Dallas is a school teacher and amateur theologian, with a BA in History. He is a graduate of School of Ministry in...
Editor's Note: This article is part of an ongoing conversation around why we go to church. Dallas, the author of this post is a close friend of many in ministry at Catch The Fire, and has been a part of this ministry himself for many years. He is currently exploring Christian faith outside of the institutional church. After our podcast with Cathy Harris asking "Why Go to Church", Dallas wrote in with these thoughts. They are reflective of his own journey, and not in any way representative of RevivalMag or Catch The Fire, but we felt to share them as part of this conversation in case they are representative of others. It is worth clarifying also that Dallas's concerns are directed at tradition and practice, and not at any individual person or leader, he holds Catch The Fire's leadership in highest esteem. We will continue to present other perspectives on this conversation as time goes on. Please join in yourself via the comments.
During my years of involvement with Catch The Fire, I felt privileged to be in the middle of one of the best things I felt was going on in Christianity. The ultimate source of this satisfaction was that it was a non-religious environment (whatever I thought that meant at the time) where all sorts of cool Holy Spirit stuff was going on, like laughter, healing (physical and emotional), as well as genuinely bizarre things like gold teeth, dust, and gem stones appearing around people. While I don’t doubt God did and can do any of those things, I must say I have more of a skepticism today in regards to some of those things that I blindly accepted without any real verification in the past. That statement also comes from a person who loves praying for the sick and has seen them healed.
In Toronto, I received the revelation that God the Father truly did love me, which is an amazing revelation to have and everyone needs to come to this understanding. Unfortunately, I also came to see patterns of behaviour in that environment that started to wear me out, wear my friends out, and even burn pastors and leaders out. These things eventually pushed me right out of the institutional church entirely. The things I am referring to happen not only in Toronto but in every type of Protestant church around the world. Like many, I could spend hours writing about all sorts of issues, but I want to highlight a few prominent ones that for me personally broke the camel's back in regards to why I left that world, and why I struggle to re-join and participate in it today. I raise these points because I believe they are relevant to the topic, "Why Go To Church," something I have wrestled deeply.
As a teenager, every year almost we had a new youth pastor who had “big vision” for the church and the city and got everyone on board, and then quit the job soon after, or left for another church job, or mission field, or was fired. Some of them left because they had disagreements with the mother church's main vision, or sometimes they were just let go. I think I had about 5 youth pastors from by the time I was 18. All had different visions or focuses the youth group was expected to support or get involved with. Most of these guys were great people, in my opinion, but the inconsistency usually left me feeling uprooted.
Restoration is preferable to retribution.
While Catch The Fire's core values like the Father Heart, forgiveness, healing of the heart, etc. have deeply impacted me and born great fruit, I sometimes felt these values were addressed in a very broad sense, and often even contradictorily. At a conference I could simultaneously hear a message on how loving the Father was, followed by a prophetic word about how judgment was coming to Canada and the U.S. because of gay marriage. I could hear sermons on how Jesus is coming back to kill people and we need to be on the right side, followed by stories of the loving compassion of Heidi Baker, followed by someone preaching about why everyone needs to support Israel. All within a 4 day conference! Many of the speakers come from different ministries with their own focusses, but quite often this variety just left me confused. Confused about who God really is, what His nature is like, and why my church would allow such a broad spectrum of teaching. I don't necessarily fault a broad spectrum, but I couldn’t reconcile in my mind and heart how the loving God I was experiencing on the floor in Toronto could also be taught from the same pulpit to be vengeful and wrathful towards us because of our sin, and so he had to kill His own Son to satisfy His “justice.” While atonement theory was not explicitly taught, from my recollection, it was just kind of assumed depending on how the nature of Christ was presented by whomever was preaching at the time. This was representative of many theological touchpoints.
Those were the big questions I was wrestling with as a teenager, and I felt the answers that I got from pastors and teachers within that environment were overly shallow, or unbelievable. I don't blame anyone for these things personally, the reality is that a mishmash of theological backgrounds and Christian traditions all came together in this revival and while there has been wonderful fruit from that, many things have never really been expounded upon. All in all, it forced me on a path towards self-education and taking responsibility for my own learning and beliefs and not just being a passive Christian who eats whatever he is fed.
So I decided to put my goal of being a pastor and missionary on hold, and go to University to study church history and theology at McMaster University, with an interdenominational academic faculty that would stretch my admittedly narrow Charismatic / Pentecostal mind. While doing my B.A. in History, I became attracted to Orthodox theology in many respects. I refer to “Eastern Orthodox” as theology and teaching that the Church, in its 2000 year history has taught since the time of the apostles and the early church, right up until the Church experienced the Great Schism in 1054 and it became the Eastern and Western Church. I won’t bother to explain the fine print here of the “why’s” but suffice it to say, I felt that Orthodox theology and teaching greatly matched up with my experience of God as a loving Father, and my understanding of salvation and afterlife far more coherently than anything I felt I had been taught in the Pentecostal / Charismatic world. I am yet to be sold on Orthodoxy as a form of worship (liturgy) but I find myself ever more attracted to it for a variety of reasons. More on that later.
As an arrogant undergrad student who was constantly criticizing Christianity and telling the church how to correctly be the church (which is an all-too-common activity among dissatisfied folks in Christianity), I came to the point where I needed to relinquish my pride (which proved, as it always does, to be a salvific act) and acknowledge that the Church did not begin to exist when I finally got it right. More to the point, if I was extremely hesitant to listen to and agree with what any Christian pastor / author, etc. was preaching from the pulpit, then how could I be so confident listening and agreeing with myself? I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t in a position to teach the church how to be the church, but that I instead needed to let the Church teach me what it already is. This is where my historical studies came into play as my mind was able to explore and evaluate the development of Christianity from the apostles onward, recognizing continuity, etc. I began to realize that not only do most Evangelicals not know about the apostolic fathers who sat at the feet of the apostles themselves (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, etc.) and thus have no categories for understanding the development of historical Christianity, becoming perpetually engaged in self-evaluation completely out of context, but that many also don't agree with the more universally agreed-upon teachings of the Church fathers, their faith and practice, the Liturgy that they participated in, etc. This discovery troubled me.
Related to this, although I acknowledged the many flaws in the historic Church, I realized that—just like I wouldn’t separate from my own self due to my own many flaws, these flaws were also not a reason to remain separate from the ancient Church. Restoration is preferable to retribution. Sound vaguely Biblical.
I was drawn to Orthodox teaching and ecclesiology because I was just so fed up with my Protestant Evangelical experience of constantly starting up a new church plant, following a new vision, a new expression, a new movement or some sort of new teaching (which usually isn’t actually that new). Also connected to this, I was fed up with the heartache that usually followed these events, as relationships (some of very long duration) so often broke down or imploded when we couldn't see “eye to eye” 100% on an issue, as if this were necessary grounds for ending friendships and relationships.
In my historical journey, I realized that I embarrassingly couldn’t answer the question of in what or whom did the Holy Spirit work through after the apostles (i.e., after the New Testament)? I have been emerging from a long period of deconstruction—reading Frank Viola, Wayne Jacobsen, Bruxy Cavey, Baxter Kruger, Brad Jersak, Michael Hardin, Andrew Klager, Richard Rohr, William Paul Young, and a HOST of other writers and theologians etc. I found that if the Evangelicalism that I was raised in was what real Christianity is, I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore. Evangelicalism seemed to me only an inch deep and a mile wide; I knew that for Christianity to be truth—not merely epistemic or rational truth, but truth as beauty and becoming—it needed to be more profound than that to which I was already exposed in the Protestant world. In the words of Andrew Klager, "my world of Christianity growing up didn’t seem to reflect the cosmic wonder of God Incarnate’s conquest of death and resulting transfiguration of all creation entered into through a life of prayer and inner stillness."
But back to the Holy Spirit. If I couldn’t answer in what or whom the Holy Spirit worked through after the apostles, I began to think that he must have either died or else went on some sort of vacation, only to re-emerge in my own lifetime through Azusa Street / Pensacola / Toronto / Bethel / etc.— after all, we speak of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and in our own era, but nowhere in between. I needed to accept that the Holy Spirit did indeed continue to work in the lives of those immediately after the apostles, in the struggles and councils, in the messiness of conflict and refinement of early Christianity that still—by and large—somehow retained its unity in the end (something of which, my own tradition is woefully ill informed of). This is where allowing the Church to teach me what it already is comes into play. Further, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just carry out signs and wonders (as is the common contemporary criteria of the Holy Spirit’s presence), but he also works for unity and therefore isn’t a schizophrenic and manipulable best friend that immediately downloads “truth” in often conflicting and contradictory ways among his many admirers—many of whom don’t agree with each other.
Something wasn’t right here. This was one of the reasons I was so overjoyed at Tony Palmer’s recent initiatives and equally devastated by his sudden passing. He was a true champion for unity.
In the end, or at least currently, I’ve found my study of church history to open me up to a much wider understanding of how God has moved in history through His Bride, often in a messy and painful way. This gives me much hope for pursuing an expression of “church” down the road and hopefully not too far off. But it also has given me such an openness and desire for ecumenism and Christian unity. I read quite widely from a variety of Christian teachers and theologians from different denominations and it has caused me to be greatly attracted to a more liturgical expression of our Faith, which I find to be very rich. In saying that, I do not say my experience as a Charismatic doesn't or didn't have it’s positives; I don’t want to take away from that, as God most definitely meets us where we are, physically, spiritually and intellectually.
If the world cannot hear loudly, clearly and consistently who Jesus is and why He came, from a unified Christian voice, then our witness is lacking.
I don’t think any of this mental and heart processing would have happened to me, had I not left the institutional church and taken time to detox for a while. And I’m glad I have, even if I’m not content in this inbetween place that I find myself in, because the process has softened my heart, drowned my pride, and granted me to a wider perspective than I had before. At the same time though, it has left me cautious to “rejoin” any Charismatic Evangelical church group due to the things I experienced in the past. I recognize that no church is “perfect,” but I am concerned about committing myself to a system of church life that, while good-intentioned, is rooted in a Confession of our Faith that seems to me more shallow than that of the Orthodox church (for example), and one that allows for the aforementioned mish mash of teaching and initiatives I found so exhausting growing up. As a tradtion, I don't see as much depth in Charismaticism as I think I would like.
That brings us all the way back to the podcast from this week. Cathy (someone I respect greatly as a School of Ministry alumni myself) mentioned that one of the main reasons to “Go to Church” was to unanimously “declare and confess our Faith.” While I whole-heartedly agree, I'm concerned that the fullness of what that means is not necessarily understood by many Charimatics or Evangelicals. While I value and treasure my experiences with Catch The Fire, I am concerned that your own declaration of Faith is rooted in a loose set of values not intentionally thought out, and that do not engender a truly unifying community. I speak not of the Catch The Fire revival values, which are amazing and needed by the Body of Christ, but of the many, often disparate teachings that I referred to earlier in the conference example. By point of comparison, a deep rooting in ones own confession of Faith is usually a foundation in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox communities and is an integral element in keeping the community knit together.
This is why, though I love the values of the Charismatic movement, I think that the direction of many Charismatic churches are not guided by its own confession and creed, and thereby a true unity of Faith, but rather by whichever person's vision happens to be steering the ship. I don't believe this problem is unique to Charismatic churches, but they're the ones I know best, so that's what I write. One pastor may like IHOP, while another likes Bethel, and one likes Israel, and each one leads from that preference; people are either on board or not, and rather than gathering in the name of One faith and one Creed, we disperse and divide over peripheral and propositional teaching. Majoring in minors. This is tragically common across all of Protestantism, as I am discovering.
This is where I am at today, and I continue to see other people on a similar journey, coming from a variety of fascinating paths and trails, each of whom are searching for authentic and life-giving relationships where there is freedom to question, wrestle with issues and be broken while experiencing God’s healing (that truly only happens through life together with one another) while also being rooted in a clear and coherent Confession of the Faith. Sadly for many, questioning and wrestling are not always encouraged. Whatever their experience, people truly yearn for relationships and community that aren't tied to issues of hermeneutical authority, personal agendas or unsafe church practices. It’s a journey that I think everyone needs to pursue, or you’ll get eaten up inside. From my experience in the last 3 years, a lot of people are trying to wrestle with the dichotomy of having left Charismatic/ Evangelical church settings while they try to explore life in Christian communities elsewhere. They do this through a myriad of personal, relational, and ecclesiological issues that are far bigger than themselves, and thus, many of us seem to be on this journey for far longer than we would like. But I feel like it’s necessary for us to see real change, and for each of us to land on real unity and grace.
I bless anyone on that journey to experience it freely, and hopefully not totally alone. There are loads of people like us out there, and social media has been an awesome catalyst for bringing us together to share more about our experiences. And yes, there are also a lot of angry and disillusioned people out there who content to complain... but not to change.
If you are battling the feeling like you don’t confess the same Faith, and by extension, the same teaching and practice that reflect that Faith, of your church, then I think that’s a good reason for you to take a step back (for however long is needed) and examine what your church attendance means to you. Don’t hear me wrong. One can be part of any community that confesses Jesus as Lord, and be content in that place, and even find it life giving. More power to you if that is the case! But I think that eventually, in many of those types of communities, the “going to church” for reasons of confessing Jesus as Lord, actually becomes subservient to someone else's own vision and mission. This is what lead me, and leads others, to the feeling that perhaps I don’t know the same Jesus, and need to find a different community where I “fit in.” Or perhaps, they do believe it’s the same Jesus, but they see him much differently and seek to find a place that matches better who they see Christ to be.
And that brings us back to another major reason I have begun to appreciate the older, more liturgical forms of our Faith. There, the meeting is centered around the Liturgy, which is all about Christ and the confession of “our” Faith, and it doesn’t really change. It’s not centered around a sermon, or a new mission or the vision of the parish priest. And I really like that. It safe-guards the teaching of the Church while simultaneously allowing for so much mystery and nuance, and a freedom to ask difficult questions.
So, all this to say… I feel like answering “to confess our Faith and Jesus as Lord” to the question of “Why go to Church?” is a good answer, and certainly sounds somewhat foundational, but is perhaps lacking a depth of understanding of what that really means practically, theologically, and ecclesiologically. I know only a certain amount can be said in a short podcast, but the issue of what "confessing our Faith in Jesus as Lord" actually means is often brought up at ecumenical councils and initiatives... it's a big issue. I don't say this to slam anyone, or even to promote one tradition over another (though obviously my own preferences are obvious), but I feel like things can get easily glossed over in Charismatic circles without any serious, intellectually honest assessment of things that are said. And so I humbly write to you today.
I worked for a large Charismatic ministry for 3 years, whose ministry slogan was “JESUS IS LORD.” He truly is Lord! But in that ministry, one that was instrumental in leading me to Jesus as a boy, I found His lordship and nature were often confused, and would drift pretty far from the ancient creeds and confessions that I have stated here are absolutely necessary to protect His nature and character, and by extension, who the Church says Jesus is. If the world cannot hear loudly, clearly and consistently who Jesus is and why He came, from a unified Christian voice, then our witness is lacking. That’s why this is important to me, and perhaps worth sharing.
I’ll end with this – Jesus is Lord, and I wish we truly did meet under that headship and unified confession. In fact, that is my prayer. And I think that is the heart and prayer of many Christians around the world, Charismatics and non, people at Catch The Fire and elsewhere, but the definition of that Lordship and confession requires more study than the lip service we often tend to give it, and I am excited to see it be explored within and beyond each of our own experiences of Christianity.
Editor's Note: This article is part of an ongoing conversation around why we go to church. This article is not in any way representative of RevivalMag or Catch The Fire. We will continue to present other perspectives on this conversation as time goes on. Please join in yourself via the comments.
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