I was attending a fellowship breakfast at my church that included a number of people not affiliated with the church. One of those folks said in an offhand way something we’ve all heard elsewhere, “Methodist. Presbyterian. It’s all the same!”
At this, a Presbyterian pastor at the table nearly leaped from his chair.
“Oh no they’re not!”
He proceeded to explain the theological differences between these two Protestant denominations.
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This was not exactly news to me. As a military dependent in my youth, I was confirmed twice: once in a nondenominational military chapel and again a couple of years later in a Methodist church in the Deep South.
Actually, I somewhat resented having to reaffirm my solid faith just because all the other adolescents in my new church were doing it, but never mind. I learned a few things, including a hint that the seemingly Methodist emphasis on potential “backsliding” might mean trouble for me. But that’s a story for another time.
I knew that denominations were different, but I silently wondered to myself, “So?”
As an adult, I joined the Presbyterian church I still attend. But it was fully 20 years after that before I came to appreciate the theology and the organizational structure of my chosen church tradition. Those details are complex. Yet while I’m a full participant in Presbyterian tradition and teaching — and particularly service to humanity — I’m often impatient with the endless deliberations and, we have to admit, quarreling among ourselves.
In any case, Presbyterianism is not the door to my understanding of faith. I think of this worthy and historic denomination as God’s mysterious (perhaps humorous) choice to fit my particular personality.
Most people who care about church at all “shop” for a church that suits them. These days, they do a thorough investigation of church websites before they even visit the first time. When they do visit, it’s the welcome … the music … the coffee bar … the kid-friendly spaces … and maybe even the awesome worship that make them come back. But not, I think, Calvin’s Institutes or the catechism (an ordered Q&A for member candidates in many Christian churches).
As religion rolls into the future, I think denominational and sectarian differences and the institutions that hang on to them for dear life will keep on diminishing. People will see who’s walking with the poor, speaking up for the victims, healing the sick, protecting the world’s resources and proclaiming God’s love in actions, not just words.
That’s the church I belong to now. The sign outside says we’re Presbyterian. The people inside say we’re children of God with our work cut out for us.
By the way, Presbyterians don’t “believe in” backsliding. You can’t lose God’s love. You can’t even throw it away. You’ve just gotta live with it. I like that.
Barbara Loots, one of The Star’s Faith Walk writers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.