My Churches: A Spiritual Travelogue (part 2)

Today I’ll continue my recollection of the churches that I’ve called home over the years. (See part 1 here.)

While the congregations of my childhood and adolescence in the Twin Cities were all members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, deciding to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia meant that I didn’t have a Covenant church to attend. (Even today, after years of denominational growth, I think there’s only one ECC church in Virginia, and that nowhere near Williamsburg, though North Carolina has a handful.) So began ten years of my worshiping with Baptists.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why I threw in my lot with that tradition. I think it had something to do with an inherited suspicion of “country club” mainline churches and what I assumed to be their rigidity of worship (ironic, given the appreciation for liturgy I’ve developed in adulthood, and my marriage to a Lutheran). In any case, it was a mostly haphazard decision that’s stuck: while I remain a committed pedobaptist, I attended only Baptist churches during my decade “out east,” and am now nearing the conclusion of my first decade teaching at a Baptist university back in Minnesota.

Williamsburg Baptist Church – Williamsburg, Virginia
University Baptist Church – College Park, Maryland

Williamsburg Baptist Church
Williamsburg Baptist Church

I really remember almost nothing about Williamsburg Baptist, not surprising given the shallowness of my commitment to the Church as I neared the end of my teenaged years. But it proved to be a fateful choice of faith community, since one of my first Sundays there I ended up having lunch with the music minister, Mark McIntyre. Bonding over a shared love of Star Trek, I became good friends with Mark and his soon-to-be wife Vicki. In my memory, they are Williamsburg Baptist.

And he didn’t stay there too long after I graduated. As it turned out, Mark accepted a call to the Baptist church virtually on the campus of the University of Maryland just two years before I arrived in College Park to undertake several months of dissertation research at the U.S. National Archives, just down the street. So I lived with the McIntyres and their exuberant young son and attended University Baptist. (And proved to be a perfectly useless yardboy for them. Though not a bad part-time cook.)

While I never felt deeply connected to either of these congregations, the McIntyres were wonderful friends at a time in my life when my commitment to the church was fraying. (At least, that’s how it felt at the time. In retrospect, it was more a matter of what at Bethel we call “making my faith my own.”) And they modeled a different kind of Christianity: as an evangelical, I appreciate that I can put a couple of friendly faces to theological liberalism in those moments when I’m tempted to be dismissive of that movement.

Memorial Baptist Church – Pulaski, VA

This, by contrast, was the most conservative church I’d known to that point in my life. Though it didn’t take long to realize that the Southern Baptist spectrum — or rather, the Baptist spectrum in the South — was vast. (I’m sure there are Independent Baptists and Primitive Baptists who would view Memorial as hopelessly liberal in some way I wouldn’t begin to understand.)

First a bit of explanation: my family ended up following me out to Virginia just a few months after I started college at William and Mary; after a first career as one of the world’s leading medical researchers, my dad started a second one as a pediatrician serving an economically depressed Appalachian county that had no such specialists when he arrived. In cultural and economic terms, Pulaski is even further away from Williamsburg than the four and a half hours it takes to drive on I-64 and I-81.

And if I’d written this blog as an 18-year old, Memorial would have come off quite poorly right now. But then there are few people more self-righteous than a college freshman who’s taken one religion course and decided he knows everything wrong with existing churches. Few except for a Northern suburbanite encountering the rural South for the first time. And I was both of those people.

To this day, there are memories of Memorial (so to speak) that still get my blood boiling. But most of them fade in the light of realizing my own blind spots and in appreciating my parents’ steadfast dedication to a faith community that has had to weather multiple schisms, economic downturns, the graying of the Baby Boomers, and the simple fact that there are far too many Baptist congregations in competition with each other in that part of the world. (Memorial is the only church in the 24301 ZIP code listed in the Southern Baptist Convention directory, but according to Google there are at least seven more Baptist churches in a town of 9,000 residents, plus a couple more in the neighboring town of Dublin.)

More than anything, my experiences of Memorial make me recognize my complex relationship with the Baptist tradition. On the one hand, I find it vexing that Baptists tend so strongly to “major in the minors” (Memorial was only one of the churches in this post to experience a schism during my time there) and to distance themselves from any sort of living “Great Tradition” while failing to recognize their own dead traditionalism. On the other, I’m continually impressed that Baptists (of almost all stripes) are so dedicated to religious liberty (in the sense of participation in a plural society and in the sense of the competence of each soul to choose what it believes) and to evangelism.

1st Baptist Church – New Haven, Connecticut
Trinity Baptist Church – New Haven, CT

1st Baptist Church of New Haven
1st Baptist Church, New Haven, CT

Aside from being Baptist churches in New Haven, these two had precious little in common. First was an American Baptist congregation featuring the theological diversity typical of that denomination; Trinity was a vastly more conservative group loosely affiliated with the Southern Baptists. First was an old church struggling to chart its future; Trinity had shrunk to 30 members and nearly voted itself out of existence the year before I arrived, but it was on the precipice of remarkable growth that, three years after I left, would cause it to move from the Adventist church where we met.

I started at 1st Baptist, then came back from a year of dissertation research trips to find that it had split. I ended up going to Trinity not because of Josh Moody’s strongly Reformed preaching (which drew the attention of Colin Hansen when he wrote his Young, Restless, Reformed book; see pp. 58-62 — Josh, a Jonathan Edwards expert in his spare time, has since gone on to bigger and better things at the center of the American evangelical universe) but primarily because that’s where almost all of my friends from First had landed — in particular, the gifted philosopher-pianist with whom I had been playing in a praise band.

And that’s what I take away from both of my grad school church experiences. It was the first time in my life that I played any role in leading worship (namely, playing guitar and occasionally contributing an original song). And it was the first time in my life that I got to know fellow scholars who also happened to be evangelical Christians. Without that experience, I’m not sure I would have considered applying for jobs at Christian colleges, which would have meant not coming back to Minnesota to teach at Bethel University and worship back home in the Covenant Church.

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