Church Shopping

I went through high school and college trying my best to take faith seriously. In the evangelical world, here is what that means: I did the things common to all Christians—attended worship, prayed, read the Bible and attempted to apply it to my life—but I tried hard to really, really MEAN it. Really, really MEANING it was the ultimate goal and, often, the biggest obstacle to feeling like we were doing it right.

After graduating from a small, Christian liberal arts university, I ended up working in Residence Life, managing dormitories for a year at the same university I attended. I enjoyed the work and made great friends that year. In 2000, some of them left to attend seminary in Waco, and I followed them. I had no desire at the time to go to seminary myself, so I applied for and received an open position as an Assistant Residence Hall Director at Baylor University. The building I was assigned to was Penland Hall. The tiny apartment I was given as partial payment for my work was located on the southwest corner of the building. Walking out my front door and down some steps led me to the patch of grass where, ten years prior, I think I may have heard from God.

I spent that first long, hot summer getting acclimated to life at Baylor. During the day I helped manage summer groups staying in the building, while also preparing for the fall semester when new Freshmen students would arrive. At night I would either go out with friends or stay home and read. On those weekends I didn’t travel back to East Texas, I visited a handful of different churches that people I was meeting in Waco recommended to me.

If you are raised in Texas, this is what you do. When you move to a new place you get settled in and then you find a “church home.” Those not reared this churchy world often voice confusion upon moving here and discovering that one of the permanent collection of getting-to-know-you questions includes “Have you found a church yet?” The assumption is always that you are looking for one.

I was looking for one.

Growing up I learned that there were different kinds of Christian churches, because there were several in the small East Texas town where I lived. There was the Methodist Church, where all the lawyers and City Councilmen went; the Church of Christ, that didn’t have windows or any of my friends that attended there, so I assumed was some sort of cult; the black Pentecostal Holiness church in an adjacent neighborhood to mine, that I could hear singing and shouting from long after lunchtime; the Assemblies of God church, where many of my friends attended, but few talked about what happened there, so my imagination ran wild; the Baptist church on the lake where all the “lake people” went; the Baptist church down the old County Road, surrounded by a cemetery and attended by people who were mostly all related to each other; and the Baptist church in town, the one in which I grew up.

In college I majored in theology and learned a little about those things that distinguish different churches from each other, beyond just whether one danced and shouted while the other sat and whispered. Most of these distinguishing marks had to do with what each particular group believed about the Bible and what it said. Like, whether God picked teams for heaven and hell before he spun the universe in motion, or, instead, lets people decide where they will go after they die. Or, whether you can switch teams—either by choice or accident– after the choice has been made, or are stuck on your team for eternity. Or, whether women can preach and lead, or just remain silent (except in the nursery and among each other, when they are alone.)

The list goes on forever.

By the time I ended up in Waco, I had switched my positions on these debates many times. At that point I didn’t have a strong conviction about any of them, and I knew that (up to that point, anyway) Baptist churches tended to be fairly diverse with regards to issues surrounding the Bible. So I limited my church search to Baptist congregations.

I visited the old (but not the oldest) downtown Baptist church. It was fine, but I knew I’d never make enough money to afford the clothes necessary to fit in there.

Then I went to a country-ish Baptist church in a small town outside of Waco. It reminded me of the church I grew up in, but I think I instinctively knew that their answers to some of the questions I was starting to ask about God and faith would be answers that I was growing weary of.

I visited the church that was a split off of another Baptist church in town. (They called it a “multiplication.” I suspected this was for PR reasons.) They didn’t have a building yet and were meeting in a tent at the fairgrounds. There was dancing and talk about “when the Holy Spirit gets ahold of you!….” and though I had nothing against the charismatic and Pentecostal streams of Christianity, I still chose to respect them from a distance.

And then one night my friend Jason walked into my apartment as I was watching television and dropped a couple of brochures down on my coffee table. He and I had become friends at East Texas Baptist University, and he had also just moved to Waco that summer to attend seminary, and was working with an on-campus student ministry. That night he attended a meeting of campus ministers that was hosted by University Baptist Church, “UBC” for short. Something about the church– the building, the feeling, and the literature on the table in the lobby—made Jason think, “Hey, I think Craig may like this place.”

Like most people reflecting on their lives, I often wonder now what would have happened if the events of that day had never occurred. If Jason had just attended his meeting and walked out the doors without giving the place a second thought, or if I had shrugged my shoulders and decided, instead, to land at one of the more established, “respectable” churches in Waco which, up to that point, had been my M.O.

But it happened, and I had no clue in those moments when I read what Jason brought me that I was in the beginning stages of the most pivotal 15-year chapter of my life. There’s no way I could have known that this would mean a shift in the way I see God and the world, or that I would experience the depths of loss and the heights of joy, sometimes, strangely, simultaneously. I couldn’t have known that I would see, up close, the extreme dysfunction and pain caused by the phenomenon of “Christian celebrity” or the excitement of approaching faith creatively and without fear of retribution.

If I had said thanks, but no thanks, and moved on, my life would be different right now.

Better?

Worse?

Probably, yes.

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