My Denominational Story
Recently on the MennoNerds Facebook group, Robert was brave enough to ask for denominational history represented amongst our 199 members (as of writing this). I gave the short version there: United Church of Canada (evangelical), Canadian/Convention Baptist, non-denominational conservative evangelical, non-denominational post-conservative/”emerging”, non-denominational charismatic evangelical, United Church of Canada (liberal), Free Methodist, and (neo-)Anabaptist/Brethren in Christ. Those are the groups who I have been actively engaged in their ministry work. But I’m sure you all want to hear the long version along with some of the main things I learned in each “phase.”
Around when I was born my parents were attending a Pentecostal church (not sure if Pentecostal Assemblies Of Canada or one of the smaller ones). Not long after I was born they moved to a United Church of Canada with a strong evangelical bent, which isn’t unusual for rural UCC congregations even though the stereotype is that they are very liberal. I grew up there, but as a teenager – around when faith started to matter to me – I did also interact with the Canadian Baptist (Convention Baptist at the time) youth group and the Anglican youth group in town since we were all fairly small, including a couple of short-term mission trips.
What did I learn in this time? Jesus matters, and living for Him matters. The evangelical mantra of having a personal relationship with Jesus sunk in with me, and I am happy to say that my experiences did not falsely equate “personal relationship” with “individual relationship.” I still saw faith primarily as an intellectual endeavour to determine eternal consequences, where living in a way that makes the world better was a nice side effect, but I would be very seriously missing giving out credit where it is to due to not speak highly of these years.
When I went off to university, I settled after about a month in a Canadian/Convention Baptist. For the most part that was my main church throughout those 4 years, although in my fourth I dabbled elsewhere because the young adult ministry was a mess and all of my friends had also left. I also attended a conservative evangelical ministry for the first two years, an independent Home Church which had charismatic and what I would now call “emerging” leanings starting in my second year, and attended and then ran the Campus Alpha course which is charismatic evangelical. Oh, and in the summers a bunch of the campus groups ran a Home Church/Bible Study together, so I also participated in and later ran that.
I learned a lot in these years so it is hard to summarize. Most importantly, I think, I learned that it is ok to ask questions. I learned the value of ecumenism and that there is no such thing as one and only one understanding of Christianity, and thus, I learned that there was a lot more for me to learn than I had realized. I learned that Scripture is best interpreted in community, and in fact, life together in community was more important than any pious spiritual discipline on my own. I learned how to step up and be a leader or teacher as well as when to step back and let people work through things on their own. I learned that social action was more than a side effect that was nice but not really that integral to the Gospel, although I may not have gone quite as far as to say that it is a core piece of the Gospel.
Then I started seminary at the same university, loosely affiliated with the United Church of Canada but with a range in both professors and students. Finally severing ties with the Baptist Church entirely after a few years of struggling there, I landed back at a United Church, but this time a much more liberal one. It generally drove me a little crazy but I got some side cash doing sound tech for them, so I still attended more often than not. I did also occasionally attend a nearby Free Methodist Church which had a lot of “emerging” methodology to it sometimes as well.
In this time I learned how to listen to those on the underside that my middle class Canadian white male privilege had previously blinded me to. I learned that the Kingdom of God had a lot more to do with the decisions we make here on Earth everyday, not just fire insurance. And of course, I learned a whole lot of things about thinking theologically, engaging with Scripture in a serious way, and my own focus throughout seminary, a bunch of church history to better understand how we got to where we are now.
Home in Anabaptism
Lastly, to backtrack, I first stumbled across Anabaptism around my second year of undergrad through somebody sharing a The Meeting House podcast on Facebook about peace theology. I thought it was really interesting but also kinda stupid and I didn’t think much of it for a while. Stumbled across TMH again about a year later, and started listening from there. It would be around the end of my undergrad that I would start to say that I most aligned with Anabaptist thought, although I may have been tentative to say “I am an Anabaptist” for another year or two.
From Anabaptism I learned the importance of radical enemy-love and how this cannot be divorced from the Gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached and inaugurated. I learned that the cross was not (just) a mechanism to get me to heaven but is (also) a radical demonstration of what this enemy-love looks like. I learned that non-violent resistance is not nearly as stupid as I thought, and in fact I learned that radical enemy love and grace is the only thing that really changes a violent world.
The Missing Pieces
I’m obviously missing Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I’ve been somewhat deliberate about learning from them when I can, but have never really felt the urge to fully get involved in something outside the hugely broad range of Protestantism. I have been to all of one Catholic mass in my life. I also attended a special service of some kind at a Catholic Church where I grew up. I also met up and discussed faith with a staff member for a Catholic campus group and went to one of that group’s big dinners, but I never seriously considered getting involved so I don’t think that counts. Orthodoxy is a big fat zero other than picking up bits and pieces on the Internet and in reading.
I would say, though, that from them I have learned that a faith that neglects our history tends to get itself into trouble. Similarly, I’ve learned from them that Christianity is not bound to modernist Protestant assumptions and that unity is more important than being right (whether you actually are right or, most likely, not). Looking at Pope Francis now for instance, I’ve been relearning the importance of simple, practical, and self-sacrifically love, something we can see in many Catholic and Orthodox throughout history when we get past our Protestant blinders.