and inspired to continue the unique ministry of our church.
Reflecting on this week I kept going back to two people I met for the very first time. Both are leaders within CCDA. Both are leaders in their local churches. Both have the same denominational background as myself. Both left that denomination years ago. Both are doing incredible things for the larger part of God’s kingdom.
I grew up in an extremely conservative denomination. More and more of my friends and network are not part of this denomination. Because of that, I have chosen not to name this denomination. Also, my denomination is one of many denominations that are extremely conservative. Growing up, the preferred term to describe ourselves, instead of “conservative,” was “fundamentalist.” Over the years, as I have expanded my network, I have met more and more people, with my background, who have chosen to leave (or were forced out of) my denomination. I have made the choice to stay, and that has not been an easy choice. (I apologize for the insane number of times I said “denomination” in this paragraph and in the following paragraphs.)
My denomination struggles with legalism and self-righteousness. If you were to ask most people in my denomination if they were legalistic or self-righteous, they would vehemently deny it. The only people who describe them this way are people who have left the denomination. Those left-behind disregard their criticisms because those doing the criticizing are “disgruntled employees.” And so, nothing really changes. Self-deception is the hardest of all deceptions to overcome. Furthermore, and please read carefully, many of the people in my denomination are not legalistic nor self-righteous. Maybe most aren’t. But the attitude, philosophy, and overall culture (at least when I was growing up and attending denominational schools) was both legalistic and self-righteous. If you tried to point this out to the leaders and influencers in my denomination, you were immediately black-balled, ostracized, marginalized, and thrown in the trash heap of “liberalism.” (In my denomination, the absolute worse thing anyone can call you is a “liberal.”)
Both of the people I recently met, saw the writing on the wall before getting to deeply involved and left. One is now a leader in another denomination that doctrinally is almost identical with my denomination. The other person’s grandfather was a key leader in my denomination and good friends with my grandfather. Now, she is a leader in an exciting network of churches, as well as a co-pastor with her husband in a thriving church two miles from the White House.
My denomination would look entirely different if people like these two, and scores of others, would have been embraced and allowed to lead. Instead, neither is no longer with us, and we continue limping along with man-made religion and foolish traditions.
Both people asked me, not only why I have stayed, but how I have endured.
I don’t know the answer. I just know God has never given me peace about walking away from my tribe. I guess I have a martyr complex. I guess there is a part of me that still thinks I can make a difference, even though I am completely disconnected from my denomination. I guess there is a part of me that still hopes things will change. Some of my friends, who are actively involved in my denomination tell me things are changing. I pray they are right.
My legacy is tied up in my denomination. I am a fourth generation, ordained minister in my denomination. (This may come as a surprise to some, but I am still an ordained minister in good standing with my denomination and my church is still a member of the association.) Furthermore, my education was provided to me by my denomination, my livelihood has come from churches within my denomination, and my retirement is wrapped up in my denomination. My frustration is seeing so many good people hurt by my denomination. My irritation is watching so many talented people leave my denomination. My personal angst is feeling like I have a lot to offer my denomination but not being allowed to use my gifts within my denomination. Too be honest, I don’t like being on the outside looking in. Also, before you send me an email, I am well aware that writing these words will not endear me to my denominational leaders. I made my own bed and I am more then willing to lay in it.
My denomination has two strengths:
- They love the Scriptures. I was taught to believe the whole Bible to be the whole Word of God. I still carry that belief with me. I love the Bible and I love teaching and preaching the Bible. After nearly 45 years of preaching, my favorite thing in the world to do is stand before people and say, “If you have your Bibles, open them to…and let’s hear what God has to say to us.” I don’t think there is anything that can replace the faithful proclamation and exposition of the Word of God. I will be forever grateful that I was taught to love the Scriptures and to place God’s Word above any doctrinal treatise.
- They are relationship driven. Practically speaking, this is my denomination’s greatest strength, but they try to run from it. In its place, my denomination strives to be program driven. A huge mistake! My denomination loves people. The people in my denomination will always choose supporting people over supporting programs and institutions. The interesting thing is, the need for deeper relationships with other people is the greatest felt need people have, especially people far from God. Ironic, is it not? Our greatest practical strength is the world’s greatest practical need! Relationships is in our DNA as a movement. If we would embrace that, and simply be who we are, our churches would automatically be revived without us starting a program for church revitalization.
One last thing: While I was in Chicago, two “long lost relatives,” both of whom grew up in my denomination and attended our denominational schools, and both of whom live in the Chicago area, contacted me and wanted to meet for coffee. Among other things, we talked about our denomination. Both are living successful lives and have much to offer. Both have left the denomination.
The problem is not with the people who have left my denomination. The problem is with the denomination itself.