I hope that if I counted myself as a member of a “liberal” denomination, I would be writing a post about my gratitude for the contributions of evangelicals to proclaiming God’s glory in the church and in the world. Instead, as an evangelical, I am here to say thank you to the Catholics and Episcopalians, to the feminist theologians and the pastors focused on social justice, to the whole host of people past and present who witness to the breadth and depth of God’s character and glory.
Here’s a bit of the backstory: I sometimes say that I am “denominationally confused.” I was baptized Episcopalian, confirmed Presbyterian, and married in the Congregational church I attended through college. Over the fifteen years of our marriage (which has included moving to four different towns), my husband and I have worshiped in an Episcopal church, a non-denominational church, a Vineyard church, and a Covenant church. Each of these churches has offered distinct gifts to us—the lofty liturgy of an Episcopal cathedral, the emphasis on global missions at the non-denominational church, the healing prayer at the Vineyard, the solid preaching and welcoming community at the Covenant. It would be easy to critique any of these churches, but overall I am grateful for them each in their own way, and I’m grateful for their variety. It has shown me so much more about the diversity of God’s healing work in the world.
Perhaps I’m so willing to move from denomination to denomination because of the role para-church ministries played in my growth as a Christian. I first experienced the power of the Holy Spirit at a Young Life camp, and I grew even more through ministries on my high school and college campuses. Or perhaps I’m a Christian mutt because I’m almost a millennial. In two recent books, both Erin Lane (Lessons in Belonging from a Church Going Commitment Phobe) and Rachel Held Evans (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church) attest to their search for a church home. It would be easy to criticize Lane and Evans—and me—for church hopping. It might look from the outside as though we are consuming church in much the same way we consume food from a restaurant or clothes from the mall. We pick and choose according to our liking.
And yet, as our family finally settles in—I hope, I pray—to our long-term church home, I’m grateful for the years of bouncing around. I remember, for instance, when I thought God couldn’t be at work in the Episcopal church because it was “too liberal.” And then being brought to my knees by the power of the Spirit in one of those selfsame liberal churches. I remember when I thought contemporary music was the only sane way to reach out to young people, and then witnessing the power and truth and beauty in the words of the classic hymns.
As much as anything else, my broad church experience has helped me as an evangelical to appreciate the width and depth and breadth of God’s catholic church, of the communion of saints that stretches through time and encircles the globe. Yes, I believe God is at work in powerful ways through churches with theology that lines up with evangelical statements of faith. But I also believe God’s faithfulness is present in the ministry of the churches where I would quibble with doctrinal points and church governance.
I’ve learned much from the 70-year old woman who shed tears thinking back to the doubt and shame she felt at a Bible college decades ago when she discovered she was gay. I’ve been blessed by the prayers for peace from a feminist liberal pastor who ministered to us after our daughter was diagnosed with Down syndrome. I’ve been cared for through the Book of Common Prayer.
I understand that sometimes congregations and even denominations need to part ways when it comes to matters of faith and practice. And yet the scorn that liberals display towards conservatives, and the antagonism of conservatives for liberals grieves me. What if we all assumed that the God of the Bible is at work in every congregation? What if we all assumed that both contemporary and traditional music could bless us? What if we assumed that the God of the universe can handle our disagreements?
I need the mainline church to remind me of God’s grandeur, of God’s faithfulness, of God’s humility, God’s willingness to work through any of us. How great is our God, to work through broken vessels like you and like me.