“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.” – Uncle Screwtape, from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters
When I moved to Charlotte, I had a hard time finding a church home. At the time, I was still fairly new to the PCA. I’d become a Presbyterian in Gainesville, and had joined the first PCA church I’d ever visited after my “conversion.” I’d loved my church in Gainesville, for any number of reasons, and wanted to find that same sort of church here, in North Carolina. Charlotte is not a city that lacks for churches, and so I thought that the task would not prove to difficult. I was wrong.
Because there was a PCA church that was less than four minutes from our apartment, my roommates and I began there. This church was, much like my church in Gainesville, a church plant. It met in an informal setting, was attended by many folks my own age, and was led by a bright and enigmatic preacher who was faithful to the Gospel and to the means of grace. All of this described Christ Community (my Gainesville church), and yet, for one reason or another, I wasn’t happy there. I do want to be perfectly clear, this is by no means an indictment of this particular church. They were, and thankfully still are, doing a wonderful job of reaching the community for Christ, all the while remaining faithful to the whole counsel of God’s Word, but for a reason I still can’t quite put my finger on, neither I, nor my roommates, felt like we could make this our church home.
We’d tried other churches, some from the PCA, some from other denominations. Many times, due to Charlotte’s mind-boggling street layout, we couldn’t find the church we wanted to attend and ended up attending the nearest mainline church, if nothing else for the sheer beauty of the architecture and the sense of propriety that comes from being in church on the Lord’s day. If you’ve never been to Charlotte, then you may not know that we did not come by our title of being the City of Churches by accident. Almost every denomination has at least one, if not multiple, extraordinary examples of American church architecture, and so we visited several of them, not intentionally, but because we couldn’t find the church we had set out to find, and we were stuck in the traffic from these other churches anyways. Sadly, most of the churches we visited belong to denominations that long ago traded the gospel for something more palatable to “itchy ears,” * and so while they were sufficient for a morning, we knew we needed to keep looking.
During our engagement, Donnette and I attended a small church in south Charlotte. It wasn’t a PCA church, but it was reformed and evangelical and, like the church I’d attended with my roommates, faithful in its duties as a church of Jesus Christ. We attended this church for most of our engagement, but again, we weren’t (or at least I wasn’t) satisfied with it, and so after we got married we decided to keep looking for a church we could call home. Because I’d left the Baptist church for the PCA only after much prayer and consideration, I decided to try one more time to find a PCA church that would work for us, and on our way to church that morning I told Donnette that, barring direct heresy from the pulpit, we were going to pick a church and stick with it.
Denominationalism often gets railed against by those outside of the church, and even Christians can be a little embarrassed by it when they talk about it to their non-Christian friends. And, in all fairness, it does seem like a fairly obvious flaw of the Christian message. Why, if Jesus spoke so much of love and unity, does his church look so fractured and disjointed all of the time? Why are there so many different kinds of churches, so close to one another, sometimes when those churches are in the same denomination? It is true that there are times when church splits and differences in denominations seem like nail-biting, petty details. One of my professors in seminary said that the most difficult decisions he’s ever made was voting to leave the PCUSA, and that even then he wasn’t sure he made the right choice, even though that split was over some pretty essential doctrine, and had to be made. I think of one the most damaging things about having a wide range of denominations is that it allows people to become the sort of connoisseur that Lewis back-handedly warned about.
Even still, I’m actually a fan of denominations, at least when they’re used correctly. I’ve haven’t read this first hand, but Carl Trueman is reported to have said that he is in favor of denominations because they show that people care about doctrine, and I would echo this sentiment. It would have been wrong for me to stay in the Baptist church, because I did not agree with certain doctrines that really define what a Baptist is. Far from being able to work for that denominations purity and peace, I would have (and probably did in my brief sojourn there after becoming a Calvinist) caused tension and strife, and so I was thankful for the presence of the PCA. Of course, there are folks who are able to live and work peacefully in churches they do not fully agree with, and these people should be applauded for their committment, but it does not change the fact that as long as varying denominations can agree on the essentials, then we can be content to love one another in the faith and let the other do their work in peace.
Turning my thoughts to France, I’ve come to realize that this really isn’t the problem there. I may like denominations, but Donnette reminds me that we’re probably a little spoiled by them here, especially when compared to the church in Europe. I visited at least four evangelical reformed churches when I moved to Charlotte, and managed to be dissatisfied with all of them. What would I have done had I moved here and there had been no evangelical reformed churches? Or no evangelical churches at all? What hope is there for evangelism to take place in a city where there is no church? God is of course free to do whatever he wants to reclaim sinners to himself, but he has said that he intends to do this through his church and so it would be foolish to think that evangelism will happen in a place, in a city, in a country that has no churches!
I’ve said already in this blog that we’re going to France to plant churches, and that is exactly what we’re going to do. However, we are not going there to plant a PCA church,** but to support a local denomination in their church planting efforts. Specifically, we’re going to support des Eglises Protestantes Reformees Evangeliques*** in their efforts to plant evangelical churches in cities where there is no real church presence at all. It’s not American imperialism; we don’t go over there and tell them how to do church. Rather, we work with them, using our gifts and resources to move along the church planting process. Our goal is to reach the native-born French, establish a functioning church, and leave only when they are able to call and support a native-born French pastor. (This is probably more footnote type information, but the focus is specifically on native-born French people because there are actually many more missionaries and organizations in France who focus on the immigrant population than there are those who focus on the native French.) Once Donnette and I are through language school, our second year in France will be spent working with one of these French churches, interning with a French pastor, so that I can learn the in’s and out’s of how they “do” church.
This November will mark the eight year anniversary of that fateful Sunday morning in the car. Donnette and I went to Sovereign Grace PCA that morning, and have not been to another church since.**** Sovereign Grace is different than most of the other PCA churches in the area, but I think the biggest reason why we have found such a home there was our readiness to find a home there. That is to say, God gave us grace to be content. The perfect church doesn’t exist; Sovereign Grace is far from perfect. But as we prepare now to leave, I’m realizing that it is exactly where Donnette and I needed to be these last eight years, that it is exactly where God wanted us to be. I’m thankful for the diversity of the American church. Would that France have such options! Please, please, continue to pray for the church in France, and around the world, that it would go forward in all its weak and fractured beauty. Please pray for us, that as we get ready to go, God would once again give us grace to be content, and to find a home within the EPRE. We covet your prayers, so very much. Thank you again.
*2 Timothy 4:3
**Which even in name would be ridiculous, since the “A” stands for America!
***I would translate this, but I believe my readership is sophisticated enough to figure it out on their own.
****With the purpose of finding a new church.