On Maundy Thursday last April, I knelt with my children in the basement of a church in Washington D.C. Together with a few Anglicans we formed a semi-circle around the altar. We washed each other’s feet, then took the Lord’s Supper. Our own Baptist church was not holding Lenten services, and as visitors at this tiny assembly we felt conspicuous. My daughters, eleven and thirteen, performed the ritual self-consciously. My ten-year-old son, nervous about foot odor, refused to remove his shoes. But I could tell from their comments afterward that they had found the experience intriguing—perhaps even meaningful.
When my kids feel out of place, I read it in their body language—their fidgeting, pointed glances, inaudible sighs. These telltale signs were evident earlier this past summer when we visited an Amish-Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. We were the only ones in the teeming worship hall dressed in “normal” twenty-first-century church attire—khaki pants and polo shirts, sundresses and sandals. My husband and son sat with the males, clad in black pants and white shirts, on one side of the room, my daughters and I with the bonneted females on the other. No doubt we stood out. But I felt strangely at home. After all, we were worshipping the same Christ that we meet each Sunday in our own church in Maryland.
We’ve taken our children to an exclusive-Psalm-singing church in Edinburgh, a tiny missionary church plant in the Canary Islands, a large international church in the Hague. Last month in Maui, we found ourselves at an outdoor service on the edge of a golf course with a rock band and a large-screen preacher delivering his message from LA.
As they’ve gotten older, our children have objected to attending church on vacation. “Isn’t this the time we’re supposed to take a break from God?” my daughter asked on the drive to the fairway-side service last month. We replied that there’s actually no good time to take a break from God—which is one reason we try to attend church when we travel.
There’s another reason that’s just as important. We want to experience—and even more, want our kids to experience—the glorious breadth and diversity within the body of Christ.
God has his people everywhere, and they don’t all look, speak, sing, pray, or interpret scripture as we do. Worshipping cross-culturally or cross-denominationally can draw us out of our comfort zone. In revealing how large and diverse Christ’s body is, it reminds us anew how large and magnificent God himself is, transcending barriers of denomination, ethnicity, language, and culture, dwelling among his people despite doctrinal disagreements.
I was raised in a Baptist church in Oregon, one of the most unchurched states in the U.S. In my hometown, cultural Christianity simply didn’t exist, so believers in Jesus from all backgrounds banded together. We attended each other’s youth groups, started a Bible club in our public high school, prayed together at the flagpole.
As an adult I spent six years with my family in Berlin, Germany, a city where post-Christian secularity is simply settled fact, much more so than in the Oregon of my youth. Our believing friends there spanned the theological spectrum and came from all over the world. Cultural differences sometimes rankled, sometimes delighted us. We knew they simply came with the territory. No one debated fine points of theology. We linked arms and worked together to reach a needy city with the Good News.
But for fifteen years between those formative experiences in Oregon and Berlin, I attended Reformed churches in the South and on the Atlantic seaboard. In those communities, much of our conversation, in formal and informal settings, focused on the greatness of Reformed theology or the superiority of our own ecclesiology. Some discussions veered quickly into hair-splitting. Some were conducted with a faintly self-congratulatory air.
There was much good in these communities too: men and women who loved the Lord and his word, whose lives bore the fruit of that love. The problem, in part, was simple insularity. When Christians limit their interactions to those who believe or worship just like they do, they begin to think that the particular theological hobbyhorses of their community are central issues in the kingdom of God. Conversations become echo chambers. Human-made customs and long-held traditions take on the weight of scripture. Those who worship differently or believe differently on secondary issues become strange, other, lesser.
“The minute we begin to think we know all the answers,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues and thanked God that he was not like other men.”
These tendencies probably exist in every tradition. The fact is that convictions of any kind can easily breed judgmentalism, if not kept in perspective. For a Christian the crucial perspective is this: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
Simply put, however careful our doctrine, however thorough our biblical knowledge, we do not know all there is to know about God. We need fellowship with different kinds of believers to remind us that we don’t have the triune God—“who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”—figured out. In some ways, the more theologically astute and convicted we are, the more desperate our need.
So even as I have, over time, become more rooted in my own tradition (grateful for its strengths, bearing with its weaknesses), and committed to my local church, I’ve come to believe more strongly that I do not want to raise Baptist children, or Reformed children, but broadly biblical Jesus-followers who enjoy warm fellowship with God’s people wherever they’re found.
I confess when we visited the church in Maui, I found the rock-band-style worship off-putting, as well as the large-screen sermon. I expected more jokes than serious preaching. I did not expect a rousing forty-five-minute message from Hebrews 12 on perseverance. I did not expect to be encouraged and challenged, or to remember some of the preacher’s points several weeks later. The other day, as I talked to my son about the sermon (he too remembers it, particularly the points linked to baseball illustrations), I was humbled to recall my own dismissiveness. As if those sun-kissed vacationers who’d left the beach or the golf course for corporate worship weren’t “serious” Christians. Those people in that church with the raucous, repetitive praise music—God knew I needed them.
Cover photo by Akira Hojo.