Palaces of the World: My Departure from the Liberal Church - Part 1
Written by Kendra Thompson
In 2016, I upped my prayer game. Not because it was my idea, nor because I am especially pious, but because I was struggling over some deep issues in ministry and when I consulted a friend and trusted mentor on the matter, her first question was, “Have you prayed about it?” It was such a simple question, but it also humbled me to my core. Had I prayed? No, no I had not. When I think back to that time, it just wasn’t a priority of the community I was steeped in. In the congregational church I served, members were faithful to give blood, attend rallies for various secular justice causes, serve meals and pick up garbage on the side of the road. They were intense “doers;” but they eschewed the essential Christian practices that could have grounded them, and I was starting to resemble this lack.
I started praying again as a means to discern wisdom and a path forward in a challenging season. But the funny thing about seeking God is that we don’t choose our destination, God does. As I continued to follow God in my prayer life, a path appeared for me – like stepstones or guideposts. And they led me right out of the liberal mainline church.
What was the path? What is the liberal mainline? The path for me took me away from churches attempting to be culturally relevant and striving to match the whims and changes of contemporary culture at the expense of their Christian confession. I have experienced this in a variety of denominational settings.
I served a church in Eastern Iowa for six years, four of which were filled with dissension, dysfunction and decline. After tense meetings, expensive consultant fees and in the end a painful worship service containing rebuke from our congregational minister, the church I loved began their search for a senior pastor once again. One notable difference was that they were half the size they had been four years prior, and they expected the leader they hired would help them grow.
Why was this pastor supposed to positively affect the church? Because she was openly gay. Not because she had experience in church growth, nurturing pastoral skills, nor a stellar preaching reputation. She lacked all of these. As we soon discovered, she didn’t even profess personal faith in the triune God. Her main qualification was her progressive sexual identity, and we learned the hard way that this did not benefit the church.
I sought the Lord’s wisdom while I was still serving liberal churches. I vigilantly picked up prayer and God opened my eyes. I cannot unsee what He showed me. When the pastor, who decimated the church I loved, finally left, I wondered if I might step into the head of staff role. It was an arduous wrestling match in my spiritual life with some painful moments of insight. At one point, I confronted the supply preacher about her Easter sermon in which she presented that believing in the bodily resurrection of Christ was optional. When I was critical, she assured me that this was her most praised sermon yet. On another occasion, in a town hall meeting to discuss the expectations of the next pastor, several members vocalized that they no longer believed in Christianity, they just wanted to participate in a welcoming community that valued social justice. The reasons were myriad why I should not take this call, but perhaps most prominent were the places in which the congregation’s theology and my own drastically diverted.
Eventually, I decided to part ways with that church, not only the local congregation but the denomination as well. It was a challenging departure, but I believe God was in it. The Lord opened my eyes to the reality that congregations that no longer believe in the sovereignty of the triune God are destined to manufacture humanistic alternatives instead. In the liberal churches I served, there were no active conversations about this. Even our corporate worship practices around confession and absolution were seasonal disciplines; as if we were just giving lip-service to the importance of confession, upholding a ritual long after its practice had any real weight or meaning.
I have discovered this is not a compromise I am willing to tolerate any more. I left the liberal mainline and gravitated to traditions that uphold the biblical text as inspired, authoritative, illuminating to the Christian life. And not only that, but churches that recognize our need to confess our sins and receive absolution. Not from the institution, but from God our maker.
What this looks like now is a home we have found in the Christian Reformed Church in northwest Iowa. Lately I am relishing in the gifts of being a layperson in the pews: the grace-filled liturgies, the congregational singing, and the unapologetic gospel consistently heralded by our pastor from an immense pulpit. God delivered my family from a painful, misfit place to higher ground. Not without sacrifice, but with provision and joy along the way. And the Lord gave me a spirit of peace where restlessness was before. It feels good to have landed in a place where truth is still a standard and people still treat each other with Christian grace and kindness.
While I am thrilled to have found a home in the Reformed tradition, I am also aware that divisions are coming for the CRC. I trust that most of the congregations will hold fast to our clear Christian confession. It is indeed what brings life and peace to Christ’s church and God’s kingdom. I know, because I have seen firsthand what happens to places when they forfeit this essential piece of the life of the church.
John and Kendra have both travelled through various denominations as members and in ministry (PCUSA with seminary training for both at Austin Sem., UCC, Episcopal, ELCA), trying to fight for orthodoxy and the gospel in those denominations and watching their local churches as well as denominations get hollowed out by progressive ideology. John is now teaching at Dordt.