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“L” is for Love. . .

Kenny Burchard
April 25, 2024 No Comments

I grew up in an irreligious family. It’s not that my parents didn’t have religious beliefs; they did. They both grew up in nominally Catholic families but rejected their Catholic faith in their early teens. My dad eventually came to believe that religious people were mostly superstitious idiots, and my mom—on the other side of the spectrum—believed whatever the person in front of her was telling her until someone else told her something different.

Throughout my entire childhood, I witnessed my dad’s even-handed mockery of anything religious and my mom’s rather eclectic interest in everything religious. This polarity of perspectives shaped in me both suspicion and curiosity about religion. When I conversed about religion with my parents, who had adopted me when I was eight months old, they would always tell me, “Your biological parents were Catholic, but rather than having you baptized as a Catholic, we feel that when you are old enough, you should decide for yourself what you want to believe.”

My First Bible: Conspiracy and Curiosity

When I was in elementary school, my parents did allow my siblings and me to ride the neighborhood Sunday school bus that stopped on the street in our small Denver neighborhood every Sunday on its way to the local Baptist church. For some reason, my parents, who were not on the same page about their own religious convictions, also thought that they should put a Bible in my Easter basket when I was eight years old.

It was a Sunday morning in April of 1977, and there it was, nestled in the basket between the candy eggs and jellybeans, the green plastic grass, and the paddle-ball toy—a small white gift-and- award King James Bible. I grabbed it right out of the basket and stared at it in awe. My very own Bible! I knew it was an important book, but had no idea why, so I asked my mom to give me the scoop. She announced, in a conspiratorial tone of voice, that the Bible was “an ancient religious book written by a group of men whose goal was to control the masses through religion.”

My young brain wondered why she would want to give me such a book, but I was still curious about what it contained, so I set out to read it. I got to Genesis chapter six or seven, lost interest, and put it on the shelf. As I got older, I would go through this exercise repeatedly, occasionally thumbing through the shiny pictures inside, scanning the chapters toward the end that had red letters in four of the books, but never really figuring out what I was reading. Well into my late teens, the Bible remained a mysterious book for me.

“Mormon Cindy,” Confusion, and a Crisis

My family moved from Denver to Salt Lake City when I was nine years old, and my parents allowed me to attend the Lutheran church with my cousin. This didn’t mean their attitude toward religion had changed. I still remember my dad mocking my Sunday School class’s performance of a Bible song and having it become a standard family joke because we all found it funny, even into adulthood.

Despite these experiences at home, living in Utah opened my eyes to the reality that religion could permeate an entire culture. In Utah, discussions about God, Jesus, the Bible, and innumerable related topics were as normal as talking about one’s favorite sports team or television program. This further awakened my curiosity and openness to religious dialogue.

When I entered junior high, many of my Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) friends began attending religious instruction at a nearby LDS seminary during school hours. I saw them carry their Bibles and other religious books with them, eager to learn about their faith.

During my junior year of high school, I began dating a beautiful LDS girl named Cindy who, upon discovering that I wasn’t a Mormon, asked me to attend a series of discussions with the Mormon missionaries in her home. When I told my mother about it, to my surprise she exhorted, “Just be sure that if you read the Book of Mormon, you give the Bible equal time.”

I had also begun taking a karate class from a man who talked about being a “born again Christian.” He insisted that Mormonism was not “historic, orthodox Christianity.” I had no idea what that meant, but right away, I went from my crush on “Mormon Cindy” to a crisis. My pretty LDS girlfriend, her family, and all my Mormon friends at school were telling me their faith was the fullness of the truth, yet one of my mentors was telling me that not only was it not true, it wasn’t even Christianity! Again, my mother reminded me that I needed to make up my own mind, and my dad reminded me that no matter what decision I made, I’d still be landing in someone’s version of religious idiocy.

Born Again

During those days of crisis, my motives shifted dramatically from wanting to please my girlfriend, my karate teacher, and even my parents, to wanting answers in the simplest of terms: how could I know the truth, and how could I be sure I would end up in heaven when I died? On the evening of Thursday, July 24, 1986, I loaded up all the materials I had been collecting and took them with me to the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake City to talk with the missionaries there. I found a temple missionary and asked him a simple question; “How can I know Mormonism is true, and how can I be sure I’ll go to heaven when I die?” He replied, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” then smiled and walked away.

Confused and discouraged, I left too. As I left the temple square, I was immediately drawn to the sound of singing coming from a group of people marching up the street behind a man carrying a huge wooden cross. I couldn’t believe it! I ran over to the group and asked the first guy I met what they were doing. A young “surfer dude” from California, David, smiled as he said, “We’re taking this city for Jesus Christ! What are you doing here?” I opened my bag of books and blurted out, “I’m looking for God!” We stared at each other for a minute in excited disbelief; then, he asked me to step aside and sit with him on a bench in front of one of the buildings.

I told David about my experience with the LDS missionary and asked him the same questions: “How can I know the truth, and how can I know I’ll go to heaven when I die?” David took out his Bible and a small notepad and wrote down John 3:3 (“…you must be born again…”), John 3:16 (“…for God so loved the World…”), John 14:6 (“I am the way…truth…life”), and Romans 10:9 (“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”). He said, “The simple answer is that you can know the truth by reading the Bible, and to be sure you’ll go to heaven you simply need to believe in and follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” Then he asked, “Would you like to pray and do that now?” I told him that I knew it was what I needed to do, but remembering my mom’s often-repeated words from my childhood, “You need to decide for yourself what you believe,” this was something I wanted to do alone.

The next night, after telling my parents and Cindy what had happened to me, I went to my karate teacher’s house to share the news with him. I had decided to be a “born again Christian.” I walked back to my car, and while sitting on the hood of my car in front of his house, I stared up into the night sky, praying aloud, “God I believe in you. I believe in Jesus. I want to serve you with my whole life. Please save me!” And then, like a flash flood, tears and joy filled me up, and I knew I would never be the same. In fact, that night, I knew my whole life had changed, and that I needed to serve God with my entire life. You could say that it was then that I first felt a call to ministry.

“Ignorance On Fire”

After my dramatic “born again” experience, I developed a ravenous appetite for theology, Christian preaching and teaching, and apologetics. I also began to listen to a daily radio program called The Bible Answer Man, hosted by the late Dr. Walter Martin. In this program, I “learned” that Mormons were wrong, Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrong, Seventh Day Adventists were wrong, and especially— CATHOLICS WERE WRONG!

What began as a deeply sincere quest for truth turned into what all my friends called my season of “ignorance on fire.” I attacked everything and everyone with whom I disagreed. I became an expert at tearing down the religious beliefs of others, and I learned that under no circumstances could I ever become Catholic. Catholicism, they taught me, was an apostate version of Christianity that had been corrected and restored to its original pristine doctrine and practice in the 1500s by men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others. Though this sounded curiously like the “restorationist” claims of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, I believed the people who were helping me, concluding that, like Mormonism, Catholicism was not Christianity, and that most Catholics were not Christians. This was something I heard repeatedly and eventually taught from my own pulpit when I later became a pastor.

The conflict with my family and most friendships became so intense and constant that my parents forbade me to keep a Bible in the house, listen to Christian music or any kind of preaching/teaching on the radio inside the house (even with headphones on), or attend church. They further forbade me to be baptized until I turned 18. Even my karate teacher told me on many occasions that my way of talking and “sharing my faith” was actually driving people away. I interpreted it all as persecution, and the day after my 18th birthday, I moved out of the house.

Baptism and the Navy

Like many young men in the late 1980s, after watching Top Gun, I rushed to the local Navy recruitment office. I signed up for the delayed entry program and was told to report to boot camp in San Diego, California, on July 6th, 1987.

I moved into a friend’s house on June 5th—the day after I turned 18 and graduated from high school—and spent the month preceding my enlistment attending a local Vineyard Christian Fellowship. I visited my parents on the 4th of July, asked my mom to shave my head, and then asked her and my dad to come to church the next morning to watch me get baptized. They agreed. I was baptized in water, and the following morning, I flew to San Diego. By evening, I was finishing my first day of boot camp.

The Wild West of Evangelicalism

When I joined the Navy in 1987, I began what was an exciting time of discovering all the different kinds of Evangelical and Protestant churches out there, as it often is for many young new Christians. It seemed that so long as a person believed that the Bible was the Word of God, believed in the Trinity, believed that Jesus was divine and “the only way to God,” there were innumerable possibilities with respect to just about every other kind of belief that a Christian could embrace.

During the year that my parents would not allow me to go to church, I simply didn’t have an opportunity to know much about “church life” as a new Christian. Once I left home and discovered I could visit a different church every Sunday, I initially felt like a kid in a candy store. There were churches that believed in the rapture (and others that didn’t), churches that believed in speaking in tongues (and others that didn’t), churches that believed in ordaining women (and others that didn’t), churches that believed you could lose your salvation (and others that didn’t), churches that believed in baptismal regeneration (and others that didn’t), and on and on. For every “true Christian church” that believed one thing, I could find another “true Christian church” in the same zip code that believed the exact opposite. All of these “Christianities,” as I came to see them, claimed to believe that the Bible alone was the sole infallible source of truth, and that their particular version of biblical truth was the most correct one. I also fell into that mindset.

In practical terms, my sense was that Evangelical Protestantism was basically an exercise in trying to get the most correct understanding of the Bible, and then finding a church or denomination that agreed with me (and the biblical teachers, authors, and commentators who I preferred to listen to and read).

From my understanding of the Bible, gifts of the Holy Spirit like prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues were still available and operating in the lives of Christians, just as they were in the Bible. So, I found my theological home among Charismatics and Pentecostals. The problem was that many of my fellow Pentecostals and Charismatics disagreed wildly about how these gifts became available to people, how to use them, and how to determine their legitimacy. Over time, my initial excitement began to feel more like I was a lone gunman in the wild west! It was me, Jesus, and my Bible (or rather, my interpretation of it).

Marriage, Ministry, and More Anti-Catholicism

Toward the end of my six-year enlistment in the Navy, I met my wife, MaryJo, on the island of Okinawa. I was serving on a Marine Corps base, and she, a pastor’s daughter, was a missionary at the Youth With A Mission base. When we began our relationship, we both felt a call to be together and to devote our lives to ministry.

During my final year of naval service, I began taking extension courses from Moody Bible Institute. Just over a year after leaving the Navy, MaryJo and I moved back to Salt Lake City and began attending the church that had brought those “March for Jesus” missionaries to town that I had met back in 1986. At the age of twenty-four, I became an associate pastor in that church, remaining in full-time pastoral work in three different congregations for the next twenty years. The lead pastor of that Assemblies of God church often spoke out against both Mormonism and Catholicism in his sermons. He himself was a fallen-away Catholic who “got truly saved” and discovered what he called real Christianity after watching a movie about the rapture at a local Evangelical youth group when he was a teen. His sermons often contained what I eventually called “hint of lime anti-Catholicism,” because there was always a hint of anti-Catholic rhetoric in almost every bite. This reinforced my own anti-Catholic bias and gave me even more ammunition when trying to get Catholics out of their religion and into ours. I also discovered, in every congregation I served, that many of the members had grown up in nominally Catholic families, “found Jesus” in a Protestant church, and ultimately became anti-Catholic.

In hindsight, I found that much of my own anti-Catholic sentiments and understanding of Catholicism came from listening to their stories.

Leaving the Mayhem—Three Watershed Moments

In 2010, nine years into my twelve-year tenure as the lead pastor of our Foursquare Gospel Church in central California, I had the opportunity to attend a biblical seminary at no cost. Three things happened to me during that time in seminary that would change the whole course of my spiritual life, and ultimately, set the stage for my conversion to the Catholic Church.

The first happened when I received my international ordination. During the ordination service, surrounded by fellow Foursquare ministers and an elder in our church who were laying hands on me, I began to think, “What right do these men have to lay hands on me and ordain me to the ministry? What does ordination even mean? Where do they get their authority to do this? Who gave it to them, and to those who laid hands on them?” The question slipped into a kind of infinite regress, and as I stood there to receive the highest level of ordination possible in my denomination, I could not bring myself to believe that any of these men had any legitimate authority to ordain anyone!

The second occurred in my New Testament program in seminary when, during one of his lectures, my professor remarked, “Of course, we know before the New Testament was formally canonized in the fourth century, there was a fully functional, evangelizing, and growing Church that was spreading all over the world. In fact, it was not until after the council of Nicaea that there was universal agreement about which books should be included in the New Testament.”

While I already knew this was true, I had honestly never sat still long enough to think through the implications. I wanted to be a “Bible teaching pastor” because I thought that was the ideal. But what I learned was that, for hundreds of years, there was no universal agreement among Christians about which books even went into the Bible. In fact, many Christian communities were growing, flourishing, and spreading the good news of Jesus before they ever had access to many of the books of the Bible that I took for granted; many Christians in the first generations of the Church’s existence never even knew that some of the New Testament books existed! How was this possible, not just during the time of the first apostles, but for over two centuries after the last apostle had died? Something else had to be holding the Church together. But what was it?

The final thing took place during my course in the book of Acts in my last year of seminary. I had decided to study the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and as one of my questions for further dialogue at the end of my study, I asked if the Church in Acts 15—the one that could speak definitively about issues of doctrine and heresy, and which had the power to bind all Christians to the same doctrine and practice—was still present in the world today.

My professors and most of my friends and colleagues all had the same answer—no. It was up to each congregation, each denomination, and ultimately, up to each Christian to determine for themselves what the Bible taught, and to do their best to find fellowship with other believers who shared those same convictions. In that moment, I saw Evangelicalism and Protestantism as a shattered pane of glass—irreparably broken into a million disparate pieces. I resigned from pastoring and left evangelical Christianity just before my final semester of seminary in November 2013. I was, however, not yet Catholic.

The “Four L’s” of my Catholic Conversion

It wasn’t until five years after I had left pastoral ministry altogether, and several years of wandering through varied church involvement, that I experienced what I now call the “four L’s” of my conversion to Catholicism.

The first “L” is LOCUTION. That’s a Catholic word that, when translated into Pentecostal terminology, means “a word from the Lord.” While I was coming home from a trip to the beach near my home in Virginia in 2018, I drove by St. John the Apostle Catholic Church. As I drove by and noticed it was a Catholic church, I very clearly heard the Lord issue a simple command: “Go to that Catholic church.” I could not deny that it was the Lord, but I had no idea why I was supposed to go there. With my many anti-Catholic beliefs, I was not considering becoming Catholic. All the same, I knew I was supposed to go. I shared this with my wife, and she asked to go with me. The next Saturday evening, we went to Mass together. While I was somewhat lost in the liturgy, I could tell something powerful was happening. I just didn’t have a frame of reference to make sense of it.

A friend of mine who had converted to the Catholic Church heard about my visit and encouraged me to read Scott Hahn’s book, The Lamb’s Supper, before going to Mass again. I ordered it, read it in four days, and the next time I went to Mass, I wept all the way through it. I felt like a color-blind person who had gotten his special glasses—“Mass Glasses”—and I could see what, just a few days earlier, had been hidden from me. As I drove away from Mass the second week in a row, I had two thoughts. First, “I need to become Catholic!” But second, “Oh no! Oh God! How can I become Catholic?! I don’t believe in Catholicism!”

The second “L”—LEARNING—happened in the months that followed that initial experience of the Mass. I discovered that I had learned nearly everything I knew about Catholicism from anti-Catholic apologists, former Catholic and anti-Catholic ministers, and former Catholic and anti-Catholic congregants. I needed to learn what the Catholic Church taught and believed in her own language and on her own terms, without the baggage that so often accompanied the perspectives of non-Catholics. I spent the next several months reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and innumerable Catholic theology books, listening to hours of teachings and lectures by trusted Catholic voices, and attending RCIA classes at St. John the Apostle parish.

The third “L”—LISTENING—happened as I discovered the innumerable conversion stories that had been written by dozens of people just like me—seminary-trained Evangelical Protestants of every stripe who had left it all and joined the Catholic Church. I read their stories of conversion, of sorting through their theological difficulties, and of letting go of their claims of personal infallibility, finally trusting that Jesus had founded a Church—the Catholic Church—which, I discovered, was the very same Church I had wondered about during my study of Acts 15. To my joy, I discovered that this Church was, indeed, still in the world after 2,000 years!

The fourth and final “L” is something I never dreamed would be possible: “LOVE.” I have come to love the Catholic Church. This is because I have heard God’s voice call me to enter into worship with the Catholic Church. I have learned, from the Church herself, what she really believes and teaches, and I have listened to others who have made the same journey home to full communion. In fact, I regularly tell people that, although I was a Christian before, following Jesus and walking in as much light as the Lord had given me, the Catholic Church has told me the truth in the best way I have ever heard it told. Speaking of love for the Catholic Church, I’ll end with a quote that I have come to treasure from G.K. Chesterton who, when explaining his own conversion to Catholicism, observed: “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it, they feel a tug toward it. The moment they cease to shout it down, they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it, they begin to be fond of it.”

Kenny Burchard

Kenny Burchard, his wife MaryJo, and their son Victor all came into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2019. They are parishioners at St. John the Apostle Church in Virginia Beach, VA. Since his conversion, Kenny has become the Director of Development for The Coming Home Network, and is featured on the CHNetwork podcast, On The Journey with Matt, Ken, and Kenny.

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