Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Experiencing All the Different Varieties of Christianity: Jeri's Story

Sheldon's note:  This post is a guest post from blogger Jeri of Heresy in the Heartland. Jeri is an ex-fundamentalist who left the organization of Independent Fundamental Baptist cult leader Bill Gothard when she was 23 years old. I highly recommend that you read her 6 part series on that transition, start reading about it here

By age 23 I had made a full circuit of the American Christianity buffet table and if I hadn’t tasted everything, I had at least gotten near enough to smell it.

I was dedicated to the Protestant God by my parents and a Pastor Dibble at a Christian & Missionary Alliance church in a college town in Pennsylvania. My parents, raised Lutheran from infancy, had been rebaptized there (by immersion). They were enthusiastic about Bible study and campus evangelism.

When we moved to another state, we attended a charismatic non-denominational church where people prayed out loud, prophesied in tongues, and danced or raised their hands in worship. I associate that church with guitars, a board of elders instead of a pastor, and lyrics displayed with overhead projectors. Tithes and offerings were collected in inconspicuous boxes with mail slots against the back wall of the auditorium. 

My dad baptized me in the Great Lakes in a small ceremony with one other family. We sang “Our God Reigns”, my friend’s mom wrapped me in my bath towel with the elephant on it, and I was excited because now Mom and Dad would let me share communion. Elders would stand in the aisles at church holding bottles of grape juice, ready to refill the the common cup as it passed down the rows. The cubes of homemade unleavened bread were fragrant with coriander and star thistle honey. I always tried to nonchalantly pick the biggest piece when the plate made its way to me.

My parents came to object to sensuality in the church. The church “orchestra” became more of a band, and this made my parents uncomfortable. They were more concerned about several of their friends’ marriages falling apart and about two divorcees from the church marrying each other. This upset my mom so much that we left that church and started attending a Friends meeting. 

This particular group of Friends was unique in that they did occasionally celebrate Communion, with grape juice and fluffy white bread. Everyone tore off a piece as the loaf was passed down the row. The congregation was small and the old wooden meetinghouse drafty, so they set up chairs in the basement for services through the winter. 

The pastor was young, with a wife and baby boy.  Through every sermon he would remove his glasses, set them on the lectern, put them back on, take them off, and so on. There was no band, no overhead projector. In the middle of the service, everyone sat down, even the pastor, for fifteen minutes of “quiet time”. 

Dad took us all to midweek hymn sings and prayer meetings at the parsonage, where I learned to follow along from a hymnal. I recall a boring video series called “Ordering Your Private World” by Gordon MacDonald, former chairman of the board of World Vision. About the time we were watching MacDonald on a TV screen, he was resigning as president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after admitting to an adulterous affair. But the Internet had not yet been born, so we knew nothing of MacDonald’s private world.

Another video presentation was more memorable. It warned of the AIDS crisis: the American population was forecast to be decimated in ten years’ time, or was it twenty? I didn’t really know what they were talking about, only that public restrooms could expose me to a deadly virus. The video had a lot to say about “homosexuality”. Dad leaned over from his folding metal chair next to me in the dim room and whispered into my ear, “That’s when a man sticks his penis into another man’s bottom”. My eyes must have widened, but there was nothing to say.

I was twelve or thirteen the Easter that some of the church ladies decided it would be cute to have a children’s choir. They taught us a Michael Card song (that included the line: “You can choose what not to believe in…”). There were perhaps eight of us on the stage. Standing there in the new skirt and blouse Mom and I had sewn for the occasion, I was painfully aware of being the oldest. 

When the congregation withdrew from the Quaker denomination, I joined the adults in voting for a new church name and was pleased when my favorite won out. “Cornerstone” soon voted to align themselves with the Evangelical Free denomination. We parted ways with them at that point, because the “E. Free” allowed divorced men to be pastors and my mother’s interpretation of the New Testament did not permit such low standards.

 To his credit, my dad, despite homeschooling and delivering his own babies, never felt comfortable with home-churching. But hunting for a new church is a daunting process--all the more with five children in tow—so Dad and I formed a search committee and visited local Sunday morning services together, discussing their merits on the way home and reporting back to the rest of the family at lunch. Dressed in my mom’s hand-me-downs, I was mistaken for his wife more than once.

We settled at the Baptist church we’d driven past so many times early in my childhood: a traditional brick building with padded pews, a grand piano, and an organ. Dressed comfortably on our way to the charismatic church and gazing out the car window, I had always felt sorry for the proper, well-coiffed Baptists in their suits, Sunday dresses, and heels. They were obviously rich, and, I imagined, smug. I knew they didn’t dance or speak in tongues. 

Now we were Baptists, or nearly so. Some of the men in suits were my Dad’s clients, successful businessmen in the petroleum industry. A retired public schoolteacher led the congregational singing, but many of the musicians we heard at church were professionals, some even affiliated with an internationally-renowned arts center. The morning service, recorded and aired on a local radio station at night, ran on a fixed schedule.

The Baptists were very sure about some things that we had previously left open. Jesus would return AFTER the Tribulation, and salvation was a permanent deal, unless you didn’t get the genuine article the first time. They knew that God didn’t use “speaking in tongues” anymore, though they still prayed for miracles of healing. And their pastor had to write three sermons a week! 

We finally left Bible Baptist because Bill Gothard had convinced my parents, who convinced me, that songs with a backbeat—even songs about Jesus—were tools of Satan. The elders were tolerant of our beliefs for a while, but they came to look with disfavor on a family of nine standing up and filing out of the sanctuary during the soloist’s “ministry of music” week after week, even if we returned to our pew for the sermon! It was a mutual break-up in the end, because the church introduced a “contemporary” early service, with a drum set up front, and my parents could not attend a church that resembled a rock concert. 

So it was back to the church search, though we knew our options were very limited by now. Two other homeschooling dads in our town were followers of Bill Gothard (and members of his ATI program). One was the pastor at a Church of Christ, but their doctrine was suspect. The other attended a tiny IFB church close to our house. 

We started visiting there, and there was nothing offensive about the music if you didn’t care about quality, or the lyrics. The hymnal we used had been edited by John R. Rice, and the songs we sang were almost entirely of one genre (and almost entirely written between the years between 1850 and 1950). Here, there was an uncomfortable divide between the Gothardite homeschoolers (only two families now, but we made up more than half the minors in the church) and the rest of the congregation.

The pastor left shortly after we started attending, so we sat through repetitive interim preachers, guests, substitutes, and prospective young men interviewing for the position. In the end, the other ATI dad was “called” to the pastorate, which was convenient since his family was already living in the parsonage. He was a layman with his own audio-visual business, and it was odd thing all ‘round. My parents were not part of whatever voting process landed him the church, as they were waiting for the new pastor before they officially joined. 

The “new” pastor ruled with a heavy hand. We didn’t know he was an abusive man at home. We only knew he wore a somber suit and tried to make people feel guilty. We sat uncomfortably in those pews for two more years. All the normal people disappeared, leaving only the most rigid fundamentalists—and us. Since the former pianist had gone, I played the Gospel songs for the southern-style worship that emphasized sins, blood, and dying Lambs.  

Much as we looked the part in our long, homemade dresses with our KJV Bibles, we weren’t really fundamentalists. We were tolerant of dispensationalism, but not sold on it. We watched Billy Graham movies at home (sometimes skipping objectionable songs), we prayed with Presbyterians, I read a New Testament paraphrase, and we didn’t think the evangelicals building the huge complex down the road were on the path to hell. 

Dad even read us a book about glossolalia—stories about people praying in tongues that were supposedly unknown to the speakers but recognized by others within earshot. Stories that directly contradicted the pastor’s sermon series on Acts

One day the pastor and the one remaining elder asked my dad not to come back anymore. It was both a relief to me and a deep sadness. Other might talk of their “church home”, but we were spiritual refugees again. Too full of emotion to know what to say, I wished I could pray in tongues. 

We had exhausted the church options in our own community; now we crossed county lines heading east, south, and west. We rotated directions each week and laughingly called ourselves a “circuit-riding congregation”. The Church of Christ had fired their ATI pastor, and he was now leading a small fellowship of mostly homeschooling families who met on Sunday mornings at a public school to the east, near the lake. 

The school would rent them the library for something like $10 a week, and we could drag in a piano from down the hall. They sang a lot of praise songs I remembered from my childhood. The pastor would print out his sermon notes and pass out copies to everyone. Then he would put the same notes on the overhead projector, stand to the side, and proceed to read them to us. But the homemade cubes of communion bread were nearly as delicious as the charismatic kind, and they served it every week. On Sunday nights, many in the church liked to have bonfires, s’mores, and guitar-led sing-alongs on the beach.

In the opposite direction, we knew an ATI family pastoring an old country church. Their theology was more covenantal than ours and the congregation more blue-collar, but their music was safely conservative and I borrowed interesting books from the minister. Having connections to the Methodist tradition, they took their monthly communion at the altar rail. Until I asked the pastor to officiate at my wedding, I did not realize that Bible Methodists do not endorse jewelry—including wedding rings.

Other weeks, we drove south to join an eclectic “plain” fellowship meeting in a township hall. Some families were ex-Amish, having been forced out of their communities when they were “born again”. Everyone homeschooled, the girls all wore dresses, there was little interaction between the sexes, and the women all wore headcoverings. The a capella singing was painfully slow. The men took turns preaching. I was annoyed with the extreme patriarchy and made a point of wearing lipstick (gasp!) and my boldest dress (short sleeves, a large rose print, dainty lace collar, and a decorative brooch-like button). Though I enjoyed hats, I did not wear one there. As non-members, we would not have been allowed to take communion. I cannot recall the fine points of their theology because it was primarily discussed at men’s meetings.

After months of riding our little “circuit” on Sunday mornings, we settled at the fellowship that met at the school. The pastor was soft-spoken and kind, there were lots of other kids, and the families were the most like us. In many ways, that church was a spiritual rehab center or halfway house, attracting the hurt, the lonely, the ones who didn’t fit elsewhere. It was, for the most part, a safe and quiet place for us to park while our emotional wounds healed. 

I moved to Oklahoma (to work for Bill Gothard’s cult) and fell in love with the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church there. For the first time in ages—maybe ever, I looked forward to going to church. The people were friendly and the service combined all the elements I most enjoyed. Even though I couldn’t remember the CMA church of my infancy, I had a feeling of returning to the beginning, of coming home to where I belonged. 

Theologically, I liked the CMA teaching on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts; after all I’d seen, it felt centered. One week the pastor prayed for a sick man to be healed. The man was anointed with oil and we all prayed. I went home for a visit and when I got back, the man was dead. I tried to understand. Faith was so mysterious. 

One of my coworkers was confident she heard God’s spirit communicating with her. We talked about faith. During the lunch hour one day, we went up to my room and she prayed for me. That afternoon I spoke in tongues for the first time. After decades of stories, curiosity, contradictory advice, and yearning to “experience God” in a physical way, this strange and awkward exploratory event felt like losing my spiritual virginity. I basked in a sense of fulfillment for a while.

But my job moved out of Oklahoma and CMA church in my new city wasn’t as inviting. The charismatics weren’t down-to-earth enough; the Lutherans were too old or too certain; the Baptists far too stuffy. I kept exploring, learning from each church I was part of, but never able to put down roots.

 Once in a while, I’d pray in tongues again—sometimes just to see if it still worked. This went on for years until one week, sitting in the sound booth in the back of an evangelical church in the middle of Kansas, my husband and I knew we didn’t belong anymore. In an attempt to preserve what faith we had left in the God of the Bible, we found a Methodist church with a beautiful pipe organ and a heart of compassion. But even attending the pastor’s Bible study didn’t help. Two years later we helped with the children’s Easter crafts, then quietly slipped away. Even as an atheist, I found I could still speak in tongues. 

Friends sometimes suppose that if I had ever met their Christ, I would have to love him. But I was “presented” to the Lord at two weeks old and have seen more of the “Body of Christ” than most. I found that we simply weren’t compatible. For thirty-odd years, I thought we had a relationship; I even thought we were close. But after years of thinking the problems were all mine, his behavior at last began to trouble me.  Could he be trusted? Could he be schizophrenic? Was he cruel? Was he real? And then I realized: eternity would be far too long to spend with anyone so enigmatic.


  1. Wow interesting story. I love the way that you searched for the truth and found it, so often us atheists get told we never search for the truth but this just goes to show that you certainly did. And the truth you found was the logical outcome.

    1. No one ever switches from religion to atheism without some level of searching within themselves and asking the hard questions of life.

  2. Considering the variety of Christianities, I have wondered if Christians do a disservice to their religion by approaching it as fixed doctrine ..?....perhaps if they were to approach it as an ongoing conversation about the "nature of God" it may reflect the context of the NT better....?... It seems to me, the history of early Christianity puts it "in conversation" with various interpretations of the "nature of God" prevalent at the time. This "conversation" aspect is still ongoing in constant arguments between Christians themselves on many issues. What would happen if all Christians acknowledged that there are many ways to understand God even within Christianity as a whole, within various Christian groups and with individual Christians as well...?.....


    1. It would make for a more peaceful, and better organized Christianity if people treated it as an open minded process of try to discover god.

  3. I very much enjoyed reading Jeri's story. I went to her blog and started at the beginning. Thanks for introducing her.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Alice.

      I have enjoyed her blog so much since I I first found it.


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