2011-2014 Part I: Goodbye ECF, Hello Grace Life Church, and a New Marriage
I began my previous post speaking of disillusionment with the local church. As a young Christian, I believed that the better the doctrine a church teaches, the better the fellowship and spiritual health of the congregation would have been. Our experience up through 2011 showed this not to be so; although our church at the time was filled with lovely people (and still is), the good doctrine alone never seemed to assure deep bonds of fellowship or friendship—no blame assigned, at least, it would be self-destructive to keep rehashing my perception of how this person or that person let me down, or let Danielle down, or how we let this one or that one down. There comes a point in the healthy Christian life where, for the sake of love, one must simply let go of the possibilities of how we have brought harm to one another.
Yet since fellowship and friendship are indispensable parts of living the Christian life, this meant we were very lonely, even in rooms full of people. We left ECF embarrassed for our weaknesses and mistakes, having lost the few bonds we made with our church family there. It had become painful to show up to church, always seeking to avoid certain people in small rooms where everyone sees everyone.
From that time, I have looked at life in the local church as a challenge of survival as much as a journey of thriving. These seven years have borne that out for me.
The Church Plant
Fresh out of ECF, we began attending the home Bible studies of Grace Life of Avon, a brand-new church plant affiliated with Acts 29. In 2011, Mark Driscoll (the founder of Acts 29) had not yet been totally and utterly discredited as he is now, so his Acts 29 denomination held some promise for us. Theologically, the movement was New Calvinist, which basically means Baptisty-charismatic theology with predestination. Acts 29 (now run by Matt Chandler) combines a fairly conservative view of Scripture (good thing), with an open view of church culture and practices (a disaster waiting to happen, see: Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll). What I learned about Acts 29 is that it is basically Calvary Chapel ecclesiology, but with better soteriology. The health of any given local church in Acts 29 or CC depends entirely on the nearly unaccountable spiritual health and personality of the head pastor. In fact, the local churches of CC and Acts 29 are almost entirely shaped by the personality in the pulpit, and that is a major indictment of this kind of ecclesiology. Yet I didn’t have these puzzle pieces all snapped together then, in 2011 when we joined.
We wanted heartfelt worship, good teaching, and just as importantly, solid friendships.
I thought we were entering a new, more promising part of the Church catholic, with a young, energetic crew of sincere elders and members—people with whom we could have a fresh start, our relationship lessons learned from ECF, hopefully beginning a long, fruitful church relationship.
One thing I saw in Grace Life Church of Avon was the opportunity for me to help shape a baby church into the best mix of Calvinism with the flexibility of a congregation not yet ossified by bad habits and political issues. Pastor Derek Levendusky is a man who bleeds the gospel. His teachings, sermons, and counsel always move to the gospel, by instinct. A godly husband and father of a large brood, I saw in Derek the ingredients that make for a long-lived, healthy local church. I brought with me my love of evangelism, theological study, and desire for meaningful fellowship and friendship. We helped create a weekly home prayer meeting, I preached on Sunday morning several times, and our friendships with the other young congregants seemed to be blossoming well.
Acts 29 is structured to allow for a variety of ecclesial practices and expressions, depending on the local context and preferences of the people. In other words, low church—very low church. (High church refers to a strong, traditional liturgy and means of ordination, low church is the opposite). In Acts 29, there is not so much a liturgy as there is a charismatic bent toward “Spirit-led” experiments with what might work best for growing the church… and our particular church was created with big growth in mind.
Derek is somewhat well known in the Rochester and Upstate New York region among charismatic evangelicals. A talented musician and speaker who led the music act Isaiah 6 for years, in planting Grace Life he brought together a team of elders from the local Pentecostal church, gave them a crash course in predestinarian theology, and launched the church with a big vision for the future. The church was oriented toward feeding off the youthful energy at nearby Elim Bible College and Elim Gospel Church, hoping to draw new members who were hungering for a more solid, Bible-centric preaching ministry, but who wouldn’t have wanted to completely abandon many of the instincts of charismatic theology.
We began with a bang, feeling that things were going in the right direction. After a short time of meeting in homes and at a local multiuse facility, we switched locations for Sunday service, ending up sharing a Wesleyan church’s facilities. By early 2012, I really was thinking we would make a long-term go of Grace Life.
But of Course…
Things are never so simple. The low church lowness of Grace Life was really, really low. Not only was the congregation mostly people my age and younger (where to find wisdom?), but our elders, in a sincere attempt to be free of legalism, cancelled Sunday morning church on more than one occasion in order to have a game of football. Avoiding legalism is a great instinct; playing football in lieu of church as a means of expressing our freedom in Christ? Not so great. Don’t misunderstand: I played in one of those games, and I thought we were doing the right thing: this is outreach, right guys? Right? Well then what do we say about the times we cancelled church for Thanksgiving Sunday, three days after the holiday, or for Christmas, when Christmas fell on a Sunday, or for the Super Bowl. Yes, we cancelled Sunday service for the Super Bowl.
Again, the instincts of our elders were commendable. Their love of Christ unimpeachable. Our problem, as you see I include myself—our problem was the invention of a local church without much, if any reference to what the Church catholic has been doing for 2,000 years. That’s always the lure and downfall of charismatic ecclesiology—we think the Church catholic needs a reboot, and that the Holy Spirit is providing the fresh revelatory words to make it work. The Bible becomes a lens through which we see and interpret new, private revelations, and eventually the Bible becomes a secondary, possibly lower-level of revelation. If God’s fresh “word” is in the pastor or prophet’s heart, the intimacy and immediacy of it outshines the static, often confusing words of Scripture, the old book. Charismaticism draws the Church away from the voice of the Shepherd, and away from the voices of the Church catholic, who most often would warn us back to the traditions of our fathers—traditions that act as guardrails rather than a straitjacket, but for the low churchman, we always fear the latter more than seeing the blessing of the former. I’m not saying our Grace Life elders were under any of those exact impressions regarding revelation, but I am darn sure something was causing a disconnect, and it wasn’t our neo-Calvinism. Reformed theology takes Sunday very seriously, so the trouble had to lie in the Charismaticism and low ecclesiology of Acts 29. These interruptions of sober church structure and life began to make me tremble concerning what I was teaching my wife by our membership in such a body.
Sure, we heard good quotes from historical theologians and pastors, we were reminded of the gospel in the mouths of many wonderful saints of the past, but regarding ecclesiology—regarding how and why the local church does what it does, we were winging it. Now, I was not an elder, so perhaps those men would have something to say to my reflections here to correct me. I mean no disrespect or besmirching of their character. From my limited point of view, Grace Life was hampered by being an orphan church lacking parental guidance from the Church catholic.
You May be Wondering…
How could I have gone from ECF, a church with a fairly gray-headed, deeply-seasoned congregation and a fairly stable liturgy to a free-wheeling experiment like Grace Life? Why did I lead my new wife into the unknown frontier lands of an experimental church plant? The answer to this comes down to traditions and fears.
As a man who grew up in low-church environments (see first posts in this series), and as a man who was used to the assumptions and fears of Calvary Chapel and the fundamentalist Bible Baptists, I would flee from anything that smacked of tradition.
I had been trained to fear the very thing we were missing and needing.
The word “liturgy” scared me because it represented cold, sterile, rote religion. Heck, the word “religion” scared me, and Pastor Derek often used it as a pejorative in his sermons. Forget recitations of prayers, vestments, or the word “sacraments.” All these things I had been programmed to fear as being gateways to Roman Catholicism. My traditions had been crafted as anti-traditions, and my embarrassing experiences at ECF had solidified my fears that I could never fit into a more traditional church setting. Though I would maybe have been open to joining a liturgical church on principle, the low low church environment seemed safer. Were these thoughts and instincts more immaturity and missteps on my part? Yes. This is why I’m writing about a journey.
And yet, as a married man for a year, the Lord was shaping and refining me by means of a difficult marriage. As I mentioned previously, Danielle and I are quite different people, with very different backgrounds. We have had to fight for every inch of progress in our relationship, and our time at Grace Life was integral to how we have learned to walk together.
Well, Grace Life began to fragment within two years of its founding. The crowds of college students did not materialize, families with young children began leaving, and a sense of strong belonging was just out of reach for some of us—people who sincerely wanted to find it. At that time two of the three elders resigned and moved back to Elim Gospel Church from where they had come. They never were Calvinists, and they were not comfortable with the de-emphasis on sign gifts at Grace Life.
I personally sat with the lead pastor a few times, attempting to advise us away from the free-wheeling experiments, and more toward concrete practices (gulp… traditions), but I felt I was becoming a gadfly to the poor man. By this time I had also joined the local seminary, and was learning of Church history in a new light (more on that in the upcoming Part II).
One early summer Sunday, we came to church at Grace Life, having been absent for several weeks by choice. I had grown deeply uncomfortable with our worship and praxis at Grace Life, but wanted to give it one more heartfelt attempt. I wanted to demonstrate to my new wife what it should look like to die to one’s own preferences and desires, and to put the brothers and sisters of the local church before oneself.
Well… that Sunday was to be a different type of service. Instead of everyone coming in to sing, hear the Word, and to pray as usual, the adults were instructed to sit at tables which were set up around the sanctuary, and to help ourselves to crayons and paper to make drawings during church. It was to be a role reversal Sunday, wherein all the “ministry” was directed to children, who came forward, while the adults were sidelined to play with crayons, like is done with the children normally.
Whatever the purpose of this was, I forget now, but I was devastated. We may have left early that day, I don’t know. It was painful—instead of our church seeing the loss of people and the loss of cohesion as symptoms of our disorganized, desperate state, we were grasping at new experiments. For Mother’s Day, the pastor’s wife preached the sermon.
We had to leave, and so we did. I tried to explain to Pastor Derek that I loved him and wanted the best for our local church, but that I could no longer stand the lowness of the low church. I needed to get my wife and I to a more stable environment. He was hurt, and admonished us gently to not be so picky, or self-centered. There is no doubt I am both of those, so his words found purchase to some degree. I just knew I could not keep trying to force roots to grow in a crumbling church experiment. By God’s grace, Grace Life is still alive today, and as far as I know, has recovered and stabilized a good deal. Derek has too much gospel and love of Scripture in him for there not to be a church wherever he preaches. God bless them.
As of summer 2013, we left Grace Life with nowhere to go. We chose to attend church at another Acts 29 plant, as crazy as that will sound, but which was much larger and more stable. Grace Road Church is still one of Rochester’s biggest, most popular churches, and probably because Pastor Kevin Maloney is extremely talented at preaching, among other reasons. We decided to park at Grace Road until we could find a permanent church home.
Feeling a growing fear that we were the typical “church hoppers/shoppers,” I was desperate to choose our next move after a long, careful consideration. In all of this, my beliefs were also beginning to shift again, but I will save that for the following parts of this segment.
Catch Part II soon—the timeframes of these chapters now begin to overlap significantly, so I will divide them into parts.