I can't remember the first time I went to church after becoming Christian. I think back on this and what stands out in my mind is the November 2005 night I knelt at my bedside praying for the first time after becoming a believer that day. I did not go to church for over a year after becoming Christian. I didn't know where to go and wasn't sure exactly what I believed yet. The idea of going to church made me very nervous.
Denominations were by far the most confusing thing to me as a new Christian. I was turned off by the idea of a nondenominational church. I felt like there was no clarity. There was a lack of straightforward statements on beliefs and a lack of detail when beliefs were mentioned. Everything seemed so vague. I started reading more about denominations and their history. I was suspicious of the newer denominations. I thought there could only be one right denomination, and surely it had to be the oldest. All of these newer denominations couldn't be teaching the original truth? I was seeking to get as close as possible to the New Testament. I didn't know as much church history as I do now. I ultimately chose to be Roman Catholic because of the timeline of when their church started. I also really liked the clarity that could be found in the catechism.
I picked a Catholic church and went every now and again. I found it quite boring. I don't even remember the first time I went there. It felt empty. We'd go through the motions. Stand, kneel, get up, repeat, do the hokey pokey, try to keep up with the rituals, and don't make any noise. Catholic churches are big, often beautiful, and very quiet. Oftentimes, I could barely hear the priest. There was little to no fellowship. I don't even remember the priest's name. The stained glass windows were purple. There was a lot of gold and fancy looking things. The building was one to impress the world. I always felt like a visitor. I rarely went. I do remember reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church cover to cover looking for clarity on understanding the bible that was still a confusing, foreign text to me. My faith was stagnant. I wasn't growing. I was trying to be a good Christian, but something was missing. I began to have questions on what was true. I started to question if the Catholic church really was the original church and the only true denomination.
A friend of the family had repeatedly invited me to her church. It's the Southern Baptist church up in town. I had always declined, being so stuck on following a denomination I thought it might be wrong to visit a church not affiliated with my chosen group. Visiting that church had been on my mind and I felt like going there. I remember driving there the first time. It was March of 2009, March 15th if I remember correctly. I got to the end of my road. If you turn left, you go to the Catholic church downtown. If you turn right, you go up to town to the Baptist church. I didn't know which way I was going to turn when I got in the car. I turned right. I went alone. I slipped in near the back pew on the left side. I don't remember what was preached that day, but I do remember my eyes watering because I felt something when I was there. It was the first time I had felt the gentle presence of God in a church service. Everyone was friendly. I filled out a visitor card. They mailed me a card to thank me for coming. I really wanted to go back. I began to research more about denominations and started researching the differences between Catholics and Baptists. I actually went in to talk to the pastor about it. We ended up talking for 3 hours that day, and I made up my mind not to be Catholic anymore because there was too much that was different than the bible. I became a regular up at First Baptist in town and decided to be Southern Baptist. That was spring of 2009. I formally joined the church. I got baptized in May. And it was there that I started reading the bible.
In Fall of 2009, one of my cousins wanted to start visiting churches. She came from a conservative church that staunchly taught anyone who leaves that denomination will go to hell. I told her I'd be happy to visit churches with her. I thought that sounded exciting. I have always loved religious studies. I particularly liked studying church history and the different denominations. I was really excited to do this project! I wanted to visit as many denominations as I could find locally and learn more about what they taught and how they differed from the others. I had read about their beliefs, but I had not experienced church services outside of about 3 denominations (Mormon, Catholic, and Southern Baptist). So, I made this big schedule. My cousin ended up not being able to go with me. I went everywhere by myself with the exception of a few times I visited churches with coworkers or friends. Many weekends I went to multiple church services a Sunday. People thought it was odd. They wanted to know what I was searching for. I wasn’t lost. I was wandering around on purpose. I felt like I was supposed to do this “project”. I wanted to explore churches. I was the visitor. It was a very unique experience. The things church folks do and don’t do were still somewhat of a foreign concept to me even 5 years into being Christian. I really enjoyed doing the project. I ended up doing
16 weekends over a 6 month time period
40 church services
at 31 different churches
of 20 different denominations and 5 non-denominational churches
It was awesome!
I blogged about the whole thing. I blogged about my experiences as a visitor, my observations, and what the church service was like. Sometimes I would share what the sermon was about or talk about how that church differed from others. I would share my reflections a lot and how I was growing. Mostly it was the experience. I would observe so many little details. Each church has its own culture. Some churches are very quiet, others are loud like a concert. Some churches ignore visitors, others greet. Some are friendly, some not so much. Some places you pass through, others ask for your contact info. The music style and the preaching style varies so widely. This was the first time I had experienced more modern lively music. I loved it! I had never been to a Pentecostal church before. I didn't think I would like it because I'm an introvert, but it ended being my favorite kind of church. People seemed very disapproving of me visiting different churches. I wasn't looking to find a new church. I was just exploring. In 2010 I finished the church visiting project and went back to First Baptist. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t over. I felt called to wander. Not all who wander are lost. Some are learning by exploring. There were some churches I wanted to go to that I ended up not having time in the project's schedule. There is one church that stands out in my mind. For as long as I can remember, I have felt drawn to that church. There's always been something about it. I wanted to add it to the schedule, but I already had 2 Pentecostal churches on the list. So, I didn't go. (Spoiler alert: That is MY church now!) Also at the time I had really started slipping in walk with God, my behavior, my self-discipline. I was smoking and gambling a bit buying those lottery tickets every week eyes fixated on getting rich. I had a mouth like a sailor. I wasn't thinking on godly things. I wasn't the way I felt like I needed to be. In September of 2010, I started praying for God to send me someone that would help me get on the right path. In October, that prayer was answered with a new co-worker.
In January of 2011, things changed. I had that co-worker who I considered to be a godly man. He seemed set apart from the mainstream. I was regularly going to church, but I wasn't living right or acting right. I certainly wasn't talking right. I can tell you that. He had something peaceful about him. I remember one night at work looking at him and thinking I can see God in his eyes (I know now that's the Holy Ghost when someone is Spirit filled) and I wondered why I couldn't see that in anybody at my church. He invited me to his church. I actually really wanted to visit his church because I wanted to see what kind of church could produce such a godly man. I thought it would just be a visit. I've been to many, many churches. I had never heard of Apostolic Pentecostal before. I wasn't really familiar with their beliefs. There was a Pentecostal church I had visited more than any other church when I did the church visiting project. There were only two churches I visited that I went back to. That Pentecostal one was huge and I enjoyed the services there. I used to go every now and again when I "needed my Pentecostal fix". I walked into that church and experienced something I had never experienced before. I felt the presence of God there and it was strong! It felt right being there. I was hooked from the first time I went there. There was something different about this church. It was unlike any other church I had ever been to. I craved what they had.
I was not expecting to leave my church. That grieved me. The experience of leaving a church certainly was an interesting one. That was the first church I had ever been a member at. I liked it there a lot. I felt God leading me to move on to this other church. I was not expecting arguments, criticism, and cold shoulders. It was quite ridiculous. People told me I was joining a cult and that I would be isolated, but they turned around and quit talking to me. I remember one time I was at the ice cream stand and saw someone from that Baptist church. I went to say hi and she saw me, said "Oh" with a surprised look on her face, and spun around on her heels and walked away. Another time I passed by 3 of the young women about my age in Walmart. The one in the middle smiled awkwardly. I walked over to say hey. The other two women literally turned their backs and stuck their noses up looking at the ceiling. I was shocked. I ended up unfriending all of them on Facebook (which surely left the stigma on me) and moved on with my life. I had thought at first that I would go back there and visit sometimes, but not after the way I was treated when I started going to another church.
It took me a couple months to join the new church. I had a lot of questions. My first day there was 2011 January 30th. I fell in love with it. I got the Holy Ghost in March and I was baptized in Jesus' name in May. We did a bible study that spring. I did disagree with some of the teachings mainly when it comes to "holiness standards", but I ultimately chose to join the church anyway. I was there for a few years before I backslid. I quit going to church in 2015. Also, they had become very social media focused and the cameras made me so nervous. I wasn't comfortable being on camera. It gave me anxiety to even think about going. When I started there, they were ALJC (Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ). A few years later they switched to UPCI (United Pentecostal Church International). In the time that I was backslid, there were a lot of changes and a lot of people left the church.
In 2019 I was so backslid that I declared I was leaving church altogether. God had other plans. He pulled me hard to another local Apostolic church and I settled in there. One thing I did do differently is choose not to formally join the church and I chose to be independent of denominations. This church is WPF (Worldwide Pentecostal Fellowship). Most of the teachings are the same between the different denominations of Apostolic Pentecostal churches. I think WPF is more on the conservative side and ALJC is a little more liberal in comparison to the larger UPCI. I lean more conservative on most things except for standards of outer appearance. That's a blog for another day. But I've settled there at the Apostolic Lighthouse Church, the same one I felt drawn to all those years. I feel strongly that's where God wants me to be.
I used to think you had to have a label. You had to follow a church, a denomination. You had to have a church to teach you what the bible says and clarify what your beliefs should be. I followed churches and pastors. I thought that was the right thing to do. Over the years I've seen ministers go astray and churches change. It seems more and more churches are becoming worldly and watered down. Even conservative churches have watered down their beliefs so not to offend the world. When you follow a man (pastor, minister), you better be careful that he is following Jesus faithfully and the Word of God accurately. I think it's important to have a good pastor and biblically knowledgeable ministers to seek wisdom and guidance from. I wouldn't discourage anyone from joining a church or claiming a denomination as their own. I do identify as Apostolic Pentecostal because I'm a Oneness believer, baptized in Jesus' name, filled with the Holy Spirit, living for God daily, and I do believe holiness should be our lifestyle (though I differ in my views on holiness and "standards"). That being said, I do not follow or label myself with WPF, UPCI, ALJC, etc... There are too many things I disagree with and pressure to conform is common. For me, it's best to remain independent if I'm going to stay in church. I study the bible, interpret it the best that I can and seek God for understanding, try to live righteously, be good to others, and walk my own faith journey. I think that I will always stay with this path of being independent of denomination. That's what's right for me.
I've been Christian almost 15 years. It took me a while to find my way. I've been at different churches, labeled myself different denominations, been out of church, backslid, come back, and changed my views on things over those 15 years. And you know what? That's okay. It's growth. It's okay to move forward even if it means leaving where you've been or changing your beliefs and choices. Follow God. Find a church that preaches bible and worships the Lord. You do need a church. I definitely recommend an Apostolic Pentecostal church, but that's just my perspective from my own bible study and church experience. Keep following God and his Word; he will lead you to where you need to be.