Hi. I'm Nate.
Follower of Christ. Raised in Alabama.Managing Director of Bunker Labs Nashville.
My disappointment with American Christianity
Up until the age of 27, my plan was to make it big in business and then use my social platform and ﬁnancial means to impact the world for God. It was very much the prototypical American’s “master plan of evangelism,” especially for someone born in the last 30 years. Thank the Lord, for the sake of my soul, that He had different plans.
I grew up, by the grace of God, in a loving Christian family. My dad is the headmaster of American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and has been for the last 28 years. He was also one of the founding members of The Church at Tuscaloosa, a Non-Denominational church. I had, by all accounts, an exemplary Christian upbringing. It was no surprise to me then, when I received a scholarship to play football at the Air Force Academy because I had heard countless times how God loved me and had wonderful plans for my life. Like most Americans, my favorite verses growing up were Jeremiah 29:11 and Psalm 37:4.
Life at the Academy was difﬁcult but incredibly rewarding. I got the chance to ﬂy in all sorts of planes, I went through the free fall program and recorded ﬁve solo jumps. I was picked for several international programs to France, Crete, and Israel. Upon graduating I was selected for the Gerhart Scholarship and sent to get my masters degree from a prestigious school in Paris, France. “God really did love me and have wonderful plans for my life,” I thought.
My life at 24 had turned out better than I could have dreamed and I just expected that it would continue to go up in the same linear fashion. It didn’t. My ﬁrst job, after 20 years in an academic bubble, was in hospital administration. I can remember being so excited to start working in the real world instead of working on marketing cases. Within two weeks on the job, however, I was completely miserable. The working world was not what I expected. I found myself as a tiny cog in a “big ole” Air Force wheel. I thought I was going to change the world and for a year and a half, I was making copies.
I’ve heard it said that unhappiness is measured by the difference between expectations and reality. My expectations could hardly have been further away from reality. My quarter life crisis was very real, very painful, yet very formative. For three dark years, I lived in the ﬁgurative desert of Hampton, Virginia with a six-month sojourn in the literal desert of Afghanistan. I tried everything I could to ﬂee my circumstances, but the Lord held me fast. He would have me experience the full weight of what I thought was a purposeless job and a life of unmet expectations so that one day I might share the hope Christ can bring to a generation inculcated by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I can see that now; it wasn’t so clear then.
In 2011, I got out of the Air Force still conﬁdent that with enough grit and determination I could forge the life I wanted and that God would help me achieve it. And I had the business idea that would get me there. I was going to build a language learning website that would replace Rosetta Stone. Again, reality didn’t care to meet my expectations. I failed. Big time.
Why wouldn’t God let me succeed at anything anymore? Didn’t he want me to do things for his kingdom? I felt lied to. I thought God was supposed to be for me. It didn’t feel like God was for me when nothing I wanted was coming to fruition. My faith in God was slipping. I couldn’t see anything else to blame other than my belief in a God who was supposed to love me soooo much and be a good Father, yet seemed to only be leading me into heartache and pain!
The turn towards ancient Christianity
At just the right time, I came across a series of messages by Fran Sciacca that were revolutionary for me. One of his phrases stopped me cold. “Fulﬁllment comes from following design, not from following desire.” I had been indirectly trained, like every child raised in the US, to “follow my heart” and do what I thought would make me happy.
The pursuit only left me increasingly frustrated and increasingly desperate for peace. Maybe by submitting to where God wanted me to be, I might ﬁnd everything I was looking for but not ﬁnding. Maybe God knew me better than I knew myself. Maybe God did have a plan for me, but that plan looked different than what American Christianity told me it would look like – I would be the Tim Tebow of the business world.
For me, following design came in the way of teaching ‘worldviews’ and comparative religion to seniors in High School. When my dad ﬁrst approached me to teach at my old High School, I balked. I thought to myself, “my dad thinks so small; I want to change the world.” Three weeks later though, I accepted the job, and ended up staying for three years!
Those three years of teaching worldviews and comparative religion were the most fulﬁlling years of my professional life and maybe the most formative of my spiritual life! Not only was I able to make an impact on young people but I also learned a lot about Christianity and how to think like a Christian.
The ﬁrst step in learning to think correctly was learning to think “worldviewishly” – to see Christianity as one set among many competing sets of truth claims about the nature of reality.
I learned that each person lives his or her life according to the assumptions they have made about life. Whether we realize it or not, every person on earth is living their life according to some story. Each of our own individual stories is shaped by our understanding of the larger existential story of the universe, whether we believe there is a story or not!
In teaching Christianity, I was able to see that my disappointments in life and consequent misery, where the result of living my life according to the wrong story – the American story (or American dream) rather than the Christian story. Fran Sciacca puts it this way, “disillusion is the child of illusion. The things that disappoint us most, in the end, we had wrong from the beginning.”
Maybe Christianity had not failed me after all. Maybe my version of Christianity had failed me!
What then was true Christianity?? I had to know! To ﬁnd that out, it made sense to go back to the beginning. To understand the inﬂuencing factors into why we think the way we do.
Heaven is the goal, receptive ecumenism is the means
What God would teach me outside of the classroom during my three years at ACA was equally important to the theological training I received inside the classroom teaching a worldview curriculum. During my time in Tuscaloosa, God began to shed light on where He was leading me.
Two and a half years ago now, one of my closest childhood friends and my roommate at the time began the process of becoming Roman Catholic. His conversion would prove to be a profound and shaping experience for me.
Through my travels and time in the military, I developed friendships with people from a myriad of different Christian traditions and backgrounds, including several friends who were Catholic. The difference was that they grew up Catholic. Will was forsaking his past, our past, and consciously converting to the Church of Rome. He was just like me and his conversion would have implications for me. We both grew up in incredibly loving and distinctly Protestant families who emphasized the grace of God through Christ Jesus. What was Will thinking?
We had both heard so many stories of Catholics who grew up in the faith but didn’t know Jesus or what He had done for them. I thought it must be a problem with the Catholic Church as a whole. All I knew were the same negative stereotypes that seem to bubble out of every Protestant. “They worship Mary.” “They pray to Saints.” The deeper into the Catholic faith I tread and the more faithful Catholics I met, the more those stereotypes melted away.
What I saw was that underneath my concern for Will’s salvation was a dormant fear for my own salvation. Was I wrong? Were my parents and grandparents, the godliest people I know, wrong?
On the heels of Will being initiated into the Catholic Church, my dad fell in love with the Orthodox Church and now considers himself an Orthodox Christian though he hasn’t yet ofﬁcially entered the Orthodox Church.
God was relentless. What was He trying to teach me? Where was He taking me? It became apparent that discussions about denominations were really discussions about Christianity as a whole.
Which Christianity, of the 41,000+ Christian denominations, was right? What was the Church? Reading and truly listening to views outside of my own tradition but still within the circle of Christianity was eye-opening. Concepts like sin and salvation were actually much more complex and nuanced than I had previously thought. But is it really as complicated as we have made it?
Surely not, if the gospel is meant to be good news for the poor, the uneducated, and the outcasts. Right??
Studying different traditions invariably led me into the study of church history, which over the last 1,000 years is the story of fracture. The more I learned about the causes and effects of division within the church, the more it broke my heart. Almost all of the divisions seemed to have been spawned by cultural differences which led to misunderstandings and personal disagreements between church leaders.
While there were often serious theological issues at stake within the church over the last 1000 years, sometimes even warranting division, the recourses, by every side, were often far more severe than they should have been.
We have too often chosen division as a ﬁrst resort rather than a last resort and as the scale of our responses to the cries of heresy became more extreme, killing in the name of Christ tragically became more common. Is there anything sadder than brothers and sisters in Christ ﬁghting each other?
Some such as Brad Gregory have even argued that inﬁghting between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation led to a secular Europe. I think I believe him. Peter Leithart has said
“nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions within the church. Nothing has made the gospel so implausible, if not preposterous.” If Christianity promises reconciliation and its adherents hate each other, can Christianity be true?
Disunity in the Church not only impedes the world’s ability to believe this good news of reconciliation, it also stunts the faith of the faithful, reversing our maturation process. Christians today, therefore, do not resemble Christ on a macro level as a church body or a micro level as individuals.
How can we the Church, the ekklesia, be what we are called to be? What is the path to reformation within the church? Studying these questions led me to the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft who introduced me to the ecumenical movement. I learned about Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justiﬁcation signed by the Lutheran and Catholic churches. This was historic! Was the Reformation over?
I started seeing unity pop up everywhere but especially in in the book of Ephesians and in First Things articles by Peter Leithart. I have since come to believe that making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace, as Paul instructs us in Ephesians 4, will help the Christian church to grow up and become the spotless bride of Christ. The path that leads to unity is the same path that leads to righteousness and renewal.
At 33 years of age, it has become clear that encouraging the church on towards unity is my life calling. God’s design for my life is evident in both how He has shaped my past and in the desire for reconciliation that He has placed within me.
The goal of this project (entitled Ut Unum after the encyclical written by Pope John Paul II and translated from Latin to “that they may be one”) is to break down stereotypes within the church and build bridges between traditions so that we all might “be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its
work.” (Ephesians 4:12-16)
In the beginning, the vision was to introduce Christians to each other through ﬁlm. I ﬁlmed ﬁve church services ranging from a Catholic Mass to an Orthodox Pascha service to an African-American revival in Eutaw, Alabama.
The ﬁrst step to unity is seeing that they are just like me, that their kids goof off in church too, that they desire to follow Christ as well. Honestly, one of the most impactful things in my journey of faith was seeing a man I respected more than anyone in the world (my dad) and one of my best friends (someone just like me) drink and be nourished from wells of which I was ignorant.
I never had a problem saying that my friends who grew up Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, etc., were Christian but I always assumed that I had the truer Truth, that I knew God better than they did. Now I wasn’t so sure.
With a newfound humility, I was free to grow in knowledge and love of Christ.
And this Christian attitude of considering others better than yourself and seeking to learn from them is the path to maturity.
It really is that simple and practical.
Catholic theologian Paul Murray has coined the term Receptive Ecumenism which asks not
“What do the other traditions ﬁrst need to learn from us?” but “What do we need to learn from them?” That is the spirit we hope to operate from at Ut Unum.