Emerging into a Community of Believers
I was in seventh grade and my family was leaving church one Sunday after the morning service. The guest preacher stood at the exit, shaking each person’s hand as they walked out of the church. I tried to sneak past without shaking his hand - I was an introvert and hated formalities for the sake of formality - but just when I thought I was clear, I felt his hand on the top of my head. I turned and lifted my hand to shake his, but then I noticed that his wasn’t extended. He looked me in the eye, hand still planted on my head, then closed his eyes for a moment.
“God is telling me,” he said, “that he is going to make you a pastor someday.” Then he opened his eyes and smiled at me as if he’d just given me an ice cream cone and expected me to thank him. I had no concept of how to react to the preacher’s prophecy. Within the tradition I’d been raised, this sort of act had no precedent. My parents pressed me forward out the door, quickly dismissing the man’s prophecy over me as false prophecy, but we never had a genuine conversation about it. From what I recall, we never attended that church again.
A storybook conclusion to this moment of my life would have me now pursuing a ministry degree and pastoral credentials to fulfill that preacher’s word over me. The truth is, though, that I have never felt a call to ministry beyond the simple call that is given to all Christians: the call to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as I love myself. That call is what drives me today to study, write, and live my faith in the world.
My Story of Emergence
I was born into a military family. My dad was in the Air Force and my mom stayed home to raise my three sisters and me as we moved wherever the government dictated. Many of my younger years were spent in the Washington, D.C. area. Though my parents were devout Southern Baptists from the Midwest, we attended independent Baptist churches during my childhood because the Southern Baptist churches out east were too liberal.
As a child, I devoted myself to memorizing verses from the King James Version and learned to prove that the earth was 6,000 years old. I longed for the day that I would be raptured (though I must confess: I worried that, when the rapture did come, I could be driving and my car might, with the sudden absence of a driver, crash and hurt someone). I spent the entirety of my primary and secondary education in evangelical Christian schools and, as a result, my faith rested on a firm foundation of biblical knowledge, though without even an acknowledgment of the necessity of biblical interpretation.
In middle school, my family moved to St. Louis and my parents enrolled me in a Nazarene-founded school, where I remained until I graduated high school. Though the curriculum and instruction remained generically evangelical - I didn’t notice any jarring intellectual shifts in my education - several spheres of my life in high school were marked by more subtle changes that, together, significantly impacted my theological journey.
The summer after my junior year, I began dating a girl from my class. She was cute, rambunctious, smart, godly, and Nazarene. More significantly, she was called to be a youth pastor. In my worldview at the time, that set off some red flags: women weren’t called to be pastors! A youth pastor was acceptable - just barely, but acceptable nonetheless - but she expressed her call in a way that bordered on heresy according to everything I’d ever known about the Bible. But gosh darn she was cute.
Around that same time, the Southern Baptist church my family had attended and loved for several years found itself embroiled in an internal political war. The senior pastor had resigned and, in the void, two parties had begun battling for dominion. I refused to believe that Christians - people I knew and loved - could be so heartless and cruel to one another, but after nearly a year of in-fighting and shallow attempts at peacemaking, the church split.
My family, along with about a dozen other families, committed themselves to planting a new Southern Baptist church in the area. As a leader among the youth who found themselves leaving the church, I received and accepted an invitation to be on the committee to develop the plant’s mission, vision, and beliefs statements.
While my girlfriend and I worked through our theological differences, and as I examined my own beliefs to help shape the doctrinal statements of my new church home, I moved across the state and into the dorms of a state university. There I was inundated with all the things I had been taught were vile. My hallmates smoked marijuana, had sex, and drank beer (and were underaged, nonetheless!); my professors taught the veracity of godless evolution and climate change; and I interacted with gay people and liberals for the first time in my sheltered life.
In the midst of this morass of conflicting worldviews, I began to question some of the things I’d been taught as a child. I knew God was big enough to handle my questions, so I asked.
Seeking answers in the Bible, I started to realize that the God I had assumed to know as I grew up was not exactly the God revealed in Scripture, nor the God worshiped by the earliest Christians, nor the God that spoke into my heart and my mind. The faith I had assumed until this point bore more cleanly the marks of American culture than it did the stripes of the gospel. I recognized that my faith was being slowly deconstructed, but I had no idea how to rebuild it.
In 2009, shortly before I started my senior year of college, I married the girl who was called to be a youth pastor. At the time, I still was unsure whether the God of the Bible was in the business of calling women into pastoral ministry, but I knew two things: first, that God was calling me to this woman and, second, that God would continue to work in my heart. If God had truly called her to be a pastor, God would make me okay with that calling.
Reconstructing My Faith
In 2013, I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity and, if there were any rubble of my fundamentalist faith remaining in me, McLaren reduced it to ashes. My wife, who was finishing her Master’s degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary, graciously held my hand as I experienced a minor, theologically-induced existential crisis and guided me to reconstruct my faith upon a Wesleyan ideological framework.
Once I had that solid foundation in place, my theological appetite became insatiable. I was drawn to explore this new theological path that didn’t rely on a literalistic hermeneutic (for the first time, I could unreservedly support my wife in whatever ministry role God called her to pursue), but I also longed to better understand the legalistic mess I from which I had just emerged - the same mess that millions of Christians around the country considered purity.
Growing and Grace to Grow
Not long ago, my pastor challenged the congregation to think about our driving purposes - our calls - and about what kind of legacies we wanted to leave. I believe my call has been crystallizing slowly as I’ve wrestled with my faith over the last few years. Through my writing and my engagement with evangelical peers, I have begun to recognize that my heart breaks for Christians who feel like I did in college when my faith began crumbling. I know the despair of being mired in fundamentalism, unwilling to escape because of the belief that it’s the only way to Christ, and I long to show them that the grace of Christ is waiting for them, wider and stronger than they can imagine, beckoning them to step forth in faith.
Being in that place of deconstruction is painful and lonely. When I was there, I felt like the theological right had excommunicated me, and it felt like the theological left had branded me a hopeless idiot. For those who are in this place, I want to be a hug, a person who will give them support to push and grow in whatever direction God leads them. I can’t say I have it all figured out - far from it - but I understand where you are and the conflict you feel.
I know my story isn’t unique. People everywhere are going through the exact same journey of discovery that I experienced (and, to a large extent, still experience every day), so if you find yourself in this struggling to find where you belong in the Church, please talk with me. I’d love to help however I can. You can find me on Twitter or email me, whichever is easiest for you.
Let’s be the community of Christ together.