What follows is an overview of my spiritual history by way of my life in church; think of it as another kind of “about” page.
my journey in 5 quick steps…
- I grew up in the Churches of Christ,
- went charismatic in 1997,
- then nondenominational evangelical in 2001,
- became an Episcopalian in 2012, and
- now I’m a Methodist.
…or, a brief history of my life in church
steps 1 and 2: from a capella to speaking in tongues…
On both sides, I come from at least two generations in the Churches of Christ, and I value the solid foundation this heritage provided. I learned early that the Bible is the word of God and that it has authority in my life. I learned that doctrine matters and that it’s my responsibility to study the Bible for myself.
In 1997, God brought my family to Bethany World Prayer Center, a megachurch in Baton Rouge. If the Church of Christ taught me to read Scripture for doctrine and commands, Bethany taught me to read for God’s character and promises. My four years at Bethany were life-changing as I moved from rules to relationship.
step 3: …into church plants big and small…
When Chris Hodges, a pastor at Bethany, decided to plant Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, we followed; it was time for something new. Bethany was very charismatic — about as far from the Churches of Christ as possible; Church of the Highlands was different from both. When we arrived in Alabama in 2001, the church was six months old; it had about 500 people and met in a high school. As I write this in 2015, it has a huge main campus, with satellite campuses in multiple cities — a nationally-recognized megachurch. At Church of the Highlands, I learned the value of small groups and of close friendships.
We left there in the fall of 2008, in much the same way that we left Bethany back in 2001. I experienced what I’ve heard described as “holy discontent”: there’s no obvious reason to be unhappy where you are, but you long to be elsewhere, and you finally realize that God is preparing you for a change.
We had been an integral part of the the growth at Church of the Highlands, but it seemed like the church had moved on, and I didn’t know where I fit in. August 2008 brought us to a2 (for Acts 2), another church plant in Birmingham. Much as happened at Bethany, I knew I was home after the first visit. The holy discontent was replaced by a clear sense of “this is it” — a “holy contentment,” if you will.
One thing I learned from my time in these churches is that there is value in both large and small. Church of the Highlands has had phenomena growth, and there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy in big: worship with 2000+ people in a single service is pretty spectacular, the facilities are spacious, and the financial resources of a megachurch can achieve much good.
That said, smallness is what my family and I appreciated most about a2. Those packed auditoriums make for energy and tremendous singing, but they don’t make for much intimacy afterward — especially when your friends are spread across three or four service times and locations. You can be surrounded by people and feel alone. And that’s not to knock Highlands — it’s an issue most larger churches face; it’s easy to get lost in the crowd, even when you don’t want to get lost.
As a smaller church, a2 offered the entire family more opportunity for friendships. My children felt lost in the hundreds of kids and teens that made up the youth and children’s ministries at Church of the Highlands. Being one of 20 or 30 has been much better for them. My time at a2 strengthened my commitment to develop and maintain deep friendships with other men. I also grew as a leader, taking the small group ideal of Church of the Highlands (one of the antidotes to getting lost in the crowd) and adapting it to the needs of a2; I led the small group ministry for several years.
steps 4 and 5: …and finally to mainline liturgy
All that changed in April 2012, when I went public with my decision to divorce; I knew it would be important for my children to have the stability of their church home and for their mother to have the support of a community that did not include my presence every Sunday. I also knew that I would no longer be welcome in a church that holds very strict views on divorce.
For the first time in my life, I was looking for a church on my own with no clear idea about where I should go. A major requirement was that it be an environment where divorce was acknowledged as a fact (and a small one) of my life, not viewed as a scarlet letter or the mark of the beast — the perspective I had found in every church I was a part of from childhood on.
For a variety of reasons, I narrowed my search to Episcopal churches, and I settled at St. Thomas Episcopal Church by the end of May 2012. Just as Bethany was radically different from the Church of Christ, so the Episcopal Church was been a significant departure from my experiences in evangelical churches. At St. Thomas I found a warm welcome and acceptance; and, contrary to the stereotypes of “mainline churches” I always heard, I discovered a deep and abiding commitment to faith, God, and others—the same commitment I’ve seen in Christians all my life. St. Thomas introduced me to the beauty of liturgy and church life built around the liturgical calendar instead of the latest sermon series. I love the liturgy; it provided calm and respite from the tumult of divorce and its aftermath. An unexpected benefit of the liturgy is that it is technology-free: I left my phone in the car when I got to church, and didn’t look at anything digital again until I was headed home.
In the fall of 2014, I again felt that “holy discontent”: the rector at St. Thomas was leaving and it seemed a good time for me to leave as well. Though there was nothing wrong at St. Thomas, I did discover first-hand what I had heard single adults talk about over the years: it’s hard to fit into a family-oriented church when you are 50 and single. That’s not to suggest that I was ever made to feel like I didn’t belong — far from it! It was not St. Thomas; it was me: I didn’t see how I fit.
Shortly after, I met Dave Barnhardt, pastor of St. Junia United Methodist Church; I was intrigued and thought, “What not try the Methodists?” St. Junia is a dynamic and innovative church, and their mission and perspective — “We are becoming a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things” — resonated with me. Their service is contemporary and liturgical — and for me, too hectic after more than two years at St. Thomas. I have realized that contemporary services, with their screens and videos, lights and bands, make my ADD symptoms worse, producing sensory overload. Or I’m getting old.
My visit to St. Junia led me to Highlands United Methodist Church in January 2015. And just as before, I knew I was home from the first visit. Highlands combines the traditional liturgy I have come to love with a deep commitment to community impact that extends beyond sharing the gospel. I have since learned that this commitment to addressing both spiritual and social issues is a hallmark of Methodism. That excites me, and I see many ways that I can fit into the work God is doing through Highlands.
differences — but the same commitment to serving God
As expected, I have encountered significant differences in each setting: in practice, in doctrine, and, to a lesser extent, theology. Still, the sermons I hear most Sundays could be preached in any of the churches I’ve attended over the years without anyone batting an eye or getting their doctrinal knickers in a twist. The only real difference is that Episcopalian and Methodist sermons are much shorter; the sermons I heard every week as an evangelical could easily go 30, 45, or even 60 minutes.
Though I don’t care much for the phrase, this has been—is— a “faith journey.” And as the Holy Spirit has challenged and enriched my perspective, I have realized there is a whole world of faith that I knew little about. It’s amazing to me that on Sunday morning in any given community, thousands of people gather in churches to honor the same God and read the same Bible yet have such varied expressions of faith and experiences of worship. As I worship in my church, I know that no single group has a corner on the truth, and I have learned that I can benefit from a diversity of perspectives.
photo: Anglican Christ church corner stirling highway by Leon Brooks