Four years ago this month, I walked into Restoration for the first time. I had spent the previous four years bouncing in and out of church. I allowed unsavory institutional decisions and personal theological hangups to expel me from the community, and yet, exiled by my own volition, the pang of loneliness always compelled me back to the place I left. This cycle, while natural and therefore common, left me weary and broken. Not only that, but since my infancy, God had revealed himself to me through three distinct faith communities – Southern Baptist, progressive non-denominational, and Roman Catholic. After the cycle had played out a few times, I was ready to find a home. Cycling back into the fold this time, I asked myself, “Where is home?”
There is really no positive language to describe the process of finding a church. In our consumeristic society, there is almost no way of getting around the fact that we are all “shopping” for the perfect church to “buy-in” to; we are all looking to spend the currency of our life at a place that provides a spiritual and emotional good of sort. With the myriad of denominational options, the many different sizes, shapes, and styles, we can’t help but treat the process like a stroll through the Galleria – some churches glitz and glamor as the light shimmers off the perfectly shaped mannequins behind the looking glass, and some are tucked away in the dark corners, far away from the glitz and the glamor and the Cinnabon which draws people in droves, by scent alone, to its prominent place in the mall.
In an ideal situation, the walls dividing the different enterprises are torn down like the open classroom model of the 70s, where we all spend our lives, together, on one item – the worship of God – and that good is good enough. But, that is in an ideal world. Maybe one day…
At this time four years ago, I was looking for five things in a church:
1. Liturgical (Catholic)
2. Egalitarian (progressive non-denominatioal)
3. High view of scripture (Southern Baptist)
4. Freedom to be me.
5. A place to belong.
When I was searching for my “perfect” church, I met Mike at a Wonder Voyage informational meeting. I was hoping to lead mission trips and pilgrimages through this organization during my summer breaks from teaching, and Mike was helping conduct our interviews. During our conversation about the organization and my faith story, they asked me about the church I attended. I danced and ducked the question, trying to put a particular spin on my lack of church attendance, so it sounded like my current exile was some faithful attempt to find God instead of a contemptuous decision derived from my own immaturity.
Mike, as a good student of literature, saw beneath my text and precisely read into my subtext: “I think you should check out Restoration Anglican Church. That is where I go. Based on what you have told us about your life, it may be a good fit for you.”
I knew a little bit about Anglicanism and had attended a few Anglican churches in DFW, but most of the congregations were older. I didn’t feel as if I had a place in their communities. But, at this point, I was desperate.
Two weeks after my meeting with Mike, I entered the shotgun warehouse with exposed concrete and worshipped with the people of Restoration. For the first time in over four years, I actually worshipped God; for the first time in over four years, I felt as if the spirit of God was with me; for the first time in four years, I knew that God actually loved me. I wondered, “Could this be my home?”
I ran down the priest, Jed, after the service and asked him if we could get coffee. I wanted to hear more about the church and get a sense of how I could participate in their life. He graciously acquiesced, and we set a time for the next week.
We sat near the the front door of the now defunct Saxby’s coffeeshop in Farmers Branch. I told Jed of my life in Christ. I proudly explained how I led a fairly large middle school ministry one summer with a friend because the youth pastor was working with the upcoming sixth-graders. I self-righteously told him how I was a head middle school soccer coach at a Christian school at the ripe age of 20. I told him how I interned at a unique church plant in Atlanta that was trying to give away all their tithes offerings to their needy community by supporting themselves with the sales of their own freshly roasted coffee.
I also went into excruciating detail – I mean, how many sob stories does he hear! – about my ups and downs in the Southern Baptist church, my ups and downs of working in two non-denominational churches, and my theological joys and misgivings of the Roman Catholic church.
Finally, after pouring out my whole story, I sighed. Unbeknownst to me, but evident to him, my body sunk in an existential weariness.
As someone who had worked in a church plant and other successful ministries, I automatically assumed I would be put to work from the outset of attending another small church plant. I think I subconsciously relished the opportunity to impart what I thought was, at the time, invaluable wisdom and life experience to this young church (Oh the pride and egotism of youth. Praise God for his shameless mercy!).
But then, Jed spoke words I will never forget, words I share with anyone who is in a similar situation. Jed, with a graceful understanding of my spiritual plight, said, “Justin, if you decide to make Restoration your home, I don’t want you to serve here. After hearing your story, I think you just need to rest, to be. You just need to worship. Maybe in a year or so, you can begin serving with us.”
I was floored, dumbstruck even. My mind raced, “But…but…this is a church plant! Church plants, they survive on volunteers, and I am a willing and trained church volunteer. I have skills, dammit!”
What possessed Jed to respond in this manner? What possessed him to recognize my need to be filled with the Spirit for a time without being poured out? What possessed him to forsake an able (this modifier could be argued) volunteer that could benefit (also could be argued) his life’s work?
Before we answer this question, I think we need to discuss what causes leaders and their institutions to respond differently than Jed did with me.