Different Church Communities, Same Faithful God | Ep. 16
During different seasons of her life, Karlene Cannon has seen God show up among His people in a variety of ways. This week, she shares with Rosanne Moore about how each spiritual community that she has been part of has been a place where God revealed Himself.
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Rosanne Moore: Hello Larger Story audience. We are so happy to have you back with us today. I’m Rosanne Moore, your host today on the Relational Spirituality Podcast. And I have Karlene Cannon, a co-host. She’s getting interviewed today because when we first introduced this podcast we had such a fun conversation that we both walked away going, we need to do this more.
So, it’s my turn to ask Karlene some more questions today. Karlene, thanks for being here.
Karlene Cannon: Thank you Rosanne. I’m really looking forward to our conversation. I love talking to you.
Rosanne Moore: I love talking with you too. So part of the whole Real Church conversation that we’re having comes from our deep dive into Larry’s book, Real Church. What is it? Does it exist? Where can I find it? Those are some of the questions he asks. What would make me want to go to church? Those are some of the questions he wrestles with in the book, and I think they’re highly relevant. Maybe they always have been, but they’re certainly highly relevant in our culture today.
Let’s start with, what has been your experience with church? If you gave an overview timeline, what has that looked like for you?
Karlene Cannon: I was thinking about that yesterday before this conversation and was surprised by my own internal reaction to the question as I started to really consider my journey with church.
I’m going to hopefully not get too emotional. I was actually driving in the car as I was thinking through this and had a few teary moments. I think when I think about my first experience with church, I grew up in a Christian home. I was very fortunate and we went to a little country church. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and we lived probably 20 minutes from this downtown area, but another 20 minutes out was just country. Now it’s all big suburbs. We went to this small little church and it was like a family reunion every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. That was my sense of family.
I was an only child and was adopted. My parents had waited for a child for a long time. So that was where I had a sense of siblings and aunts and uncles. In fact, in that time period, I called all of the adults of the church, aunt this and uncle that. That was just how we talked to each other.
That was a very safe, secure home family experience. Then, when I was 10 years old, my parents got divorced and it was like the church divorced us. In 1980, you just didn’t do that in church settings. There was nothing in that little church that was there for us, and because I guess it was smaller, maybe there was some sense of divided loyalty. I don’t know. I was young, so I’m not really sure, but we left that church and left my family behind. That was my first experience of what is now thought of as church hurt; the whole side of dealing with human humans, that is hurtful. It happens in church too. We moved from there to a larger church that had a singles group and a more robust children’s and youth program, and that became a home church and was a really good place for me to land. Me and my mom, we met other families that were made up more like ours, single mothers and divorced parents.
That’s where I spent my junior high and high school years and really where I grew up in my faith. I was really fortunate to have adults that cared about young people and noticed me and invested in me.
I became my own steward of my faith in that church. That was really important. I learned a lot of spiritual disciplines and because of my personality and the way I had chosen to do life, that fit very well for me. The whole, check the boxes and do all the right things, you have your quiet time every day, so you have a good day. It really worked for me. I did get to know Jesus through that. I was doing it in a lot of ways for the wrong reasons. I very much bought into that. If I do these right things and pray this way, and take these sermon notes, then I will succeed in life and have a blessed life. But it worked.
Then I went to college and went to a very secular university. My faith was challenged everywhere, in every class and every interaction. I turned to my church for support in trying to navigate that. I had a conversation with my pastor at home and asked him questions of things that I was running into in college. I don’t remember much of the conversation except him just saying, “This is a unique situation. Most kids don’t run into this stuff in college. I don’t really know what to tell you.” I was shocked by that. That was my second experience of, I really need something here, and not only do you not have anything to offer me, but you don’t really care. It was kind of a cavalier, I’m sorry, I just can’t help you. At least, that’s how I remember it; I could be remembering it unfairly, but that’s how it landed with me.
Fortunately, God is the one who is orchestrating my path. I went back to school and found some people there and a church there that had more answers to my questions and that had more affinity with the journey that I was on. It was a very formative time in my life. In some ways I’m really grateful to that pastor because he left me in a desert where I had to decide: do I know God? Have I really experienced something that is more real and more true than anything I’m hearing in all of these classes and all of these conversations? What is really meaningful? What is really solid? I was pushed to a place where I had to decide.
I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember very clearly this point of decision where I was brought to tears because I knew, not rationally, but with everything in me, I knew that I knew God, that God was real and that He had sought me out and that I was His. Even though I had made a profession of faith as a kid, and would’ve said I was “ saved” and baptized as a child, there was that moment where, in the midst of not having what I thought I needed from church, I was very certain that I had what I needed from God. I’m actually really grateful for that.
Rosanne Moore: Say that again! In that moment that I knew… I’m not going to say it the way you did. Say it again.
In that moment you weren’t getting what you needed from church, you knew that you were getting what you needed from God.
Karlene Cannon: Exactly. In the stripping away of not getting what I asked for from church, not getting my questions answered, not getting the encouragement or even just being taken seriously – some of what I experienced, it just felt like, you don’t even care – God was there. God was taking me seriously. God was answering my questions and He answered them in ways that, perhaps, I would’ve wanted a different answer; I might’ve wanted a rational, point by point, logical argument, but He came in and gave me something I never had before. This certainty, this relational experience of with-ness, that went beyond the rational argument.
And for that, I am so grateful. I could look back at the pastor and wish that he had been more supportive, but in some ways – I think this is a lesson for all of us when we talk to people – in some ways it was his failure to meet me where I was at that kept my heart hungry for God and kept me open to this other opportunity where God wanted to meet me in a way He hadn’t before, or that I hadn’t been available for. Even in my earlier experience, I learned that, whether it was conscious or not, in the human failings that I had experienced at church, that God stepped in and filled in the gaps, and if I was open and expectant that I found Him in new ways that I don’t know if I would have thought of that consciously. I think I was collecting these experiences where I was being disappointed, but God was showing up in unexpected ways.
Rosanne Moore: I think that’s such an important distinction, because there’s nobody who’s not in the process of being sanctified. The best people are still in the process of being sanctified. Which means they fail. We all fail. I think what you’re describing is the difference between church hurt and church trauma.
What you’re describing is things where people didn’t have ill intent toward you, but they just didn’t meet your needs – where they were in their own journey, there was growth that they needed and so they couldn’t meet you in truth the way you needed.
Karlene Cannon:That’s an important distinction. I agree with that.
Rosanne Moore: I think that’s really different from a person who is deliberately using spiritual power to do harm for their own gratification. For those who have experienced that category, I think the process of finding God in the middle of that can look very different.
But, because our culture tends to put things in big baskets, the distinction you’re making for people who have been failed in some ways, not harmed. There’s pain. There’s harm. There’s hurt. That’s a good word. There’s hurt. There are consequences to somebody not meeting you the way that you need it, but that is different from trauma. What you’re saying is so important because it empowers a person to go on with God and not wait for somebody else to get it right.
Karlene Cannon: That’s really important because I don’t get it right. I fail people in my best intentions, and part of being in relationship is extending grace and and hoping that grace is extended to you. I think it underscores both the importance of really seeing people before you maybe act or respond, really trying to get inside what they’re asking for or what they’re needing.
But also trusting that, just like with me and my story, that God is on their journey with them. Just like He’s on the journey with you and he has all of those possibilities held in His hand. I think that’s part of what makes Christian community frightening, at least for me, is the fear that I’m going to fail somebody in a way that would damage their faith.
My own experience of that, when I’m really thinking clearly, gives me confidence that God has them just like He held me. He could use my failure, which, honestly, my pride hates this thought, but He could use my failure in their life just like He used other people’s failure in my life.
It’s not just that I was failed. Lots of people stepped in and showed up in ways that were really profoundly good. It’s just in some ways the failures catch your attention because you’re not necessarily expecting them.
Like CS Lewis says, “God shouts in your pain.” Those are sometimes the ways He most effectively gets your attention, because when you’re not experiencing pain, I think, or at least I can be deluded into thinking, I’m actually walking with God when I’m maybe walking away from Him or at walking farther from Him.
Rosanne Moore: I think too, just from a sanctification standpoint, I know in my own life God has made me sensitive to things He needed to change in me by letting me experience that kind of poor behavior from somebody. It’s like when somebody treats you badly in a particular way, all of a sudden you realize what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that and it can make you very aware that that’s not how you want to be. It’s the whole difference between trying to behave well and really having a heart to want to do the right thing instead of feeling pressured to do the right thing.
Sometimes that really does come out of experiencing somebody else’s sin and realizing that is not the person I was created to be. That’s not the person I want to be. And the Lord can use that.
Karlene Cannon: You’re right, He uses everything.
It’s interesting, this whole exercise of mentally preparing for this conversation. I don’t know that I’d ever reviewed my trajectory, my story of church, but it is very interesting that the story unfolds how that pattern of real growth and substance and newness would happen at each church I went to. Then there was some sort of pain or failure or disappointment that moved me to the next place.
So when I look back at my whole story of church and the people in the church as I moved from church to church, I just did the normal sort of development of life, moving different places.
I was thinking about that yesterday. In each situation I got something profoundly transformative for my spiritual walk. A new, almost breathtaking way of seeing life and knowing God. And I also got a hefty dose of pain and disappointment.
I moved from my home church to college and found a church in college that was really different than the church I had grown up in – very experimental with their worship. I remember clearly, worship services where they just did all music from Africa or all Jewish music or just these really different worship formats that were not the hymns that were in my little red hymn book that I had sung my entire life.
It really expanded my way of worshiping. The pastor was a really good communicator and preached this whole series while I was there on grace. That completely blew my mind open to what grace actually is and what the gospel really accomplished.
It was so ironic because I remember sitting in those worship services just being this sponge that soaked up this different take on theology. Then, two years later, we discovered that he had been having a 26 year long affair with his secretary. What I had received from him that felt so true and real then comes into question because, obviously he was making choices that didn’t align with what he was saying from the pulpit, and so I had to wrestle with that and just trust again that God was speaking through this man to my heart in ways that nobody else had up until that point. I could trust what was true because I was hearing that from the Spirit of God, not from this man who had failed morally in his personal choices, and could be grateful for that. It could be sad for the church, we had moved on by then, we had graduated and moved to a different city, but I could still be grateful for what God had given me even though it felt icky, honestly.
Rosanne Moore: I would imagine you’d have to reevaluate, what part of it was true and what part of it was his distortion to justify exactly his behavior.
Karlene Cannon: Exactly. I think, there’s always something good in the reexamination of, because – a lot of things were happening in my life in college – and I was just open to hear truth, what else was I open to?
Being able to reexamine and refine and and go back to God with these theological principles and wrestle them out, it was an opportunity to do that. That probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t heard that news and called into question what we had listened to under his teaching.
So I do think as I look back – and my story gets a little more, I wouldn’t say necessarily traumatic in personal trauma, but there was some trauma – as I look back at those early experiences, I’m very grateful for the way God kindly shepherded me into evaluating what I was experiencing at church.
I don’t think I thought of this until yesterday. Almost training me for what was coming and giving me a good foundation of being open to the goodness that He was offering me through these different experiences and being resilient and careful to steward where I put my trust in the painful times, so that when some of these other things happened, I didn’t have the same foundational shaking of my faith because I had these experiences where God had kindly carried me through smaller pains, if you will, such that when the larger things happened I had something to fall back on. I had an experience with God that I could count on even when my current experience was very unsettling and painful.
Rosanne Moore: The term deconstruction gets used a lot, and while that can be a literary term, it’s not often used that way when we’re talking about church. I think unbundling maybe is the word that I like better. Skye Jethani on the Holy Post Podcast used that.
It sounds like the Lord had already guided you through a practice of unbundling as you went sifting through, all right, what part of this is God, what part of it is not right. You already had a process or a practice, almost like a spiritual discipline in place, to be able to continually unbundle and reexamine what is of God, what is true, what is not.
I saw that in a church environment that I was in, it was very abusive and very damaging. The people who were harmed the most were the ones who came to Christ in the middle of that because they had no other frame of reference. Those of us who already had a strong foundation with the Lord could pass through that. It was definitely harmful, but it did not shake our core belief in God the same way.
I think that’s why, because we already had a sense of who He was that had not been shaped by that environment.
Karlene Cannon: I think that’s really important. I think that’s why, as I was thinking yesterday, that experience in college became so much more important in my mind, because it was where I really became personally convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was real. That He loved me, that He chose me, that I was His.
And all of the other things could shake that; I wasn’t impervious, but He was. He would hold me through whatever, and that just was personally mine. You could do a lot of things to me to hurt me, but you couldn’t take that from me unless I chose to give it away.
That was my experience, my choice, my conviction, and it wasn’t shaped by my circumstances. In fact, I work for Larger Story, and I’ve been working on a course of Larry’s material. I’ve been reading so much Larry, but I read a statement that I hadn’t actually seen before, or it hadn’t stuck with me, that was so profound. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of, “God promises to form me, but He doesn’t promise to form my circumstances.” It crystallized what I had experienced. The story keeps going. In all of these circumstances, God was faithful to form me, whether it was the pain of leaving my little church family or my pastor, or not answering my questions or on and on. He was always forming me. And my frustration with the situation was that He wasn’t forming my circumstances the way I wanted Him to. But that’s when I could step back from that pain and disappointment and see the good work He was doing in me.
That’s what He promised in Romans eight. He’s forming me and if I can be really glad for that, really grateful, and hold on to that, it gives me the strength to weather the circumstances that He’s not forming the way I want Him to.
While I don’t think I could have articulated that, certainly not that clearly as it was happening, I do think that’s what was happening in me. Some recognition that the forming that was happening in me was more important than what was happening around me, at least for my personal walk with God.
Rosanne Moore: I think ultimately, even with church trauma, you’re still not at the mercy of circumstances. The process looks different. It is a lot harder for somebody who has no other sense of God than what they’ve had from an evil person misusing His name. But He still knows you and wants you, and there is still a path forward. Nobody else can take away your ability to find God.
I think that’s, part of what I’m hearing that’s really key to understand is, we still can come to God with all the broken pieces, with all of the confusion; whether it’s setting aside and recognizing that there’s just hurt that we forgive and we move on and we still choose Him, or whether there’s a really hefty process of taking apart and then finding Him in the middle of the brokenness. He’s still there and He still wants to be known and He still loves us and He doesn’t break a bruised reed. He says that. There’s a tenderness in His dealing with us, in drawing us on to know Him, and He can still be known. Even when we’ve experienced great harm.
Karlene Cannon: That’s so good. In fact, maybe go a step further and say, sometimes He can be more readily known or more deeply known because, at least for me, I’m so much more aware of my need in those places of being deeply bruised.
If I can open up my heart to what grace He’s offering, it’s very profound in those moments or seasons of deep hurt. I want the blessed, easy life as much as anyone, maybe more. But when I look back on my journey, the greatest difficulty were the times that I was the most connected to the Trinity and the most desperate for their love and pursuit. And I think, in reality, I’m just as desperate on a good day as a bad day. But my awareness of that desperation is much more accessible to me, and I act on it in a much more passionate way when I’m aware of that desperation.
I think it’s harder to do in the middle of those situations, but as I look back, I can be really grateful for those times, because those were the times where I really grew up in my faith and in my understanding of who God is and how He loves me.
I hear what you’re saying. My story is not as fraught with trauma as many stories are, and I’m grateful for that. But I am grateful for the desperate times. At least right now. Check in and remind me to be grateful.
We moved into adulthood and I got married in college. My oldest is just out of college and I have two boys in college. This is a difficult season for your life in church. I think churches don’t know what to do with young adults very well, and they’re moving a lot, their life is very transitory. We experienced that too. Mostly, as I think about that, we were just looking for friends. You leave college where you have this great friend group and then cast out on this sea of adulthood and it’s somewhat traumatic, going from that college bubble to real life.
We floundered trying to find a church for almost eight years; we just bounced around. We did find a really good group of Christian friends, a small community. We still connect with those guys every year, even though we’re all in different cities now. That was just such a blessing to have friends who are in a similar season and we could just enjoy entering into this season of life together.
Church was a means to an end, if I’m honest, of just finding people in that season. And I’m grateful for that, but I wouldn’t say that it was a significant part of my spiritual life in those years. Then we had kids and, something about having little ones, you have greater needs again.
We had moved to Atlanta by that time and we found a great church here. We were in this church for 12 years. It was a large church, and it just became the hub of our life. Our kids went to school there. Rich was an elder; that’s my husband. We were very involved in their small group or discipleship programs. We went on mission trips with this church. It was a fundamental, significant part of our life.
What started as just a small group that met in our home became, I think what today we would call a home church. We had, regularly for about 10 years, 50 to 80 people who came to our house after church on Sunday. It was that little church I had grown up in, way back in the day. It was basically just an extended family that we did life together for probably about eight years. Obviously that whole experience was very formative for us.
Personally, God reached into my life and shifted some of my theology in ways that had a profound impact on how I lived my life. Mostly, I think God was preparing me for what would eventually be my experience with Larry Crabb and another ministry that’s led by a man named Larry Bolden.
So both Larry’s came into my life in that season, but a lot of that transition for me was moving away from the wrongly held belief that if I was good enough, God would love me enough. If I checked all the right boxes and did all the right things, my life would work out. That kind of worked for me as a teenager, and even into my twenties, but in my thirties, life just got out of control. There were not enough boxes and I couldn’t check enough of them. The relational pain had accumulated enough that I couldn’t escape it. I also developed theologically and gained a real, restful understanding of God’s sovereignty and how He held me, no matter the circumstances of my life. It was walking me toward this way of living in pursuit of relational holiness because of my relational sin, and away from, if I can just get my behavioral sin managed well enough, I’ll be okay. So that was significant. It was a decade of kindly moving me toward that. But, at the same time, like I said, we were tightly integrated in that church and even family members were part of the church. We had some family situations that, I won’t go into detail, but they became very divisive and even though the church was large, it became untenable for both families to stay in the church. It became clear to us that God was moving us somewhere else.
It was very painful. 12 years so tightly integrated and I loved my church. I loved the people. I loved what it stood for. I loved the way it impacted the community. It felt very aligned to my own theological beliefs at that point. It was painful to leave. At that point we did have, like I said, this community group or home church meeting in our house, and they weren’t leaving the church. Pretty much all of them stayed, which I wanted them to stay, but it created this difference of church loss. So, for a couple of years we actually maintained our home church with members from the church we had been at and the church we went to, which was interesting because, we would come from these different services and come to our house and there was a little bit of a culture clash, because the two churches were very different. That was actually a significant learning experience for us, just to see that in microcosm every Sunday afternoon.
We went to this smaller church, which was actually fun to go from the big church. Even though we were well known, I felt like we had the best of both worlds because we had all of the opportunity of a large church and yet we had this tightly knit, smaller group within the church.
But going to a smaller church, especially for our oldest child, was really important. It was a place where she felt much more at home. She was entering high school at the time and it was just a good place for her to land. We’ve made a lot of decisions about church based on what’s been good for our kids, and that was a good decision for us. But in that small church, we experienced a misunderstanding or a misuse of spiritual authority. We also responded to that in ways that weren’t honoring, if we could do some things differently, I probably would do them differently. But we were also dealt with in a way that, I wouldn’t say it was abusive because we weren’t particularly vulnerable, but it was a misuse of authority. I think, had we been vulnerable, it would’ve been considered abusive. One thing about us as a family is when we’re in, we’re all in. We had come in and we had embraced this little church and the people in it and had tightly integrated our life with them, so when we knew we needed to leave, it was difficult. It was definitely a break, and now our kids are involved. They were also at ages where they weren’t very communicative, teenagers are definitely old enough to know what’s going on and not really comfortable talking deeply about what’s going on in them and maybe not even able to really articulate it. It created a lot of confusion in our family about what was happening and why we were making certain decisions. It was just painful, and we had to weather that storm as a family, and even as an extended family because it impacted the people who were part of our community group.
And so once again, we were now trying to process what’s happening and trying to help our kids process it. God, I think, used those circumstances certainly for me, in ways that He had been doing all along. But for our kids, they now had to make some of the same decisions I had to make when I was a teenager, and they had to decide, am I going to trust God even when I can’t trust the people of God? Or am I going to put the sins of the people at the feet of God and blame Him for them? We did have to walk through that together and though I would never choose it, it was a good working out of our faith. I’m grateful for the things that God did, both in me and in my kids.
And that story’s still going on. I had Ivy on this podcast, my daughter, a couple of weeks ago, and she was mentioning a little bit of her experience and I just thought, it’s time to have another conversation. She’s further along and she’s processed more and I’d love to know what God has done in the meantime in her.
Rosanne Moore: Thank you Karlene for sharing all of that. For our audience, I hope that you won’t just listen to this. I hope that you’ll be thinking about your own experience in some of the categories that Karlene talked about and that’ll become a source of conversation with God, maybe to look back and revisit even the narratives that you’ve told yourself and start a conversation with God about, how did He show up? Where did He show up in ways that perhaps you missed at the time? At various points in my life I can look back and see more clearly in retrospect than sometimes I did in the moment. How God was at work.
Karlene Cannon: One more thing I wanted to share; as I was reflecting yesterday, I would say my current situation is less than what I wish it was. The church we go to is solid, it’s a great church. It’s been really good for our kids and for me it’s just not the place I would choose to land, but it’s clearly where God has landed me.
It’s a larger church. The worship service is typical of what you would experience in a larger church these days. Very topnotch, excellent musicians. People that we know really love the Lord, but maybe just not the way I would choose to worship and yet, every time I walk in, almost every time, and I’m just in the worship service and maybe even a little grumpy or wouldn’t have chosen that song or don’t even like it, I then just experience God and the tears just run down my face and I feel embraced by the Holy Spirit. I’m not a hands in the air person, I’m a stand there and sway person. It’s not that kind of emotional experience, it’s just this deep knowing that God is with me. Once again, even when things aren’t ideal in my mind, I can’t escape the fact that God wants me there and meets me there.
I know that it’s trendy, if you will, to question church, to maybe even give up on church. I think there’s lots of things that need to be reformed or done differently, yet it’s still the place where God’s people are and where God is. He says when we gather He’s there, and I experienced that in a way – as I’ve gotten older – that is inescapable.
So keep going to church. Maybe not the one you’re at.
Rosanne Moore: Find some fellowship; somebody in your life that is helping you form into the image of Christ.
Karlene Cannon: That’s right. And don’t give up. God has used the church for 2000 years and he still intends to do that, I think.
Rosanne Moore: Thank you Karlene. We are going to have Karlene next month as well. We’re going to do a little deeper dive into what that home church experience was like.
For our listeners, thank you so much for joining us and we are having a book club right now on Larry’s book, Real Church. If you want an opportunity to discuss and explore with other believers – maybe you haven’t been in church for a while and you’re trying to figure out how to come back, how to sort through all of what your experience has been and figure out what God’s leading you to next, or how to find Him again in the middle of what your experience was – that might be a good way to dip your toe in. To have conversations with some other believers and to be able to revisit what has happened to you, but also to look back and see where God was with you and where He is still with you. So thanks for joining us everybody. We’ll see you next time.
Karlene Cannon: Bye.