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How I Got Here (Part 3)

I’ve now written two articles about how I got here (part one and part two). I sat down to write about the background to this site—the events that led to its beginning—and got a little distracted along the way. Today I’ll actually get to the heart of the story.

I ended the last article in September 2000, at the point where Aileen and I (and our baby son) moved to Oakville. As we did so, we left behind the Dutch Reformed tradition—the only tradition we had really known. We had a few weeks’ worth of experience in the Baptist world but no more. I had never read a Christian book, at least to my memory, but had a background of strong, Reformational theology.

For almost a year we bounced from church-to-church in the Oakville area. We attended a couple of them for an extended period of time (a few months) but in both cases found the churches hopelessly shallow and largely disinterested. We did not have the vocabulary to describe them beyond just being shallow. The sermons were short and topical, the services focused on things other than the Bible. We made no friendships and found no fellowship, even after attending one of these churches for four or five months (literally, we didn’t have anyone show even the least bit of interest in us).

It was just about a year later that we received a card in the mail announcing the start of a new church, a Baptist church, that would meet in a high school near our home. We liked the idea of being involved in something new and exciting and decided we would check it out. It was a Southern Baptist church and one that was meant to be the starting point of a whole church planting movement that would blanket the Toronto area and, eventually, all of Canada. We went to their very first service and were immediately intrigued. The theology seemed sound enough but what really drew us was the emphasis on mission, on being part of a movement that would be dedicated to spreading the gospel. We had never heard of anything like it. But as soon as we did, we were hooked. We were very eager to take an emphasis on mission over an emphasis on theology. In fact, we now believed that Reformed theology was inherently anti-evangelistic.

This was a church we could get behind and we soon settled in and became members. We joined a small group and found deep, meaningful, lasting friendships there. These were exciting times. The church grew quickly, soon passing the 100 mark and then reaching toward 150 (which is amazing growth in a Canadian context). The church soon planted several others, beginning this movement that would transform Canada.

It was around this time, late 2002, that I registered the domain challies.com. My parents had recently moved to the U.S. and I wanted to have a family site through which I could share photographs of the kids. And so I grabbed the family name and set up a site. Being a budding web designer, I used it as a test ground to try out some new designs and new methods. At one point I decided to write an article or two. In one of his sermons, our pastor mentioned Mother Teresa in a positive sense, using her as an example of true Christian virtue. I looked into her and wrote an article I titled The Myth of Mother Teresa. I enjoyed doing that writing and eventually wrote another article or two. The search engines worked their magic and soon people were reading these articles. About a year after the site started, I pulled down the photographs of the kids and decided to focus on writing. It was at the end of 2003 that I made the commitment to blog every day, a habit I’ve maintained to the present day.

But. You knew a but was going to come in sooner or later, right? The first couple of years were a honeymoon time. Two things combined to bring the honeymoon to an end.

The first crack in the foundation came when I began a new job. I had been laid off from one company and had just begun at a new one. And I hated it. To keep myself sane, I would go for a walk each day at lunch time and along my route was a Christian bookstore. One day I ventured in and bought two books, one from an author whose name I had heard a couple of times and the other by one I knew nothing about. The first was Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and the second was Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Montgomery Boice. Out of all the books in the store I walked out with those two. MacArthur’s book, I came to see, may as well have been written as a direct response to the church I was part of. And Boice’s book may as well have been written to warn me and remind me of all I was leaving behind as I walked away from Reformed theology. And I can say without hyperbole that these two books, that one-two punch, changed my life. Things were never the same.

The second crack in the foundation came when the pastor announced that we would be starting a study called The Purpose Driven Life. I knew very little of Rick Warren, though I had read The Purpose Driven Church earlier in the year at the pastor’s suggestion. I knew the book but had no idea how big Warren’s ministry and influence had become. In early 2003 our church committed to going through PDL and at this time I was involved in lay leadership within the church. I decided to use my blog as a forum to go through the book day-by-day, focusing particular attention on Warren’s use of Scripture. Unknowingly, I had tapped into an area that was of great interest to many Christians and, in particular, conservative and/or Reformed Christians. The number of visitors to the blog climbed rapidly. And I began to see that Rick Warren was at times unbiblical and at other times sub-biblical.

By the time I had read those three books—MacArthur, Boice and Warren—I knew that I was in the midst of a crisis. MacArthur was saying to me that we are our theology—that what seems to be good practice can’t be good at all unless we have our theology right. Boice was saying that we need to return to our theological roots. Warren was saying that we need to do whatever God seems to be blessing. The battle lines were drawn. And I became convicted that theology matters but even more, that Reformed theology matters; that it is biblical.

We did not leave that church right away. Actually, we stayed there until 2006. But things weren’t ever quite the same. Now I assumed that I could be a force for change—that if people just saw what I saw, they would want to change too. I was largely humble about this, I think, but still insistent. And I was to be disappointed.

There was one phenomenon I noted in this time. This church did a great job of drawing people into the church and encouraging them to turn to Christ. There were many very credible, undeniable professions of faith through the ministry of this church. But we began to see that so many of those who got saved hungered for something this church would not give them. Many walked in the front door, were saved, and then a few months later walked out the back door to the Harvest Bible Chapel in town where they were fed on a diet of Scripture. At one point we went on a men’s retreat where a guest preacher delivered an expository sermon and many of the men of the church came to me afterward and said, “I don’t know what that was, but it was amazing!” They hadn’t known how hungry they were until they got a glimpse of true spiritual nourishment.

In 2004 The Passion of the Christ was released. Our pastors had been sent to an early screening and returned from it raving about the film and declaring that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for evangelism. They asked the congregation to dig deep in a special offering and eventually sent thousands of people in the community to see the film (they raised sixty thousand dollars for this purpose). They had small groups and seeker groups prepared to handle the flood of converts. Thousands took the tickets, but not a single one showed any interest in the gospel. Literally, not one. Meanwhile I went to the first screening on the first day and wrote a critical review of the film. Once more thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people, came to the blog and read the review. The number of daily visitors climbed from the hundreds and into the thousands.

And here was the great irony. At this point I was becoming a voice of Reformed theology, of this Young, Restless, Reformed movement, even while I was somewhat torn about such theology. I believed it on one level, but went to a church that denied it. And still I felt that at some level Reformed theology could not be reconciled with a desire to share the gospel. I was one of the voices of the Reformed though I was not fully Reformed myself. I was receiving emails from people asking if I thought they should leave churches that sounded an awful lot like mine. The irony was not lost on me, but I did not know how to reconcile this in my mind.

Problems came to that church, eventually—problems based largely on very poor church leadership structures. By late 2005 we had completely lost our confidence in the leadership and realized that the church would never change; our hopes had been hopelessly naive. Many of our friends realized the same and moved along. The church was just a shadow of its former self. The enthusiasm was gone and now we realized that there was no sound theology to back it up. We had no evangelistic movement and had no good theology. Along the way Aileen and I had been changed, not because of what the church was, but because of what it wasn’t. We couldn’t look back.

We experienced an interesting providence in this time. One day I noticed a comment on my blog from a guy named Paul Martin and for some reason clicked on a link to his blog. I was surprised to see that he was a pastor in Toronto and that he was Reformed. He loved Piper and MacArthur and the guys I had grown to love. I sent him an email and we met for lunch a couple of days later. And that was that—I knew what I had to do. The very next week we visited his church, Grace Fellowship Church, and began to attend there just a short time later. And here we found a church that loved Reformed theology, that loved the gospel and that loved to share the gospel with the lost. Here we found people who were being saved and growing in their faith and sharing that faith with others. And they were doing it all exactly because of their strong grounding in the doctrines of grace. I would be lying if I said that it was an immediately easy transition; in some ways we missed the “bigness” of all that happened in the old church. It took us some time to learn how to love GFC and to learn to be loved by the people there. But all along, we knew it was where we had to be.

We remember that old church church with a strange fondness, yet a genuine frustration. We realize now that it was a church growth church, one founded on the ideology of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels and others like them. We knew nothing of this at the time. We have the vocabulary for it now and would never make the same mistake again. God chose to bless us despite our downplaying the importance of sound doctrine. And he patiently taught us that we could have theology and practice together—that the best practice must come out of the best theology. He taught us that theology truly does matter. And we aren’t looking back.