Having entered the Reformed world only seven years ago, after following Christ for over twenty years, I am deeply grateful for the proper doctrine and sound, consistent, biblical teaching that is now in my life.
I came out of a traditional Black Baptist church in a rural area of central Virginia. It was not possible to be uninvolved in our church because every person was expected to be doing something in and for the church. My family was at early morning service, Sunday school, and morning service every Sunday. I was a member of the choir, an usher, and a Sunday school teacher for the younger children, as well as helping with Vacation Bible School and with the kitchen committee when our church served dinners before evening services. Our church belonged to a very active local Baptist association, and we visited and served in these other churches throughout the year as well.
In hindsight, I can honestly say that I learned some good things in my years there that have been carried on, like the necessity of holiness in the Christian life and how to be an active and engaged member of the church. However, I can also say that there were quite a few things that were never consistently applied or fully fleshed out.
For example, because I was not taught about total depravity, I focused on being externally good and perfect, while neglecting the need to mortify sin within my heart. Without a true understanding of human nature, I believed that sinful people were normally good but just had “evil spirits” working through them. I thought that what they needed was not to repent but to deal with those spirits so that they could just “act right” and honor God.
To borrow a phrase from my current pastor, there was a lot of furniture available in the rooms of my mind, but there was no design to bring structure and order, to make proper use of that furniture, or to determine what needed to be discarded.
In God’s providence, Reformed theology brought the structure and order that I desperately needed, and over the past seven years, I’ve been trying to learn and take in as much as I can. The more I have learned, the more I have realized I have to “unlearn.” There were so many things that were just poorly taught throughout my early years of being a Christian.
Also in God’s providence, I had a wonderful opportunity this January to share this testimony and offer some encouragement to my fellow brothers and sisters in the faith at the conference Building Bridges Instead of Barriers in St. Augustine, Florida. This was truly a new and overwhelming experience for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many brothers and sisters in the OPC. The conference was my first interaction with the OPC. Dr. Eric Watkins and his beautiful church family have left the deepest impressions of Christ-honoring brotherly love in my heart and mind. So I write these humble encouragements from a heart of sincere love for you and the whole body of Christ and with a desire for all of us to grow up into maturity in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When we gather together on the Lord’s Day, we should be mindful that feelings of discomfort, the feeling of “being out of place,” happens to all kinds of people at various times and for reasons that don’t always include the color of their skin. Personally, I’ve felt like an outsider for a number of reasons including: my failure to love essential oils, my vaccination decisions for my kids, our income level compared to others, where we chose to live, not knowing the random Latin phrases in church, and more.
So don’t just go out of your way to try and make the ethnic minority in your church feel included and welcomed. Go out of your way for anyone who may be uncomfortable. Go out of your way for the single person when they’re in the midst of married couples. Go out of your way for the older people in your church and for those who have disabilities or frequent sicknesses of all kinds. Go out of your way for the introverted homebodies and the extroverts that may leave you a little more tired than normal.
Go out of your way to welcome, know, and encourage all kinds of people who are walking through different seasons of their lives because one of the main reasons we come together as a church body is for fellowship (Heb. 10:25). Go to church every Sunday with the intention of welcoming and encouraging your fellow brothers and sisters. Open up your home and be hospitable. Spend time praying for and with one another.
I believe that we should challenge ourselves to be willing to ask or answer hard questions that many people are too ashamed or embarrassed to engage, such as:
Of course, even to be able to answer these kinds of questions, we must be people of the Word who are bound by convictions. We must not only know the proper doctrine, but we must study the Word so that we are fully convinced in our minds and live out what we know is true, right, and pleasing in the sight of God.
It is by knowing the Word of God that we can have thoughtful conversations with one another, even when we disagree. In college, we often reminded one another of Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” We know that we don’t all see things the same way, and that is not always a bad thing. God forbid that a church is full of people who are all short-sighted in exactly the same areas! Who knows how the Lord may use your insight in the life and minds of others?
We are constantly being assaulted by the evil one, and he is trying to replace our sure hope in Christ with a false one (1 Peter 5:8–9). We must be diligent in holding fast to it and not allow our hope to be co-opted for something inferior. Therefore, we must know the Word of God and truly love one another as we are commanded.
This journey into the Reformed world has not been trouble-free for me. But I now have this amazing privilege of hearing God’s Word faithfully preached and proclaimed every week—and I say this as someone who left the cultural comfort of the Black church to hear what you hear each week. We are richly blessed, but these doctrines we are hearing make little difference if they are not influencing how we live and anchoring our hope in Christ Jesus.
The author is a member of Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA) in Charleston, SC. New Horizons, May 2019.