Finding a New Church – Some Practical Thoughts

Having made the decision that I wanted to leave the UPC and I wanted my family to come with me, I realized that I was facing a problem – where do you go? I appreciate that there is no such thing as the perfect church. People are fallible and fallible people make up churches. Churches have different approaches at reaching people, styles of music (sometimes from service to service), styles of worship, and styles of teaching. Some churches are more casual than others.

Of course, what mattered most to me was the fundamental teaching of the church and does it comport with the scripture. As I looked at churches in and about my community, frankly, it was concerning. The last thing I wanted to do was jumping from the frying pan into the fire, if you will. Of course, nothing can substitute for attending a service and meeting the pastor and having a conversation about their teaching. But even before you get to that point, doing some research online is helpful as well. Many churches have webpages and will at least have some statement of faith or ‘what we teach’ page out there for review. Better yet, many churches have video or audio of their messages online as well. Reviewing this information and doing some additional research online can help if you are looking for a church in your community to attend.

Doing this research online was helpful as I didn’t waste too much time visiting churches that I knew would not be a good fit for me. Of course, in the denominational world, you know exactly what you are getting. There was the local Reformed Baptist church – I simply know what they teach. While I found myself leaning heavily towards Calvinism, I was concerned about the fit of such a “traditional” church for my family and, frankly, what if a certain number of years down the road, I don’t share all the same views that their confessionals espouse. I wanted to be a part of a church and to be a part of a church family for a long time to come. Church hopping has never been who I was or will be.

There was what appeared to be a local, unaffiliated Pentecostal church nearby. It didn’t take long to identify the spirit of ‘we are the church’ within this assembly as well as what I perceived to be an emphasis on social/political activities. While I may share their views on some of those subjects, such as abortion, my view on political action with respect to such issues – we are just not on the same page. Another local Pentecostal church just turned out to be a charismatic group of which I could not join.

There was another non-denominational church in the area that upon doing some research I discovered to be associated with the word of faith movement. Again, not an environment in which I would find myself in general agreement.

This led again to some frustration at not only the difficulties in finding a church home but, in my opinion, some of the dangers that exist in the name of the Christian church.

I began attending a local non-denominational church. It was a bit different and took some getting used to. I hate to say it but even being in a church with people that looked like “normal” people rather than being dressed in a certain way or with certain extreme hair-dos was different but nice. The church auditorium was somewhat dimly lit and, again, while different, I will say that it was nice as it presented no distractions. People were not on cellphones scrolling through Facebook feeds during church. The songs were contemporary and the worship a bit more subdued, which relatively speaking was fine with me. My preference would be the singing of more hymns and more congregational singing. I also needed to appreciate that this was a newer church with many people who are newer and were coming out of various denominations. This was probably all new to them.

As I listened to several messages over the course of several months online I grew very comfortable with understanding what they taught and what they were looking to accomplish in reaching the local community. The lead pastor teaching a message on majoring on the majors when reading and studying the word was also a comfort. This was a church that was dedicated to the core of the gospel, seemed to lean towards Calvinism and away from Arminianism and dispensationalism, yet was not dogmatic on all points outside those important fundamental teachings. This gave me a sense of relief that I would hear the gospel taught in this church and that the gospel would be presented with a view towards Calvinism but also having some freedom to grow and learn in other areas without pressure. It felt safe after being in a dogmatic assembly that taught and professed that they alone possessed the full gospel.

It is daunting at first to consider moving to a new church. I’ve certainly known people over the years that jumped from UPC church to UPC church. That was never my view. It is my view that one must place a great deal of importance and value in the local church that one is a part of – I believe this is what scripture teaches. I want to be a part of a local church and I want my family to be safe and taught the word of God. I want to invest of myself in the local church. It is daunting because after 25 years in one organization to move to something new is just that – a bit scary.

If you respect and have a proper view of scripture, you should find it difficult to endure unsound teaching. In the end, you must be comfortable that the church you are attending is teaching the fundamental truths with respect to the gospel of Christ and if your church is in error on some of those fundamental points, that error will spread throughout the rest of teaching of your church. The warning from Paul to the Galatians was, “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” This is why it is important that your church majors on the majors, gets the essentials as close to right as possible, and has a firm understanding on the fundamentals of the gospel. There are churches out there that do. Just take your time and listen to what is being taught and you will discern the Shepherd’s voice. I appreciate that some view issues around the worship, the style of music, how brightly or dimly lit the church is, how casually dressed people are when they come to church are important factors in our understanding and appreciation of the church and our gathering together. I don’t necessarily disagree with that sort of high-view of the church as the body of Christ. At the same time, I try to appreciate that some of these differences are merely preferences that you may like or not. While I may dress somewhat casual when I attend church, my approach and my view of the church is not casual in any way. Fundamentally though, it is what is taught that matters most.

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Getting Out…

I spent years in the UPC teaching Sunday school and even, in my resigned state, sat on the local church’s board of trustees for about a decade.  I was not who I believed God had saved me to be and I did feel confused and lost (not necessarily from a salvific point of view – just not knowing where I was or what I was doing).  The youth pastor who brought me to Christ and taught me nearly weekly bible studies during my senior year of high school had long ago left the UPC and was now pastoring two non-denominational churches.  I began listening to him online and his expositional studies of scripture.

I began attempting to understand where the UPC stood among all the other denominations with respect to the theology it espouses.  Even the most basic understanding of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism was a foreign concept to me.  The UPC call themselves ‘Apostolic’ as they of course, declare that they are the true church proclaiming the gospel message as it was proclaimed by the Apostles in the Book of Acts.  I believe that the vast majority of members of UPC churches are generally ignorant of the roots the organization has within the Wesley-Arminianism tradition and how that differs from other understandings of the teaching of scripture.  In the UPC mindset, because they are truly ‘apostolic’ there is no need for any understanding beyond this – they are the restored church of the apostolic age.  They are the culmination of God’s progressive restoration of the church reclaiming that which was lost shortly after the apostolic period.

I also began praying earnestly that God would truly speak to me and direct me through His word – that he would help me set aside every presupposition that I might have as I open and read His word.  I didn’t want to read my understanding into the scripture but to simply let God’s word speak to me what it had to say.  I was at a pivotal point of frustration and almost anger – I was frustrated and angry at the church in general.  Here I was, just wanting to know the Lord, wanting to know what his word had for me and in looking out at the world of churches felt almost resentful because of the confusion I was experience.

I started rereading Acts as this is where the OP place their theological emphasis.  Those same old passages that bothered me in the past still stood out only stronger.  Again, the UPC emphasizes Acts 2:38 as the concise statement of the gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles.  Yet the message proclaimed by Peter in chapter 2 differs to the message that he proclaimed in the very next chapter and also differs from the message of salvation proclaimed by Paul to the Philippian jailer.  How to make sense of this?  Those passages dealing with individuals receiving the Holy Spirit where individuals speak in tongues – do these experiences accurately reflect what people experience and consider normative today in Pentecostal churches?

I came to reread Romans and that is when it happened – it was as though I had been reading God’s word in a dark room by candle light for 20 years and suddenly someone threw back the curtains and light filled the room and I saw in the scripture things I had never seen before – as though they were previously hidden.  (I appreciate that they weren’t hidden but I was reading these words through my presuppositions and, therefore, didn’t allow the word to speak to me).  I had read about justification by faith before but what that truly meant was somewhat lost on me.  As I began reading the fourth chapter, it was as though my eyes were opened:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

I began to appreciate what it meant to be justified.  I finally understood what grace truly was in the context of salvation.  I saw faith in a new light.  But then all the questions came such as where does baptism fit into the picture?  Why does Acts 2:38 say what it says?  What does all this mean for me?    I felt compelled to follow where the scripture led me but there was the element of concern: I’ve been taught the gospel according to the UPC all these years as the true and full gospel message.  What if I’m wrong?  What if the UPC is correct as they have so authoritatively taught all these years?

Additionally, I spent time rereading not only what the UPC teaches, such as books by David Bernard, but works written by those who hold different views such as Calvinists and others.  It is important to take the time to examine the basis for the faith you proclaim and to do so you must take the time to understand the theological positions of those held by others and to evaluate each of the respective sides understanding of scripture and the basis for their position (the method of interpretation employed).

Upon coming to terms with the fact that the UPC is in error with respect to the gospel that they proclaim but, more importantly, with a more accurate understanding of complete work of Christ on the cross and what it means to be called and justified by grace through faith, I feel more at liberty, reassured and complete in Christ than I ever have in the past.  I have a sense of “peace with God” that I’ve never appreciated before and recognize an ability to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” regardless as to what happens.

When that sense of peace and hope came I began to realize the sense of bondage that resulted from the gospel as taught by the UPC.  The continual sense that my salvation was tenuous and dependent on my performance propagated feelings of condemnation and that I was never going to be good enough to warrant God’s love in my life.

The man-centered emphasis within the UPC misses the point of faith, grace, justification, the cross, atonement, baptism, holiness and even sin.  They truly do major on the minors and in so doing miss the point.  This results in people generally falling into one of two camps – (1) there are those Christians who base their relationship with God on their performance day-by-day and end up as unhappy, ineffectual or simply anemic Christians because they recognize that they will never measure up on their own, or (2) there are those deluded individuals who have a form of their own righteousness that they contend is pleasing to God because they perceive themselves as doing a good job at keeping his commandments.

It is my aim to not be judgmental with respect to the state of anyone’s salvation or their relationship with God.  Only God knows the hearts of men and God knows who his sheep are regardless of where they may attend church.  Some of my comments may be critical but my intent is to hopefully help those that are God’s sheep to more clearly hear His voice and what He has to say in His word.  We need to allow His word to speak to us and appreciate that our perception of the scripture is frequently clouded by our traditions and presuppositions.

It is not my intent to convince anyone to leave one church and move to another – it is my intent to challenge the ideas as presented by organizations such as the UPC.  You shouldn’t fear challenges to your fundamental doctrinal beliefs if those beliefs are rooted in scripture.  If you find that the beliefs you hold may in fact be based on a distorted view of scripture and you hold a high-view of scripture, I would expect that it would be your desire to bring your thinking, your faith, your life in line with the teaching of scripture.  I also believe that when you do, what you will find is a greater appreciation and experience of the righteousness, peace and joy of the Holy Spirit in your life than you thought possible.

Getting in…

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

For my first couple of posts, I thought I’d provide some background as to where I came from, how I found myself in the United Pentecostal Church and some of the things that eventually prompted me to leave.  While posting may provide me with some catharsis, it is also my hope that possibly those who may find themselves in the UPC or other similar organization and who may be experiencing some of the same things that I experienced may find some help in getting to a better place, wherever that may be for them.  It would be my prayer that the better place would be a better place in God, more at rest and satisfied in him.  I’m just a layman who has spent 25 years in the UPC but found a way out and brought my family with me.

I was raised Roman Catholic, attended church with my family while growing up and also went regularly to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes where one learns about the Roman Catholic faith and the sacraments – baptism, confession, receiving the Eucharist, and so on.  As a teenager, the next step in my making my way through the sacraments was to be Confirmed.  As a part of the Confirmation process, I was expected to write a letter to the priest at the local parish answering some questions concerning who God was to me and what he meant to me.  I never wrote that letter and was never Confirmed.  I am sure that a part of my refusing to do so was out of a certain degree of teenage rebelliousness.  But there was a part of me that also genuinely felt unable to provide an honest answer as to those questions – who was God and what he meant to me at that point in my life.  I recall sitting at the small desk in my bedroom and the assignment tacked to a cork board that hung next to the desk and contemplating the fact that I didn’t know how to answer the questions being posed.

When I was 17, I worked at a local ice cream stand and there I met a nice girl who was a waitress at the restaurant.  I also met her husband who was the youth pastor of a local church.  She asked if I would visit one Sunday morning to see some special event she was participating in at the church.  I agreed and that Sunday I went off looking for this church that was nestled among some neighborhood homes in the city.  I probably drove by the church three or four times unable to find it.  I stopped for some gas and despite thinking I was about 30 minutes late for church, I felt compelled to go back and look one more time for this church.  Possibly I felt obligated to find my there as I had said I would be there – possibly something else was at work.

I drove back up the street one more time and found the church as there were some people standing outside on the front steps.  I parked and walked over, asking if I was late.  As it happened, it was the last Sunday of October (back when daylight savings ended on the last Sunday of October) and so I was actually about 30 minutes early for church.

As you likely have guessed, the church I visited that morning was a United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) – the largest of the Oneness Pentecostal (OP) organizations in the country.  The people were very friendly and what stood out to me was the enthusiastic manner in which they sang songs and worshipped.

I began attending youth services and I believe the night I truly repented and gave my life to Christ was during one of these youth services.  The youth pastor gave a lesson on prayer – I recall being somewhat awestruck at the idea that I could communicate directly with God, that he knew who I was and that he was interested in having a relationship with me.  While my Roman Catholic upbringing and experience was rooted in what seemed to me to be merely tradition and ritual, my new experience seemed to have me rooted more in the primitive church where one could be in relationship with a real and living God who knew me.  Later I was baptized and went through the various steps that one does within OP.

Not long thereafter, I moved away for college but continued to attend another UPC church.  It was in that church that I found a very heavy emphasis on holiness standards.  Men wore long pants, three quarter length sleeves and kept their hair cut short.  The women had uncut hair, no make-up, no jewelry, and long skirts.  I had an African-American friend who once had a haircut with a line cut in to represent a part in his hair.  Seemingly no big deal to me but I recall hearing the pastor from the pulpit tell the congregation that unless God has given you a part in your hair, you shouldn’t be cutting one in.  While I believe in the concept of church discipline as outlined in the New Testament, in this environment, one would be “sat down” from participating in the choir or being a worship leader or other role for infractions of “standards.”

This is the brand of OP that is extremely conservative, focused on holiness standards and various rules put in place by the leadership with the expectation that you would be obedient to the leadership.  Obedience to the pastor was required in all these areas.  I personally experienced and know of many others who were told by the pastor who they should (or in most cases, who they should not) fellowship with.  Of course, if you are told that you should not associated with a particular person it was for your own good and protection and for the good of the other person as well.

Interracial relationships were frowned upon.  When my wife and I were still dating, I recall sitting on the back pew while at the church for morning prayer and was told by the pastor’s wife that it would be best if we didn’t date as interracial relationships were problematic.  My wife is part Hispanic and I am white.

At the time, I simply chalked up such comments to the fact that these individuals were more elderly southerners.  Of course, the common refrain in the church was that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” and “touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm.”  Further, you must “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”  Thus, one is told that he must obey the pastor on all points for he will give an account before God concerning us and he wants to be in a position to say nothing but good concerning us.  The pastor had the role of mediator between me and God – he was going to report to God on my behavior and the extent to which I was an obedient Christian.

You might question why would someone stay in a church such as this?  The fact of the matter is that many don’t – they move on, which is what I did.  Not that I left the UPC – I simply moved away for school again.  I found myself in a church that was much less legalistic yet over time found itself having much more in common with the word of faith and your traditional charismatic movements.

I spent over 25 years in the UPC and 20 of those years in a church where the ministry was affiliated with the UPC but the church itself was not.  Even while in the very strict, legalistic setting I had come to question many aspects of the teaching of the church with respect to legalism around holiness standards and what I had clearly recognized as emotional manipulation.  I was disturbed by the control through fear that the leadership had exhibited.  As a younger person who genuinely loved God and wanted to please God, it was difficult to wade through that environment.  On the one hand, I clearly recognized that individuals engaged in manipulation through fear of hell and rebellion and demands for obedience.  Yet, on the other hand, I was concerned whether I was in rebellion to God by even entertaining the thoughts that these men were using fear to control people.  All I wanted was to please God.

When I found myself in an environment where the ministry did not exert such manipulation, I found myself free to examine some questions that had been bothering me.  I felt free to strongly disagree with the legalistic approach of the UPC to holiness standards and not experience tremendous guilt for having such thoughts – and even sharing them with the pastor.  Nevertheless, I continued to find myself troubled with respect to the UPC but still thought to myself, “Where else are you going to go?”  At the center of the matter, I still believed that it was all about Acts 2:38 – I might be unhappy with the organization but they are the only ones with teaching the truth with respect to baptism in Jesus’ name and the oneness of God.  I became spiritually lethargic and felt resigned for some time – frankly for many years.  It came to the point where all I could simply do was fall on my knees and seriously look to God for some answers, which he graciously provided.