May 19, 2019 was our last Sunday at Grace Community Church (Pensacola, FL), our church home and family for the last thirteen years. It was an extremely difficult decision to make and was not one that we made lightly or spontaneously. The convictions of our immediate family and our church family have been growing steadily further apart over the past year or two. Our differences were not such that they would compromise the Gospel or any primary doctrines of the church, but they were differences that had a significant impact on worship. Having served in music leadership for the past twelve years, this was no small matter to me or my family. However, it should not be supposed that we left merely because of a difference of the type of music. The purpose of this post is not to dig into those differences, but to say a few things about the journey.
Church is Family
They say that blood is thicker than water, meaning that the bonds of blood relatives (family) is stronger than the bonds of friendship or love. If that is true I would assert that the spirit is thicker than blood. When we are born again Christians we share a bond with other Christians via the Spirit of God that indwells us all. This means that we share more deep true truths in common with our church family than possibly with our blood family.
In our case, these two categories overlapped. We have been blessed to have our extended family also be a part of our church family.
A true church family is a tightly knit group of people, a community, who not only hold the truths of the faith in common, but who do life together. These are brothers and sisters that weep with you when you weep, that laugh with you when you laugh. They rejoice with you in triumph and stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the midst of trial. They see you in your weakness and strengthen you out of love, whether that means encouragement, exhortation or correction.
Sunday morning worship services are times that you come together with your (church) family to worship the Triune God together, to listen to the Word of God being read, to sing together, to feast together at the Lord’s Supper, to hear about the glories of the Gospel together. These are times that you receive balm to heal the battle wounds from the previous week and to receive strength and encouragement to go back out into battle in the coming week.
Out to Sea
This is what we lost when we decided to leave our church home/family. Security. It was as if we jumped into the sea on little more than a raft with no rudder. The past year or so has also been one of the most challenging times that our family has ever faced, so it was as if the sea were also churning with the winds and waves of a hurricane.
We did not leave on what you might call “bad terms”; we still have family and friends at our old church, but it has been a challenge to maintain those relationships. When you leave a church for theological reasons you are saying to the church, “we are no longer one of you in such a significant way that we must worship elsewhere.” That is painful. Our community became a part of the roiling sea instead of the firm foundation that it has always been.
One of the things I missed most during this time was the lack of a pastor. As Christians we are called to be in community and an important part of that community is a pastor (and elders) – the shepherds who are responsible for “keeping watch over [our] souls” (Hebrews 13:17). I did actually take counsel from my former pastor during this time with regards to our search for a new church home, but that was still under the shadow of “parting ways”. That feeling touched everything during this time.
Looking for Dry Land
The search for a new church family was not one that I looked forward to, but it was one that I took very seriously. We compiled a list of churches that we knew would be more in line with our theological convictions, mainly being more in the Reformed tradition. This list consisted of Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The churches we selected also had in common that we knew people in the churches already, which meant we would have familiar faces to greet us and ease the transition.
Each week after visiting a new church we would gather as a family (not the babies) and discuss our impressions of the church. What were things we liked about the church and/or disliked? How was the preaching? How was the singing? How friendly and hospitable was the church? How was the sermon? Was there anything said that might cause alarm or was confusing? Was there anything said that was extremely encouraging? Additionally, I attempted to make appointments with the pastors of the churches we visited so that I could ask some focused questions and get a sense for how the church was run and a feel for how our family would fit in.
This was the way in which our family found our way through the storm and waves. There were some benefits to this process. We talked a lot more as a family about various theological convictions, especially as they related to our worship and practice of the faith. I got to know more about the preferences and concerns of my wife and children. We also renewed our conviction to practice family worship, which has had a tremendous impact on our family life.
This process also took a toll on our family; it was a very wearying time. The uncertainty of not knowing what “church” would look like on a particular Sunday, while a little exciting to begin with, quickly became taxing. I also constantly felt the weight of the responsibility to choose the “right” church for our family. I even had doubts as to whether leaving our church was the right thing to do.
A New Home
I am happy to say that we have found a new home in Providence Church (Pensacola, FL). The flow of this post has been influenced by the narrative of the book of Jonah, which is not by accident. As it happens we have been going through the book of Jonah at Providence.
Jonah left his people and his home, just as we left our church home. Jonah found himself in the midst of a terrible storm on the ocean, which is how we often felt during this time. Jonah was hurled into the sea and swallowed by the great fish, suffering death (either symbollically or literally). During this time we have often grieved as though suffering the death of a loved one. Jonah cried out a prayer or song to God from his grave and Yahweh heard his cry. Our times of family worship and personal prayer were very significant to us as we cried out to God to sustain us and lead us to a church. Finally, Jonah was delivered to dry ground at the place where God intended for him to be. We believe that God has likewise delivered us from our time of death in the ocean onto the dry land in a place where we have already found refreshment and life.
One of the things Pastor Brito said in this series has stuck with me. Faithfulness through suffering leads to dry land. Our time at sea has been a time of sufferring. We have done our best to remain faithful in seeking to be in worship every Lord’s Day and to find a place where we can be in submission to a pastor and elders. We have done our best to remain faithful in pointing our children to Christ through worship. We have done our best to remain faithful to our convictions about the Word of God as we understand it. As I can say about all of my trials in this life: I’m not sorry I went through it, but I’m so happy it’s over. (Romans 8:28)