Finding A Church

Arriving at a new base often makes a military Christian feel as though he’s been thrown into the water by himself—the only options are to sink or swim.  The single most important thing he can do is establish his spiritual support.  Finding a church and Bible study to attend are important to prevent him from feeling that he is standing alone. 

The Base Chapel

When a Christian fighter pilot moves to a new location (whether a new assignment or temporary duty), his number one priority (short of eating) should be finding a church to attend.  (At some churches, his meal may be taken care of as well.)  It is a fundamental step in establishing a spiritual foundation at a new base.  If a pilot doesn’t establish the base of his spiritual support early, then he has no foundation on which to build.  Without establishing an “anchor” when he first arrives, he risks floundering until he moves on no better spiritually than when he arrived.

The first Sunday a pilot is at a new location, even if he arrived only the night before, he should attend the base chapel service.  If nothing else, this will keep him in the habit of going to church; if he rolls over and goes back to sleep because he hasn’t decided where to go, it becomes progressively easier each consecutive week to come up with a reason not to find a church.  Besides helping to keep a routine, attending the chapel allows the opportunity to meet the base chaplains, with whom a Christian is certain to have some interaction over the length of his tour.  Most chapels today have Catholic as well as traditional, contemporary, and gospel forms of Protestant services.  Traditional tends to be more liturgical, with a scripted service and probably an integrated communion.  Contemporary tends to have the “modern” style of music and a somewhat more casual atmosphere.  Gospel services are, of course, oriented in the style of southern gospel. 

Base chapels are a convenient starting point with familiar surroundings, though the quality of a base chapel is entirely dependent on the chaplains and the support of the congregation.  I have been to bases where the service is nothing more than “Christian light,” a watered down religiosity that is sure to offend no one.  I have also been to chapels where the preaching, teaching, and fellowship would rival even the most established, well-funded, and largest churches in the United States. 

Attending the base chapel does have its advantages.  The chaplain is intimately familiar with the military lifestyle and will likely apply his teachings in an environment that a pilot will understand.  Also, when stresses like checkrides, inspections, and exercises are restricting a pilot’s schedule, the location and military integration of the chapel will help both his continued attendance and pertinent spiritual application.  In addition, by attending the chapel that first day a pilot may get all the information he could desire on local fellowship opportunities, as most established Bible studies and para-church groups use the base chapel services as meeting points for new arrivals.  Finally, the chapel is normally the first stop for those in the military who have felt, but may not understand, a hunger for God; by attending the chapel, a Christian pilot may expose himself to other members of his squadron who may be attending as they seek life’s answers.   

The military setting of the chapel program does have its disadvantages as well.  Because the chaplains are responsible for the spiritual well-being of all military members, it is possible that they may neutralize their message to avoid offense.  On the other hand, regardless of a Christian pilot’s church past, it is likely that the chapel will expose him to things to which he’s not accustomed.  Counter to many denominational beliefs, there are female chaplains.  It is also likely that a Christian pilot will meet the local Muslim chaplain; in July of 2004 the Navy commissioned the first US military Buddhist chaplain.  I was stationed at a base where information on a Wiccan meeting—conducted under the auspices of the base chapel program—was listed directly below the schedule of church services.  It is an imperfect system in an imperfect environment.

A Christian fighter pilot should seek God’s guidance in prayer as to where God would have him.  Whether a pilot chooses to attend the chapel or not is his personal preference; it has much to do with his spiritual maturity, needs, and desires.  As a generalization, on average, most chapels lack in-depth teaching and strong spiritual fellowship.  For most newly commissioned officers (particularly those who are young in their Christian walks), I personally think that the active duty life will provide enough of a challenge that they’ll need to attend a church with strong teaching and fellowship.  If that is not the chapel, then so be it.  Conversely, if they are spiritually strong and mature Christians, then the base chapel may actually be the best place for them so they can have the greatest impact on the military community.  Prayerfully, it depends.   

A young Christian may need to find a church with strong teaching so that he can grow; a mature Christian may attend a church with weaker teaching to further some other goal.  A prime example of this is choosing to attend the base chapel.  As I’ve noted, many base chapels lack depth in teaching; however, the chapel is essentially the focal point of ministry to the military.  A Christian fighter pilot might do well to attend the chapel solely as a means of outreach, even if it doesn’t afford depth of teaching or is weaker in other areas.  Officer’s Christian Fellowship (OCF) emphasizes support of the chapel program for this reason; as OCF considers itself a ministry to the military, the chapel provides a crucial means to that end.  I wholeheartedly agree with the OCF principle of attending the chapel as means of outreach to the military community.  I personally believe, though, that the decision to make potential spiritual sacrifices should only be done with understanding of the ramifications of that choice.  There may be weaker instruction or a loss of other “niceties” of a civilian church, like strong children’s programs.  When a Christian fighter pilot is sufficiently mature in his Christian walk to knowledgeably make such choices—a point which will vary for every individual—I believe that he not only can, but should.  A Christian fighter pilot’s greatest potential ministry is to the military members that surround him, and the chapel is a critical channel to that goal.

Local Churches

Should a Christian fighter pilot decide not to attend the base chapel, most locations have the opportunity for a variety of off-base services.  A pilot will likely be able to find a church of his particular denomination.  If he prefers non-denominational services or cannot find a familiar service to attend, he may be forced to attend a church sight unseen.  Ideally, the way to find out about off-base churches is through contacts who have attended there.  A new arrival’s first choice should be to ask members of a Bible study or equivalent fellowship, if he’s found one.  Second, most chaplains will have information on local churches’ styles and formats of worship that could help him make an informed decision.  The last option, which could potentially be the only one available, is to crack open the base paper, local newspaper, or phone book and find a church.  Christian pilots may be able to get information on the church by calling them and asking them about their doctrine and style of worship.  In my case, when I couldn’t get recommendations I went to churches that I drove by or found in the paper.  I recommend caution when finding a church with that method; the risk is not in finding a church with completely bizarre beliefs, but in finding a seemingly reasonable church with subtle but important doctrinal discrepancies.  While every person’s spiritual development is at a different place, it is helpful in those cases for a Christian fighter pilot to have a firm grasp on what he believes, and to listen with some skepticism at first.  Once he determines that the doctrine of the church is in line with Biblical teaching, whether by attendance or by direct questioning of the pastor or other members of the congregation, then he can open himself up to the teaching of the church.

For people who grew up in one church or a particular denomination their entire life, the first experience of finding a new church in a new place can be rather daunting.  The churches that a Christian pilot will “survey” as he searches for a new church home have a significant challenge to overcome:  to make him the most comfortable and willing to worship there, they need to be very much like the church he’s used to.  As he attends new churches, the very characteristics that have made him a fighter pilot may begin to surface:  he’ll find himself critically analyzing the sermon, the building, and the budget; being judgmental of the doctrine, worship style, and structure; and wondering if he’ll ever find the “perfect” church.  It’s important to remember that unless a Christian happens upon the First Church of [Your Name Here], no church a person ever attends will be “perfect” in his own eyes.  (Someone once said that if you do find a perfect church, don’t join it—you’ll ruin it.)  There will always be something “wrong” with a church.  A Christian fighter pilot must know what is important; he must understand that which cannot be compromised, and that which really doesn’t matter.  If it is a doctrinal discrepancy or other fundamental belief that cannot be reconciled with the Bible, then that church should not be considered.  If the beef is stylistic, geographic, demographic, or some other minor issue, a skeptical pilot should approach it with an open mind and heart.  A church with sound teaching should not be abandoned simply because they pass the plate at the end of the service instead of the middle.  If the difficulties a new arrival has with the church are distracting him from his ability to learn, worship, and fellowship, then he must decide if he can plant himself there.  If he cannot get himself beyond those distractions, then perhaps that particular church is not for him; I urge caution, however, because if the difficulty is truly a minor one and he cannot let it go, then he seriously inhibits his ability to find any church where he will ever be comfortable.  Such a Christian runs the risk of church-hopping through all the local churches and never having a steady place that he might call his church home. 

Some Christians may be comfortable in any church setting.  For them and for relatively new Christians I recommend caution that they don’t allow themselves to be too accepting of a church.  Ideally, a Christian should have some spiritual foundation and a familiarity with the Bible so that he can test what the preacher says; in the very least, he should have a trusted friend to talk to if he hears an unusual teaching.  This caution is neither closed-minded nor unfounded; it’s actually a Biblically demonstrated practice.  In Acts 17:11, Paul commended the Bereans for checking the scriptures to see if Paul’s preaching was true rather than simply believing everything they heard.  I put myself in a situation like this when I attended IFF.  I was there for only a few weeks, and I decided to try a generically named church that I had passed on my way to the base.  The first Sunday I attended I was quite impressed.  The style was a bit conservative but was similar to what I had known growing up, and the teaching had depth and knowledge.  I gladly attended again the second week; the next week, however, the sermon seemed to be teaching a concept with which I was vaguely familiar.  When I approached the pastor of the church after the service, he confirmed that what he had preached could be described as a sermon on the fifth tenet of Calvinism.  Had I not had some knowledge of Calvinism prior to that sermon, I may not have recognized it.  Regardless of the accuracy of the Calvinist doctrine, my point is that when “experimenting” with churches, Christian pilots potentially expose themselves to the gamut of doctrinal leanings.  If what a pilot hears just doesn’t sound right, he should look it up and see what the Bible says about it.  If a church insists on teaching that which is contrary to the Bible, then he should look for another church.  There is no need to run at the first sight of a challenging teaching, but a Christian fighter pilot shouldn’t accept a difficult concept without careful study, either.

Leaving a Church 

My final thought on finding a church is the ever-controversial topic of “leaving” a church.  There used to be an old Academy gripe that cadets were judged unfairly:  if a civilian changed colleges, it was called “transferring.”  If a cadet left the Academy for a civilian college, it was called “quitting.”  Similarly, it seems the modern Christian culture cannot abide those who depart one church to attend another.  Rarely is there a quiet church move; there is generally a doctrinal tussle, a social falling out, and the lingering effects of gossip between those that remain and those that have left.  As a military member a Christian fighter pilot will obviously have many opportunities to enter and leave church congregations as he moves between various locations.  There may be times, though, when he feels the need to change churches for other reasons.  For example, advocating a non-Biblical doctrine is obviously grounds for leaving that church.  Departing a church body doesn’t need to be hostile, though; it might be quite possible that an individual simply feels that his spiritual needs may be better served somewhere else, or that his spiritual gifts may be better utilized at another church.  While all churches generally make up the body of Christ, each tends to have its own personality and specialization.  Some churches are mission-oriented and focus the majority of their resources on outreach; others are gospel-oriented and focus their efforts on evangelism.  Some focus on families, military members, discipleship, or fellowship.  Humans have personalities and churches do as well.  Occasionally those personalities may not mesh well regardless of a common faith.  A church may have a focus that is slightly different than a Christian fighter pilot’s, and he may feel that another church would be more appropriate for him.  Also, as he grows, he may find that the church that was once his near-perfect home is now not quite suited to his spiritual gifts or needs. 

As a Christian fighter pilot is stationed at various locations he’ll be forced to “plant” and “uproot” in many places, and many factors in his personal life, spiritual state, and others will influence his decision in what he calls his new church home.  Regardless of why he leaves a church, whether for military or spiritual reasons, it does not need to be a drama. 

A Christian fighter pilot must make an active effort to find a church he can call home.  The base chapel and community churches have their advantages and disadvantages.  Whatever his choice, a Christian should recognize his critical nature and prayerfully consider his spiritual gifts and needs and the teaching of the church.  A Christian fighter pilot will move and travel often in his career, and finding a church is a critical first step in continuing his spiritual walk.

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