I recently went to my middle cousin’s wedding. Everything was in the church, the ceremony and the reception. The ceremony featured songs, the type of music my mother-in-law listens to on K-Love. The music was simple, just a guitar player and two vocalists. The majestic organ remained unused (I asked the Pastor about it, and he said, “I suppose we’d use it if we found someone to play it, but maybe not”). The service was not so much about marriage between woman and man, but marriage through and in Christ. As far relationships between people, theirs would be the closest, but it could not and would not compare to the relationship with God.
The church itself looked like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, beautiful but almost wholly unadorned. In an almost complete 180 degree shift from the Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches, there were no Icons. There weren’t even any pictures. There was simply a large Cross, made of roughly carved wood, the type of Cross that would easily splinter and sliver its barer. Personally, I like resplendence of Orthodox and Catholic (and some Lutheran) churches which ooze history and personality. I like the tradition, the “feeling” of ceremony. I like the more relaxed, more contemplative nature of services.
This isn’t a biological cousin, but friends who became family. My wife says, “family is blood, you can’t choose them. But friends are the family you choose.” Growing up in such a small family, that’s certainly true. This cousin, I’ll call “Johnny” comes from an amazing Greek-Sicilian family. The three boys range from three years older than me to four years younger, and are absolute characters. The youngest brother’s wedding was an epic, old-world adventure melding together Italian, Greek and Polish influences with all the food, drinking and dancing would expect from a family of party animals. The oldest brother rapped the Best Man speech, which has since become something of a viral hit on Youtube.
It’s safe to say I grew up with Johnny. Though we’d only see each other five or six times per year, we really clicked. We both had a manic sort of energy, loved classic cars, and bad pop-punk. We also knew how to toss down a few drinks, raise some hell, and always did okay with the ladies. Johnny was something of a thrill junky, so it made sense he bought a hair-metal era Mustang and promptly ripped out the V-4, replacing it with a beast of a V-8. On more than one occasion, I felt my life flash before my eyes racing by suburban strip malls at three digit speeds.
When I moved to Chicago, we spent even more time together. It really didn’t matter if it was house parties, concerts at the Kingston Mines, or just going on drives. Johnny and his family got to know my fiancé, and welcomed her into the fold too. Their annual fall party (and summer barbeque) were eagerly anticipated family functions, with each serving as de facto family reunions. Johnny and his younger brother even stood up in my wedding, as some of the most important people in my life.
Then we kind of lost touch. It was about three years ago, and I remember Johnny after a particularly devastating breakup. That spark seemed gone and I got the sense that he truly felt lost. It wouldn’t be fair to say there was a downward spiral, but Johnny left school and took on a series of menial jobs splitting his time between home and low-rent apartments. He mentioned that there was a void, an empty feeling that wouldn’t go away.
We hadn’t talked for about three months, and I decided to call him up and check in. The first thing I noticed was the complete lack of curse words (he used to swear like a sailor). The second thing I noticed was the complete shift away from talk about relationships with girls, to a relationship with God. He felt he had a purpose. He was starting to do what he was supposed to, help people by becoming an EMT and Fireman. He started volunteering as an EMT and taking night classes. All of his free time was either spent on starting his career, or exploring his faith in a new church.
Johnny grew up Catholic and (like myself) flirted with Greek Orthodoxy. I stayed Lutheran (in name only) but he moved to a non-denominational church that was profoundly Evangelical. He said he “was on fire for Christ”, and said his life was changing in amazing ways because of his new found faith. He was certainly more focused than any other time in his life. He lived simply, content to spend quiet nights at home with his dog. He was busy, all the while reevaluating his relationships, discarding those he saw as negative. I guess I stayed in the keep binder, but this was not the Johnny I knew. It was almost a complete shift.
Over the years, he grew more confident in his faith. It was a continued point of conversation with me and with all others. As an example, he asked a weightlifter at the gym, “suppose you and Jesus get in a fight, who wins?” The weightlifter starred him down, shook his head and walked off. “He didn’t say he could beat him,” concluded Johnny.
He took the saying “let go and let God” to heart, paying attention to the signs and signals of God’s will rather than his own. If something happened, it was ultimately because God willed it. Grand coincidence no longer applied. That’s even how he approached work. If a particular EMT posting wasn’t right, leaving wasn’t through his own decision, it was because a sign had been revealed.
He decided to take the plunge (pardon the pun), and get baptized within this newer, evangelical church. If anyone truly had been born again, it was Johnny. Since finding his faith and entering the spiritual life of the church, he not only started a new career, but gained a completely new group of friends, found inner peace and met his now wife. Such a turnaround was remarkable, particularly if you knew Johnny.
Change is inevitable. People change. Situations change. That is just a reality of life. But I’ve always been curious, why this particular church, and why this specific brand of Christianity?
I am equally amazed by and incredulous of Evangelical churches. The people I’ve met are SO faithful that they really do seem to be living for God. It is all encompassing, and as someone who is agnostic, I just can’t understand it. Within Evangelical churches, you cannot hide. There are no half measures. You are either all the way in, or not at all. With other churches, you can do your “duty” and show up to services, quickly slipping out after it concludes. In this space, they really want to know you. They may have just met you, but they’re going to pray for you. There is the intensity and edginess of youth rolled into an unshakeable, and unbreakable trust in the power of Jesus. That same intensity is now present in Johnny. He’s still funny. He’s still goofy. But there is an edge borne out of supreme confidence.
I want to go an Evangelical Church to learn more about it. I really need to know if most have grown up in the faith, or joined through the efforts of parishioners. I am curious why a more traditional church didn’t speak to them. I honestly have so many questions.
Is it possible for such a church to be evangelical and also progressive?
Is the Bible interpreted literally, and are there conflicts between the modern world (even as they are very tech savvy using multi-media, videos, and social media more frequently) and their beliefs?
Furthermore, why has the Evangelical movement exploded in popularity even as traditional religion has waned?
As always, thank you for reading. If you’d like to invite me to your church, just post a reply or send an e-mail to email@example.com