Sometimes, I’m a little embarrassed to be identified as an American Christian because it feels like we fall into one of two camps: either we hate everything that we are not familiar with, or hate everything that we used to like.
A good example of the former is a controversy that recently sprang up at Gordon College, where undergraduates were scandalized at the introduction of a strange and foreign type of worship experience during their chapel services: gospel music. Yes, GOSPEL MUSIC, one of the oldest and richest liturgical traditions in American faith.
Examples of the latter are too numerous to count. The Christian blogosphere and publishing industry are filled with memoirs of people ranting about how terrible their church experience was growing up, and how their current place and style of worship is what Jesus had in mind all along. When cast in this adversarial light, what should have been personal stories of finding one’s home in faith instead read like a harrowing escape from a doomsday cult, and serve as yet another salvo in our nation’s already raging cultural wars.
These two tendencies have unfortunately come to define Christians in this country, that we either despise everything with which we are unfamiliar, or the exact opposite. But personally, I have never had much of a problem with either, and it’s not because I’m all that great of a person – just ask my wife. It’s probably because I have spent so much time in diverse kinds of churches.
I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, and can still remember the cathedral in which Sunday mass took place. The entire building was constructed in a cruciform shape, the main entrance located at the foot of the cross, and the altar placed at what would have been the intersections of its beams. The ceiling was painted sky blue and dotted with bright recessed lights, which made it easy for a young boy to spend most of the mass staring upwards, lost in his own imagination. The altar was made from white marble streaked with dark brown, like the best kind of ice cream. And dominating this scene was the cross, painted gold and sumptuous crimson, and adorned with an ivory white life-size statue of Christ, eternally in his suffering. To this day, I can still recall the beauty of that vaulted space and the spice smell of incense, and how my breathing would change when I walked through the doors, the way it does when you enter any sacred place.
When my parents decided that I should switch schools, we switched traditions as well, and began attending a local Korean Presbyterian church instead. Although located only a few miles apart, the two could not have been more different. The Korean church was modern and sparse, its design and decor efficient and linear. But what the church lacked in physical beauty, it more than made up in spiritual passion. My first Sunday service was a shock, three hundred young people praying to God in loud voices, some of them in languages that have no earthly root. They prayed in tears, and almost always on their knees, not upon the cushioned kneelers that I was used to at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but directly upon the floor. It was in the Catholic church that I learned that God was everywhere, but in the charismatic church that I learned that God was in me, and the connection I shared with him personal, and passionate.
After several years in the charismatic tradition, I eventually found myself in a reformed church, a movement rooted primarily in the writings and life of John Calvin. It was at that church that I had more debates than in all other years of church experience combined – debates about worship, debates about theology, debates about authority, debates about debates. This sounds exhausting, and it often was. But Reformed Christians believe faith is so rich that it should engage the totality of the mind. So we should have debates on theology and the like, because those ideas are as deep and complex as any other topic of human experience. Consequently, their approach to faith is thoughtful, intelligent, and cerebral, sometimes to a fault. While the charismatic church engaged my heart, the reformed church engaged my mind.
I have had experiences in other churches as well, Mennonite, Pietist, non-denominational, and can say that I have honestly enjoyed (and sometimes loathed) my journey through them all. Now some might say that these denominational meanderings put me at a disadvantage, but I wholeheartedly disagree. It is this exposure that allows me, and others who share my background, to avoid that terrible tendency to either despise other Christian traditions, or despise one’s own.
After years in the charismatic church, I’m completely comfortable when someone prays in tongues. But neither am I scandalized by those who contemplate in silence. I have spent far too much time in those types of churches to arrogantly dismiss such a powerful means of connecting with God. I know my fair share of hymns, but also own a few Chris Tomlin CDs, and can belt Fred Hammond with the best of them. I own a New International Version translation of the Bible, as well as the New King James, New Living, and the English Standard Version. Because I’ve witnessed firsthand people connecting with Christ in a myriad of beautiful ways, it takes a lot to scandalize me – not that it’s impossible though.
And so in the case of Gordon College, while it’s easy to be outraged at their outrage, many of these students had probably never been exposed to any form of worship other than what they experienced in youth group. And really, do any of us willingly and easily engage with things with which we have no exposure? Hardly. But you could imagine that if these students had spent even a small measure of time visiting and learning about the spiritual and cultural heritage of the black church, or really any tradition different from their own, their outrage would have been blunted significantly, if not avoided altogether.
Also, when I get frustrated with a specific church or with a specific denomination, my reaction is not simply to turn around 180 degrees and stalk off in the opposite direction. I know what lies on the opposite end of that spectrum, and that what I will find there will most likely be equally good (and equally bad) as where I am now. So the movements in my life of faith are not pendulum swings from one tradition to its diametric opposite, but more like soft oblique meanderings. I don’t believe in a denominational promised land, just an eternal one.
Millenials so often express deep disillusionment with the churches where their faith was first cultivated, but I wonder if this is not due to the fact that many of them have been brought up their within a fairly narrow Christian tradition, usually a conservative and racially homogenous evangelical church. Their concept of “The church” is in reality only “The church that I knew growing up”, which is not the only kind of church in existence.
But having no other experiences to draw from, their reaction to natural and inevitable disenchantment is sharp and reactionary, to push off from their sole point of reference to the opposite direction: from low liturgy to high, from conservatism to progressivism, from Southern Baptist to Episcopal, or vice versa. But had they been more aware of strengths and weaknesses of other forms of worship and theology, perhaps they would not be so quick to throw their spiritual heritage under the bus.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly okay to cleave closely to a tradition that fits us best, and in my honest opinion, some traditions follow Christ far more closely than others. Also, I am not advocating for reckless church-hopping that is encouraged by our consumer instincts, if not by churches themselves.
But I truly believe it should be required for every Believer to spend at least a modicum of time visiting and being exposed to Christian traditions that are starkly different from their own: Protestant, Catholic, Charismatic, Reformed, High Liturgy and Low. And not just churches that are diverse theologically and liturgically, but ethnically and racially as well: Black and Korean churches, Hispanic and Hmong ones. Perhaps then, we’ll stop summarily rejecting the beautiful ways in which other people understand Christ. And if we ever get tired of our current tradition, we will transition to wherever God wants us to go with grace and peace, instead of leaving burnt bridges as our only testimony to the world.