I was blessed to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (the NACCC) in San Diego last month. I took the San Joaquins train down there, going through Stockton and Bakersfield to connect with the Pacific Surfliner in Los Angeles. Coming back I took the Coast Starlight, which brought me into Chico in the early morning hours. It was a beautiful trip!
But I went for much more than the train trip. Our family of Congregationalists has about 330 churches nationally, in most but not all of the U.S. states. It’s good for us to gather, to fellowship, to trade ideas, to worship together, to learn from each other, to celebrate our common heritage, and to look forward to the exciting future that God has in store for us. With this recent trip I thought I would take this opportunity to share my view of denominations.
Back in Lent I preached a series of messages on becoming a Christian. This can be a sensitive issue. There are always some people who emphasize a specific set of hoops – and if you haven’t gone through them, maybe you’re not really a Christian. Sometimes this is because they’ve had strong experiences and they don’t want others to miss out. But other times it’s because they have a very narrow view of faith, or they’re just very controlling types of personalities.
On the other hand, I can certainly remember a time when I would’ve said I was Christian if I’d been asked. But it wasn’t really true. Yes, I went to a church, but I didn’t have any personal sense of faith. At the time I didn’t care much for the church, and I certainly didn’t have any relationship with God. That changed when I began praying as a teenager. I didn’t know much about God, Jesus, or the Bible, but I knew that God was there. I believed that Jesus was His son, and I wanted to get right with Him. From praying the Lord’s Prayer in church I understood to pray for forgiveness of sins. All this led to an experience of the Holy Spirit when I was about 13.
I think it helps to move from personal experience to look at what the Bible says about becoming a Christian. There are lots of passages that could be referenced. Drawing inspiration from one of my seminary textbooks (by James F. White, a Methodist author who taught on liturgy and worship at Notre Dame), I’m looking at five images from the New Testament…
It’s important to have some kind of ownership over your faith. Martin Luther once said, "Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying." And James F. White has written: “No one is born a Christian. One becomes a Christian through becoming part of a community with a distinctive way of life involving definite ethical and creedal commitments. This change in our being is marked by sacraments, which proclaim what God is doing to bring us to faith.”
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are common acts of faith in the church, but we can remember them in light of this famous quote from Billy Sunday: “Sitting in your church won’t make you into a Christian any more than sitting in your garage will make you into a car.” True faith is more than just a shallow level of institutional involvement. And it’s something that no one else can do for you. This is part of the reason why Congregational churches emphasize the right of individual interpretation of scripture (among other things). No one should just believe something because the pastor says it’s true. A sense of personal ownership with faith and conviction is important.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.