Tuesday, February 26, 2008

One of "Them"

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of a study it conducted examining the religious affiliation of more than 35,000 Americans. The study was reported by various media outlets like this one and this one. One major finding of the study is that more than a quarter of Americans have changed their religious affiliations.

I’m one of them.

Raised in a faithful Catholic family, I was active in my faith in my youth. As a young adult I earned a degree in theology from a Catholic university and spent several years working at the parish level and teaching at a Catholic high school. Then my wife and I left Catholicism for a nondenominational Evangelical church.

We didn’t leave because we were at odds with any particular teaching of the Church, nor were we upset or offended. Simply put, we were looking for something more. In our early to mid twenties we desired to be part of a close-knit community of like-minded people. Our faith was very personal and real to us, and we wanted to be with others who shared a similar devotion. At the same time, I could not shake the feeling that I was called to pastoral ministry and didn’t see much of an opportunity as a layperson.

So, we joined a nondenominational evangelical church with a touch of charismatic flavor. I became involved in youth and young adult ministry while also learning the ropes as a pastoral intern. After several years of being an understudy I was finally given the opportunity to plant and pastor my own church. My wife and I intentionally chose to adopt a house church format. We became involved in the emerging church scene—a grassroots movement within Evangelicalism emphasizing relational ministry, shared leadership, and nontraditional approaches to church.

Following a model we saw reflected in the New Testament, we met in homes and reached out to others through building relationships and eating meals together. We had finally achieved our goal of creating a small Christian community built on sharing our lives with one another. Only then did my wife and I realize that there was still something missing. Community for community’s sake without a connection to the depth and richness of the historical church fell short of what we hoped to achieve.

We began exploring our options. We researched other traditions and denominations such as Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and various offshoots of Catholicism. Finally we came to the conclusion that what we needed to do was to go home to our Catholic roots. We wanted our children to have the same depth of faith that we experienced. Most of all, we desired the sacramental life of the Church.

And so, after ten years away we have come home to Rome. We are changed and hopefully better for our sojourn in the varied religious landscape of America. I look forward to being able to share the insights gained from being involved in a nontraditional church with the tradition rich parish to which we now belong.

The Pew study revealed that 10-percent of Americans are former Catholics. These have left for various reasons from disenchantment in the wake of the recent scandals in the Church to those seeking more personal experiences of faith and community. My experience has taught me that there is plenty of room within Catholicism to welcome back those who have left and to draw in those who are searching for a place to experience their faith in a deeply meaningful way.