I love my church. I mean LOVE. My family are members of a small, sweet, in many ways unremarkable Presbyterian church somewhere in Chicagoland. And yet every week on our way home, we marvel at just how remarkable our church actually is. If you had asked me just two years ago “Would you ever go to a Presbyterian or Reformed church?” I would have said “Presbyterian? No. Reformed? What is it?” This is my family’s Reformation story, told through a few sketches of church experiences that came together to bring us to Geneva.
Pietism and the Evangelical Circus
Though we live in Chicagoland now, for most of our married life we lived in the deep south, in Huntsville, AL. Finding a church “home” in Alabama was difficult—nineteen years’ worth of difficult. We were members of several churches, always plugging in fully and throwing ourselves into serving. For about seven years we were members at an SBC mega-church, a textbook example of pietistic evangelicalism.
Maybe you’ve experienced one of these churches? Satellite campuses galore, a magnetic personality preaching on a big screen, Sunday Schools, Life Groups, rock climbing walls, an oil change ministry—the whole shebang. There was a service to suit every musical taste, and a Sunday school or ministry for every age group or interest. Most of all though, there was always something to do, and always a teaching on what we should be doing.
In just a few years of membership at this church, we found ourselves exhausted. Exhausted from nonstop serving. Exhausted with all the programs. Exhausted from putting on the show. Exhausted from constantly receiving the message that if we didn’t run trunk-or-treat, how would the community be drawn in? Didn’t we know how many people’s salvation hung in the balance, dependent upon our “willingness to just show up”?
In Search of a Theology of Law and Gospel
In these years, we became acutely aware of the pressure to be part of a never-ending circus. We had thrown ourselves fully into serving, leading, and hospitality. And yet we found ourselves drained and isolated. I wish we had known then what we know now: the persistent demands of pietistic evangelicalism were breaking us. We were dissatisfied and bitter with the church, and we were ready to discard “institutional church” from our lives altogether.
What we were looking for—and not finding—was rest. Rest from the constant demands of “do more and do better.” Our world was lacking the relief and rest that comes from a proper law/gospel distinction, but God had more to take us through before He would show us.
We didn’t immediately jump the “institutional church” ship. We joined a small Acts 29 church and were very excited that the Doctrines of Grace were taught in the membership class. We had been convinced Calvinists for years, but had never been a part of a church that was expressly Calvinist. I chuckle now remembering it, because the pastor who taught the class had told his own story of finding his “tribe.” I was impressed by the clever turn of phrase, and thought surely we had finally found our tribe as well. We were in for a whole new world of jargon—we learned to “lean in,” “unpack,” “live the gospel,” and “redeem the culture” in those years.
The Acts 29 church that we initially joined soon merged with a much larger Acts 29 church, and we found ourselves back on the hamster wheel and often coming home discussing parts of the sermon that gave us pause. There was still much “you must do” in the message, just from a different angle.
During these years, we really began to wrestle with tension regarding what the church actually is. The YRR environment was just so marked by contrived branding and personality-driven messages that we constantly wondered “What about this actually makes it a church?” The hand-crafted logos, the ever-outraged and “brave” preaching (“Boy howdy he’s not afraid to tell it like it is!”), the insider lingo: It all made you feel like part of a tribe, but was it ultimately just a tribe drawn together by style?
What affected us the most, I think, was the detached leadership. Coupled with the marketing machine, it left the church feeling very corporate. No pastors or elders ever initiated interaction with us for more than a handshake, but there were lots of “tools,” “training,” and “systems” for helping the people in the pews “shepherd one another.” The real shepherding was intentionally pushed down into small groups and laid on the shoulders of the small group leaders, with each small group and it’s shepherding tasks organized into larger regions unironically referred to as “Collectives.” We repeatedly heard the message that small groups are where church is “really happening,” because after all church is just the people. If two or three are gathered at Starbucks, we have “the church,” right–or at least a meeting of the Borg?
In Search of a Theology of the Church
We didn’t have a vocabulary yet to help us describe our frustrations, but I know now that God was using this particular church experience to prepare us to understand and appreciate Reformed ecclesiology. Ideas like the marks of a true church, ordained ministry of word and sacrament, the ordinary means of grace–these were what we were longing for without even knowing what they were. We were definitely on our way to Geneva, but we had one more stop before we would get there:
Through some friends we had made early on in our Acts 29 church, we had slowly become acquainted with a movement known as the organic church movement. This movement has strong Anabaptist underpinnings, is highly critical of “institutional” church, and claims to recapture the essence of what the early church was. We loved what we heard, because it sounded like the pressure would be relieved: no pastors, no sermons, no “systems.” Just tight-knit Christian relationships, with everybody contributing according to his or her gifts. The meetings unfold organically, said to be led by the Holy Spirit. Everyone simply listens for the Spirit and contributes in whatever way that He prompts them. What could be more simple or pure?
In spectacularly-unlike-us fashion, we sold our house and moved into the city, into the neighborhood where some friends of ours had been “doing” microchurch for a couple of years. But right from the start, organic church life was awkward. We never knew how to contribute or respond when theologically problematic ideas were expressed by others, especially because we knew we weren’t perfect ourselves. We began to realize that without any agreed body of doctrine or leadership, there was no basis for unity.
In God’s providence, He brought about a course of events that allowed us to see all at once some very deep theological error underpinning this movement. We experienced an emotionally intense six months as we studied, prayed, discussed, and pleaded with friends we loved deeply. As we wrestled with the theology and weekly engaged in intense conversations about our concerns, we dove deeper and deeper into the scripture for answers and help in explaining ourselves. It was during this time that we discovered the world of Reformed theology.
I’ll never forget the last night that we met with our microchurch group: someone said “For me, if someone is at least willing to say ‘Jesus is the Son of God,’ there’s not very much else that I would need in order to keep church fellowship with them.” We knew we believed the list of essentials was much longer than that, and we knew we couldn’t stay.
My husband wrote a letter to our friends explaining our very difficult decision to leave the group, and we sent it to them the day before Reformation 500. We were heartbroken.
Geneva at Last
I look back on this a year later and I am so thankful the Lord took us through this intensely painful time, because it marked the beginning of a very sweet period of growth for our family. We studied, we read books, we talked for hours about what we were learning, we listened to podcasts, we met new people, and we became convinced of historic, confessional, Reformed theology.
The first Sunday that we visited a Presbyterian church, I cried out with joy upon returning home “THANK YOU GOD for every hard thing you’ve brought us through for these last nineteen years so that when You finally brought us to a Reformed church we would love it and appreciate it!” On our last Sunday at that church before moving to Chicagoland, there was a covenant baptism. We both cried a cathartic ugly cry as we observed, riveted. That imagery of a helpless newborn being washed resonates in a way that only the gospel can: you were helpless, but I cleansed you. You did nothing; I did everything. You weren’t even aware, and I chose you.
As we waved goodbye to Alabama, there were so many things we were excited about—a beautiful historic house in our new town, finally being near family—but the thing we were excited about the most was knowing for sure that we would look for a Presbyterian church to call home when we got there.
This article was originally published at The New Geneva, which is now defunct and is preserved here.
©Angela Whitehorn. All Rights Reserved.
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