Do you remember when you “got saved”? Was it at a church service where a preacher asked the now infamous “if you were to die in a car crash on your way home from this service, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” question? Were you young and impressionable? Were you “of age” yet in the midst of a personal crisis which made you desperate for answers? Were you afterward “on fire for the Lord”…constantly sharing your faith and showing up for church every time they opened the doors?
In my (Pentecostal) tradition conversion experiences like these were the norm. Almost everyone I knew either “asked Jesus into their heart” as a child or were truly rescued by an awakening of faith while they were in the throes of adult brokenness. Youth and trauma make us vulnerable in very unique ways, and when this vulnerability encounters religion, the effects can be, well…complicated. Whether we started following Jesus at 8 or 48, to the extent that experience aligns with Jesus’ call to be born again, we were suddenly spiritual newborns in some mysterious way.
In the animal kingdom there’s a phenomenon known as imprinting, which is when a newborn – by virtue of actually being a newborn – learns in an instinctive, rapid and deep way. This often involves the acquisition of behavioral characteristics from its parent. (a brief visit to Wikipedia will get you up to speed, lol!) And this is where I’m headed with this: I wonder to what extent we “imprint” on the parent church or pastor that facilitates our “new birth experiences.” In this spiritually young and existentially vulnerable time, just how prone are we to being semi-permanently formed (misshapen?) by a well-intentioned pastor or church community? We learn the “behavioral characteristics” of a particular church (e.g. what a good church service is like), which is actually the right way to be a Christian. There’s a unique pressure on pastors and churches to be right, to have the answers, because in the end we’re only trustworthy or follow-able to the extent that our theology and ecclesiology are correct. (or not)
Here’s the shocking probability: our pastors and churches were filled with all sorts of errors and exhibitions of ignorance and naiveté. We still are. Theology is messy – it’s always done with crayons. Church is even messier, by the way. The most harmful problem is not our fallibility, but our denial of that fallibility, our insistence that we’re doing it more faithfully than everyone else. And when a “baby Christian” imprints on a church culture that is one of propped-up pseudo perfection, at least one of several complications is bound to emerge…
- Judgmentalism: dismissal of other Christian traditions as inferior at best, or heretical at worst.
- Resistance to change: to change from what is completely right is to engage in some kind of error.
- Fear of being in error: this brings scorn and might drag us into the “great falling away.”
- Insecurity: if we got this wrong, what else are we getting wrong now, but don’t know it?
This is why so many of us need to be “saved” all over again! This conversion isn’t about escaping the unquenchable flames of outer darkness, but the rigid, tiny world of our subjective religious experience. Suddenly the great creeds and confessions that have guided the broader church for the better part of 2,000 years become priceless treasures, helping you understand what qualifies as “Christian.” Suddenly the freedom found in humility displaces the angst of faux-certainty. Yes, we will draw outside the lines and choose the wrong color, but we should also find comfort in knowing this sort of stuff is inevitable when we play with the Divine. He simply can’t be figured out or hemmed in. Oh, and he’s “our Father”! So while this work of theology and ecclesiology is serious, its ultimate end won’t be a letter grade but a smiley face. The chief end of man isn’t to get theology or traditions correct, but to “glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” (Westminster Shorter Cathechism)
This is what I want for me, my family and my church. I’m deeply grateful for my Pentecostal heritage, but I also know that some “spiritual imprinting” went on that left me with a Christian faith that was smaller and more fearful than it should’ve been. The answer is not to toss that aside, but to faithfully incorporate it into the broader Christian experience. A quote traditionally attributed to St. Augustine sums this up nicely:
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity