As we settled into our seats with iced tea and dessert, I told her I was turning over a new leaf. I wasn’t going to be a troublemaker. I was going to fly under the radar and not speak up. She laughed, just like Scott had when I told him. They knew me too well. I am who I am and I cannot be otherwise. My questions bubble out involuntarily.
We had been invited to a gathering for people visiting an area Presbyterian church. We could learn a little more about the church’s history and how they operate, and we could ask questions of the head pastor.
Four families attended the dessert, all of us from the same previous church. One person referred to themselves as “one of the wandering [former church name] church people.”
We’re a whole group of church refugees in search of a new home. And for now, we’ve wandered into the same camp, a Presbyterian one, in hopes of finding shelter and a fresh start.
Our pre-existing friendship and shared history must have made this a rather unique gathering. Many of our questions rose directly out of our reasons for leaving the former church, though no-one swapped stories or aired dirty laundry. I don’t know if we will all end up finding the same new home, but in a happy-sad sort of way it’s nice to see familiar faces.
I know that asking all the right questions isn’t enough to unearth warning signs of an unhealthy church. But I don’t know what else to do. So we went and we asked and we listened.
We learned that Presbyterians have freedom in terms of their church’s style or personality, but they are connected by a strong commitment to the creeds and their statement of faith, the Westminster Confession of Faith. We learned that they differentiate between church staff, elders, and deacons, and that they differentiate between ruling elders (lay people who are gifted to teach and lead) and teaching elders (pastors). We learned that once an elder, always an elder, but in their church an elder is only active for a three-year term and then they are required to take at least a year off. Prospective elders must complete elder training and pass a test before they can be nominated or elected. The congregation nominates and votes on elders, who serve as their representatives. This is the only congregational vote they take – they use a representative form of government. They are organized into presbyteries (groups of churches in a region) and the general assembly, which provide additional accountability and support if any issues arise in a church.
This Presbyterian denomination does not ordain women as ministers, but they believe women can and should lead and teach in churches as they are gifted. Also worth noting: they do not let just anyone start a new church. They send prospective church planters to be evaluated and trained, get experience, and build support before they launch. They respect anyone’s baptism, no matter the time or the means (“one Lord, one faith, one baptism”). They recognize a range of positions on many subjects, including four different approaches to the creation account in Genesis 1-3 (so they do not take a hard line of the age of the earth, for example, a stark contrast to groups like Answers in Genesis.).
In many ways, we are finding them to be a safe harbor for anyone, no matter their religious background. Very “come as you are, you are loved” while still holding to the core tenets of Christian faith (the deity of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the Trinity, to name three).
Since Presbyterian churches all have a different personality, we asked questions about this specific church too. The pastor readily acknowledges that they have made mistakes and learned from them (how refreshing). This church has a huge emphasis on community outreach, hosting the homeless in their building for a week every few months, creating a Christmas Store for those in financial need to find gifts for their children, and tutoring children after school in a low-income neighborhood nearby. They invest time and money into helping those in need both at home and far away. They were excited to hear about my trip to Sri Lanka with World Vision and think very highly of World Vision as an organization.
I heard many positive things that night. We will stay awhile, I think, to see how this church lives it out. We will try to understand the uniquely Presbyterian things that are, to us, unfamiliar.
It all sounds good, doesn’t it? And it is. But I am still unsettled, uncertain about what a healthy relationship between church and individual looks like. We have been through some hard things, and we’ve been bitterly disappointed. Are these experiences part of living in a fallen world with flawed people? Or should we expect something better? What are my gifts (besides asking questions in large groups)? Do I fit anywhere? I’ve been at loose ends for so long I’ve begun to question whether this idea of each of us being a needed part of the body of Christ applies to me. What is reasonable to expect of myself, a flawed person, in the context of a group of Christians? What is reasonable to expect of that group? Have I expected too much, putting all my eggs in one basket only to have the entire thing upended and all the eggs smashed? What is a healthy balance of personal faith and corporate faith in a person’s life?
I wonder if God hears these questions and wants me to understand, as I often say to my own children, “These are questions without answers.” What do you think?
Or maybe He is telling me to become a Lutheran. (Have you seen this? I love her story and her approach… and her hairstyle.)