Why Going Through a Church Split was One of the Best Things to Happen to Me

A few weeks ago, I was talking with one of the newest pastors at my church about an interesting bit of theology he had mentioned in his sermon. This led to a brief discussion of my church background, and more to the point, that I was involved in a pretty ugly church split while I was in high school.

“Wow,” the pastor said. “That’s terrible to hear.”

And I thought: Was it?

It’s been almost 15 years since the church split apart. The early days were especially bitter, and I won’t pretend I don’t still bristle when certain theological arguments are made or when Jonathan Edwards is mentioned. But in retrospect, the only lamentation I have is that it was a church split. I mean, the people of God should not be forced to divide in such a painful manner. In reality, the trajectory of my life has hinged on two events. One was walking up to Dagny Scott at the Grand Valley Honors College picnic in 2000 because she looked bored. The other was the day Dan Cummings got voted in as pastor of Five Points Community Church.

A Renewed Life

I’ve written elsewhere about what Dan Cummings did to Five Points. He turned it from a free-will Baptist church to a pretty hard-core Calvinist one, driving out about half the church, including a number of leaders, in the process. And the flock scattered and was absorbed and took up leadership positions in a number of other area churches. (Tangentially, one of my brother’s closest friends wound up at Alaina‘s church; they even dated for three months.)

My parents and I wound up at Marimont. (My brother was away at college by that point.) I had just finished my Junior year of high school by the time we settled in there; even though I officially switched my membership and got actively involved, I never really truly felt at home there. But it’s important that I did go there, because it’s where I first heard of Word of Life and their youth missions trips.

Scan of early sermon notes, in which I label Satan "The Dumb One."I was always a good little churchy kid. One of my earliest memories (age 3 or so) was praying for salvation with my dad in the sound booth at church. I brought my KJV Bible to school with me in first grade, prayed the sinner’s prayer with at least one kid on the playground, and by age 11 was taking copious notes on the sermons. In fourth grade or so, I impressed my Sunday School class with the fact that I’d read almost all of the Bible, including the boring bits, like the Old Testament prophets. Even in my “falling away” period (ages 12-15 or so), my big rebellion was, gasp, not reading my Bible on a daily basis.

All that to say, on a June day in 2000 I found myself in the Newark airport on the way down to Mexico with Word of Life, amazed and humbled by all of the other kids’ true hearts for God and their courage to actually evangelize in the airport. I went down for the adventure; I came back with a renewed understanding of what it meant to live and speak out of faith.

Would I have gotten to that point if I hadn’t gone to Mexico? If I hadn’t gone to Marimont to learn of the trip? If I hadn’t left Five Points to go to Marimont to send me to Mexico and Guatemala, and later, El Salvador, Honduras, and Alaska? I don’t know. Maybe. But I do know that because Five Points split apart, I went on several life-changing experiences.

A New Path

But I didn’t just learn of short-term missions opportunities from Marimont. I also met a woman named Amy Byle, who was and still is working two days a week at MSU Outreach & Engagement. When in October 2004 I found myself woefully unprepared for non-Dry Cleaner jobs, she managed to get me a job maintaining a databasewith her, which eventually led to me achieving a Master’s degree. (As a side note, I also owe it to Dagny that I developed an interest in the field…and that I met Carl Bussema, through whom I met my friends in Lansing.)

Oddly enough, if it weren’t for working at Outreach, I likely wouldn’t be at Covenant Eyes either; I only applied there because Davin Granroth, who had worked briefly with my boss at Outreach, found me on LinkedIn and asked him to pass along the job description.

Because Five Points split, I met Amy. Because Five Points split, I moved to Lansing. Because Five Points split, I am in a very literal sense where I am today.

A Critical Faith

Adventures in the Bible: In Which a False Pastor is Kicked OutBut of course, those are the tangible outcomes. The intangible ones are much more important. Specifically, for the first time I was actually forced to question my faith. What was the significance of TULIP? How could there be both predestination and choice? What role does prayer play?

Again, I was always the good Christian kid. I mean, check out my truly awesome sermon notes, circa 1993. When you’re raised on a steady diet of Arch Books, AWANA memory verses, and Adventures in Odyssey, something’s bound to stick, right? But there’s a vast difference between hearing what’s taught and actually internalizing it and determining what to keep and what to reject. Six months of church-hunting, on the other hand, will bring theological differences into sharp relief. It prepared me for the sudden diversity of perspectives I encountered at Grand Valley, wherein I had friends who were equally firmly entrenched in their denominations as I was in mine. This included a large group of friends who generally fell in the agnostic/atheist or even neo-pagan camp. Known then as “Fundie Lisa,” I was frequently accused of blindly following my parents’ faith; if thathad been true, I can only imagine I too would have eventually stepped away. Fortunately, “the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

I remember hearing once (possibly from Pastor Dan, ironically) that there are distinct generational trends in terms of church involvement. A first-generation Christian, as was my father, will be gung-ho for God; he will be a very active participant in his church. Second-generation Christians, as I started, are more passive in their faith; they will attend church, but because they’re supposed to, not because they seek active fellowship in faith or great transformation. Their children, then, would almost completely fall away; their salvation would come from works; they may return for Christmas and Easter, but that’s it. Such were my father’s parents until the tail end of their lives. Such would be the trend unless something happened to reset the cycle. ForĀ  me, it was the division of Five Points.

If Five Points hadn’t split, I wouldn’t have gone on missions trips.

If Five Points hadn’t split, I wouldn’t be in Lansing.

If Five Points hadn’t split, my faith wouldn’t be my own.

So, was it a tragedy that my church split? Yes. It always is. But it’s better to split over theology than something insignificant (like music). And if this is what had to happen to put me where I am today, then the split was, in a strange sense, the best thing to ever happen to me.