Recently, I was invited to a large worship and prayer event at a church about 40 miles from me. I found myself a little nervous walking in. I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to this church before, I didn’t know how big of a crowd there would be at this thing, and most importantly, I didn’t know where to go off the top of my head. The person who invited me described where she would be, and I found her pretty easily, and the rest of the night was great. But this got me thinking, trying to figure out why I was so nervous in that situation.
I think I was mostly just afraid of the possibility that I was going to wander into the wrong room and find myself horribly out of place. I’ve seen that happen from both ends, wandering into the wrong room myself and having to excuse myself and go find where I’m supposed to be, or being in some sort of group, meeting, or class, and seeing someone else wander in thinking that they are in a different group from the one I am actually in, and discovering it much later.
I specifically remember one such experience along these lines, although technically I was in the right place that time. It was 2005, during my four months on the road. I was in a rural area in the Ozarks in southern Missouri for several days. I was visiting two people in the area who lived about 10 miles apart but didn’t know each other. Let’s see, I should give these people names… “Pherkad” is a friend from college, and “Rho Serpentis” is someone I knew online and had not met in person before this trip. (We lost touch a year or two later. I don’t remember exactly why… I think she met a guy and stopped being online all the time.) For much of the time I was in the area, I went back and forth, spending some of the time with Pherkad and her husband, some of the time with Rho Serpentis, and some of the time alone, depending on who wasn’t working or in class (Rho was a college student at the time).
One of the more interesting experiences of my travels of 2005 was getting to experience so many different kinds of churches. If I was staying with friends who went to church on a Sunday, or on a Wednesday if their church had a mid-week service (which apparently is very common in the South and Midwest but rare among the churches I’ve been to in California), then I would go to church with them. Otherwise, I’d just kind of randomly pick one. But that’s not part of this story. I was going to go to church with Pherkad and her husband on Wednesday night, and Rho was going to come with me. But Pherkad and her husband weren’t going to be in the service, because they were going to be volunteering with children’s church.
So we got there, Pherkad and her husband went off to go work with the children, and Rho and I sat down. A couple minutes later, I knew something was not normal. Apparently this week wasn’t a regular service, it was the church’s annual business meeting. And being that I was just visiting, I had never been to that church before, most likely never would again, I felt very out of place. The meeting dragged on and on and on for an hour and a half, and when Pherkad and her husband finally got back, they apologized profusely for making us sit through all of that when we didn’t really know much about what was going on with their church. I probably should have said something, or left, but I didn’t want to make a scene or look any more out of place than I already was.
I did learn something from that experience, though. One of the major issues being debated by that church at that time was whether or not to use Awana as their children’s curriculum. I hadn’t had a lot of experience up close with Awana specifically, but I had heard of it, and I knew that a lot of churches used it for their children’s programs. I didn’t see why anyone would have a problem with it. But a number of people in this church’s business meeting kept bringing up the fact that Awana was a separate organization not specifically affiliated with their denomination.
This all made me kind of sad. My experiences with Christianity up to that point mostly had not included such toxic nitpicking over the minor differences between denominations. The different branches of Christianity have so many important things in common, but Christianity as a whole is torn apart by people who argue over the things that aren’t really worth arguing about. And many people tend to treat any little disagreement as a line separating those who are real Christians from those who will burn in hell. They don’t realize that all of this does more harm than good and turns people away from Christianity as a whole. And the situation hasn’t really changed… in the 13-plus years since this happened, I have seen many other times where Christians disagree over issues that do not affect how they respond to Jesus’ message of salvation, and mistreat each other because of it.
So all of that didn’t really have anything to do with the event I attended last night. I didn’t end up in the wrong room, and it didn’t end up being a church business meeting. And appropriately enough, this was an event that had people from many churches all over the area. But all of that just got me thinking about denominations and different branches of Christianity… and how maybe we need to spend more time celebrating what we have in common and working together, rather than calling each other names.