What kind of feelings does that word evoke?
Probably a fair number of people who normally read my blog won’t even click on this because the title elicits strong negative memories or assumptions. Many others will have the exact opposite reaction, people who can’t imagine a life outside of the faith or whose lives were drastically changed for the better after finding Jesus. Some of those people will be mad about some of the things I’m about to say.
Church has been a part of my life since I was born. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive part of it the majority of the time, with some bumps along the way. Many times those bumps were self-inflicted and occasionally they were caused by the human beings that make up “The Church”. But I can’t write my life story without talking about it, so even though it’s not a popular topic I’m going to put my experiences and beliefs out there.
I was raised in the church. Some of my earliest church memories involve Vacation Bible Study and church camp at Camp Sooner. We went to Draper Park Christian Church, which is still located at 8500 S Walker in Oklahoma City.
We weren’t just a Christmas and Easter family, or even just a Sunday church family for that matter. Mom and Dad were both fully committed to Jesus Christ, not just on church days but every day. We prayed before every meal and at bedtime and I saw my parents living their faith in everything they did. I saw them reading their Bibles and Bible study books every day and they lived a life of serving God and others in everything they did.
Biblical Christian values were part of our family rules and expectations. Lying, cheating and stealing were things that never even entered my mind. I remember cursing under my breath once while playing basketball my freshman year and being so overcome with guilt, I probably prayed 100 times for forgiveness from that singular dirty word.
I started reading the Bible on my own when I was in second grade. I would read two chapters every day. Even at such a young age I remember being mesmerized by Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament prophecies about him that would be fulfilled centuries after they were written.
At summer church camp in about third grade, they showed us a movie where four teenagers died in a car crash and went to hell because they hadn’t accepted Jesus. Of course, one of them was the regular church attendee who just hadn’t gotten around to “being saved.” This movie shows these kids burning in hell, in pain and emotional agony forever. And this movie is being shown to a couple hundred third graders who are in the middle of nowhere, away from their families and now scared out of their minds. I know it scared the crap out of me. Dozens if not hundreds of kids accepted the “altar call” at the end of this movie and got baptized right there at the camp. I have no idea if there was any pushback or negative consequences from the camp for showing that movie to a bunch of 9-year-olds, but there should have been. It was a ridiculous and terrible thing to do. (Told you I’m not sugarcoating anything in this blog. The church is made up of human beings, and human beings make mistakes all the time, regardless of their intentions. I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t have a problem with showing this movie to kids that age — whatever it takes to “save them.” I strongly disagree.)
I had been wanting to get baptized for a couple of years already but mom and dad thought I needed to learn a little more before I could truly make that decision. I don’t remember talking to them specifically about this movie but in any event it would be another year before I got baptized, at Draper Park by my dad on the same day as my sister Allison.
It was at Draper Park where I became friends with Kevin Ash, and through Kevin and Camp Sooner I became friends with Chad Anderson. Those have been two of my best friends ever since then. From that fact alone, church would have been a huge net positive on my life. I’ve always been a people-pleaser so if I had had different friends in high school it could have gotten me into some real trouble.
Draper Park Christian Church is a part of the Independent Christian church denomination, which is on the conservative end of the spectrum. But we had instruments playing during worship and didn’t preach that dancing sent you straight to hell so I guess it wasn’t that bad. Jim Avery was the head preacher at that time, and his messages were always practical and filled with lots of scripture. He didn’t yell about hell and he didn’t tell you you could do whatever you wanted and be fine. And that mindset is what defined DPCC to me. I was surrounded by great people and great role models.
Our youth group was very close. I still keep up with several families from the DPCC days (don’t want to start naming them or I’ll accidentally leave some out) and it’s cool to see what everyone is up to.
A very high percentage of our youth group committed to going into ministry full-time, and a very high percentage of those people did exactly that (including my brother and sister). For whatever reason, I never thought that was in my future. I’ll always be grateful to Jim for the message he delivered to us on graduation Sunday my senior year. There were about 7 of us graduating and I may have been the only one not heading to bible college and planning on entering the ministry. Without calling me out by name, Jim spent a few minutes talking about how important it was to have Christians living good lives in every job and that they were just as important as those entering the ministry.
During college I kept attending DPCC and occasionally floated in and out of the Christ on Campus house at OU (the collegiate ministry of the Independent Christian Church). I wasn’t really involved much by my junior year but through that ministry and my brother I met Missy. So that was a pretty big win for me.
After moving to Lawton I quickly found Carriage Hills Christian Church, another Independent Christian Church. I made a lot of great friends, including another one of my best friends to this day, Mike Carroll. That church wasn’t big but there were a lot of really neat people there. I volunteered with the youth group and played guitar on Sunday mornings.
Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, DPCC and other churches of that ilk began seeing a decline in attendance. For some reason they responded by being legalistic and divisive. They tried to make my parents sign a paper saying, among other things, that they believed baptism was essential for salvation. This would essentially send all the Catholics to hell permanently and put quite a dent into the general concept of salvation by faith alone. My parents refused to sign it and switched churches. This made me sad but was the right thing to do.
Around 2007 or 2008, Carriage Hills adopted the same rule. I couldn’t believe it, and it really hurt my heart. One of the most Christ-like families in the whole church, who treated me personally like a son, hadn’t all been baptized and were naturally offended. Missy and I left the church.
In 2009 we moved back to Oklahoma City and we jumped right back to DPCC for several reasons. One, we wanted to be part of a church family again and we still had many friends at DPCC. Two, my brother was going there and we wanted more opportunities to connect with him. Three, I really missed working with the youth group at Carriage Hills and Draper’s youth minister was Clay Atchley, who I had gone to high school with and is a great guy. They didn’t make me sign a “dunk or burn” letter so we hopped back in, and things were great for awhile.
I helped with the youth group on Wednesday nights and led the worship when the full-time music minister was gone. After a couple of years, somebody nominated me to be a deacon, which had no particular significance to me but sure, whatever. Then they told me I had to go to an elder’s meeting to discuss it.
I show up at the meeting and was pretty surprised to find out that the topic was my profession. Evidently this room full of older men I had known for literally almost my entire life was split 50/50 on whether I could be a deacon because I play poker. Never mind the fact that this new title added zero new duties to what I was already doing, and they didn’t mind me playing guitar or working with the youth group while having this job. And they certainly had no qualms about accepting my financial donations which came from this nefarious practice.
To be fair, several people in that room were strongly behind me, although 10 minutes into it I was sure I didn’t want the position anyway. It didn’t matter because the top elder was convinced I was living a life of sin and he got his way. (Trust me, I struggle with about a million sins but playing poker isn’t one of them. Jesus must’ve told this dude directly how bad it is since it’s not mentioned in the Bible).
The whole thing hurt me a lot more than I expected it to. Ultimately, we decided to leave because I felt attitudes like that kept the church from growing and adding new members.
We went from Draper to Journey Church in Norman, where we quickly found some great friends that we still have to this day. But after two or three years there, the church got into financial trouble and sold out to a different denomination with vastly different beliefs.
So now we go to Life Church. Let me tell you what I love about Life Church. It’s very welcoming to newcomers. People dress casually and there’s honestly not a hint of judgment on anyone from what I’ve seen. The kids programs are great.
I really gain a lot from the messages. What I like about Pastor Craig Groeschel’s style is that he blends plenty of scriptural background in with spiritual lessons that also contain simple, practical things that improve your life. If you didn’t believe in God at all and listened to a message it could still help you with your diet, money management, relationship with your spouse, etc. If any of you are interested in attending or have any questions about it, don’t hesitate to reach out.
It’s not a perfect church. No church is. Because churches are made up of people and people make mistakes. My experiences have made me quite cynical when it comes to church politics and church finances. But this is nothing new, it’s not much different at all from what Jesus called out in the church of His day. Pharisees gonna Pharisee.
I’ve probably read the Bible front to back about 10 times in my life. In some ways, the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. But now I feel like the things I’m uncertain about are the things that don’t matter, so I don’t waste my time worrying about them.
I really try to follow the golden rule, to treat others with love, respect and honesty. Much of the other stuff actually gets in the way of the overarching theme of the Bible, that God is love. We don’t need to argue about legalistic things or unknown aspects of what exactly happens when you die. Following Jesus and his teachings will give us and those in our circle better lives right here and right now. And that’s something we can control.
I’ve written some negative things about the church, so let me just fill out a scorecard regarding it. Actually, I’ll let an atheist fill it out. Taking away everything spiritual about it, the church in my life has been a huge positive.
I already mentioned the relationships I’ve gained through it. The church has also been an avenue through which I’ve been able to serve less fortunate people. I’m not much help on a construction crew but I helped build a couple of houses through Habitat for Humanity. I’ve stocked shelves at the Regional Food Bank. I’ve scooped potatoes onto plates at City Rescue Mission. Those last two things I’ve taken my daughter to do with me, hopefully passing on the value of service. I’m not saying these things to brag about myself. I’m better than you at poker but I’m not a better person. I mess up all the time.
I want to tie up the loose ends about Draper Park Christian Church. I have nothing but love for that place. Clay is now the lead preaching minister there and I’m still good friends with him. I listen to every single one of his sermons via podcast and definitely support the vision he has for a place that played such a huge role in my life. I visited there a few months back and it was great to see all of the familiar faces.
Nowadays, I hate even talking about “spiritual” things like baptism. I’m trying to focus on tangible things that clearly benefit people living in the world right now. That’s where I’m at with my faith in 2019, trying to be less selfish and be a net positive on the world.
God is good.