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Church of ChristConversion Stories

Paradigms, Parachurches and Patristics

Andrew Shadel
August 11, 2022 No Comments

Change begins at the end of your comfort zone. It’s more than a cliché. With regard to faith journeys, the change may simply be a move from one Protestant church to another, which is usually a minor shift in thought and practice that allows for quick assimilation. In my case, the pendulum swung much farther. I experienced a complete paradigm shift that truly changed every aspect of who I was in Christ. The changes came incrementally, but their sum total was transformational.

Traveling Toward the Tiber

I grew up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where I had a pretty typical childhood. I have the usual memories of jumping on my bike after school, spending time with friends, and going to church three times a week. My family was immersed in the life and culture of the non-instrumental churches of Christ (officially spelled with a small ‘c’), with its weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our church originated from the more conservative side of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, which wished to restore a pure New Testament Christianity. This commitment was strong and held dear by my extended relatives, who had all graduated from colleges related to the churches of Christ.

My family was devoted to our church tradition and tried to live within that faith system to the best of our understanding. Like everyone else, my father and mother had their imperfections, but they were good parents who loved me, and I am continually grateful that they taught me to love the Lord. My parents also allowed me to develop a curious, active mind, and they accepted my desire to study human nature, including aspects of our fallen nature and our tendency toward sin. As a child, I was intrigued by religious beliefs and devotion, and they supported me when I borrowed library books about various Christian and non-Christian faith traditions. By fostering my curiosity, my parents became an important and instrumental part of my faith journey and, ultimately, my conversion to the Catholic Faith.

One aspect of my childhood that became the impetus for my future swim across the Tiber (the river that flows through Rome – crossing it implies conversion to Rome) was the privilege of world travel. My father’s job required frequent overseas travel, and several times my mother, my sister, and I were able to accompany him on his trips. As travel so often does, those trips affected my world view. My understanding of life, and the lens through which I viewed it, were formed through personal exposure to different cultures, traditions, and faith practices. For instance, I remember visiting Lutheran churches in Germany, Anglican churches in England, and in Mexico, Catholic churches for Mass.

I believe the seed that later germinated and grew into the faith I now have was planted during a trip to Paris, France, when I was 17. At this time in my life, I had no idea what I believed, and I was questioning everything that I had been taught. While in Paris, we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and I was awestruck by its beauty. As Mass started in a gated-off area of the church, I remember looking at my dad, and he said I could go in. I had no idea what was happening liturgically or linguistically, but what struck me was seeing worshipers fervently praying and exhibiting a reverence I had never previously witnessed. It was there that I encountered the Eucharist for the first time. During the Mass, everyone went forward to partake of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. I went with them and did what they did. I had no idea that I was not allowed to participate, so I stuck out my hand and received the Eucharist. Oblivious to the reality of Christ’s Real Presence, I consumed the Body of Christ, having no idea what was happening to me. Afterwards, my father also bought me a rosary from the cathedral’s gift shop. That small gesture started me down a path I had no inkling that I would one day follow to its end. This is how the Lord prepared the way for me to come home to the Church He Himself established.

The next year of my life was teeming with school, a girlfriend, and plans for my future. As so often happens in our youth, I put the Lord on the back burner. I wound up following my girlfriend to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. However, we soon broke up, and I spent much of the next two years partying on the weekends.

During my sophomore year, I met the woman who would later become my wife. We started dating, and eventually, I began to change. By my junior year, I was again attending church regularly with my future wife, although I was uncomfortable with my religious roots. I had recently gone to a Promise Keepers rally (a large evangelical men’s movement prevalent in the 1990s), and the Holy Spirit transformed me. When I came back, I was saddened to realize that there was a controversy in the churches of Christ concerning this movement. Deterred by this conflict, I began to visit the instrumental Christian Churches (another branch of the churches of Christ and the same Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement). They had a more welcoming view of other Christians, and I found myself at home there for several years.

Scouting the Riverbank with the Church Fathers

I graduated from Harding in 1997, and my wife and I were married in 1998. About four years later, we relocated to Pulaski, Tennessee, for my job. One night in 2002, when I just couldn’t sleep, I got up and turned on the TV. I found myself watching The Journey Home on EWTN — a show I had never seen, on a channel I had never watched before. I had heard of Catholics converting to Protestantism, but I had never seen or heard of Protestants converting to Catholicism. It was “rerun” night, so I watched two episodes of the show and then went back to bed. I found out the show was on every week, so I watched it regularly for the next two years. I started to notice a pattern developing with the guests. The vast majority of them mentioned how they had read Church history, and they mentioned a group of believers called the Church Fathers. I remember realizing one day that, while I knew a lot about the Stone-Campbell Movement and the Reformation, I knew almost nothing about the first 1500 years of Christian history. With that realization, my life was about to change – I would never be able to go back to being oblivious to what the Early Fathers were about to teach me.

We lived in a town with a small Methodist college that had a library full of Church-history books. I found myself frequently visiting this library whenever I had free time. I discovered the Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers (those who lived at the time of the First Council of Nicea in the fourth century and those who lived in the centuries immediately following) and the Didache, a very early anonymous writing about Christian practices. I learned about the various Church heresies that occurred in the first few hundred years of the Church, doctrinal development, and the seven early Ecumenical Councils. My studies continued for three years. I even amassed my own library of Church-history books and found myself reading the works of Clement, Polycarp, and Irenaeus online. Then I took another job, and we moved to Columbia, Tennessee, becoming active in a local independent Christian church.

Mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, I tried to suppress all that I had been learning, but it was too late. I was already standing at the bank of the Tiber, but I was afraid to swim. For the next eight years, I did what I could to silence what I had learned in my studies. As a family, we immersed ourselves in the life of our chosen church, and I eventually became a deacon and a church elder there.

By 2015, I realized that suppressing the Truth wouldn’t make it go away. I discovered the Catholic Answers apostolate and found myself reading about the history of the Church – again. I expanded my reading to include information about the liturgy and the stories of converts. I also regularly read material from the Coming Home Network, and I corresponded with them.

About a year later, I told my wife and my parents that I wanted to convert to the Catholic Church. It was not well-received. I was so distraught by their response that I put my studies into hibernation for a few months. Eventually, however, I picked up my studies again and started to research the Eastern Orthodox Churches. I noticed that this did not elicit the same negative reaction (as my study of the Catholic Church had) when I discussed faith traditions with my family. I dove deep into the works of Peter Gilchrist, Timothy Ware, and Alexander Schmemann. I researched intensely online about the Eastern Church Fathers and came to realize that I didn’t fully understand where our Eastern brethren were coming from. I love what the Eastern Church brings to the table, but my mind is so occidental (western) in thought and practice that the Catholic Church just made more collective sense to me.

I was back to where I had initiated my journey, with my feet at the edge of the Tiber.

Struggling in the Muddy Shallows

In 2017, I was still serving on the board of elders for our local independent Christian church. Over the years, my Catholic convictions grew to the point that I was actively thinking of stepping down from my leadership role and starting RCIA. I kept praying to God to help me discern what I should do.

There were a few incidents that became the catalyst for me to move forward. At the time, my local church had a vibrant and talented worship pastor. He had been on staff for about two years when I noticed he was getting very selective about song choices. He seemed to be interested only in songs that related to God’s love, not those in conjunction with orthodox truth. This continued for weeks until he eventually pulled me aside and admitted that he didn’t believe in the truths of orthodox Christianity anymore. He could not accept the exclusivity of Christ and the triune nature of the Godhead. The elders met with him and decided that he needed to move on. We tried to change his mind, but he was not interested. Since the congregation was autonomous, I wondered what would have happened if we had kept this worship pastor on staff…. Nothing! It was likely that nothing would have happened. Churches lacking a hierarchical structure are open to believing and practicing just about anything they want. While I knew many Christian denominations were orthodox and loved the Lord, the idea that we were doing this thing called “church” all by ourselves was nerve-wracking.

During this time, I started an early-morning Bible study for the men at our church. I was hoping it would be a time of growth and learning and, in many ways, it was. But as time went by, I began to notice the wide variety in our theological perspectives. We had always been a church that focused on what we would call “essentials of the faith,” while allowing for freedom in secondary matters. As our church grew, it attracted people from multiple religious backgrounds. This variety, combined with a church that was strictly non-denominational, was, sadly, a recipe for confusion. People would move to town, come to church, and simply assume that the church here was similar to their church back home. Sometimes it was, but more often than not, they found out it was very different. People had no idea that this church had its roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement. Furthermore, when all this variation was brought into our men’s Bible study, it resulted in twenty-plus men reading God’s Word and expressing several different opinions on important subjects.

There were varying beliefs on baptism and salvation, the ever-present Calvinism/Arminianism debate on whether Christians could lose their salvation, and much more. Some members were also uncomfortable with the church being part of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It perplexed me how we could all read the same Bible but still all come to vastly different conclusions. It would have been easy to assume that everyone else was wrong since they didn’t see things as I did, but these men were all sincere believers, all with their own reasons for believing what they did.

I was witnessing firsthand what happens when a person asserts that the Holy Spirit guides all believers, while privately reading Scripture, to know the truth. We do know the Holy Spirit guides all believers, but the Lord is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and a Bible-only faith leads to much confusion, even among faith-filled believers. Believers should, indeed, place importance on personal Bible study, but the ultimate interpretation of Scripture must be in light of how the Church has historically understood God’s Word. If one is not rooted in doctrinal and historical continuity, one can develop novel ideas that represent private interpretations rather than Biblical truth (2 Peter 1:20). All these issues hit me at once. I realized that I couldn’t do what I was doing any more, and I resigned from the elder board.

Jumping in and Swimming Hard

In 2018, I stopped merely floundering near the edge of the Tiber and jumped completely into its deeper waters. I had to figure out how to swim the width of that river. My main problem was how I was going to break this news to my wife. She had been there with me through the whole process. She had always acknowledged Catholics as fellow Christians but was not interested in following me into the Catholic Faith. I found myself in an agonizing fix. Was there a way to honor my wife and to follow the Holy Spirit into the Church? I found my answer in Alabama.

My job required me to manage distribution in, and travel to, four states. On one such trip, I found myself praying at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, and the Lord put the following in my heart: I could attend 8 am Mass each Sunday and then attend the Protestant church with my wife for the 10:30 am service there. I then stopped praying, went to the visitor desk at the Shrine, and asked to talk to a priest. Thankfully, one was just then coming around the corner, and we discussed my dilemma. I was informed that if I decided to join the Church, I was still allowed to attend Protestant services with my wife, but I was not to take communion there. I also needed to step down from my ordination (which allowed me to officiate Protestant marriages). Those were reasonable and logical steps that I could easily take, so I went home and presented this “hybrid” plan to my wife.

The plan was not ideal in her eyes, but she is an amazing, patient, and understanding spouse, and she agreed to my suggestion. I also promptly informed my parents, sister, and the elders of my local church. My family was better prepared for this go-round, especially since I was able to dispel many caricatures about Catholicism. However, my local church was still shocked; they had never heard of anyone doing what I was doing. Yet they respected my decision. I had some church pushback, but overall, my transition to the Catholic Faith was not tumultuous.

Reaching the Shores of Home

In 2019, I started RCIA. Through personal study and RCIA, I noticed other aspects of the Faith that allowed Catholicism to truly come alive. My whole life, I had been taught that the Bible made the Church. I began to realize that, instead, it was the Church that gave us the Bible. I also learned about the development of doctrine and that many teachings were not completely set in stone at the birth of the Church. I was once again realizing that becoming Catholic was a paradigm shift. Finally, in 2020, I was received into the Church, and I stepped onto the shores of Rome. I was home!

While this has been a paradigm shift for me, it has also been a cultural shift. There has been a steep inculturation process since Protestant churches are predominately relationally-driven, and Catholics are sacramentally-driven. I had no illusions that the grass was greener on this side of the fence. I knew I would have to defend the Church against a long list of caricatures, the bad press from sexual- and financial-abuse scandals, and the overall stereotype that all Catholics are apathetic to their faith. To some outsiders, the Church can appear to be a huge conglomeration of mediocrity, but once you pull back those layers, you find a church immersed in deep theological reasoning with amazing believers who want to help you on your new journey. Also present are liturgical beauty and a worldview that truly makes sense.

For the past two years, I’ve been immersing myself in growing in my faith. I’m thankful for my local parish and all that I have learned there. Its parishioners have helped me settle into the Faith and become part of a community striving to follow Christ.

Becoming Catholic truly transforms a person through the life of Christ that is embodied in the Liturgical Calendar, the Sacraments, and the overall graces that come with being a member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that Christ Himself founded. Now that the pendulum has stopped swinging, I can say, without a doubt, that there is no place like home.

Andrew Shadel

Andrew Shadel is a district sales manager who manages four states. When not working, he spends time with his two daughters, a son-in-law, and his wife. He also is active in his local parish (St. Catherine’s in Columbia, Tennessee), a men’s group, Exodus 90, and the Knights of Columbus. And to this day he finds himself a regular visitor to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama.

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