It has now been nearly two and a half years since my wife and I moved cross-country for my new position as a professor at Northwest University. On the whole it has been a good experience for us, even though we dearly miss the daily relationships forged during our lives on the East Coast. Having recently returned from a rather extended holiday trip to visit friends and family, we were once again reminded of wonderful people, powerful memories, and the former shape of our lives.
For me, some of this old life involved serving for six years as a youth minister in a local church. It is a period in my life I cherish. At the same time, being in one place for so long also meant that I rarely had an opportunity to see some of the different ways church was “done,” either in my local community or the larger world. While there was the occasional visit elsewhere or missions experience, on the whole I was rather dialed in to a very specific order and perspective.
Moving across the country and not being employed by (and thereby contractually obligated to) a specific congregation has allowed me a number of opportunities to see things differently. Though we are members of a local church here in Washington and spend most of our Sundays there, being able to visit other houses of worship from time to time is an experience very distinct from the one I had previously. And even if we never visited any other churches besides our own, its congregational culture is different enough from our previous church experience that it provides a clear example of how unique the body of Christ can be from place to place.
In my role as a ministry professor, I am also blessed with numerous opportunities to meet with pastors, learn about various congregations through student presentations and papers, and read a significant amount of church-related literature. Through all of it, I am impressed with the multiple ways in which church is “done.” Meeting in movie theaters. Having a full-out coffee stand in the foyer. Electronic donation apparatus. Small groups for board games. Addiction recovery ministries. Casting aside a traditional Sunday morning service to partner with a World Vision feeding program. Dressing up, dressing down. Living the Church as community with a group of friends in a local neighborhood. Multiple sites. Churches merging. The list goes on.
And to think: most of what I have seen or heard of is only within the American Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal culture. How much more there is in the many iterations of the Church throughout history and across our world today.
As an historian, knowing that the Church looks different in varying times and places is somewhat of an axiom. All the same, knowing it on the page does not compare with coming to understand what I have in my short time of coastal dislocation. As I look up from the pages of history to both contemporary realities and the wide open possibilities of the future, I am encouraged.