Our family was invited to a local plain congregation (which we had heard might be of the horse-and-buggy variety). We liked it so much that we decided to go back. They weren’t horse-and-buggy Amish, though. They were ex-Amish.
WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK?
Church is wherever we’re assembled, even by phone. Find a daily prayer partner and know that someone’s fighting for you!
Actually, they weren’t just ex-Amish, they were ex-ex-Amish. In other words, they’d grown up in families that left strict Amish communities, then reached beyond these social circles to form a more flexible church community. So their lifestyle was similar to the Amish, but without regulations.
Joe and I began to understand the complex dynamics of leaving closed-minded Christian communities to create healthier communities. What does a person do with his own beliefs that he knows were formed in reaction to an unhealthy upbringing? Where does he go to learn about the standard Christian experience without denominational bias? How does he form a ministry team with others in his situation, who share some of his unusual experiences and understandings while rejecting others?
After some time with the ex-ex-Amish, we began to see why people are so unwilling to let go of unhealthy mindsets. Joe and I spent hours discussing with each other the beauty and tragedy of secondhand hypocrisy.
After all, while it’s easy to see the drawbacks of another denomination, it’s hard to grow past personal denominational weaknesses. Until you have been extensively exposed to alternate thought patterns, it is almost impossible to branch out past your own worldview. One thing I learned from growing up in a theological melting pot was that a denomination is a cultural worldview. Not a truth option.
Please allow me a moment to explain. As a high schooler fighting desperately for the minority view of absolute truth, I became aware that New Age inclusivity hurts. It hurts when there are so many worldviews in a church that the church can have no solid doctrine. It hurts when Buddhist-style meditation is presented as equally valuable to contemplative Christian prayer. It hurts when education becomes more important than the plain, simple gospel.
But, the opposite approach to faith is no more a truth option than this. It hurts just as badly when Christians waste our time waving red flags at one another’s problems. Why contrast the failures of others with our successes, when it ends up making them look bad and raising their defenses?
Our problem is that the absolute truth doesn’t flourish in a hostile environment. Furthermore, if we keep responding to the lies of relative truth with reactionary biases, our children will become doctrinal casualties. I was such a one.
Through all of our transitions, Joe and I have learned that God’s values are miraculously magnificent. He doesn’t rectify denominational fragmentation in his body by trimming back his gorgeous body of theology. Instead, he uses his absolute truth to prune away our misunderstandings, little by little.
The more intellectually mature we are, the easier it is to reach past our mental limitations to discover glorious solutions to Biblical paradoxes. The more emotionally mature, the longer we can pause to gather nuggets of truth while listening to opposing viewpoints.
God values relationship over behavior, and this relationship changes behavior. Interdenominational relationships are the way past the paralysis of the body, into learning moments that defy relative truth and define absolute truth.
With those bits of original inspiration, we reach the conclusion of my story. As of 2019, I am still privileged to live and work in a seriously flawed, often hypocritical ex-ex-Amish congregation. This is not a put-down, for I am the queen of serious flaws and frequent hypocrisy (and by now I almost fit into a crowd of cape dresses and head coverings- lol).
After all of the places where we have sought healthy church, this has been the only one that really values relationship over behavior. Admittedly, I often disagree with what is taught from the pulpit (and sometimes I quietly signal my teenage son to disregard it). My husband gives our family insights to explain where our friends are missing foundational components of the truth. (The men of the church take turns giving the sermons each week, so we hear a variety of perspectives.)
Positive theological critique is very healthy for our family microculture, but we don’t often bring arguments into the church environment. With an encouraging community atmosphere, we hope to give our children a solid handle on accepting others unconditionally and working hard with our hands. In the company of true friends, we are teaching the kids to hear God’s voice for themselves all throughout the week.
I guess I’ve come a bit full circle back to my Mennonite roots. Knowing that any community can be dissolved in a heartbeat causes me to relish the little things that make our common life so valuable.
I would never go back to the church where I was raised, for all of its cultural treasures. Yet they trained me to be a spiritual forerunner, never considering my relationship with God to be more valid than anyone else’s. They taught me that Christianity is an adventure, always fun and new, never boring or lonely.
After all that I’ve been through, I am grateful for every bit of cultural agreement that I have with my friends. I realize that many Christians would love to live in this environment, where everyone can grow and can their own food, teenagers can put up a barn as a youth group fundraiser, and no one talks about dating until they’re ready to get married. I have no problem insisting that my daughter wear long skirts and loose tops, for she never tells me that her friends get to wear their clothes tighter or shorter than hers.
These aspects of lifestyle are worth far more to me than doctrinal agreement, mostly because we homeschool our children privately from Bible throughout the week. We’re not always busily chasing the next dollar. Our community has time for each other; to honor our boys’ mental purity and our girls’ hearts, to raise food and live life at a slow pace.
Birdwatching is big among the youth here, along with shooting armadillos and impromptu soccer games. I feel like God has honored our desire for a delightful community for our children, despite the difficulty of doctrinal chaos.
All of this works for me right now because I can access plenty of sermons online that fit my doctrinal preferences. However, the one thing our family can’t do online is form real-life friendships. I understand that doctrine determines behavior, so I’m hoping that my future grandchildren will have both solid doctrine and daily church community.
But God wants me to take responsibility for my own family micro-culture now, and that means slowing down long enough to teach them from the pages of his textbook. It requires chatting with them frequently about what their friends do, and why. By providing a healthy culture, Joe and I are giving our children the best chance that we can to develop healthy relationships with God. And these cultural opportunities have come at a high cost to us.
Where I came from, cultural opportunity meant foreign language lessons, ballet class and college prep courses. Where my kids come from, it means swimming fully clothed in the creek with friends, butchering deer and listening to our buddies practice preaching.
I’m aware that our lifestyle could change in an instant. We could end up traveling and speaking, or ministering in the Chicago ghetto. What I’m most thankful for, though, is the insight that not all cultural opportunities are created equal.
I’m thankful to have learned through all of my wilderness wandering what it is that God truly desires. God wants to partner with us in creating beautiful moments, without dominating us or being ignored by us. All I can do is respond to him, follow his leadership of me, and see what he writes in my story.
Story writing is his thing. Above all, he values the slow, careful, mental dialogue between he and I that determines everything else in my life. Therefore, this kind of dialogue is what our website is about.
I hope that reading my story has given you a fresh perspective. If you’d like to tell me your story, or let me know how my story has encouraged you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. I read all of the emails that I receive.
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Thanks for reading!
-Sara Ruth Tucker
**UPDATE: THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN 2019. As of 2021, our family is living in Branson, MO. We miss the ex-Amish culture and we’re thankful for the beautiful years we spent there. Branson has a different culture, but very beautiful scenery as well!
Next: Is This Blog Cultish?