Monday, February 23, 2015

Living Faithfully: The All-Evangelical Rejects

A friend posted this article today: Young Evangelicals Are Getting High. It deals with the trend of young people leaving the evangelical church and finding themselves in high church traditions, such as the Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and Lutheran traditions.  He was asking for the opinions of his friends, and as someone who went from an evangelical church to the Episcopal church, I found myself responding to his post. 

My response was somewhat disorganized and rambly, as Facebook comments often tend to be, but this was such a serious discussion, and my life follows this article in so many ways, that I felt my friend deserved a more put-together response.  Hence this entry sharing my own faith story--for everyone.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church.  I was baptized there, frankly without too much of an idea as to what I was doing.  When I was about nine or ten, my family switched churches to an independent, fundamentalist Christian church in town.  At the time, the church was a very small community.  Being a kid, I didn't quite understand what any of the differences were between this evangelical church and the Baptist church I came from, but in an opinion I've held almost ever since, I decided--hey, they believed in Jesus, it must all be okay.

This church grew and grew and grew, until by the time I was in high school, church services were averaging approximately1000 people on Sunday mornings.  The church had built on a huge new sanctuary and a huge new gymnasium.  In a town of about 15,000 people, that's a lot.

While I was in high school, my parents stopped going--not because of choice, but because my mother had grown too sick.  She'd already been banned from attending church during the winter months, because that many people in close environs was asking for trouble when you have an auto-immune disorder.  My father had been a deacon at that church, and my grandfather was an elder.  And right as I started college, I began to become disillusioned with it.

Why I became disillusioned?  Well, there were a lot of reasons, and one of them was that I continually felt like an outcast.  I was a weird kid to begin with, and being homeschooled meant that I didn't have entry into the cliques that existed in the youth group and transferred into the county school system. 

The other thing was that slowly, I was starting to see things that didn't fit with my worldview.  In college, I'd begun to meet lots of new people, who had far-ranging viewpoints, far from my little town.  And what I was hearing in church--not necessarily from the pulpit--didn't fit with what I was learning.  I was attending a church that believed in a strict interpretation of Genesis, that did not allow women to teach co-ed classes past fifth grade, and in which distinct sins were seemingly worse than others.  At the same time, I also saw things happening in this church that made some of this seem hypocritical. 

So I stopped going.  This was not long after 9/11, and I can't say whether that had something to do with it or not, but certainly, there was a long nationwide soul-searching afterwards, and I remember distinctly telling my mother during a car ride that I didn't think I believed any longer in organized religion.  (Some people I knew blamed this shift in my attitude on my attendance at a secular state university.)

That didn't mean I stopped praying or stopped being a Christian.  It just meant that I stopped going to church.  And I was gifted with the discovery of Jan Karon's Mitford books.  They're a series that follows a small-town North Carolina Episcopal priest about his unique little parish.  They are heart-warming, funny, spiritual, and thought-provoking all at once.  So I decided that I would go out to the little Episcopal church in my hometown.

I was welcomed immediately.  Everyone knew everyone (and in a small town, most of them already knew me, even if the reverse was not true).  I was probably the youngest person there who wasn't in the kids' programs, but they very kindly took me under their wing.  One thing I distinctly remember was one of the members telling me that Episcopalians did their churching on three principles--Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.   This was comforting to me.  Scripture was the basis of everything, but no one was asking you to stop believing in scientific proof and evidence.  I would venture to guess that most Episcopalians agree with the theory of evolution, and it's not incompatible with the church teaching.

I should also point out that I joined the Episcopal church not long after the schism within the church over the ordination of gay bishops.  There were still quite a few hurt feelings here and there about it, but one thing I saw was a church healing and forgiving one another.  There are so few churches that can survive that kind of schism, much less survive with the kind of forgiveness I saw.  The inclusivity of the church helped draw me.  The forgiveness helped keep me.

When I moved to a nearby town, I started attending an Episcopal church in that town.  The church building was fairly new--the church was a mission church, meaning that it was supported more by the diocese than under its own power.  It was very small, but I loved it.  When I moved to Tennessee, Dear Husband and I attended a large Episcopal church in town when we attended--we didn't often, because that church was rather large and sometimes difficult to acclimatize to.  There wasn't a lot of choice at the time, though.  The smaller church in Murfreesboro, when I visited, had perhaps five people, as many of them had disappeared during the schism. We have since moved to Texas and found a wonderful church. It's larger, but works very hard to ensure a community. 

As I've thought about it, contrasting the Episcopal church with the evangelical church I came from, there are some distinct differences.  The first is corporate worship.  The Episcopal church looks at worship as a community, participatory activity.  Now, many churches would insist that they, too, have a participatory worship, but what I mean by this is that everyone sings.  There is no worship team standing up in front with PowerPoint projections and microphones.  Instead (if available), there's a choir, and everyone uses the hymnal. 

I remember people in the evangelical church insisting that you had to change up the music, and the service order, to keep people from becoming complacent, but I think there's something to be said for familiarity.  When things are changing all the time, your focus is instead on the changes, rather than on the content.  It's much easier to pay attention to the words of songs that you know. 

Prayers in the Episcopal church are almost always corporate.  We speak our prayers together, affirm our faith together, and recite the Nicene Creed together, rather than sitting and listening to one person bless communion and the offering.  And it's incredibly comforting to know that everyone in an Episcopal or Anglican church are praying the same, or very similar prayers, focusing on the same texts, and using the same hymnal.  It's called the Book of Common Prayer for a reason!

There's also something to be said for the high formality of a high church.  I'm not saying that I haven't attended church in blue jeans before--I have.  But there's also something valuable about taking the time to dress up for church to take things seriously.  Worship should be taken seriously, rather than watched as a spectacle or concert. 

The Episcopal church has also, for me, been much more inclusive.  Women are welcome to serve as priests or bishops--the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church is a woman.  Those of all races are welcome, as are those of all sexual orientation.  Divorce, while something to be avoided, is not something to whisper about behind church bulletins.  I've seen the opposite at the evangelical church I attended.  I've also seen a lot more community involvement out of the Episcopal church, particularly here.  Many community outreach programs are supported by the church--fund-raising is not done for the church and for the church alone.  Even community events--like the Martin Luther King Day parade, take place at the church.

I also can't ignore this.  For a long time, I saw the evangelical church I was attending become at odds with Christ's message to love one another.  I mean this in this way: I saw a lot of political viewpoints that were not engaging in Christ's love.  For example, abortion was completely and utterly out of the question.  At the same time, a young, unmarried mother was somewhat ostracized for the error of her ways.  This is just one example among many.  I don't mean to accuse one political viewpoint of this--but this was something that I observed that I found to be problematic. 

There's also much less of the hellfire and brimstone in the Episcopal church.  The message in the Episcopal church is one of love, not punishment, and you will not, in fact, be consigned to perdition for not aligning perfectly with the church's viewpoint.  In fact, if the Episcopal church had a single motto, it would Christ's command to love one another.  

This has not been much less long-winded than the comment I left on my friend's Facebook, but I hope it helps people understand why I left the evangelical church for the high church, and why I am an ever devoted Episcopalian.

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