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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On 9/11 and the Necessity of a Personal Encounter with the Risen Lord

This morning the public schools in Clinton, MS heard the reading of President Obama’s declaration that today is “Patriot Day.” Faculty and students alike heard the emphasis on remembrance, memorial, and solidarity as Americans that many of us are familiar with in these years after the events of 9/11. I was nearly brought to tears as my principal read the declaration and as memories of my own experiences on that day came flooding back to my mind.

My students, though, were unaffected.

I teach 8th-11th grades. Most of my students were born between 1997 and 1999. They have very little recollection of the events of 2001 if they have any at all. They were unmoved by the powerful statement that my Principal read, and had no response whatsoever when I asked them about their emotions as they think about what today means in our society.

When I asked one group of students how they felt about our brief time of remembrance they reported that they had no emotional connection to the actual events of 9/11, and that they considered it in the same category as the attack on Pearl Harbor. They had no real first-hand experience with the events of the attack and therefore had no reason to be emotionally affected or even intellectually interested in our remembrance.

I understand my students’ perspective. They feel about 9/11 like I feel about Pearl Harbor: I understand that it was a trauma and a grotesque attack on our people but I do not have any real emotional connection to that event. My students care about the 9/11 attack, but they do not and cannot have a real connection to the emotions that I feel when I remember that day.

My students’ (in)experience with 9/11 has led me to think about our Baptist emphasis on personal salvation and how that should affect our local church ministries. Now that we are 12 years removed from the actual events of 9/11 more and more people understand that day in a disconnected, academic way. They understand the facts of the event and perhaps the motivations behind them, but they have no emotional connection with the horrors I experienced. In a similar way, those in our congregations who have not personally experienced the Risen Lord through the work of the Holy Spirit struggle to understand the regeneration of those who have.

Our distance in time and experience render our connection and commitment to a cause or movement weaker and weaker. The further removed we are from the founder of a movement or from a specific event, the less conviction we have. This is the very reason Baptists have emphasized and must continue to emphasize a personal conversion experience with Jesus Christ.

Baptists have emphasized a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ from the earliest days of the Baptist movement. Bill Leonard comments, “For the early Baptists, all who claimed membership in Christ's Church were required to testify to an experience of grace through faith. Baptists are one of the first Reformation- based groups to require a "profession of faith" as a prerequisite to baptism and church membership. From the believers' church, Baptists derived their emphasis on believers' baptism, congregational polity, and freedom of conscience, ecclesial and political dissent, and religious liberty. Indeed, all other distinguishing marks of Baptist identity grow out of their early commitment to a regenerate church membership.”[1]

The personal experience with Jesus was and is the ground of all of Baptist life. From it comes an understanding of church membership, church polity, and certainly the traditional Baptist distinctive beliefs: Priesthood of the Believer, Soul Competency, Autonomy of the Local Congregation, and Religious Liberty. Believer’s baptism likewise became “the outward and visible sign of a believer’s church” which was predicated in every case by a personal conversion experience.[2]

Without demanding that every member of a Baptist congregation have a personal faith encounter with Jesus Christ the Baptist project cannot stand. We begin to rely on the traditions, habits, and motivations of our ancestors rather than on the compulsion of God’s love for the world made manifest in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We are “unashamed particularists, demanding conversion of all who would claim salvation in this life and the next though Jesus Christ.”[3] This is the very essence of the Baptist identity, and is the motivation behind our various evangelistic emphases and revivalism.

Baptists have many versions of salvation theology, but underlying each is the fundamental theological and philosophical demand that every person who calls himself or herself a Baptist has had a personal experience with Jesus Christ. Whether a particular congregation’s identity is Calvinistic or Arminian, each demands that salvation be the doorway to regenerate church membership.[4]
This is certainly an inefficient way to organize the church. It would be much easier if we had hereditary membership based on the salvific experiences of parents or ancestors. Or perhaps we could have an attendance-based theology or a giving-based membership; if you show up once per month or give 10% of your income to the congregation than your salvation is assured!

Instead, Baptists commit to the never-ending work of evangelism. With each new birth, new immigration, or new social shift the Great Commission compels us outward again, proclaiming that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, has died for our sins and defeated death on our behalf. The work of catechesis - the work of teaching and forming people in godliness before and after their conversion - is a continuous and mandatory work of any Baptist congregation because we believe so firmly that every soul should meet and know Jesus Christ as Lord.

If we believe that people must be born again by grace through faith, then we must treat the congregation as a community constantly being re-born and re-shaped because people within the congregation change and thus the church changes. We cannot rely on the momentum of habit to prolong and preserve the mission and ministry of the church; we must continually re-tell, re-assess, and re-envision who we are and what we do for all those who are newly-born in our community.

We must do the work of telling the stories of our congregation so that new believers and new members can commit to the work God is doing in our midst with the knowledge of what God has done before. We must see the congregation as a Body - one that grows, stretches, changes, is wounded, and heals. We must, as Baptists, demand regeneration in our brothers and sisters. We must promote godliness within our churches and within our communities. And everything, everything we do must be based upon our own experience with the risen Lord.

My students will never understand the emotions I feel on 9/11, and they should not. I pray that they never experience anything as horrible as that day, though they probably will. Demanding that they act or feel or believe anything in particular toward a day they cannot remember is as fruitless as demanding that our congregations demonstrate passion in worship, zeal in evangelism, persistence in prayer, or conviction in their choices we do not first reveal to them the God whose love triumphs even the grave.

Consider an oft-skipped verse of “It Is Well With My Soul"
            My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought,
            My sin, not in part, but the whole,
            Is nailed to the Cross, and I bear it no more!
            Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul!

If we have no experience with such bliss, this is just a song. But if we have tasted the glory of that thought, then we sing even more powerfully and passionately. May we lead one another to that moment and then onward on this Way, knowing why we sing and just what we’ve been saved from.

[1] Leonard, Bill, “Salvation and Sawdust: The Rise and Fall of a Baptist Conversion Liturgy.” Baptist History and Heritage 45 no 3 (2010), 8.
[2] Leonard, Bill, “Changing a Theology: Baptists, Salvation, and Globalism Then and Now.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 31 no 3 (Fall 2004), 252.
[3] Ibid, 253.
[4] For an interesting overview of Baptist salvation and spirituality, see E. Glenn Hinson, “Baptist Approaches to Spirituality.” Baptist History and Heritage 37 no 2 (Spring 2002), 6-31.

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