Becoming Unwanted, Part 1

Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law
I don’t want to know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me
I want a new law, I want a new law
Give me that new law
–Derek Webb

This is the first of several posts in which I will attempt to describe recent events at my church that resulted in me being denied the privilege of teaching Sunday School or leading a small group. The title of this story has a double meaning. It tells how I came to feel unwanted at this church, and it also describes my final conclusion that this church apparently is not interested in cultivating an environment in which people “become” (i.e., continually grow into) what God in Christ wills for us to be in our time.

Part 1 (this post) briefly summarizes the basic events. It also provides some necessary background, i.e., how I came to be part of this church in the first place and what changes in church leadership occurred to precipitate the conflict. In Part 2, I will outline the specifics of my case. In Part 3, I will attempt to draw some conclusions.

Summary

In September, my friend Daniel asked me if I’d like to help him lead a high school boys discipleship group (D-group). Given that I have a 9th grade son in the youth group and considering that this sort of mentoring ministry is probably the most significant kind of kingdom activity that I could do in the church, I enthusiastically said yes. Daniel and our youth pastor had already been leading these D-groups for two years in the church.

Because of changes in leadership (see below), Daniel and I were asked to complete a newly revised “Questionnaire for Prospective Teachers” and meet with the elders to obtain approval. Meanwhile the school semester was well underway, and we were anxious to get things started. In fact, we did hold one organizational meeting, but were then told to stop until our submitted questionnaires could be evaluated.

The questionnaire (see next post) included a variety of personal and doctrinal questions, including whether we had been baptized by immersion (okay for me but still a sticking point for Daniel) and whether we believed in six-day creation and a worldwide flood (obvious sticking points for me). We finally had our individual meetings with the elders on the same night. Anticipating where things were headed (in the church as a whole, as well as for my evaluation), I intentionally used my interview as a means to evaluate the elders’ positions as much as to convince them of the soundness and genuineness of my Christian faith.

Our interviews were about an hour and a half each. Two days later, two of the five elders met with each of us a second time to inform us that we would not be allowed to lead the D-group (or hold any type of teaching position) in the church. They assured us that we were welcome to continue attending the church (and it would still be okay for me to play guitar in the worship band), but nothing involving teaching would be allowed. I had failed to obtain permission to teach, but I had successfully determined for myself where these elders stood with regard to the direction of the church. Neither Daniel nor I are willing to sit in the pew with our hands, minds and hearts tied behind our backs. Once again, it’s time to move on.

The Background

The church in question is a Christian Church in the Restoration tradition. For this story, I’ll call it Midtown Christian Church. We (my wife, three teen-age children and I) began attending there a year and half ago, and we had become members about six months ago.

If you’ve read my About Me page, you’ll know that my family has struggled to find a permanent church home here in Rockford, Illinois. We had reason to be optimistic about our prospects at Midtown, though. The worship was contemporary and casual but not flashy or irreverent. The preaching impressed me as being relevant, accessible, biblical and intelligent. We were especially encouraged when we became aware of the significant number of people in the church who had come from different church backgrounds: Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist.

Indeed, Pastor Mark preached in a style that seemed to reflect the true spirit of the Restoration tradition: in essentials, he taught unity; in non-essentials, he taught liberty. The fact that a diversity of believers had felt welcome and empowered to attend and exercise their gifts in a variety of ministries was evidence of this environment. Pastor Mark made this clear in numerous ways while leading the Orientation Class for new people. For example, when he asked our class what we thought was the most important principle of Bible interpretation, no one guessed that his answer would be “humility”.

Our kids quickly became involved in the youth group, finding joyful and meaningful Christian fellowship for the first time in our Rockford church experience. Soon we were making friends and participating in various ways, such as playing instruments as part of the worship team.

The church had experienced a number of difficult events in the year previous to our arrival. One pastor’s wife had left him, another had struggled with severe depression, and Pastor Mark’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer. She was terminal by the time we started attending and died in December 2008 (my wife and I never met her). However, the church seemed to be coping with these challenges, and that in itself also impressed us. It can be acknowledged that the quality of Mark’s preaching was somewhat erratic, and he was obviously struggling in various ways after his wife died (apparently he had insisted on continuing to work as a way to stay active).

As newcomers, we did not know at the time that a sizable contingent of long-time church members had been unhappy with Mark’s liberal theology and maverick leadership style for some time. His slightly wilder behavior following his wife’s death apparently exacerbated the situation to the point of crisis.

In the summer, I was invited by Pastor Mark to participate in a book club with several other men, including a couple of elders (I presume all elders were welcome, but only a couple participated, and one persisted). We read several books together, each man taking a turn choosing a book. Each book was stimulating in its own way, and I felt comfortable in picking Beyond the Firmament by Gordon Glover when it was my turn to choose a book for the July meeting. (Actually, I gave the group two or three options, in case anyone felt the discussion of origins would be too controversial or tangential to our purpose of studying issues relevant to church life. No one objected to the book, and several men encouraged me to pick it since it reflected my area of expertise and interest.) The actual discussion was energetic but cordial. Pastor Mark was noticeably silent (perhaps wisely) and there was one elder there (a six-day creationist who clearly did not resonate with any of the principles in Glover’s book).

The next day the elders dismissed Pastor Mark. (Obviously, the timing was purely coincidental with the book discussion, but I am told that he was chastised for allowing the discussion of this book to take place.) The church learned of the dismissal the following week. The specific reasons have never been revealed, but they were NOT matters of indiscretion or immorality. Here is a section from the letter to the membership that followed more than a week later:

To many, Mark’s dismissal comes as a surprise. For those who have been directly involved in leadership duties at [Midtown], this conflict has been long-running. The issues were numerous, but can be broken down into three main categories. Details are by necessity non-specific, as they could cause hurt and possibly breach confidentiality.

  • Divisions within the church – Deviations from Scripture’s instructions and [Midtown's] Biblical standards and values created inevitable division within both the church leadership and the church body. No individual should put his own desires before the well-being of the church, especially one in a prominent leadership role.
  • Minister’s and staff management – An evaluation of Ministers and staff members called attention to serious concerns regarding personnel management and communication. Irreconcilable differences were disclosed, perpetuating tension and disunity.
  • Adherence to doctrine – It was felt that the traditions, beliefs, and long-standing Biblical standards of [Midtown] as a Restoration Movement, or New Testament Church had been either ignored or loosely held to.

My purpose in disclosing this information is not to scrutinize and judge the elders’ decision or to defend Mark on every point. My concern was and is with the third category of grievances (and the first part of the first grievance). Because my wife and I had been at Midtown for less than a year when this happened – and because our kids were plugged into the youth group – we decided to “lay low” and reserve judgment about what this might mean for the future of the church.

Many others were not so patient. Most of the people we knew who had come from different church backgrounds (all of them vibrant believers and godly families) left the church almost immediately. At least one of these friends saw the writing on the wall and predicted that Mark’s dismissal was just the first step in a return to a hard-lined fundamentalist position.

In the intervening five months, I have continued to serve in the church, attending a Sunday School class and participating in Wednesday night activities. Although I’ve respectfully challenged some traditional thinking during class discussions, I’ve avoided provoking controversy by steering clear of sessions where my particular knowledge and expertise would knowingly unsettle traditional views (e.g., I completely avoided the Sunday School class on Genesis, where Ken Ham videos were periodically shown).

This, then, was the setting for my recent examination by and of the elders via my submission of the Questionnaire for Prospective Teachers.

4 comments to Becoming Unwanted, Part 1

  • I’m so sorry to read about this. It’s all too common, but the nature of such developments is so personal that simple commiseration with others who’ve undergone it isn’t at all adequate. Families who fellowship and share life with other families can’t be torn apart without some painful wounds.

    I know that having my beliefs and thoughts on evolution and the Bible shot down and even having my motives questioned by people in my home church really wore me down quick. I just left that church this summer and have decided to keep my head down for now at our new church. So for what it’s worth, here’s my “I know how it feels.”

  • Hey Doug,
    Nothing to say right now (will wait for the future posts) except to sympathize with your being forced to look for a new church. When our family went through that about 7 years ago (for different reasons) it was a very difficult time. I’m sure it is for you as well.

  • Miriam Ramirez

    You guys are not unwanted by all. I feel and have felt your pain, in many instances it is my own as well. I am still struggling with questions. You guys are part of MY Christian family.

  • Steve Sipe

    Hi Doug;

    As you know, I was with you at (Midtown). You have given a thoughtful and accurate assessment of what happened. To your readers I want to say that the behavior by the Elders at Midtown does not reflect the character or actions of Christ. Many of us took issue with the Elder’s decision and challenged them openly and privately to reconsider.

    I asked every Elder to show me where the Elder action aligned with the actions or teachings of Christ, and none could (or would) do that.

    You lead a great reading group discussion. As you know, I am not prepared to surrender my literal interpretation of Genesis just yet, but I saw Christ in your careful and considerate actions. My faith has grown by meeting you and exporing these issues with you.

    You will be better for leaving. It will be tough on you and your family to start a new search, but it will be tougher on you and your wife to watch the legalistic stance at Midtown innoculate your children from the Gospel!

    Go with God!