My own personal church experience

In the mid-70’s I became part of what was, at that time, the currently emerging church. There were myriad groups either breaking away from established institutions, re-imaging established churches, or just coagulating on their own to form new churches. It was free, it was youthful, it was at times rebellious. The cry of the established church was “bloom where you’re planted” in an attempt to keep their own numbers from dwindling.

This was, I think, a product of the times. Even while still a part of my Lutheran church (which was heavily influenced by the Jesus movement), I became a student of these new movements, and eventually a student of the more established traditions, including the oldest, the Greek Orthodox (from my reading of history, it was the Roman church that broke away).

My thought was to find the One True Church – common sense told me that it should exist. But, I didn’t find it, and 20 years ago found myself in the Vineyard movement, where I am today. I like it because they found what has been called the “radical middle” – that place that tries to balance experience with sound theology. For the most part, the Vineyard has done that well, with a few odd turns here and there.

However, in considering the issue of an individualized Christianity, there are a couple of aspects of the current non-traditional church tradition (yes, it has now become its own tradition…) that I see as problems.

The first issue I saw as a problem very early on: without any kind of regular group affirmation of a basic creed, you could be a part of the church for years before being recognized as a heretic. A couple of people tried to insert a semi-creed in worship choruses (I-yi believe in Jesus…), but you just can’t bring yourself to sing that every week. This is not new with Vineyard-style churches – the Baptists, for example, have had this problem for years, which is why their youth are easy targets for JW’s and Mormons. Very few pastors tend to teach basic Christian doctrine (that’s so boring), choosing instead for a topic-of-the-month. You can be an expert on personal finance and tithing, but still not know that Jesus actually is God.

The other issue is the worship style. I’m not talking about musical style, but the “do your own thing” right of expression thing that we do: Feel free to sit, stand, raise your hands, kneel or dance, as you feel led… Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself. But, I’m wondering if this “freedom” has just added to the individualized, isolationist Christianity that we now see. The whole purpose in coming to church was to engage in corporate worship – you’ve always had the opportunity to worship as you saw fit at home. Sunday morning was a corporate expression of the church, doing the same thing, reciting creeds together, and singing unsingable songs as we rose and sat and whatever, together. It was not only an expression of worship, it was an expression of community- you simply couldn’t do this on your own.

Today, I can go to church, and not “be there” at the same time. I don’t have to stand if I don’t want to. Certainly there’s something to adding your voice to a hundred or more other voices- that’s at least a taste of corporate worship. However, the attitude of corporateness just isn’t there. There’s not even a real expectation of a corporate experience – it’s all really focused on the individual. Plus, a lot of the songs are theological hash, so I find that often I can’t even bring myself to sing along.

Perhaps these are reasons why these churches are always talking about the lack of community, trying to get people into small groups, and so on. How can you encourage community when you spend Sunday mornings encouraging individualism?

These are just thoughts in progress from an admitted rugged individualist. There will be more …

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4 Responses to My own personal church experience

  1. me says:

    Thanks, John! 😉 One of these days I hope to be able to update smallvoices a bit.

    Everyone, please check out John’s site (now that it links to smallvoices) at

  2. john o'keefe says:

    good points – very cool stuff.

    also, i added smallvoices back to the blog list on ginkworlds main page 🙂 just figured i would let you know 🙂

  3. me says:

    “I come to the garden alone…” is definitely not a Lutheran song. Lutherans wouldn’t be caught dead in quiet contemplation, at least alone. Get 50 of them together with some jello salad, a few responsive readings, and they’re fine.

    Bloom is certainly perceptive, isn’t he?

    I keep thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- it seems the goal of Americans is to reach the top step, self-actualization, where we are the most unhappy; because there, at the top, we are necessarily alone. As someone once said, “it’s lonely at the top.”

  4. MuseHead says:

    “No American pragmatically feels free if she is not alone . . . Revivalism, in America, tends to be the perpetual shock of the individual discovering yet again what she and he always have known, which is that God loves her and him on an absolutely personal and indeed intimate basis” (Harold Bloom, The American Religion).

    Pardon me while I go to the garden alone where

    He walks with me, and He talks with me,
    And He tells me I am His own;
    And the joy we share as we tarry there,
    None other has ever known. [That means you, bub.]

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