Faith traditions can be a funny thing when it comes to talking about how folks identify themselves. Denominational or theological heritage can be for many a simple matter of family heritage i.e., “My great grandparents were Baptists so I’m a Baptist.” This generational default seems to be the prevailing occurrence for many of my Christian friends. Others sort of “fall into” a tradition without much thought as to why they join one faith community over another. I have a few family members who are members of a United Methodist congregation, but were not looking to specifically join that tradition. They simply attended, felt welcomed, and stayed.
Church researchers and sociologists have done all sorts of studies on why people attend the churches they attend. Common factors include a local congregation’s proximity to their home, demographic similarities between the individual and larger congregation, worship style, etc. What I notice when talking to people about why they attend a particular church is that their reasons are seldom theological/doctrinal. They may have a general sense of whether or not they “agree” with what the church does, but that’s about it. In my experience, the denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), of a particular church and all the history that comes with, isn’t a focal point for most. Perhaps I should add the caveat that I’m mainly talking about Protestant contexts, but even then, my Roman Catholic family members seem to reflect the “family heritage” trend.
I’ve always envied folks with a “tradition” and the sense of belonging that can come with it. My mother came out of a slightly fundamentalist Bible Church background and my father, who became a believer in his early 20’s, was influenced by highly conservative “KJV only” Baptists. Much of my childhood, however was spent attending either an Evangelical Covenant or Evangelical Free church. I think my parents felt much more comfortable raising my brother and me in more inclusive Evangelical “community churches” as opposed to what they had been exposed to in their younger days. My parents have repeatedly said that they wanted us to live out of God’s love not under a set of rules.
The big appeal for many of the folks in the community churches that I’ve been a part of is the lack of a long-standing tradition. For them, dispensing with a church history that may be several centuries old is a welcomed freedom. I appreciate part of this sentiment, while also regretting it. On the one hand, tradition and (the catechesis that comes out of it) can become empty and robotic. Things are recited and regurgitated with little to no reflection on the part of the believer. Many Evangelicals who have come from longer standing traditions have felt the need to get away from such empty church experiences. On the other hand, people like me who have “grown up in church” without strong ties to any particular heritage can feel lost. We often ask ourselves, “What do we believe and why do we believe it?” For a long time I wasn’t sure who to look to for developing my theology. As a young person, if I were to ask five trusted elders within my church I could have easily gotten five different perspectives…confusion abounds.
Part of my journey toward an Evangelical Anabaptist faith is marked by a need for clarity without dogmatism, catechesis without mindless creedalism, and community without unnecessary exclusion.
More to come.