I was raised in an unbelieving family, but it was impossible in those days not to learn a little bit about God while attending the public schools. For whatever reason, Mom sent us kids to Vacation Bible School for four years (me age 8, 9, 10, 11).
Now, as with all Sunday School and VBS I've been familiar with as an adult, they taught us all the cute stories of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Moses, Jonah and the whale, David & Goliath, a shepherd named Jesus, and even a story about Paul being let down over the wall in a basket. I never did figure out why the stories from that book called the Bible were so important. There was never in my understanding a connection between the stories, or what it all meant to me. VBS apparently failed to tell the Gospel message among the cute stories.
When I was 12-years old my parents divorced and my brother and I were given to my father's custody, while my 3 sisters remained with my mother. My father, as I later learned, had some unusual ideas about religion. He was also a firm believer in reincarnation. When I was in the 7th grade my father became a Mormon. I had no idea what that meant except that he now went to a church sometimes.
When I was 15 my brother and I went to live with my mother. I went to church once while living with her; this was when my sister went to a Catholic church with her boyfriend. The service was mostly Latin and incomprehensible to me. I found it very intimidating and scary.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had found Erich Von Daniken's book, Chariots of the Gods. The premise of this book was that God was a space man, and all the advanced civilizations of the past were that way with the help of space travelers. The book had as its root philosophy evolution, which public school had taught me as the truth. The author had a very convincing argument for many Bible passages that supposedly described space travelers' visits. The Ark of the Covenant was even identified as a radio transmitter for talking to the space-man god. I was thoroughly hooked on this theory of God and the Bible.
With this background, you can see how easy it was for me to be proselytized by a Mormon in October 1970, when I was 18 and in combat engineer training. With the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, I learned that God indeed was living on another planet and that we were all his spirit children who came to earth to work our way to heaven by following his many laws and being a good person. I gave no thought to searching the scriptures - I just let the elders lead me to all the proof texts. The book of Mormon read just like the King James Bible, so it had to be the word of God. I became a very good Mormon.
On Christmas Eve I was on guard duty late at night. It was clear, and as I looked to the heavens I prayed to God that he would reveal himself to me as he did to Joseph Smith. I was truly seeking God, and I believe God honored that prayer. James 4:8 says, Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (NAS) It just took a while for me to listen.
There is a progression of teaching in any cult wherein you are slowly led into the more esoteric doctrines. You only learn things as your brainwashing can tolerate the information. I was short-circuited in this process, obviously by God's doing. During the summer of 1971 I strolled into a Christian book store; after all, I was a Christian. I immediately found a tract titled something like, What do Mormons Believe? I picked up this tract and began reading the most shocking things I could imagine. Rather than telling you all I learned, I’ll just say that I took my concerns to the church, where I was basically told that I shouldn't worry about such distortions from “Gentiles,” and that I was to forget all about it. But I couldn't forget the stuff I read and over the next few months I checked things the tract said against my Gideons New Testament which I had received on entering active duty. I found things didn't make sense with the Mormon teaching. But I also didn't understand most of what I was reading, and just became angry that I had been duped.
I decided the Mormons had been right about God living on another planet because that's what I had believed before, so that's sort of how I left my faith; faith in a space man that could send me to Hell. It just didn't matter. All I knew was that I would no longer be a Mormon.
By the summer of 1973 I had taken several honors for leadership in various settings and had gotten a reputation as an excellent soldier among my unit of paratroopers. This landed me a job in headquarters company as an operations clerk. This also put me in an office with a Christian man named Dan Cook.
Sometime that fall Dan invited me to play soccer with him and a bunch of his friends. At the first game I learned there was something different because they opened with prayer. Soon I learned about this group known as The Navigators. By late November I began going to Bible study with them as they taught me the true Gospel of Jesus, and in January of 1974 I came to confess Him as my Lord and savior. From that point on, I attended weekly Bible study and attended chapel services.
An important side note is that on August 1st that same year, during my last leave, I met Jill, the girl who would become my wife two years later. Her family were Lutherans (LCMS).
I left the Army and my Navigator group at the end February 1975, and settled in Columbus, OH, where Jill was going to Ohio State. I didn't go to church because I was afraid of false teaching. Of course, beginning in April that year I had to work Sundays, so that kept me from even thinking about church. I married Jill in August 1976, and in September 1978 we left Columbus for a new job with the FAA in Aurora, IL. The new job still had me working most Sundays.
Although Jill and I would study the Bible together, and I read it all the way through several times, there was no real spiritual growth in our lives until we determined we needed to raise our children in the church. That was late 1986, and I began studying scripture, church doctrines, church history and anything that could help us decide what denomination would be best. A friend at work decided this was a good time to talk me into becoming a Roman Catholic, but all the stuff he taught me about the church just led me into deeper and deeper study to where I rejected Catholicism totally.
We moved several miles north to Geneva in May 1988. I began an even deeper relationship with the Lord through prayer, and studies, and I finally determined that the LCMS was indeed a church we could attend. So that fall we began worship at a Lutheran Church in Batavia.
When our pastor began teaching Big Bang from the pulpit, we spent the summer of 1992 looking for another place of worship. One of the places we visited a few times was a charismatic Lutheran church, in which were many displays of unbiblical “tongues.” We finally settled in at a Lutheran church in West Chicago.
Although for the most part I agreed with Lutheran doctrine, I was always unsettled by consubstantiation and baptismal regeneration. Also, their focus seemed to be much more on tradition than on Scripture, and even then they were heavy on law and light on grace. We had begun home schooling during this time and learned about non-denominational churches, and, had we stayed in Illinois we would have begun attending one. However, in September 1995 I was approved for a transfer to the Cedar Rapids, IA control tower effective December 1st, so we stayed at our church until moving.
For our first Sunday in the Cedar Rapids area, we went to church with our realtor to River of Life. It was an eerie experience because they are what is known as a “signs and wonders“ church, led by Francis Frangipane, who at that time I had never heard of. The next week a huge snowstorm kept us home.
For our third Sunday that December, we attended a Bible Church in Cedar Rapids. Their pastor was an excellent teacher, and the church was fundamental in doctrine. We stayed there for about six months, but by then we were seeing how much of Willow Creek’s “market-driven” programs were being brought in (they are now totally “seeker-sensitive”).
During the summer of 1996 we left “Willow Creek Cedar Rapids,” and decided to start “church shopping.” We attended other Bible churches, independent Baptist churches and an Evangelical Free Church. Some we’d visit for only the one day while others we’d attend for a few weeks. Finally, in December, we went back to one Bible church we had attended for a few weeks in the summer.
We started attending that Bible church just as they got a new pastor to replace the one who left for another ministry. This new guy wanted to bring in all sorts of charismania, and there was a faction in that church who wanted to bring in the current “Pensacola Revival.” We had made some friends there within the first few weeks, so I started meeting with the new pastor to talk to him about his unbiblical ideas. After two months the church split and another body was formed by many who couldn’t accept the new pastor. Others who didn’t want the new teachings decided they weren’t going to be forced out, and I found myself working with them to either change the pastor’s mind about his weird doctrine or force him to leave. The pastor was finally ousted in November 1997. Some of the more solid elders took over the leadership and teaching while a search for a new pastor was underway. We decided to stay and help where we could.
Over the next year there continued to be lots of infighting among the congregation, and I worked with the elders to try to establish a doctrinal statement, which they never had. So much strife was taking place that teaching suffered. I was nominated for the elder board, but by that time we had decided the majority wanted to go charismatic, so we left to church shop again at the end of November 1998.
By the end of January 1999 we had decided to try the spit-off group, and we stayed there for a few months. They had fair teachings, but leadership wasn’t coming together well, and they wanted more contemporary, rock-type music; we couldn’t live with that and went back to “shopping.”
We had met a family the previous October who attended a local Plymouth Brethren Assembly. They invited us to their church and we began attending there the first week of July 1999. I discovered that Plymouth Brethren have a good reputation for solid Bible teaching, although some assemblies are quite legalistic. This assembly was an “Open Brethren” assembly, which wasn’t too legalistic. It was a fair place to attend, and we liked their style of worship. However, this particular assembly had the local representative for Bill Gothard among them, and many members were followers. There was also a group who followed the Ezzos and another who followed the Pearls. The leadership in this particular assembly was weak and didn’t want to address any false teachings for fear of offending people. And the teaching was hit or miss. By the summer of 2001, we had decided we needed to find a place with better leadership and better teaching, but then in September there was an issue of sin in the assembly that the leadership didn’t want to address. This caused us and a few other families to leave.
Long before our departure, our next-door neighbors had invited us to their church, which was 35 minutes away. We always said it was too far to go (they had worshiped there before moving next to us). Over the many years since we came to Iowa, we had heard from many Christians that the Bible church our neighbors attended was well respected for it’s teachings and leadership, but the distance was always a reason to not consider it as an option for us. However, with this latest issue, we decided to take a chance and drive the distance. We began our attendance at our current church in October 2001, and can only wish we had gone there in December 1995!
My advice would be to never, ever worship at a church with poor leadership, no matter how good the teaching may be. Poor leadership will permit sin and false teachings to run rampant, which will destroy the assembly.
UPDATE 8/23/15: The leadership in this assembly decided in the fall of 2014 that they wanted to be more "relevant" to the culture, to the point of being "market-driven lite." They brought in a "worship pastor" who decided that a concert atmosphere would be the paradigm of the worship service, and much of the songs were from Hillsong and Vineyard, many with very questionable lyrics. Protests to the leadership was to no avail. So we left that assembly for another local body where the pastor was someone we knew was fundamental. The moral of the story is that even solid churches nowadays seem to think they have to be "relevant," as they continue to forget their first love -- Christ and His Gospel.