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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Facebook is a Place of Prayer

My little congregation[1] routinely provides me with the richest spiritual moments I’ve ever experienced. Each Sunday we gather for prayer, study, and worship, and each Sunday I am confronted by the ever-challenging reality of God by the words of my friends. Just this last Sunday a friend at the table referred to Facebook as “a place of prayer.” I’ve been thinking about that statement and my own experience in social media and I’m convinced that my friend is correct – Facebook is certainly a place of prayer.[2]

Social media is nothing new, and in fact Facebook is already considered “for old people” by middle- and high-school students now. I am not a social media native – I was included in the launch of Facebook when it came to Baylor University in 2004 and have been a participant since. Those who have been born and raised in the post-Facebook era are more at home with Twitter and Instagram today, although surely even that will quickly change. 

The transformative power of social media is undeniable. We have only to look at the Arab Spring[3], the Boston Marathon Bombings[4], and even today’s news concerning the New England Patriots[5] to realize that something has changed in the way we find information and how we relate to the world as individuals. I wish the most sincere “good luck” to all those sociologists and PhD dissertation writers who are tackling this new way of making society – we’ll surely need you in generations to come.

How can we speak of Facebook as a place of prayer? One doesn’t have to dig too deeply to find postings of the most vile, evil things in our world. There are plenty of good things in those News Feeds too, though, things that warm the heart and cause the soul to sing. Good evidence for both can be easily found today in response to the Supreme Court decisions concerning the Defense of Marriage Act. [6]

The specific posts or comments are not the essence of the Facebook-as-sanctuary idea, though. Instead, Facebook is a community, a society, and an environment that is conducive to the prayers of the people much like our individual churches. Facebook has become something like the old Prayer Meetings of my youth – a gathering of people voicing their concerns and petitions alongside their words of thanks to God. We would listen to these concerns and then wrap them up together in a prayer together, collectively binding together the burdens of our hearts into one voice.

When I read my News Feed I often think of those “popcorn” requests that come from all over the sanctuary. In that way I am constantly thrust into something that resembles constant prayer. It seems with every breath I have a reason to ask for God’s mercy in someone’s life or to utter a silent “thanks be to God” when good news come across the wire. In that way I think we practice that Biblical admonition to “pray without ceasing”[7] and to “bear one another’s burdens.”[8] I don’t have to wait until Wednesday or Sunday to hear of God’s grace in my friends’ lives; I am present to the news.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep is the essence of what Facebook becomes in many cases.[9] It is an opportunity for our scattered relations to offer words of support and Christian love to one another in real time. These are not mere words – they are an instance of believers being the Presence of Christ in the virtual world.

The very existence of social media is a testimony to the fact that we need each other and we need to be heard by one another. There is a sense in which a status update is a shout into the darkness: we declare our thoughts or feelings or needs in the hopes that someone will read them and understand. We yell in faith that someone will respond. Such is the act of prayer. We do not scream into the darkness, though; we speak words of true emotion and of our true spirit into the world, as well as to God.

What we believe about prayer will certainly color how we treat Facebook and other social media. I find that prayer is a posture of the spirit toward God on the one hand and the world on the other.[10] The content of prayer is not as critical to me as the spirit behind that prayer; sometimes words aren’t the point at all.[11] In our openness to God through prayer we are often “disoriented”[12] and see ourselves less selfishly, becoming open to the world for which Christ died. We, through the vulnerability that comes with prayer, participate in the sacred communion with God that is so essential to sustaining a life of faith in this world.

I was raised in the era of “quiet time,” which compartmentalized Biblical study and prayer as something of a holy diversion early in the morning. This was a helpful introduction into daily Bible reading and intentional prayer, but it did little to develop in me a sense of prayer as a posture throughout the day. Believers are encouraged to maintain both a sacred time of spiritual solitude for communion with God[13] as well as that ever-elusive command to “pray without ceasing.” Facebook helps me practice just that. As I read the needs and concerns of my friends in my News Feed, and as I see the many, many exclamation points when they are rejoicing (grandma came through surgery!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) I am thrust headlong into a holy moment of prayer.

It is true that not everything said on Facebook, especially by believers, is holy and righteous.[14] We need to be better stewards of the Fruit of the Spirit on Facebook. We need to be people of kinder, more careful, and certainly less contentious speech. We need to be more thoughtful in what we say, what we “like,” and what we re-post. There is nothing inherently evil about Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Just like every other way in which people gather and speak there is good, bad, and ugly within it. However, there is a sense in which Facebook is good for my prayer life, and for the life of my congregation. Thanks be to God for Facebook, I think. I’ll have to pray about that one.

[1] You really should join us one Sunday soon: 502 Gluckstadt Road, Madison, MS.
[2] Thanks to Al and Dede for beginning this conversation with me. I couldn’t imagine a better group to do church with.
[5] I reference this story because the Patriots announced that Hernandez had been released from the team on Twitter before anyone else knew. Twitter has become the de facto media outlet for many major organizations.
[7] See 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
[8] See Galatians 6:2.
[9] See Romans 12:15.
[10] Thanks to Richard Foster for helping me with this idea. See his Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.
[11] See Romans 8:26.
[12] See Brueggemann, Walter, The Spirituality of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
[13] See Daniel 6; Matthew 6:6; Luke 5:16.
[14] The bad language and pornography notwithstanding, believers often attempt something like character assassination on each other on Facebook. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Place of Rest Along the Way

For as long as there have been roads there have been travelers. We are creatures on the move – we explore, communicate, and trade along routes that stretch far and wide across this world. We are also creatures that need rest and refreshment long those paths, and so we create places dedicated to times of pause and protection from the elements.

From at least 500bc onward we have built way stations, small communities where weary travelers might sleep, eat, bathe, and relax along the road. Archaeologists have identified these houses along Roman, Incan, Persian, and Indian roads, many of them large and opulent.[1] Americans are more familiar with stops along the stagecoach and rail paths of the 19th and 20th centuries. Travel in those days was dangerous and uncomfortable even in the best cases. John Stone’s ballad about the California Stage Company captures the mood of such travel:

There’s no respect for youth or age
On board the California stage,
But pull and haul about the seats
As bed-bugs do about the sheets.

You’re crowded in with Chinamen,
As fattening hogs are in a pen;
And what will more a man provoke
Is musty plug tobacco smoke.

The ladies are compelled to sit
With dresses in tobacco spit;
The gentlemen don’t seem to care,
But talk on politics and swear.

The dust is deep in summer time,
The mountains very hard to climb,
And drivers often stop and yell,
“Get out, all hands, and push up hill.”

The drivers, when they feel inclined,
Will have you walking on behind,
And on your shoulders lug a pole
To help them out some muddy hole.

They promise when your fare you pay,
“You’ll have to walk but half the way”;
Then add aside, with cunning laugh,
“You’ll have to push the other half.”[2]

This is probably only a slight exaggeration. Elizabeth MacPhail has demonstrated that passengers aboard a Wells Fargo stagecoach, which usually carried 15 people, were crammed into 15” spaces, their knees dovetailed, and often seated over mail or other cargo. These travellers would endure such conditions for weeks-long journeys through hostile Indian lands and risking robbery by highwaymen. Wells Fargo eventually published guidelines for travelers that included:
       Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly (sic).
       If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
       Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
       Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
       Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
       Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
       In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
       Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
       Gents guilty of unchivalrous (sic) behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back.[3]

Along the paths that these coaches travelled were small communities called way stations. These stops were not destinations, but were rather places where fresh horses could be teamed, supplies purchased, and, for travelers not afraid of being left behind, places of rest. Men and women whose lives were centered on caring for the travelers who came to their doors populated these communities. There were blacksmiths, doctors, farriers, and certainly clergy at these stations. They provided shelter and relief to those brave souls headed somewhere farther down the road.

There is a sense in which the unpredictable and exhausting travel of the American stagecoach era is like our Christian journey. It is no coincidence that the earliest Christians were called followers of “the Way.”[4] Theirs was a way of believing God through Jesus Christ and a way of living with one another and the world as witnesses to that Way.[5] We journey along the road of discipleship “working out” our salvation and growing into Christ-likeness.[6]
It is unfortunate that many of my Baptist tribe in the South[7] see salvation as a one-and-done event that has few consequences beyond learning to live within a new moral framework as described in Scripture. People are more complicated than that. We are creatures who change, who develop, who oscillate along some spectrum of faithfulness and sin. We are supposed to grow, yes, but we will inevitably be hurt and ruined by life along the way.

What are we to do when the Way has become rough and treacherous? Where are we to turn for refreshment when the journey of the Cross is too much for us to take even one more moment? We need way stations for our spiritual journey as much as the travelers of old needed them for physical rest.

Our little congregation in Madison, Mississippi styles itself as a spiritual and physical way station. This is the result of several years of prayer and struggle with our own identity among the abundance of churches in our state.  We have come to realize that God has brought a truly unique group of believers together to do a work that is necessary and missing from our community.

From a spiritual perspective we provide a small, intimate community of believers for those who feel they have no spiritual place to belong among the churches of our area. We welcome those who are hurt, burned-out, or searching for something different than First Baptist Church. One recent visitor commented that ours was a church that listened. We are not a group that speaks in absolutes or spiritual ultimatums. We listen, question, and most importantly provide a place where spiritual travelers can breathe for a bit.

We hold to the same beliefs as many of our Baptist neighbors, yet we provide room for those who have not been satisfied with the answers they have received in other churches or in other faiths. Ours is a community for those who need to vent, who need to cry, who need to be angry with God or the Church. Ours is a way station for those souls wearied by the journey who need a moment to rest.

We see ourselves as that small community that occupies the way station and that provides for the needs of those traveling along the Way. We are not blacksmiths or doctors or innkeepers; we are rather men and women who have been down the road of faith and have come back for those who move along it now. We wish to provide a place of refreshment more than to grow large. We desire spiritual healing and faithful discipleship to Christ. We are called to minister to those who have no place to question or no place to express their doubts. We wish to be that way station community, ever receiving the weary traveller and, once they are sufficiently refreshed, sending them along the Way to their destination.[8]

From a physical perspective we provide something of a retreat for those who travel as well. We have recently installed 20 beds in our facility that can be used for those seeking spiritual retreat and renewal. Our property models the very spiritual passion that we have as a community: it is a place to go apart from the world for a moment to pray and hear God. We hope that churches in our state will use these facilities for prayer retreats, deacon retreats, staff meetings, or as a base of operation for ministry trips into Jackson.

Madison Chapel will never be a mega-church, but neither will it be an insignificant or marginalized congregation in the Kingdom of God. There is a great need for places of rest along the journey of faith, even if we rest in those sanctuaries for only a short while. Our people have struggled, cursed, repented, and struggled again. They have come out of bad churches and returned to good ones. They have found in our congregation a place where art is cherished and conversational rabbits are chased. They have found a temporary home, and have gone on their Way refreshed.

[3] MacPhail, Elizabeth C., “Wells Fargo in San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History 28 no. 4.
[4] See Acts 9, 24; John 14.
[5] We are foolish to discount language of “the Christian walk” or “the journey” in our talk of discipleship out of an aversion to cliché or platitude. It is true that these metaphors have been coopted by evangelicalism to refer to the morality that is expected of believers. I use those phrases here as metaphors referring to the progression of maturity demanded of every believer.
[6] See Philippians 2.
[7] I’m trying so hard not to say Southern Baptist.
[8] Here is an interesting post about evangelicalism as a way station of faith. Ours is a microcosm of that same idea, although we style ourselves firmly within the Baptist tradition. See

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ecclesiology and Art

I have for some time believed two things that flow from my theology of the Church:
Firstly, education, when properly and most appropriately conceived, belongs to the Church. Secondly, the arts, when properly and most appropriately conceived, belong to the Church.

Both of these statements are distillations of long conversations, essays, and arguments with myself over the years, and they certainly need explanation and context. However, these two statements have helped me to develop a practical ecclesiology that is, I believe, consonant with my beliefs about God, humanity, culture, and salvation.

For the sake of this essay I’d like to consider the second of my two axioms: the arts belong to the Church.

What do I mean by “the arts?” Different cultures define art differently, but in general the arts means those categories of things which human beings create. In America we generally divide the arts into three major groups: visual arts, literature, and performance arts. There is much more to the varied and contextualized art forms of a specific culture, but for the sake of this essay let us consider the arts to be those things that human beings intentionally craft and into which they pour their personality and skill.

What do I mean by “belong to the Church?” This phrase has gotten me into trouble; so let me explain it in terms of theology. First, consider that Christianity holds as a fundamental tenet that God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is the Creator of all things, including those things that make us “human.”[1] If God is indeed the originator of the human spirit, then our creative impulse certainly exists as a consequence of our resembling the Creator – a concept Christians call the Imago Dei or Image of God. Our resemblance to God has been corrupted and tarnished through the presence of sin, yet something of that image remains within us. This remnant is that which allows the Church to see every individual human being as an object of worth to God.[2]

The Church, as keeper of Christian theology, therefore views the creative acts of human beings as expressions of the Imago Dei, regardless of how sinfully tainted that expression may be. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most wonderful artistic expressions in history have been produced within the influence of the Church – architecture, music, visual arts all owe a tremendous amount to the Church.[3] Certainly art in all of its forms has existed outside of the Church both temporally and culturally; Christian theology is wide enough, though, to allow for the creative impulse in humanity beyond the reach of evangelism because of the foundational belief that all of us are made in the image of God.

Therefore, Christian theology allows for art in all its great variety and quality to represent the Image of God in humanity. Thus art, when we rightly conceive it, belongs to the Church.

Now to follow-up on my immediately previous post.

I noted in “The Pastor and the Man of Steel” that “Christian” movies strike me as being particularly awful. Examples include “Fireproof,” “Flywheel,” “Courageous,” “The Omega Code[4],” the “Left Behind” franchise, and just about everything produced in the 1960s and ‘70s. I do not mean to insult or denigrate one particular studio or another, but there aren’t that many from which to choose.

Scott Nehring has written a piece for RELEVANT magazine exploring this very issue.[5] I do not wish to plow the same ground, nor do I aim for the same conclusions. Nehring does suggest, though, that the momentum for Christian filmmakers should be the fact that “We have something genuine to offer that secularists can only dream of: Truth. Life in Christ feeds the hungry spirit and gives definition to life. No amount of existential claptrap will ever compete with the nourishing truth of Christ.
If a film claims to be Christian, it was supposedly done for the glory of God, but we do not glorify God by making lousy movies. We need great films.”[6]

Why, I wonder, do we need to declare a film or book or other expression of creativity explicitly “Christian?” Do we use that term to excuse our inauthenticity when we depict life as essentially a series of problems that the sinner’s prayer can solve?

What makes our stereotypical “Christian” expressions of art so bad is that they are just that: inauthentic. They dance around the real issues of life, death, and salvation in the name of some moralistic code that is more impermeable than a Baptist’s wallet. It’s not the production value, the budget, the lighting, or the scripting that makes many of the aforementioned films so unwatchable. It’s the irrelevance of the themes that makes them so bad.

Christian theology is broad enough to find the themes of salvation and redemption in art that is not explicitly or intentionally “Christian.” Further, I believe that the Gospel is powerful enough to withstand evil and sin portrayed in major studio films. We do not need to develop or reinforce an industry that is the “Christian” alternative to Hollywood. We do not need to privatize a culture of Christianity that has “safe” parallels so that our people may become more and more insulated from the reality of just what Jesus Christ came to save. We need poets, playwrights, sculptors, painters, dancers[7], singers, and most certainly preachers who express their Christian convictions in the best of humanity’s art.

We need good art. We need quality in the stories we tell and complexity in the ways we tell them. We need the presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be as relevant to the people hearing it today as it was to those who heard it proclaimed at Pentecost: messy, complex, real. Our art as Christians should reflect the Image of God in all its power and vitality; we should also not shun the essential stories of humanity because they come from a studio on the Left Coast.

All of this, though, hangs on the spiritual maturity of our brothers and sisters. I can hear Paul now, tee-totaling his way through the meat market in hopes of not scandalizing anyone and tarnishing his witness.[8] I also hear him on Mars Hill, reinterpreting the best of art and philosophy of his era to demonstrate how all of it all of it reflects humanity’s need for a savior.[9]

We must go to the greatest of lengths to help our people grow in the Spirit into something approximating spiritual maturity. The idea of a Christian enclave filled with Christian alternatives to the world has largely been exposed as failure. We have lost our ability to stand as a witness that God is the origin and Creator of all humanity, all creative expression, and ad Redeemer of those expressions. The solution is not to give up on the Church; it is to be the Church authentic. The solution is to be so deep into the Spirit that we are prepared in season and out of season to speak a word of Truth to a world that is constantly expressing the image of God in a fallen, sinful state.

The solution is to make disciples rather than movies.

[1] Please hold off on issues related to theophany or the Problem of Evil.
[2] See my previous post, “Thinking About Suicide.”
[3] There are many sources on this topic, so I will refer to only a few. See Seasoltz, R. Kevin, A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Sacred Architecture and Art, New York: Continuum, 2005; Finney, Paul C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; O’Malley, John W. (ed.), Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation, New York: Brill, 1993.
[4] I had to include this one and will also take this opportunity to again apologize to Bo Thornhill, Matt Lynch, Ryan Mount, and Mark Carter for convincing them to see it with me in the summer of 1999. My bad.
[6] Ibid.
[7] On a related note, I highly recommend watching the audition episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance” and see just how powerful these people can be in their creative expression with no words.
[8] See 1 Corinthians 8.
[9] See Acts 17.

The Pastor and the Man of Steel

I recently saw the newest installment of the Superman franchise, “The Man of Steel.” It was a powerful, entertaining, and thinly veiled allegory for anyone paying attention.

A recent CNN article[1] has described how the producers of the film invited pastors and other church leaders to view advanced screenings and to use studio-supplied notes from which to develop Father’s Day sermons and other church communications. This is not the first time such a marketing strategy has been employed; just a few years ago similar campaigns were launched in conjunction with the releases of “The Blind Side” and “Fireproof.”[2]

The idea is clear: there are sufficient meaty themes and images in “The Man of Steel” to provide preachers and teachers with ample connections and illustrations in their ministries. By “marketing” the film to church leaders the studio might get a bump in viewers. By being “marketed” to, church leaders get a bump in cool points, relevance, and perhaps the ever-shortening attention spans of congregants.

After seeing the film and viewing the notes that have been distributed to many churches by Warner Brothers I’m convinced that we pastors must become better women and men in terms of artistic, literary, and cultural insight. We must become better readers, viewers, and thinkers when it comes to the arts.

Baptists have long been accused of a strong anti-intellectual bend that has become something of a calling card among my tribe.[3] There were days not too long ago when the pastor of a local church was the only educated citizen of the community and the one relied upon for insight and understanding in matters ecclesial and secular. In recent years, though, it seems that Baptists have become something of a “know nothing” party that takes harsh political and social stands on things that ultimately matter little.

Here are some illustrations: I was lucky (unlucky?) enough to live through the boycott of Disney in ’97, the boycott of Waldenbooks and K-Mart in ’95, and the current “great matter” over the Boy Scouts of America. Further, I was a member of a thriving youth ministry in the late 90s through which I went to summer camps where Harry Potter was proclaimed to be the worst sort of witchcraft and personally saw a Pokémon character destroyed because it represented an idol of some sort. Lastly, I recall a sermon preached against the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” which the preacher had never seen.

Ok, so that’s a long list of things that many of you probably remember and cringe over. The point of that list is to demonstrate just how Baptists have engaged with culture in my own generation. I am not trying to categorize these responses as necessarily “good” or “bad,” nor am I conjuring the spirit of Niebuhr and his categories of Christ and Culture. Rather, I’d like to suggest that my Baptist peers and I reclaim something of the cultural literacy that we once had by being smarter, more well-read, and conversant with media than we have been in generations past.

What I think happened is that we took the “tee-totaling” attitude a bit too far. If drunkenness is bad, then we’ll just abstain from alcohol completely. If smoking or chewing tobacco could send the wrong message, then we’ll shun all tobacco. If the relatively recent establishment of a rating system of works of art and artistic expression says something is taboo, then by George we’ll somehow make it a double taboo.

The consequence of such a stance is that we have lost all of our ability to read. We have lost the ability to experience art in all its forms and to interpret those experiences in light of Jesus Christ. We have become so afraid of the media that we assume all media is out to get us. We have become so petrified in our stances against certain moral issues that we have thrown out literature[4] and boycotted movies. There is a broad, bold line between thoughtfully and prayerfully rejecting sin and evil and being some sort of ostrich when it comes to literature, movies, and television. Baptist pastors, at least, should demonstrate the spiritual maturity to know the difference.

I find it sad that Warner Brothers’ sermon notes were necessary. I’d like to think that any Baptist pastor would be able to view the film and weave powerful references to Godliness, to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, or to the essential nature of God’s fatherhood into a sermon series while the film is in theaters. Unfortunately many will reject the film outright because it comes from Hollywood or will slavishly follow the prescribed sermon outline without viewing the film or prayerfully developing a timely, unique word for their congregations.

It’s not just “The Man of Steel,” however. I recall one pastor preaching from a prepared sermon manuscript by Rick Warren in 2003 during a “40 Days of Purpose” campaign. Other such instances of parroting certainly accompanied church-wide emphases on “Fireproof.”

The pastor must be more than a pulpiteer, more than a counselor; the Baptist pastor must be an individual who can read. We must be the tribe that keeps the classics in print and the newest hardcovers on our iPads. We must be readers of poetry and prose, of fiction and non-fiction. We must speak the languages of journalism and jurisprudence. We must be readers.

Someone will object to this on the grounds that it is wasted energy and time since the vast majority of our congregants do not read voraciously nor do they read deeply.[5] In fact, one may object that since we cannot possibly know the education or literacy level of our congregants we do harm to immerse ourselves in the language of poetry or history for fear of alienating those who cannot or will not follow along. This is certainly a valid point. I am not advocating a return to Victorian-Era preaching with complex and esoteric language. I further am not advocating for the inclusion of poems, literary references, or historic citations in the homiletic exercise. Instead I simply call for pastors to be better people themselves by reading more broadly and more deeply – such education and insight will allow us to find the right phrase or word rather than something that merely suffices. It will allow our verbs to be more vivid and sharp, our sentences to dance more lightly upon the ears of those who need to hear.

I commend my friend and colleague Griff Martin of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for his desire to see just such a baptism of language in his own congregation. Through book studies that prepare hearers for the sermon each week Griff and his Co-Pastor are keeping their own minds sharp and their congregation’s vocabulary ever rich. Pete Wilson of Crosspoint Church in Nashville uses a similar strategy.

Being able to read has more impact on a pastor than in terms of books, though. My lament over the necessity of the “Ministry Aids” produced by Warner Bros. is more for the state of pastors than any imagined separation of Church and Hollywood. I pray that as pastors we would be able to engage the culture in which our congregants live and speak prophetic words about the things that interest, scare, and inspire them most.

We have no need for preachers who will lead boycotts; we need pulpiteers who speak prophetic words about God’s Kingdom in relation to the themes, stories, and images that our people see and experience. We need pastors who can see “Man of Steel” and not need help from Warner Bros. to see Christian themes throughout. We need men and women who have been so steeped in the Spirit that they can read the things their people see and hear with the eyes of Christ. We need pastors who can read and who do so with the shepherd’s compassion for the sheep – for their good, for their nourishment, for their growth.

[2] There will be a follow-up article on just how awful “Fireproof,” “Flywheel,” and other “Christian” movies are.
[5] Here’s the real issue in taking such a position: remember the mess “The Da Vinci Code” caused? That was in large part because 1) pastors didn’t read it and 2) our people weren’t prepared in such a way to withstand such a fad or “new wind of philosophy.” It was our fault.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It's Time to Think Small

Ed Stetzer’s recent speech to the SBC Pastors’ Conference in Houston highlighted the negative trend within the SBC in terms of baptisms and church membership. He pointed out that this “is a 50 year trend” that has been mathematically documented since the SBC’s heyday in the 1950’s. Bob Allen concluded an article about Stetzer’s speech by saying, “Acknowledging that it’s hard to turn around a 50-year trend, Statzer urged church leaders to stop being distracted by secondary issues and rehabilitate the convention’s image so that Southern Baptists will “be known more for what we’re for – the gospel – than what we’re against.””[1]

Stetzer is commenting on the prevailing themes of the SBC annual convention, that is, Calvinism and the Boy Scouts’ recent ruling on the inclusion of homosexual boys. These “secondary issues” may be responsible for the SBC’s numeric decline, although this is hardly likely. Stetzer is correct, though, to urge that the Gospel be placed at the fore of the SBC’s vision rather than theological litmus tests that only exclude those who would believe.[2]

These secondary issues are just that: secondary. I do not mean that they are unimportant; rather they are the issues that are to be worked out prayerfully and with the leading of the Holy Spirit within a local congregation. The SBC (or any other authentically Baptist convention) cannot legislate belief. The autonomous local congregation filled with Spirit-led Priests (as in the Priesthood of the Believer) must earnestly and thoroughly seek God’s will for itself and act accordingly.

Here’s where the idea of “small” comes in.

I have long assumed that a great hemorrhage of people out of our Baptist churches would come. I remember a conversation with my father when I was first working out my call to pastoral ministry during which he stated that the pastor of the future is going to be bi-vocational. His point was that the institutional, bureaucratic, top-down Baptist model was unsustainable and would ultimately fall. I believe we are seeing the beginnings of that now.

I believe that the Church will endure a great shrinking in my own generation. I credit this neither to the punishment of God nor to the failure of the Gospel. Rather this shrinking will be something akin to a “market correction” that our economists speak of when housing bubbles or tech bubbles or .com bubbles burst. Is it so fanciful to suggest that for the last 50 years we have been experiencing a “bubble” within the Baptist community?

So passionate have we been to baptize every man, woman, and child we meet that we have forgotten how to actually make disciples. Hear me: baptism is a necessary and powerful initiation into the Christian faith that should only be performed upon an individual’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. But baptism is not enough. If we, as Baptists, believe that salvation depends on faith in Jesus Christ rather than the act of baptism, and if we believe that the Church’s essential function is the proclamation of the Gospel to all people and the making of disciples out of those who respond, then we must learn to live in a state of holy discomfort when our churches begin to shrink and our statistics trend away from the high-water mark of the 1950s.

We have tried the “smaller-is-better” approach before. We need look no farther than the rapid expansion of cell-groups or other incarnations of the small group church model in our own era to see that our obsession with size, accounting, and the language of the free market has led many to look for smaller, more authentic ways to be and make disciples. I am not convinced that the small-group model accomplishes discipleship any better than massive Sunday School classes, but its existence is certainly a mark of our impulse to be more intimate and real with one another.

Here is a case on point: in my city many Baptists attend Pinelake, a church that is SBC to its gills yet would rather not advertise such a fact. This church does many wonderful things in terms of Gospel ministry, but one new ministry caught my eye. Pinelake has recently developed a worship setting called “the Venue” which “provides an intimate worship experience allowing you to build relationship with others.”[3] It is a church-within-a-church, a worship setting for those who desire relationships rather than worship-tainment. I would note that even in this setting the sermon is still piped in so that all of Pinelake’s campuses see and hear the Senior Pastor simultaneously.

We are already looking for more intimate worship and discipleship settings, and some churches have already begun developing ministries that address this desire among the faithful. More than worship settings, though, we must be prepared for smaller churches as we re-discover the nature of discipleship and the hard, slow work of being the people of God.

I would suggest, though, that we are not on the leading edge of a smaller church today. The old market strategies and religion-as-commodity language will no doubt be revived and efforts redoubled in the wake of Stetzer’s speech. The great shrinking is yet to come. There must be an intentional ministry of transition for those who are searching for authenticity and have no place to land in Baptist life because of it. Baptists must develop what my congregation calls “waystations” for those who are committed to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ but feel that they cannot live such a life authentically in their current congregations. Our churches must begin ministries that receive, love, and eventually send people on their way as they discover God’s calling on their lives. Then we will be congregations in the truest sense of the word and will be able to minister to those who now classify themselves as the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd.

I can hear the wheels turning even now as pastors and Baptist church leaders think of new ways to get back to the glory days of the 1950s. I pray that in their machinations Stetzer’s words of encouragement will be made real, that the Gospel will be the message rather than any secondary issues of identity hair-splitting. I pray, though, that when the Spirit of God brings revival among those who want a deeper, more authentic walk with God that our congregations will be ready to come alongside them and journey with them for a while.

[2] A case in point is Dr. Albert Mohler’s motion to excommunicate Lakeshore Baptist Church of Waco, Texas for that congregation’s support of Planned Parenthood. Ironically, the same congregation that went a bridge too far (at least according to Mohler) voted years ago to disassociate from the SBC. See