This is the second post in an emerging series tackling the theme of church from a very practical, honest, and hopeful perspective. The first post giving advance notice of where things are headed, and what has inspired this series is here, so please read it first for context.
My own journey into church
I want to use this post to sketch out my own journey into church, and my history in the churches I have been a part of.
Fear not. This will not be a horribly long post. But I think it’s the necessary starting place for the longer discussion I want to have because everyone’s story (experience) shapes their unique perspective — and I definitely have a story about church. I do understand that some people reading this will be unsettled, uncomfortable, or even angry about what I write here. I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to talk about my journey in Church as someone who has a lot to share. My hope is to be honest, and to be edifying — even if the truth hurts. There will be people who could blog about their painful experiences in church, and they’d be thinking of me as they wrote. I accept that fact. It’s part of human experience and relationships. With that in mind – read on (and know that I don’t name any people in this post unless using their name is positive).
Neighborhood Sunday-School, and Aunt JoAnn’s Church
I did not grow up in a religious church-going family at all. Church was not something our family really ever did. It was more a family tradition to poke fun at church-going people than to join them for a Sunday service. That fact often shocks people who learn that I spent most of my adult life in pastoral work, but it’s true.
I didn’t become a Christian myself until I was seventeen years old. Up to that time, I attended churches on occasion by hopping on the old neighborhood Sunday School busses in Colorado, responding to invitations to Sunday School from kids at neighborhood churches, or attending the (no-longer-in-existence “Atonement”) Lutheran Church in Granger Utah with my Aunt JoAnn when we moved to Utah back when I was nine years old.
I enjoyed Church when I would attend as a child, but it was unusual for me to go. It did get me curious about the Bible, and about Jesus. In fact, I often tell people that because of my early exposure to churches through various Sunday School lessons, I developed a “Jesus-shaped-God.” So, you should know right off the bat that I see value in things like neighborhood Sunday School outreaches, and your Aunt inviting her nephew to church with her when he’s nine.
However (and this is where my present idealistic ecclesial convictions want to add a caveat — which may cause you irritation, but stick with me –), though I am grateful for her outreach to me, my Aunt JoAnn didn’t need to take me to her church building so the Sunday school teacher could teach me about Jesus. Anyone who has an aunt who knows Jesus is in touch with the person who has everything they need to share the gospel, and be an expression of church to a nine-year-old. This is NOT a slam on my aunt. She cared enough to do what she knew how to do. I’m so grateful. But it is a preemptive push-back against the notion that I could not have learned about Jesus from her without the scheduled church service on Sundays at her church building (which is no longer there). This is the myth behind so much of what has become church in North America (and perhaps much of the rest of the world).
More on this later — but I hasten to conclude with… “thank God for Aunt JoAnn (who went to be with Jesus last year), and Atonment Lutheran Church (though such a place no longer exists on the map or at a street address).” Whew!
New Faith – And a New Passion for Church
I became a Christian at age seventeen in Salt Lake City, Utah. A short-term missionary named David DeGrazia was street witnessing with some YWAM missionaries on July 24, 1986. I was out there intentionally searching for God, and I met the missionaries on the street. David shared the Gospel with me in a store-front window, wrote a few verses of scripture on a note pad, prayed for me, and ran to catch up with his group. Two days later I accepted Christ on the hood of my car in the middle of the night. I later connected with David, and we’re friends to this day. In fact, he visited the church I was pastoring on my 25-year salvation anniversary, and we went back to that same spot to share Jesus with others. David was also at my seminary graduation a few months ago. David was instrumental in discipling me through the mail by sending me tapes, books, and hand-written letters with bible studies and encouragement.
Because I was only seventeen, and because my family had no idea what to do with me after I became a Christian, my parents would not let me attend any church. When I turned eighteen, I quickly began attending the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Salt Lake City, Utah. The nice lady who worked at the Christian book store in Salt Lake City recommended it to me. I was only there for one month, and I got baptized there on July 5th, 1987 – two days before flying to San Diego to go to Navy bootcamp. Both of my parents attended my baptism. During my month at the Vineyard, I joined a kinship group (a home group), and spent my last month in Utah trying to learn everything I could from this group of people, in addition to joining them for worship on Sunday mornings. It would be 25 years before I would go back to the Vineyard in SLC for a visit (for my salvation anniversary), but their impact on my life for that first month was measurable.
The Navy Years
San Diego – During my six years in the Navy I attended a few churches, and for the first couple of years, I really enjoyed it. After bootcamp, I lived in San Diego for several months and attended Skyline Wesleyan Church for several weeks (while John Maxwell was the pastor), as well as attending a few services at the Vineyard in San Diego (which met in a High School) and Horizon Christian Fellowship pastored by Mike MacIntosh. I only stayed in San Diego for a few months. It wasn’t enough time to get plugged in to any one church, but I did enjoy the idea of being surrounded by fellow Jesus-people, immersed in worship music, and taught from the Bible. I was a young Christian, and I was trying to catch up! Being a part of these churches was helpful to me in terms of acculturating into charismatic expressions of church in evangelical North America, and getting a value for fellowship, biblical teaching, and learning that there were millions and millions of fellow Christians in the world. I was part of something bigger than I had ever imagined, and going to these churches awakened me to the fact that my Christian family is huge!
Lemoore – After a short season of bootcamp, training school, and a brief stint at a reserve base in Utah, I was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, CA. During my season there, I attended two very different churches. The first was Koinonia Christian Fellowship, and the second was the Lemoore Assembly of God. Koinonia was very relaxed, very centered on biblical teaching, community, and worship. Lemoore Assembly attracted me because it had a larger youth group, and room for me to grow in my desire to play piano in worship. I attended both churches off and on during my time in Lemoore. Both churches also immersed me into the various characteristics and idiosyncrasies of North American pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and church culture in general. Before I knew it, within only two years of being a Christian, my whole life essentially revolved around going to work and going to church or hanging out with church people. It was also during this season that I entered into a very focused discipling relationship with a friend at Koinonia, and developed a ravenous appetite for biblical studies and Christian books.
Okinawa Japan – Just one month after my 21st birthday, I received orders to Okinawa, Japan where I lived for three years. During that time, I attended a very small pentecostal church called “Door of Faith.” It was in this church context, four years into my walk with God, that I truly began to struggle with the challenges that come with being involved in church. I think this is because I was growing and maturing into adulthood, I was growing in my own theological understanding of things, and I was sorting through the difference between what scripture says about church, and what people do with it. I had a saying at Door of Faith — “I love hanging out with these people, but I just really hate going to church with them.” That can sound like an irreconcilable paradox, but it is exactly how I felt. The people in the church were some of the most wonderful, hospitable, friendly, happy, and inviting people I ever met. They were my friends. I ate hundreds (not kidding) of meals in the Pastor’s house while I was on Okinawa. There was always a party in his living room after church was over. It was the highlight of my week. But during the church service itself, I always felt conflicted about some of the bizarre personalities that would take over the gatherings, and the oppressive leadership style of one of the leaders on that team. I felt that we were much more effective in processing our relationships, our biblical questions, our personal lives, and our disagreements over lunch after church, and we were just stuck in the weird religious practices that dominated our official “gatherings” while the service was happening. In other words, the best church experiences I had with this group were after “church” was over, and we were (catch this, now)… breaking bread, praying together, devoting ourselves to relationally working through biblical truth, and being Jesus-follwing friends around the table in a living room in a parsonage that was no further than 50 feet away from the “Church.”
I used to volunteer a lot at Door of Faith. One Saturday I volunteered to rake leaves and clean up around the outside of the Church building after a storm. I was alone, working, praying, and thinking about my life. I asked God, “What are you going to do with me in this life? What’s my calling?” I very distinctly remember calling to mind Jesus’ charge to Peter after the resurrection.. “Feed my lambs.” I have often reflected over the years that it was at that moment, when I was 22 years old, that I knew that Lord had put a pastoral gift, and a passion for teaching into my heart. That would be my motivation for the next 20+ years with respect to my own involvement in Church.
I met and married my wife on Okinawa when I was 23, and we left Door of Faith to serve my final six months on the island at the Okinawa Korean-American Presbyterian Church. That was my first fore into pastoral work. My wife and I led worship together, and then she taught Sunday school for the kids while I taught verse-by-verse through 1 John to the American servicemen who brought their Korean wives and Children to church.
Into “The Ministry”
New Mexico – I decided to leave the Navy in the summer of 1993, and we moved back to New Mexico to be near Jo’s family. We attended the church that sponsored her missionary work on Okinawa – Trinity Christian Fellowship. We worked in Christian Radio together, and immersed ourselves in the work of the church through children’s ministry, worship ministry, teaching a young adult fellowship, and preaching in the Wednesday night service. It was a sweet group, and my own passion to move into full-time vocational pastoring grew during that year. But our income never grew, so we moved from New Mexico to my home-town in Salt Lake City, and continued our lives there for the next three years.
Metro Fellowship – When we got to Utah, we immediately plugged in to the Church that was responsible for hosting the YWAM team that witnessed to me on the street seven years earlier. It was an Assembly of God church called Metro Fellowship. I was excited to be connected to something that had such a dramatic role in my own salvation, so we jumped right in. I was also enrolled in Bible College courses through Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and the pastor at Metro offered to proctor me through the courses. During our weekly meetings, he invited me to come onto the staff of the church to lead worship, oversee Christian education, and help administer finances. I remember taking my wife out to Chili’s to tell her I was going on staff at Metro. I remember thinking, “Wow. I’m only 25, and I – yes I – am on staff at, uhem, Metro Fellowship. I have arrived. I am in the ministry now. Check me out!” or something like that. But it was at Metro that I discovered the under-belly of church. Over the next two years, I would have many of my ideals crushed, and most of my immature thinking about church completely wrung out of me. It was at Metro that I experienced both the joy of rich fellowship, and the shock of human failure. And it is precisely because of my experiences at Metro (and every other church I have been involved in since that time, including even the one I pastored) that occasioned the Facebook post that I quoted at the beginning of the first installment of this series. After just over two years at Metro, we decided to resign, leave Utah, and move back to another familiar place in my journey with God — Lemoore, California.
Koinonia Christian Fellowship – I was part of Koinonia in Hanford/Lemoore back in my Navy days, and my wife and I decided we’d risk it all, pack up all our belongings, and strike out anew in Lemoore. I often told her about the profound impact that Koinonia had on me, and we both felt that it was a safe place to land after our tumult at Metro. My wife accepted a position in their private elementary school, and then two weeks after we arrived in Lemoore, I was asked to come onto the staff as an associate pastor and worship leader. We were at Koinonia for four years, and during that time, the church grew from around 500 people to over 1,000 people with multiple services. It was one of the most difficult seasons of life, ministry, and marriage for me and my wife. At the end of our time there, leadership failure and all of the human frailty that often comes with it brought us to the place where we could not stay. And again – there was the church, and there was the business. Two competing powers. Two competing sets of values, trying to live together under the same roof, and two very different approaches to solving the problems that arise in business and church. We left in June of 2001.
The Oasis Church – Three and a half months after leaving Koinonia, we did the unthinkable. In September of 2001, we started a church in the same town where we had been living and ministering for the past four years. And we started that church primarily with people from Koinonia who were friends. That’s called a “church split” in ecclesial street talk. But if you’re into grace, diplomacy, and the possibility that God was involved despite human failure, you could adopt C. Peter Wagner’s language of “unintended birth.” However one chooses to frame the birth of The Oasis, the actual life of the church while we were there were the most wonderful years we ever spent with a church. And that is not to say that it was always easy, or that we did everything right. But we were there for twelve years. In the months after our church began to meet, we forged a relationship with the Foursquare denomination, and we were “Foursquare” for the entire time we pastored the church. It was during my years at The Oasis Church that I truly grew in my appreciation for relationally-driven ministry, the role of elders in congregations of Christians, and the value for small groups of Christians being connected to something bigger than their own local gatherings. From everything I knew about church, the only way to do this was to do church the way everyone in America does it (e.g. 501(c)3, denominational affiliation, programs, Sunday services, staff, budgets, etc.), and connect to a denomination with which I found theological agreement and relational care and camaraderie.
We finished our season at The Oasis Church in November of 2013. It was a very positive and very gracious experience for us. A combination of life-events, including completing graduate and post-graduate eduction, re-thinking our ecclesial convictions (especially as a result of my wife’s doctoral studies in ecclesial leadership), and the sense that our time in that version of pastoring was concluded, brought us to the place where we were ready to resign and move into other things. In keeping with the fact that we had connected the church to a denomination, we followed our denominational protocols, and turned the transition of the church over to the denominational overseers.
Even at the end of that story, it is difficult to know how to draw the lines between what was church and what was business. It is something I am still watching, still thinking about, and still processing.
For those who wonder, “Well, what do you actually think of church now, and what is your concept of church after all these years,” you’ll need to read the next post right here.
Thanks for reading. Does any of this speak to you? Do you have any questions or insights you want to share? Leave them below.