Church died when I was 23.
I don’t talk much about that time because I made some bad, selfish decisions that I’m not proud of which hurt people.
Those decisions were preceded by some tough times in a dry spiritual wasteland that ended with my realization that Church was dead to me.
I was raised in Mainline Protestantism with a Southern, evangelical outlook. I started questioning my faith at about age 15, and near 16 I had the equivalent of a conversion experience and made my faith my own.
After a decent bit of reading and wrestling, I got to a place where I felt intellectually compelled to think Christianity is true. I did the thing where you submit yourself to God, and I had what we Christians call an experience of the Holy Spirit in my heart.
I was excited because it feels like you’re falling in love, so with the wisdom of an emotionally-stunted 16-year-old male, I unintentionally became very obnoxious to my friends. I tried to lead Bible studies and share the awesomeness of the God I’d found.
Thankfully, my friends were kind and didn’t shun me, and mercifully for them my attention was eventually redirected within my church youth group.
I’ll spare you the details of my life from ages 16 to 23 and focus on the relevant fact that a singular experience of the Holy Spirit does not provide one with a lifelong sufficiency of His presence in order to do His work: we were made to interact with Him consistently, though the trouble is one can’t force God’s hand to provide additional empowering of the Spirit.
The spiritual desert typically becomes a reality at several points in a Christian’s life, though a young and immature Christian doesn’t often understand this.
When my cup ran dry, I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t understand why God didn’t seem to be answering my calls for help.
It was at that point in the midst of my own brokenness and need that the deficiencies of much of the Church became painfully clear.
In many Protestant churches there is very little interaction with God during worship which is, well, supposed to be about interacting with God. Instead, church feels a lot like Rotary Club or the Kiwanis: a social gathering of people for a “good cause.”
Liturgical churches fare better in that they are structured around the idea that the congregation is directly interacting with God through corporate prayer, confession, and a regular participation in the grace of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, but the conviction with which the liturgy is practiced is often as lively as a graveyard.
One of the problems involved in growing up in the Methodist Church is the Forrest Gump-like praxis varying from church to church: you never know what you’re gonna get.
Methodism began as a mirror image of John Wesley’s liturgical Anglicanism. For numerous reasons, Methodism quickly devolved into an all-encompassing hodgepodge of ecclesial practices that was dependent on the tastes of a congregation and/or its current itinerant pastor.
So it was that my early church experience can best be described as semi-liturgical: a mixture of the two Protestant forms described above. Ironically, a quote attributed to John Wesley applies to a lot of Western Christianity: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or North America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
The “power” to which Wesley refers is explicitly what the New Testament records: the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit working through the Church to advance the redemption of all Creation. An experience of the Divine; the miraculous.
The exact thing which one large portion of Protestantism (cessationists) claim came to an end after the First Century (without any biblical warrant).
How did Christianity grow and thrive during its first 300 years of existence? Not by philosophy or words, according to St. Paul, but by the demonstrable power of God.
No rational argument that entails persecution and legitimate potential for death was going to win over already poor and dispossessed commoners, let alone the well-to-do in Roman society.
St. Paul states that the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit – followed by the demonstrable presence of the Spirit through signs and miracles – was the defining act in a person converting.
Simply put, Christianity thrives where God’s presence is actively doing things. Or, in other words, when God is actively present.
Most of us in the West don’t believe God is still in the business of doing miracles. Yet there’s plenty of evidence from around the world (and, yes, even here in the States) that the opposite is true.
Christianity is thriving in Africa, Asia and South America among reports of healing, exorcisms and other miraculous events. These still occur in the West, though seemingly with less regularity and accompanied by far more skepticism: it’s just not considered intelligent to believe that miracles could be real.
But there’s no escaping that this is what the New Testament is about: the Kingdom of God being inaugurated in the world here and now by God Himself through His Church. By God showing up through His Church.
That is the Gospel. Not a way of thinking that only brings emotional relief, but a way of being human with God dwelling in us and moving through us, resulting in what can only be explained as acts of God.
Chase after God just as surely as He is chasing after you. Don’t settle for Civic Center Church. Seek divine encounters where they can be found.
Let God continue to transform you. Expect nothing less than the unexplainable.
He’s there to be found.