I’ve wanted to write this for years, but frankly, I’ve been too apprehensive. It’s a hot topic that has divided family, friends and churches for centuries.
The denominational divide.
I’m certainly no theologian and would never try to pass as one. I steer clear of legalistic debates because most of it makes my head spin. I’m not an authoritarian on any one denomination, not even the one I am affiliated with now.
So why in the world write about this? Why step into such a sensitive topic? People can be very loyal to their denomination, if not to their specific church, so let sleeping dogs lie, right?
The denominations I have been affiliated with throughout my life have made a huge impact on me. They have been a major factor into who I am today. As much I have read over the years about churches, and all of the issues that go along with them (i.e., worship wars, service styles, pastor styles, rules and regulations, etc.), I haven’t quite read anything that sounds like my experience.
So I am going to share my story in hopes it touches someone’s heart. Understand that this is my personal experience, and I am not saying all churches in their respective denominations are the same and function in the same way. I am not generalizing or standardizing all churches of any denomination. I am simply sharing what my experience has been in these particular churches and denominations.
As far a denominations go, I see myself as a mutt. A Heinz 57 mix. Allow me to explain.
I was born into a Southern Baptist family and baptized as a small child. I will tell you what I remember from that night. It was an evening church service in a huge church. I wore a white robe and was immersed into baptism by the pastor. I love water in general, so being baptized in what I thought of as a small pool was the coolest thing ever.
After the service was over, I noticed a dead roach floating on its back in the baptismal. I told my mom, “Look! Even the roach got baptized!” I laughed and thought that was funny. She didn’t.
My mom met her second husband in that Baptist church, and remarried when I was four years old. A few years later, our family switched our church membership to a Presbyterian church which was his preference. We attended that church from my ages of 7-12. It was a beautiful church with high, vaulted ceilings, crisp white walls and mahogany pews. The stained-glass windows that lined either side of the pews told the story of Christ. The choir wore long, white robes. The pastor spoke in a solemn tone. The service followed the bulletin exactly. Everyone in the congregation sat silent, except when singing. We sang all of the stanzas to every hymn. It always amazed me that we would sing all 4, 5 or 6 stanzas. It was very hard for me to stand still that long as an over-active child. I love that hymns took root in my heart. I developed a huge appreciation for them even as a child. In my unpredictable, stressful home, I liked knowing exactly what words to sing by reading them. It made me feel like an adult and part of the congregation.
There was a huge stained glass window behind the pastor that depicted Jesus standing at a wooden door in a garden and knocking (taken from Revelation 3:20). I had every piece of glass memorized, but never understood which door I needed to open to let Him in.
I remember the softness of the worn velvet cushion that stretched from one end of the pew to the other. I bubbled in every letter in the bulletin that I could to help me sit still. Most of all, I remember the Christmas Eve midnight, candlelight services. Those were super special! For one, I never ever got to stay up that late. Two, it was so cool to say, “Merry Christmas!” at the stroke of midnight. And three (most of all), I got to hold a lit candle. I was a very energetic child, so trusting me to hold fire without dropping it or setting my hair ablaze was big. This was the only day of the year I was allowed to get that close to a flame.
The most important moment of every Sunday in this church for me was the benediction. I did not have a man speaking positively into my life at that time, despite the presence of my stepfather, and I craved something – anything – that would encourage, inspire or bless me. I needed a blessing to wash over me to help me endure another week of loneliness and fear. The pastor said the same benediction every week. I literally bowed my young head, closed my eyes and drank in every word. That benediction alone was a major source of comfort in a very unstable time. Everything about this church was predictable, safe and quiet which was salve to my soul like nothing else in my life at that time.
My mom’s second marriage ended, and she, my sister and I left this Presbyterian church since it was my stepfather’s preference and the divorce made it awkward.
Charismatic United Methodist
I began walking to a charismatic, United Methodist church that was three blocks from my home. Yes, there is such a thing. No, we didn’t handle snakes. Yes women wore jewelry and cut their hair and went against every stereotype of a charismatic church. Erase all images of extreme. It was unlike any church I had ever attended. I attended this church from when I was 12 to 26 years old. I met my husband and got married there (he was raised Episcopalian).
This church did not have the full approval from my family, although they attended sometimes and my sister and I attended the church’s school for three years.
The deeper involvement I had with this church, the more concerned my family got. They held an intervention once trying to convince me I was in a cult. I wasn’t sure what a cult was at that point, but I knew there was something radically different there – and I was drawn to it.
This church did an excellent job of living out the New Testament as far as orderly worship (speaking in tongues, healing, dancing, etc.). Never was there a time when it was chaotic, blaspheme, or ungodly. The leaders of this church have my utmost respect. They were godly, ethical, transparent and real. They simply allowed the Holy Spirit to move in the ways He wanted to – all according to the Bible. I experienced a healing to my leg there that at least a dozen people witnessed. God spoke to me personally for the first time, then countless times, during this season. The youth pastor became one of the most influential people I’ve ever had in my life as he demonstrated true humility and strength of convictions, leadership and friendship. I learned that it was okay to dance before the Lord, like David did. I learned it was okay to raise my hands in worship when my heart felt like it would leap out of my chest. I learned it was okay to get out of my seat and kneel down at the altar for prayer if I needed it. Those years were unlike any other. God took on 3D form. His presence was tangible. His love was radical. His yearning for personal relationship was new, fresh, and exciting.
When my husband and I married, we moved about 45 minutes away from that church in order to afford our first home. I was 19 (he was 23) when we married and 21 (he was 25) when we bought a small, foreclosed, forgotten home. The major benefit was its close proximity to our college and jobs as we worked and went to school. We didn’t mind the drive to church…until our baby was born 5 years later. He was very colicky and hard to settle down. The long drive proved to be too much. Sadly, we felt we needed a church home closer to us.
God led us to a Southern Baptist church. We joined a Bible Study class, had our baby registered with the church nursery and grew as a couple, and as individuals, from the sermons taught. We thought it would be a place we would stay for a long time, until an unexpected job change meant packing up our home and taking a new job in a different state.
We spent a year looking for a church after we moved, when a contractor helping us with some work on our soon-to-be new home suggested his church – another Southern Baptist. We tried it and liked it because it was so much like the one in our old state – just a smaller version. It was the first church we visited where our then toddler didn’t pitch a fit to go. We agreed with their doctrine, etc. and felt at home. We joined it and have been there for the past 16 years.
Where was God?
It may sound like I bounced around a lot from church to church – denomination to denomination – and I did. Some were my choice, some were not. But God revealed something to me years ago when I was struggling to heal from my past. I’ve been a part of many conversations where people wear their denomination (or church) like a badge or club membership. They are proud of it and believe the are part of the best team. Then there was me standing sheepishly quiet (unusual for me), embarrassed, hoping no one would ask me about my church background. If I had to explain it, it would open a Pandora’s box of an unstable, unsettled childhood I didn’t know how to frame in the conversation.
But what God told me was profound. It was simple. Rich. Easy to understand.
He was in each church, and ordained each of them for the different seasons of my life. They were all Bible-teaching churches, though they couldn’t have been more different in style of worship and service. Biblically sound, spot on theology – they all believed the Word of God and taught it in its entirety.
Being born into a Southern Baptist church, I had the privilege of being baptized as a child. To my best understanding, I accepted all I understood about God and Jesus and wanted them to be a part of my life. It was then God became my safe place. Jesus was my friend.
Walking with my mom and sister after dinner one night, we held hands with my empty hand open in mid-air. My mom asked me whose hand I was holding. I replied in a matter-of-fact, almost perturbed I had to actually explain it, “Well Jesus’ of course!” God and Jesus became real to me as a child through this Southern Baptist church.
During the years of my mom’s second marriage when we attended the Presbyterian church, I experienced God as sovereign, protector and peacemaker. See, this was the only hour of the entire week that I could count on my stepfather controlling his temper and voice. The years he was in my life were a living nightmare. I was terrified of him – for good reason. My mom and he fought constantly, often ending with her sobbing in the bedroom with the door locked. Our home was neither happy nor safe as long as he was there. Sitting together in the pew for church meant I could exhale – for one hour a week. The pins and needles I lived on for the other 6 days and 23 hours could relax. I could let my guard down. I could rest.
Those Sundays, the sun shone through the colored glass and lulled me to a place of contentment and peace not found in our home. The quietness. Stillness. Calm atmosphere of this traditional church is just what this very frightened little girl needed. There was safety in numbers, and I knew my stepfather would never dare make a scene at church. The authority figures of the pastors seemed to usurp him for that one hour and I could lean against my mom’s shoulder, doodle or stare at the stained glass life of Christ in utter peace – if only for 60 minutes a week.
God was precious to me there. I didn’t know this style of service was just what I needed, but He did. He was indeed looking after His baby girl. Anything louder, higher energy, or more sensory would have sent my spirit into a tailspin. Worship at this church felt like I could curl up in His lap every week and be held. Hymns still have a way of bringing me to a place of instant peace.
When I became a member of the charismatic United Methodist church at 13, little did I know that two years later my single-parent mom would be stricken with breast cancer, and die from it a year later. We would go from an all-girl home, finally filled with laughter after the divorce, to a 24/7 crisis. My entire life fractured and I fell completely apart inside.
We lost our home, possessions, my boyfriend, most of my friends, my dog, my cat and my car in an accident the night before her funeral. I had no reason to live and wanted to die. Had it not been for being a part of this church at this exact point in my life, I don’t know how else I would have gotten to experience the saving hand of God. He held on to me when I was too weak to hold on to Him. Because of the extraordinary ways I experienced God for two years leading up to her illness, He used that open door to radically save my life, literally. I couldn’t breathe. Think. Cope. But, God never let me go. He often gave me dreams and spoke to me through the Bible. I was open to seeing His hand move in miraculous ways with much thanks to this church teaching me how to recognize it when He moved. This kind of church gets a lot of negative complaints, and oftentimes rightly so. But not all charismatic churches are the same. This one did it right. Godly. Biblically. This church didn’t save my life, but God did through it.
God became acutely personal to me like never before. When I was 14, I went on a youth retreat with this church. It was on this trip that God literally called me to Himself to the point where I turned to other people in the room to see if they heard it, too. A couple of years later, on another youth retreat, I asked our youth pastor if I could be baptized – again. It was my idea – not his. I felt a tugging in my heart that I wanted to do this, although I had already been baptized as a young child. It’s not that the first one “didn’t count,” it was that I was older and had grown so much in my faith, I simply wanted to be baptized to show God how much I love Him. It wasn’t for anyone else. It was between Him and me. I was old enough to own my faith, and this was a decision I made. I had grown a lot since the whole roach comment, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and really wanted to stick a stake in the ground of my faith. In addition to baptism being an outward symbol of my decision to follow Christ, this was as a beautiful reminder of everything Jesus did out of love for me. The youth pastor agreed and opened it up to others. On a sunny afternoon in the North Carolina mountains, several of us took turns wading into the small river near our retreat. I remember looking up at the tall trees, the sunlight bursting through the pockets of leaves, and the taste of fresh river water rushing through my mouth. It was beautiful. I am thankful that this church didn’t reject my second baptism for legalistic reasons. My river moment changed me. I truly believe I wouldn’t be alive now without having experienced God in the raw, holy ways I did in this church during the most difficult years of my life.
One more thing to mention, when my mom’s cancer was progressing, she surprised me and came to a Sunday evening service. I was so happy! I wasn’t sure why she was there, because I wasn’t sure if she still thought this was a cult or not. However, there was an older gentleman who always held the large, wooden doors open for the congregation. He was always there. That night, God gave me one of the sweetest, most tender gifts He’s ever given me. He allowed me to overhear a very short conversation. I happened to be standing just far enough away as the service ended to see this gentleman walk over to my mom. She stood motionless. Speechless. Wide-eyed. He came to her and quietly said, “Something happened tonight, didn’t it.” She couldn’t reply with words. With huge eyes staring forward, she could only nod her head, her body frozen. It was powerful to observe.
I stood off to the side, watching. I don’t know what transpired between God and her, but after that she was very different. She no longer minded that I spent so much time at this church. Her faith walk began to look very different. She was changed. Her illness took a quick turn for the worse, and this is the last memory I have of her as herself before the cancer got so bad. Although I don’t know the details, I am comforted in the fact that God met her in a new way, right where she was at, for the good. I knew she had experienced God in the real, tangible way I had – and I felt a peace that she now understood why I was drawn to Him in such intense ways as just a teenager.
When my husband, baby and I joined the Southern Baptist church near our home, we had no idea it would be for such a short season. However, looking back, we are so grateful because this was a divine appointment in two ways. One, it helped us grow as a young family. There was a multitude of Bible study classes to join, a very impressive nursery system, and it was new for us. As 20-somethings with a baby, it was exciting to begin our own family worship routine. This church helped shepherd us as young parents – something we deeply needed. By divine design, it also set us up for the church we found when we moved. Although our current church is considerably smaller compared to the mega-church we came from, it was very similar in many ways. It made a new state, new city, new community and new neighbors feel quickly like home.
We had no way of knowing about the move, so we had no idea we’d be looking for a church in a state where we knew no one. It was a God-send to find our church home through a contractor. Even the childcare program was much the same (which is a huge factor for new moms!). God knew He was leading us to this church, for this season of life over the past 16 years, and helped us find it by way of the one we joined back home.
For His glory, God put us here to use our spiritual gifts and raise our family. This church is family to us. They have been with us through the highest highs and deepest lows. It is an extraordinarily giving, gracious church who cares about those sitting next to us, living next door to us, and those across the oceans from us. It is here that God brought a 20 year-old word from Him to fruition in our marriage – that our marriage was designed to be an extension of His open hand. We have seen that become realized in local and global missions through our church. It is very exciting to serve with people who have the same passionate heartbeat of serving others in need – wherever that may take us.
In each season of life, God gave me a church that was exactly what I needed – even though I didn’t realize it at the time. As a child, He blessed me in the churches that my parents chose. As an adult, through much prayer and seeking His will, He has led us right where He wants us each time.
Now when I am in conversations with those who want to talk denomination (though I refuse to argue or debate about them), I am no longer embarrassed to tell them my quilted church history. Looking back, it is so easy to see that no matter which Bible-believing church I was a part of, it was the perfect fit for that season of life – only God could’ve planned it that way.
Who God was to me in those churches
God wove my faith journey together using each church and denomination as a different color and texture in my story…
Birth – 4 yrs – Born into a Southern Baptist church – I learned God was real; a friend; someone who was nice and loved me.
7yrs – 12yrs of a frightened childhood spent at a Presbyterian church- He was peacemaker, strong, protective, safe, someone who cared about my feelings, gentle, and kind.
13-25yrs crisis-stricken teen years and early 20’s spent at a charismatic United Methodist – He fights for me; has a plan for me; is the one true God; knows me better than I know myself; is holy; healer; is on our side; there is nothing He wouldn’t do to show me He loves me.
26yrs to current – Southern Baptist – He is provider, loves the whole world, redeemer, restorer, re-builder. He is hope, joy, good all the time, bears our burdens, disciplines in love, equips us for the task, encourages, leads blind faith, is justice, mercy, and defender of the voiceless.
What I’ve learned
The denomination doesn’t matter to me NEARLY as much as if the entire Word of God is being preached (including His stance on all of the current major social issues). I haven’t mentioned church names for a reason – I can’t stand cliches and branding. There are many great Bible-believing churches out there, and I am not going to drop names for the sake of.
Moreover, we are one body, the bride of Christ. There will be no denominations in heaven. That’s right! Believers will all be united in one voice. Period. What the world needs to see us acting like it now. There is so much more we can do together as one, rather than divided.
I have no problem with different Bible-believing denominations and their unique traditions because I myself have lived to see there is purpose in each of them. It breaks my heart when family, friends and communities tear each other apart over things that do not make an eternal difference.
I used to avoid telling my church story for fear of being judged. Now, I want to tell it in hopes that others will see that God can move in any Bible-believing church. The ways He chooses to move may be different, but different doesn’t have to equal bad. Different can just be…different. And that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. That difference may be just what someone needs for this season of life.
Grace. Grace. Grace. What would the church-at-large look like if we showed each other more grace? The world may just start to wonder what God’s grace could look like for their lives?
All of this is under the umbrella that a church is biblically sound, teaches solid theology, and believes the entire Word of God. I would never recommend letting the leash out on churches who aren’t teaching the whole Truth from the pulpit, in small groups, and in individual lives of its members.
I’ve had enough life experience in a variety of denominations to know that God isn’t denominational. He’s personal. I thank Him for every moment spent in every church in which I have had the blessing to be a part.
My personal, Christian friends are: Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, and Episcopalian. I love them all and have a blast worshiping the same God.
I want my friends who have faiths other than Christian to see that, despite my friends’ different denominations, we all get along, serve the same God, and are for sharing the love of Jesus and helping through service in any way God calls us to, rather than staying perpetually stuck on issues that won’t matter in the new heaven and new earth that is to come.
An interesting read on uniting the church community can be found here.
What would the church-at-large look like if we concentrated on working with what we have in common, rather than focusing on what we don’t?
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6
I’ve learned that God is much more concerned with the heart than with anything else. Anyone can fill a pew or a chair. People can be lifetime members of one church and never know God personally. We have friends who live in places where corporate worship is forbidden and they must worship on their own. Is their faith any less? Absolutely not.
We are the church. Each and every believer is the church. A building does not a church make. I’ve gone to church on the beach, in the hospital, under a tree, on a bus, in secret, in the African Mara with real warriors donning large spears sitting next to me, in theater buildings, in school buildings, in my home, on a ranch, at sunrise, at sunset, at midnight, in the car, on a plane, at the top of a mountain, over the ocean, in extended family’s churches, in best friends’ churches, on a walk, in war-torn country, and in our front yard – to name a few. Ironically, none of those were denominational services. They were believers, from every walk of life, coming together to worship the one, true God. That’s what church in heaven will look like, and I can’t wait.
My heart’s desire is to be a reflection of the love of Christ to everyone with whom God intersects my path, and to live a life based on Christ’s principles – not a particular church’s membership – and to live in community with other Bible-believers with no staunch divisions between us.
Time is short. We can read the headlines and see that. Will the church-at-large allow God to work through our faith to make a difference for Christ in this world He loves so much?
…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.