Monday, February 19, 2007

My experience in “cross-cultural missions” (Part 7)

Christ Church, where my family and I worship, is located in the community where for several years I worked as the choral teaching assistant in the local high school. In fact, the first time we visited our church it was in response to an invitation from one of my students at the high school. Her verbal invitation came at a pivotal time in our lives.

You see, I had been ordained a minister in the A.M.E. Church (what is termed, in Methodist polity, an “itinerant elder”). I considered my work at this high school to be a temporary measure until I received a pastoral appointment from the bishop. With the passage of time, however, I discovered that there were serious ethical and theological issues in the denomination. Finally, two years before visiting Christ Church the first time, my wife and I finally made the momentous decision to leave the A.M.E. Church. We found that we could not, before God, justify our continued participation in a denominational system which was so thoroughly and fundamentally corrupt. Neither did I want my sons to grow up thinking that this was what “church” is all about. Leaving the denomination was an extremely difficult decision for me to make because I knew that, for various reasons, leaving the denomination would, for all practical purposes, also mean the end of my service in pastoral ministry.

Immediately after leaving the A.M.E. Church, we united with a Black church in the area, which was affiliated with a predominantly White, evangelical denomination—in other words, a Black evangelical church. Almost immediately after uniting with this church, I was invited to join their staff as a part-time director of Christian education. This was a surprise, causing my wife and me to think that, perhaps, this was God’s way of opening another door to pastoral ministry. We were further encouraged when, after several months in this position, I was offered the opportunity to serve on a fulltime basis. After much prayer, thought and discussion with my wife and others, I accepted, saying “goodbye” to the high school where I had worked for 6 ½ years while waiting for the opportunity for pastoral ministry in the A.M.E. Church (which never materialized).

Initially, this opportunity with Black evangelicals appeared to be a Godsend. In addition to my work overseeing Christian education, I also had opportunities to preach and teach, as well as minister through music. Unfortunately, things started falling apart for me. I soon learned Christian education was absolutely not my calling. Although I had an excellent working relationship with my fellow workers in Christian education, and was well-appreciated by the membership in general, I just did not have the experience, training or vision to raise the program to the level expected by the senior pastor. I do think we accomplished some good, but I was struggling every week just to keep my head above water. Most serious of all was the fact that the senior pastor and I were just not meant to work together…at all! Ultimately, I was fired, and found myself, just 8 months after leaving a secure high school job, unemployed, a “failure” at ministry, and utterly disillusioned and angry with God.

While my wife and I were still reeling from this experience, we were approached with what seemed like a promising opportunity to plant an independent, evangelical church in the area. You'll need to know that a few years earlier, my wife and I had pursued the possibility of planting an evangelical church in the area, under the banner of the A.M.E. denomination. That effort failed because we were unable to find enough interested people. What made this new opportunity different was the fact that we were told there were a number of actual people in the area who shared our vision, who were just looking for someone to lead the effort. Again, this seemed like an opportunity sent from God. Sadly, however, this new opportunity fell apart, and fell apart in a manner which only served to deepen my feelings of disillusionment (By the way, shortly afterwards, a new church did come into being from this effort…just without me and my wife).

Severely battered, we considered uniting with another predominantly Black, evangelical church in the area. Almost from the start, I was given opportunities to preach, and we were warmly embraced by both the people and the pastor. It seemed like, perhaps, this was where the Lord wanted us to settle. However, I had some misgivings. I strongly sensed that if we became members, my relationship with this pastor would also go sour, just like it had at the other Black evangelical church. Since we wanted to remain on good terms with this pastor, we decided it would be best to look elsewhere (time has proven this was a very wise decision).

By this point, I was totally shaken, spiritually and emotionally. In God’s mercy, I eventually received back my old job at the high school, for which we were grateful. Yet, my mind was filled with nothing but questions as it concerned what I had felt was my calling to pastoral ministry among Black people. Every door has slammed shut. I was also sorely disappointed by Black churches (and Black evangelicals, for that matter). We had, basically, three types of churches to choose from among Black people: There were the traditional Black churches, where I’m certain I would have been welcomed aboard with open arms as one of a literal slew of preachers at each local church. However, these churches, by and large, were lacking in accurate, balanced, biblical teaching and preaching. Then there were the Word-of-Faith churches which had plenty of teaching; the problem was, it was false teaching. Finally, there were the Black evangelical churches, where there was fairly sound Bible teaching, but where the pastoral leadership tended to be controlling and autocratic. In light of our choices, my wife and I decided it was time to venture beyond the safety of culture (which hadn’t been so “safe”, after all) to find a spiritual fellowship where we truly felt at-home.

It was at this time that we responded to my student's invitation to visit Christ Church. After our experiences of the prior two years, I wasn’t interested in being involved, didn’t really want to be known and didn’t want to know anyone. However, remaining anonymous proved to be rather difficult, for I worked in this community. Parents of young people who were or had been students of mine were members of Christ Church. In fact, one of these parents happened to be the director of worship at Christ Church. She had seen and heard me play the piano (as the choral accompanist) while attending her child’s choral concerts at the high school. The worship director gradually lured me in. Playing along on the piano with a hymn or worship song, serving as her substitute on the organ and piano when she had to be away, reading the Scripture lesson, leading in corporate prayer, wherever needed during the worship service. A big part of my healing was participation in a weekly men’s small group where the other men and I studied Scripture, prayed with and for each other and, in general, encouraged each other in the Lord. With time, I felt more comfortable with greater levels of involvement. My wife and children did not have nearly as difficult a time feeling comfortable and getting involved. My wife eventually joined one of the worship teams that led the singing each Sunday. She also joined the choir. My sons looked forward to participating each Sunday in the children’s program for their individual age groups. After visiting Christ Church, we never visited anywhere else. We felt truly welcome in this church, and people seemed to genuinely care about us.

Usually, when Black people become part of a predominantly White group, the unstated expectation is that the “minorities” will assimilate—allow ourselves to be absorbed into the dominant culture. Blacks who don’t want to assimilate just remain in Black churches. With my musical training, fitting in was not a problem. Plus, we had already made peace with the fact that we’d have to give up Black music and Black musical styles when we decided to worship with Christ Church. A time came, however, when I was asked to provide special music for the offertory. It was one thing to play along on the organ or piano with the hymns or worship songs that were usually sung by the people at Christ Church, but I really wanted to know if it was all right to just “be myself”, to sing and play like I would back in a Black church environment. I chose an old Black gospel song—“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” by Andraé Crouch (an authentically “Black” song, but not too far “out there”, so as not to be too great a shock). I also taught the worship team how to “back me up” on the refrain, just as I’d always done it back in the Black Church. That Sunday, God gave me the liberty to feel at-ease and sing this particular song as I’d sung it for many years. All indications were that the song was very well-received and, most importantly, I think people were genuinely helped to worship God. This was a very small thing, but it meant a lot to me to know that I didn’t have to give up who I was in order to fit in.

After about two years, my wife and I decided to officially unite with Christ Church. It was obvious to us that there was no need to look elsewhere, for we had indeed found our church “home”.
I had hoped to finish this series right here but, alas, there’s a bit more to tell. I promise I’ll wrap this up in “Part 8”. There, I will try to quickly review some things Christ Church does well, which helped me and my family feel genuinely welcome. I’ll also describe some of the specific ways the Lord has allowed me to serve “cross-culturally” at Christ Church.

(To be continued…)

3 comments:

Lance said...

greetings brother in the Name of our Lord. Praise God for what He's done in your life and the healing He's brought to you and your family.

Would you be willing to give some wisdom to those of us who've begun black reformed churches with the hope of making a more direct impact within the greater black community. For example, though I've been extremely blessed to have gifted, godly and reformed musicians I know that's not always the case for small black reformed churches. Also it seems that almost all of us could use gifted brothers like yourself to help share the load with teaching, preaching and just being an example.
You mentioned that the leadership in black evangelical churches tended to be autocratic and controlling so perhaps you could give some wisdom re: that.

basically, it's my conviction that black reformed churches will especially need those brothers and sisters who've embraced reformed theology and practice to help us in our press to reform our church and culture. So how can we make room in our ministries for your presence and gifts?
thanks for your help.

peace
Lance

wwdunc said...

Thank you, Lance, for your comments. And thank you for reading!

I think you bring up some excellent points, and I think many others are probably wondering the same thing. So, I decided to post my answer as a separate blog entry.

You can read my response at: http://adebtortomercy.blogspot.com/2007/02/how-to-make-room-in-your-ministry.html#links

C FNGR said...

I was looking for historical information on the independent AME chruch...i.e. an branch of 14 churches that broke off from the original AME church around 1900. This is how I came upon your web post.

This is 10-21-07 and we're headed toward the Chicago Annual Conference Closing session. The commentary about your dismay with the AME church's choices in political posturing is intersting. This is what perhaps 90% of AMEs talk about... under the radar. This year we're selling T-Shirts that read, 'Still An AME' or 'Proud To Be AME' How did AME get to this point of being on the D-fense. The Big contention is how the delegate election is rigg... excuse me, "rigorously engineered" by the new denominational black Illuminati where pre-printed ballots the size of postage stamps [literally] is now state of the art; no room for choice or write in candidates, otherwise it's considred a spoiled ballot. Isn't this the sort of stuff the AME church ...USE... to fight against when other cultures did it to the children of exslave look-a-likes?
My-my, look how far assimilation has come. Bishops set up their neponistic dynasties on the backs of forgotten hard working clergy who don't have the blood-tie connections to the old guard. Jenna, LA don't have a thing on the black church.

WAKE UP PEOPLE!!!