Some would say I was raised in a cult.
We met in homes. We had no paid clergy. We were encouraged to share what we were learning, though each was subject to the challenges of the congregation and the leadership of the elders. During worship, we were free to call out songs, triggering the guitars and tambourines. We went to the river for baptisms, and joined other home churches at retreats.
Okay, sure, this was California in the seventies and eighties, but it was no hippy fest. Not for me anyway. For me, it was just church.
My experience in the home fellowship had a profound and lasting influence on me. I saw believers functioning like they were supposed to function. The congregation was close. We were accountable to one another. We celebrated and grieved together. We took care of each other.
I was encouraged to develop a personal relationship with God, then take what I was learning to the group. We often sensed the Spirit directing the service, and practiced yielding our own impulses to his. If we needed to go extra innings, that was okay.
Sure, call it a cult. But it worked. Eventually it dwindled because many of the families were called into some kind of full-time ministry—pastors, missionaries, worship leaders, counselors—and the home church movement had begun to mature into more organized ministries, like Vineyard and Calvary Chapel.
In college, I started to attend more traditional churches. At first I was confused and a little frustrated. It was like sitting in a classroom. A group of paid professionals taught and entertained and greeted and prayed while the rest of us sat back for a blessing, paying for it with our tithes. There was little challenge, minimal relationships, and no accountability—unless I wanted it.
My first college job was at a budding mega church. Then I moved to a dying Nazarene church. Then toured churches in England during a six-month stint in Bible school. Then returned to a mega church. Then spent seven years at a Presbyterian church while teaching on and off at Methodist camp and an Assemblies of God church. In the past twenty years, I have come to know hundreds of believers who sincerely love and honor Christ, whether they lean East or West, Protestant or Catholic, Arminian or Calvinist.
It took me a while, but I eventually got the jokes. First I had to study the history of the Church, starting with Pentecost, building through centuries of persecution until Constantine, then reading about the schism between East and West, then between Protestants and Catholics, then the splintering of the Protestant churches. Our history is certainly not something to brag about, especially in light of what Jesus prayed in John 17:
“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (NLT)
One? Perfect unity? Witness to the world? What about what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:12 – 13?
Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! (NLT)
So they were Paulians and Apollosinians and Peterians, and we are Calvinists and Wesleyans and Lutherans. In light of what Jesus prayed and Paul preached, can we really feel comfortable celebrating our divisions?
Okay, I’m a realist. I know that a couple thousand years of angst is about as easy to fix as a knotted slinky. And even if you get the knots out, it still won’t slink down the stairs the same way.
It’s like a nasty divorce. Hard to get back to those innocent early years of marital bliss.
I also see the benefits of gathering all the noses into one building, and pooling all the elbows into another. Spleens with spleens, ears with ears. If everyone already agrees, sharing the same taste in music, enjoying the same environment, they can move forward with a comfortable sense of harmony, coming together in worship and bible study without having to defend every word.
On the other hand . . . what are we missing by standing back to back?
In my next post, I plan to explore the concept of spiritual unity, but first I’d like to hear from you. How do you feel about denominations?
Are you comfortable taking on the name of a historical person despite Paul’s warning? Are you comfortable standing apart from your brothers and sisters despite Christ’s prayer? Do we even have a choice?