My three kids are, obviously, pastor’s kids. Yes, that alone is enough to keep them in prayer. But for them, church has been a certain way all their lives. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean they have had a pretty narrow experience of church. Not only are they mostly familiar with Baptist churches, they are mostly familiar with our Baptist church. I know, I know. I can just hear you, “What? Not all Baptists are the same? Get out!”
Beyond that, of course, they have had very little exposure to other Christian traditions such as Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.
However, a few weeks ago my wife and I took our two sons (Alas, we couldn’t convince our 16 year old daughter to join us) to an Ash Wednesday service at the nearest Anglican Church. It was the start of the Lenten season of the church and we wanted to begin it the right way.
For our sons, who are 12 year old twins, it was a very strange experience. The priest wore liturgical vestments (which they called robes). They thought that was cool (and for this reason said I should get some robes for myself). There was an altar at the front of the church rather than a pulpit or music stand for the pastor’s sermon notes. Much more of the service felt formal, of course. And we had to go forward twice, once to receive Communion and once so the priest could place ashes on our foreheads.
It was not at all Baptist-like.
Now, since I have been on vacation during our kids’ March break, yesterday we had the unusual opportunity to attend another church on Sunday morning. We could have gone to any number of churches that would have been very similar to our own, where we would even have known the pastor and some of the people in the congregation, but we really wanted to do something different. Both for ourselves and for our kids. So we went back to this same Anglican church yesterday for a regular Sunday service.
Interestingly, the priest of this particular Anglican Church was raised a Southern Baptist. Given that I was raised Roman Catholic Church and am now a Baptist pastor, it made me wonder how his journey of faith would compare to my own.
Here’s the thing: Our own experience of church–mine and yours–can often be so limited. Understandably, since we can only visit churches of other traditions and styles so often depending on where we live and the opportunities we have. But this can mean that our vision of what church means and what being a Christian means is also narrow. Sometimes by virtue of our limited experience we can reduce what is right, good, and true to our own tradition. We can go from having a limited experience of church to thinking that our experience ought to be normative. How we do church is how church should be done.
Looking back at my own life, I am grateful that I have had the chance to experience a variety of churches. In addition to being raised Catholic and now being Baptist, I’ve worshipped in Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, United, Wesleyan, and plenty of non-denominational churches.
For me, there are at least three ways in which this valuable. First, just like I came to faith in Christ in large part outside of the church in which I was raised, I need to be open to the possibility that it can happen in the same way for my kids. Or that a wider variety of experiences can help them see past the limitations of their own. Christianity is much, much larger than the congregation they know most personally. I don’t want their spiritual journey to be shaped only by their experience of our Baptist church.
Second, there are spiritual riches to receive, and ways to encounter God, by experiencing other church traditions. This is because different traditions have different emphases. I remember, for example, hearing my first sermon in a Baptist setting. I was blown away. I was used to 5 minute homilies. It was such a refreshing change. Indeed, sometimes God can reach our stubborn hearts more easily when we are out of our comfort zones and familiar settings. That’s certainly how God initially got a hold of me.
And lastly, experiencing other church traditions can help us see our own in a fresh light, good and bad. Maybe we (especially if we’re pastors) will see ways of augmenting our approach to worship with practices not typical of our own tradition (in our case Baptist). Most recently, I have made more use of responsive readings and confessions of faith in our worship. I also think it can help us have a deeper appreciation for our own tradition. It gives us fresh perspective.
I don’t know about you, but I can be blessed by God through hymns accompanied by organ or worship songs accompanied by guitars and drums. Both deeply exegetical sermons and more succinct homilies have spoken the word of God into my life. I appreciate quieter, comtemplative worship and more energetic, vibrant worship. I hold in many respects to what one might call “mere Christianity,” the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 1:3). Churches that are orthodox, affirm the earliest creeds (The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, for example), and the authority of Scripture, are ones I feel able and welcome to worship in. Whatever else is true of the particular church beyond that, I can rejoice that I have a much larger family of brothers and sisters in Christ than I am usually aware of.