Faith of Our Fathers
Okay, but what about your faith? (Part 2)
Recently, I shared a story from the life of my daughter, Christina. In fact, I let Christina tell the story in her own words after I provided a little background. If you’re interested you can read her story in Part 1 of this post.
In the second part of this post, I’d like to share with you where I am in my Christian faith today. It’s been fifteen years since I wrestled with, and almost walked away from Christianity and ministry altogether. Time has a way of providing perspective. It also helps that the last twelve of my thirty five years as a pastor have been the best years of my ministry and life.
I am ending well and that, as much as anything else, allows me to share this story from a healthy heart.
Before I share anything else with you, I need to be clear about something. Where I am today in my faith is not something I “achieved” fifteen years ago. For that matter it is not something I achieved six months ago, or last week.
Faith is about becoming. It is not an achievement. It is not a product. It is a process; a process that takes time.
Sometimes it is a joyful process. Sometimes it is a painful process. But if we choose to embrace the process and not let go, however hard it may be, we will discover life.
Having said that, here’s my story . . .
My crisis of faith began when the church I’d served for eight years became embroiled in controversy. The details aren’t important. What matters is that this controversy brought to a head years of observing what is best described as “ingrained institutional sin.”
What is institutional sin? “Institutional sin is shared sin, that of a community or corporate body.”1.
Institutional sin is ingrained in structures, systems, constitutions and bylaws as well as in traditions, culture, and the nature of relationships in a community, organization, or church.
There is a lot of ingrained, institutional sin in churches, denominations, and parachurch organizations today.
I remember scheduling an appointment with the head of the Church-Minister Relations in our denomination. I was seeking advice and counsel. He spent the entire meeting telling me one horror story after another about church controversies, both in and out of our particular denomination. “It’s an epidemic,” he told me.
I left that meeting like a candle in the wind; my faith was very close to being extinguished.
Looking back on it now, it was my faith in institutional Christianity that was being snuffed out. It was my faith in Christians as a whole that was slowly dying.
I was angry. I was bitter. I was hurt. I was sinking fast into a hopeless pit where I remained for a very long time. But it was in the darkness of that pit that I started searching. I was willing to do whatever it took to discover truth even if it meant abandoning everything.
I read extensively. Other Christians were beginning to challenge the institutional evangelical church. Much of what they said resonated deeply with me. I also read and observed the harsh, merciless attacks by many celebrity Christian leaders on those who dared to speak out. Although I agreed with some of the criticisms, I was appalled at their ruthlessness and rigidity.
I also noticed that many of these celebrity evangelical leaders seemed more focused on defending institutional orthodoxy than the person of Jesus Christ who is the foundation of our faith as Christians.
Time passed. I moved to another institutional church where I served for almost three years. After arriving, I discovered that the pastor before me was terminated as was the pastor before him. More ingrained institutional sin.
It didn’t take long to realize that a similar fate awaited me. It was only a matter of time.
I started seeking a change in my life and ministry. I considered serving as a chaplain in a hospital, teaching in a Christian college, anything to save me from the hollow empty shell and painful persecution rampant in the institutional church.
That’s when by “accident”, I discovered Seoul International Baptist Church. I was searching pastor job postings for a young pastor friend who was experiencing turmoil and persecution in his church. Had it not been for the “click” of a mouse button, I would have never sent my resume.
Soon afterwards, I received a questionnaire from the church. My responses were honest to the point of being offensive. I told my wife, “Don’t worry, that church in Korea will never ask me to be their pastor.”
Imagine my surprise when a second questionnaire arrived in my inbox! Once again, I was completely forthright in my answers. For example, if you know anything about Baptists, you know that drinking alcoholic beverages is anathema. For years, I abstained from alcohol. During my crisis of faith, I would occasionally drink a beer or glass of wine. The questionnaire asked about my stance on alcohol consumption.
“Yes, I enjoy a cold beer or glass of wine,” I responded.
Meanwhile, the pastor search team was posting my questionnaire answers for church members to read. Turns out my forthrightness was a big hit. And so in 2008, my wife and I moved to Seoul, and I began serving what I consider to be the best church in the world.
I don’t know how many Baptist belonged to our church. I don’t care. Most of our “members” never officially joined. But while they may not have been on the church membership role, they served side by side, feeding the homeless, serving the community, attending home Bible studies and prayer meetings.
We were Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Church of Christ, Church of God, Episcopal, Roman Catholic. We were Nigerian, Australian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, North American, South American. Multiple Christian traditions. Multiple nationalities.
“How did you do it,” you may ask. The secret was in our church vision — IT’S ALL ABOUT JESUS.
Did we differ in some doctrines and beliefs? Yes. What about our political philosophies? Very different.
But we all came together around the simple, non-institutional figure of Jesus and his kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Besides our non-institutional vision, we shared four values . . .
Diversity — We celebrated our diverse cultures, world views, and skin colors. We learned to learn from each other.
Relationships — We followed the words of Jesus who said all of Scripture could be summed up in two commandments — Love God and love your neighbor. How simple and how powerful is that?
Scripture — We may have differed in some interpretations and understandings of the Bible, but we cherished this ancient and divinely inspired book that has all too often been the source of bitter debate and division.
Restoration — We yearned to see Christians who had been hurt by the institutional church brought back into a loving, caring fellowship. And we longed to see those who were suspicious, apathetic, or otherwise uninterested in the institutional church brought into the fold to discover just how awesome a church centered on Jesus and his teachings could be.
In these last twelve years, I’ve discovered that Christianity is not about a set of doctrines or body of teaching. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but they are not the centerpiece of our faith.
I’ve discovered that Christianity is not seen in the institutional church in which I undoubtedly will continue to serve. But whether we are on the official membership role of a church, or meeting together regularly in apartments or houses, the “church” is ultimately a place where we build healthy relationships with other followers of Jesus, and discover life in its fullness.
I’m so glad I didn’t abandon my faith in Jesus. A faith that began sixty two years ago in a small town just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. A faith passed to me by my father. It is his genuine, heart felt faith that lives in me. But it’s more than that. It’s my faith, a faith forged on the crucible of life. A faith for all who are willing to, in the words of Jesus, “lose their lives to find find them.”