In 1997, God slowly began to turn my world upside down. I was a recently married newspaper journalist, writing about sports, politics, and breaking news in north Georgia, while wrestling with God over the meaning of big themes in his Word—sin, grace, election, perseverance, sovereignty, the human will, what happened in the atonement, the meaning of all those covenants, and such things.
My colleagues no doubt thought I was losing my mind as my briefcase bulged with austere books, their spines adorned with names like Calvin, Bunyan, Spurgeon, Sproul, Packer, and Piper. My Bible went everywhere I did.
For months on end, my daily rhythm morphed into working all day, then going home and reading deep into the night. God stirred in me a desire for vocational ministry and a virtual madness to know what these doctrines meant and how they should both change the way I was living and shape what I was soon to preach.
By summer 1998, the tulip grew hither and yon across the landscape of my spiritual life. I had found my spiritual Rivendell at last: Reformed theology in its Baptist expression. Acts 13:48 and Romans 8–9 provided the final knockout blow to my free-will theology.
All these years later, what should I make of my childhood church and upbringing that wasn’t so much steeped in bad theology as it was built upon no theology? Was all that time in church wasted? And what of those pastors who led and those saints who served? They didn’t adhere to the doctrines of grace—they still don’t.
Sawdust Trail Christianity
I was graced to be raised by parents who believed God’s Word is inspired, without error, and authoritative in matters of faith and life. They taught me the God-man, Jesus, was the only road to heaven. Our small, rural Baptist church was the epicenter of weekly life. We were there Monday night for choir practice, Tuesday night for outreach, Wednesday night for prayer meeting, and of course twice on Sunday.
My childhood church—its teaching and ethos—might best be described as Sawdust Trail Christianity. Think dinner on the grounds, seersucker suits, little church in the wildwood, altar calls. We sang “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” as often as the humidity was high. As a child I wasn’t catechized, but I was taught the Bible by flannelgraph. Our pastor regularly warned us of Communism and Ozzy Osbourne.
Why I Appreciate It Still
It’s a common testimony among friends and fellow pastors: many of us grew up in churches that didn’t teach the theology we now hold dear. While there were certainly some unhelpful things—messages and methods that were spiritually meager, even counterproductive—after years of reflecting on it, I’ve come to see there was quite a bit of wheat within what I once dismissed as chaff.
Here are seven reasons I don’t want to write off my childhood church. (One disclaimer: these insights are based solely on my experience. I realize many readers were raised in churches that taught dangerous doctrines or even outright heresy, churches that may not have scattered any seed worth wasting water on.)
1. It prepared me to receive Big God theology.
I was taught that God is in control, even if the language of sovereignty wasn’t used. I was taught that God is good and also punishes sin. I was taught that hell is real, that the hero of the Bible is Jesus—even if the Old Testament wasn’t viewed as Christocentrically as I see it today.
2. It reminds me of my need to recognize and celebrate God’s grace in every place I see it, even when it’s not emanating from my theological tribe.
I’ve failed at this more times than I care to count. I’ve arrogantly dismissed what I’ve judged as theological churlishness or spiritual shallowness—as if heaven will be made up largely of the doctrinal elite.
Shame on me.
My childhood church was filled with godly Christian people. Our pastor wasn’t seminary-trained and lacked a precise theological vocabulary, but he led me and many others to Jesus. Theology is important, of course, but my theological upbringing could’ve been far worse.
3. It reminds me that Reformed theology didn’t save me; Jesus did.
No, my childhood church didn’t introduce me to Calvin, and my parents didn’t bounce me on their knees to heroic stories in places called Worms or Dort. But that little church and my parents introduced me to Jesus, and only Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
My childhood church introduced me to Jesus. And only Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
I’ve grown to see as dear friends Calvin and Luther and Spurgeon and Newton and (Andrew) Fuller and a host of other faithful witnesses—but I still would’ve spent an eternity with God without ever knowing those men.
4. It reminds me that I should never start a war trying to convert others to my theology.
I didn’t open my eyes to sound doctrine; God did. Be careful what you say about your childhood church and be humbled by what you know, always mindful of why you know it, bearing in mind Paul’s words: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1–2). “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
I know of too many families split by well-meaning but wrongheaded seminarians who go home and try to start a new reformation in their home church or extended family. God is patient with us, so we must be patient with them, loving them joyfully even if they never understand our passion for the TULIP.
5. It reminds me that God uses churches and pastors that don’t subscribe to the finer points of my theology.
I’m convinced God uses different types of churches and pastors to minister to people from various backgrounds.
Take, for example, a pastor friend with whom I grew up. His circumstances didn’t permit him to procure a seminary education. God had a different plan for him. His day job for many years was driving a bulldozer, clearing trees and carving out driveways. And for three decades, he’s taught and shepherded people who’d never listen to me. God has fitted us both for ministry, but in different settings. I’m grateful for his faithful work among the people of my home region. There’s some rock-hard ground there, and he’s done yeoman’s work in sowing gospel seed. I pray for him every week.
6. It reminds me that my mission is to make disciples, not Calvinists.
I’ve been privileged to learn quite a bit about Calvin over the years, and I’m certain the man who asked to be buried in a nameless grave would seriously balk at the term “Calvinism.” I share with countless non-Calvinistic pastors, including the one who led me to the Lord, the same fundamental mission: to see sinners saved and saints formed in Jesus Christ.
Of course I want others to learn what I’m convinced is sound doctrine, but if they come to know and love Jesus and never agree with me on some second- and third-tier matters, that’ll be plenty.
7. It reminds me that knowing theology doesn’t mean I’m spiritually mature.
Being a theological egghead doesn’t necessarily make me godly, and a lack of interest in reading the Puritans and reformers doesn’t necessarily reveal a lack of godliness. I’m grateful for the simple but steady believers in my childhood church who worked hard all week and loved their Lord. Each time I read Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, I think of my now-deceased parents and our friends in that church: “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.”
Being a theological egghead doesn’t necessarily make me godly.
Members there believed the Bible is the Word of God—it was never a controversy for them, and I think largely because of that, it’s never been for me. They might not have read Edwards or websites like TGC, but many of them were mature, godly, and wise.
Grateful for Grace
If I truly believe in God’s sovereignty, then I should be thankful for all his providences in my life, not just post–Reformed awakening ones. He’s used each to shape me in ways I’ll never fully understand. God doesn’t waste anything.
My friend and mentor, Tom Nettles, once told our church-history class that a man of grace ought to be a gracious man. If you’ve embraced the doctrines of grace later in your pilgrimage, by all means be thankful for your theological destination, but also for the circuitous path God took you down to bring you there. It may have been better than you think.