Growing up in northern New Jersey, I had little contact with the Evangelical culture common in parts of “Bible Belt,” exurban, rural America. Prayer was not commonly uttered in the public sphere, there was no presumption of church attendance, and large, modern “mega-churches” did not dot the landscape. All of these things I would observe later in life, as service in the Army took me to other parts of our nation.
I was raised in the Catholic Church, faithfully attending weekly Mass with my family, preparing for sacraments, and even helping out in small ways as a church musician and altar server. Yet my outward “faith” was rather empty. I had had the initial conversion of baptism, but not the second conversion of heart of which the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks.
Then in high school, a friend invited me to her church—an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, to be precise. This was an entirely new experience. At the time, I did not have the theological vocabulary to name the obvious differences in sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and ways of reading Scripture—but as a teenager what I did understand was that for some perplexing reason, these people thought that my faith was of critical importance. I stayed for ten years, attending Baptist churches wherever I lived in the United States, and even visiting one of the rare Baptist churches in Northern Ireland.
As a Baptist, I learned the habits of Christian living—important lessons, for it is in the risks and challenge of actions that we often grow in faith. This is certainly not to say that one cannot learn these things in the Catholic Church, and today these habits blend seamlessly into the fullness of my Catholic faith.
However, in my particular time and place as a young adult, the Second Vatican Council’s decree in Unitatis Redintegratio that “the Spirit of Christ” indeed uses Christian congregations, to include my Baptist brothers and sisters, “as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church,” rings true in a distinctly personal way.
As I take comfort in the firm hope that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will one day possess full and visible unity as Christians, I express sincere gratitude for the “lessons of church-going” I learned in Evangelical congregations, of which these are a few.
Love preaching: Baptists are not known for short sermons. As a teenager, adults around me in the pews modeled an enthusiasm and heartfelt desire to hear the Word of God proclaimed. When preaching was effective, it was only right to shout “Amen,” “Preach it, brother!” or “Alleluia” in affirmation. I looked around and saw members of the congregation taking notes—this was important stuff—and knew I must pay attention. Listening to sermons was not passive: I learned to bring a Bible and pencil so that I could actively receive and continue to ponder a sermon in personal prayer.
When I hear some of my fellow Catholics grumble about the excessive length of a seven-minute homily, I am thankful that the contagious enthusiasm of my Evangelical brethren rubbed off on me.
Be accountable to, and for, the Christian community: My Baptist pastors made it clear through cheery yet serious reminders during services that it was my duty to be at my “appointed place” at the “appointed time.” Attending service was not a box to check, but a responsibility to the congregation. Missing church or Sunday school unexpectedly usually resulted in a kind call or e-mail letting me know that I was missed.
The collective sense of accountability extended beyond simple attendance taking. A Catholic priest who had been raised as a Southern Baptist once remarked to me that he recalled men of the congregation asking him about his prayer life or “testimony” as a young teenager, and then letting his father know how his son seemed to be doing. I know that older members of Baptist churches I have attended will occasionally ask if I am keeping up with Bible reading or how my prayer life is.
Through their examples, I learned that in a spirit of love, Christians must hold each other accountable, encourage good habits, and genuinely care about each other’s spiritual wellbeing. While this is challenging in many larger Catholic parishes, I am thankful for their examples that I carry with me into parish life.
Live out your baptismal priesthood: In a theology steeped in “faith alone,” I quickly learned, from the high levels of participation in various church ministries of those around me, that ministry was an action inherent in my identity as a baptized child of God. There was an imbued sense that everyone had a gift to offer to support the ministry of the church, whether it be cooking food, chaperoning children on a bus route, being in choir, teaching a Sunday school class, praying for missionaries, or doing evangelistic outreach. Being a teenager new to the church was no obstacle or excuse; we were all presumed to have something to offer and every person was needed to proclaim the Gospel to the world.
I know many Catholics who have a sense of detachment from their ministry as baptized believers. Devoting oneself to a contemplative or active ministry of one’s parish is seen as an “extra” for those who are especially devout, but not for an “average” baptized Catholic. I am thankful for being taught at a young, impressionable age that my Christian identity could not be separated from the call to participate in the work of the Church.
Some will read this and think, “she would have learned that in my Catholic parish” or “all of those lessons are found in Catholic spirituality.” The first may be true, and the second is most certainly true. My claim is merely personal: I have seen and experienced the gifts of Evangelical churches in a way that has profoundly influenced my life of faith in a most positive way. Although we have significant doctrinal differences, it is with love that I express deep gratitude to Evangelical Christians who formed me in the habits that enable me to continually respond to God’s call and grow as a Christian.
Colleen Reiss, a M.Div. candidate at the University of Notre Dame has served in young adult ministry, children’s catechesis, and as a chapel music director.
Joe Carter, What Evangelicals Owe Catholics: An Appreciation