Discovering the Familiar

I’ve done it.

After almost three months, I’ve found a church that I can become a part of.  And in November I’ll be taking their new member’s class–so there’s no going back now!

It’s been a strange thing looking for a church to join, having come from being a part of one church my whole life: a church that my Dad planted and a congregational body that, except for a handful, are newer to the church than I am! But I’ve found myself on the search, looking for a new body that I can join and serve.

Everyone approaches finding a church differently.  Some don’t care about denominational lines as long as its “evangelical.” Others place more emphasis on style of musical worship, style of preaching, congregational size, opportunities for service, or a myriad of other characteristics of a church. As I approached this new search, there were several essential elements that I was looking for:

The church is PCA (Presbyterian Church of America). While it would have been totally fine and appropriate for me to join a non-PCA church, since I’m seeking to become ordained in the PCA, and since I’ll be soon coming under care of a PCA presbytery, it was important, if not essential, that I become a part of a local PCA church.

The church preaches the Gospel and has a high view of Scripture. Thankfully the first criteria almost ensures this criteria (but not always!). Aside from the preacher teaching from the text and teaching it faithfully, I’m not a huge stickler for style of preaching or even preaching gifts. Sometimes pastors are better at aspects of the ministry apart from preaching. And I can always listen to a good preacher online if I’m really craving preaching excellence. I just want to make sure my preacher actually preaches The Word.

The singing exalts Christ. I generally prefer hymn and traditional liturgy over many of the contemporary worship songs and free-style worship services, but I wasn’t going to make singing the main priority. If I find a church that seeks to exalt Christ in it’s worship-service, then style of music isn’t nearly as essential for me.

I can jump on board with the church’s mission. If I’m going to join a church, I’m going to serve in the church: bottom line. But I know that I can’t serve in a place whose mission I don’t support or understand. And it’s naive and arrogant to think that I can or should start serving in a church in hopes that I can change it. Instead, I wanted to join a church whose mission already fits in with my understanding of what the church’s function is.

The people love each other and seem willing to love me too. It’s surprising, but many churches don’t seem to fit this criteria–or if they do, it’s hard to get on the inside where that love is felt. I wanted to find a church that didn’t make me do all the work at feeling welcomed or loved. I didn’t want to be treated like a celebrity, but a “hi” or two would be nice.

The church has places where I can serve. Again, I want to serve in a church, not just take from it. So I wanted to find a church that seemed like a place that would welcome members wanting to serve.

church-loneliness-550x550

I visited five churches before I found the one I’m going to commit to. I praise God that I didn’t have to visit 50–cause there are a ton of PCA churches in the area. Most of the churches I visited had elements of my criteria. They all had solid preaching and worshipful music. However, in most of them I didn’t feel very welcomed. I would stand around awkwardly after the service and wait to see if anyone would come talk to me; several times I walked out of the building having interacted with no one or only 1 friendly congregant. Now some will criticize me and say that I should take the initiative to talk to people. Theoretically, that’s true. But my “passivity” was a deliberate way to analyze the way the church treats visitors. And many of these churches don’t seem to be very good at it. Note: I made sure to always sit in the middle somewhere, rather than the back, so I know people saw me.

Then I visited Uptown PCA. It’s a church situated in the center of the city that worships in a historic church building, complete with stained glass windows and traditional pews. It very much reminded me of my home church’s old building in downtown Dayton. But while the building is old, the church is relatively new–it was planted 20 years ago, and most of its congregants are fairly young families, with lots of kids. Lots.

Immediately I noticed that the congregation had life. The sanctuary was buzzing with noise, children were running around, and people were laughing. And after the service, several people came and talked to me. I came back a second week and started introducing myself to people, finding that it was very easy to meet new people.

But it wasn’t just the friendliness of the church that stuck out. They also have a fantastic ministry structure that facilitates community. They have small groups that meet throughout the week, open to anyone who wants to join. They have a vibrant adult Sunday School program. They have an active young adults ministry that does activities at least twice a month. They have prayer triads that people can join. And their pastors and elders are available to meet and talk.

Since those two weeks, I’ve met with two of the elders and a few of the interns, and it has only strengthened my view of the church. It seems like a vibrant church full of good people and healthy community.

And it’s also a church whose vision is powerful. The first week I visited, they were sending out a church plant to East Charlotte. As it turns out, Uptown has planted 3 or 4 churches in the Charlotte area and one church in Prague! Instead of seeking to grow their numbers–like many modern churches do–they see church growth as God’s calling to send people out to plant new churches that focus on a different area and demographic of Charlotte. And they’re willing to give up their best people to do that. It’s the most unselfish vision of church growth I’ve seen, and something that has definitely been a deciding factor in drawing me to the church. They aren’t interested in bloating their numbers or their church ego. No, they want to grow the Kingdom of Christ, and they do it specifically through planting churches.

They also have many ways for people to get involved. I’m going to be on a rotation for teaching 1st and 2nd graders the children’s catechism! And I may also have the opportunity to become a mentor to some of the youth kids. The church also offers several internship opportunities that aim at leadership development of the interns. So if later on I am asked to intern with the church, I’ll get to do practical ministry, and also learn under the leadership of the pastors and elders.

I could keep going, but I’ll finish with a word and a parting thought. Uptown PCA isn’t the perfect church or my ideal church, but after a week I knew I had to give up searching for either of those things. Instead, I’ve found a church I’m exciting about becoming a part of and serving Christ alongside of. And that’s far more important than finding a church that meets all my needs or fits all my ideals. After all, this is the church of Christ, not the church of Nathan Johnson. And it’s my belief that it’s actually a good thing for us to be a part of a church that gets on our nerves at times, a church that doesn’t do everything the way we like, a church that disappoints us from time to time. For as we make the effort to let these things go for the sake of unity, joy, fellowship, and service, we begin to understand more acutely that the church is not here for us and that we are a part of something far larger and more important than our preferences–we are a part of a diverse yet unified group of believers focused on exalting Christ and loving each other through the differences and hardships and shattered ideals. Joining a church is very much like a marriage: it’s a commitment through thick or thin, through joys or disappointments, through frustrations or celebrations to serve and love and grow and never give up or quit no matter what.

So I’ve found a church and we’ll see what happens from here. Note: I am only becoming an associate member of Uptown. I still consider myself a full and committed member to my home church, but by becoming an associate member of Uptown, I submit to their authority and discipline and I make a commitment to serve for the edification of the body.

Thanks to everyone who has prayed for me during this church search. God has heard your prayers.

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4 thoughts on “Discovering the Familiar

  1. Nate I’m blessed to have friends like you who hold a high view of scripture and the church. I’m convinced that there will never be a perfect church, and probably not even one that has every aspect we want, but the important thing is that the gospel is preached and Christ is made much of. It sounds like you’ve found a good place to be a part of that. 🙂 I’m really glad you’ve been able to settle on Uptown. I hope it provides a place of strength and renewal, but also a place that challenges you and forces you to ask questions you haven’t before.
    I’m reading J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God, and in it he talks about the infinite treasure we have in the opportunity to know God. He says, “What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance, and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?”
    I hope Uptown is a place where you will not just learn things about God, but you will truly learn who he is. Learn more to love what he loves, hurt when he hurts…Packer says our knowledge of God is emotion based as well as head based.
    Good to hear from you again!

    Mark

    Liked by 1 person

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