I may be about to put my foot in my mouth, or rather, my keyboard. I’m trying to keep up with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention online and through twitter, emails, and texts from friends. The only thing I have in common with Phoenix this week is the heat—it’s in the 100s in South Georgia and in Arizona. There are two differences: 1) They have a dry heat; 2) they don’t have gnats.
Well, actually, there may be a third. Anytime there is a Convention, there’s a lot of hot air. Preachers jockey for power. Someone finds microphone number five and wants their fifteen seconds (not minutes, they’ll never get fifteen minutes) of fame. Motions are made that have little purpose or have been made every year since the Genesis flood. Resolutions are presented and rejected for the thirtieth consecutive Convention. If there’s one thing we Baptists know how to do, it’s pontificate.
We make bold statements about reaching the world, but the world is more lost today than when this generation took the mantle from the previous generation. We have more talk than walk. We have catch phrases, but we need to catch up with the times, or so we are told.
- We’ve got the latest in technology and less truth.
- We’ve got equipment that demands more power, and the lack of power from on high has never been more obvious.
- We talk more about church growth than church health. A dying church has to die or get healthy before it will ever care about church growth.
- We are dressing down this year (not a bad thing), and I’m wondering if the persecuted church really cares that we are going casual.
- We preach about going to the ends of the earth, but we relocate to be in a neighborhood with “our kind” of folks.
- We pass resolutions we intend to do nothing about. In fact, I doubt if anyone could name one resolution passed in 2010.
We are no longer content to say we affirm the Baptist Faith and Message. We have to justify our existence and buildings and programs so we come up with things to do and say to make us look important. This year there was a Unity Pledge. I thought if you believed the Bible you were committed to unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Are we implying we need a motion to have unity? Apparently, yielding to the Holy Spirit and letting Him rule is not enough. He needs help.
I remember talking to the late Ron Dunn after one Convention. He said, “It’s not enough for us to vote on the Baptist Faith and Message and agree that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Now, it looks like we’re going to have to justify our existence by voting on it verse by verse.” I was, and am, in total agreement. Some of this, in my humble and accurate opinion which I highly respect (a great Ron Dunn phrase), has become silly. The Bible says it, and that settles it. Get in line and line up to it.
Okay sue me for being overly simplistic. The truth is that we look for a reason to meet and eat. So lacking a department or board of brokenness, desperation, and prayer for God’s power to “rend the heavens and come down” we pass pledges and affirm our cooperation. We have to “trust each other again.”
I guess if you have lost your ability to walk in the light, walk in the Spirit, and walk by faith, you need resolutions so you know if you are being a good believer. Seeing that Jesus is ineffective and inefficient and the Holy Spirit is unable to do His work, we have to remind each other through manmade documents that we are to have “unity.” I guess Jesus praying for it and the Bible teaching it is just not enough for our enlightened age.
I’ve learned that revival and repentance is a whole lot more effective than a press release and a vote. If our SBC messengers would get the “message” from the Word, we could cut the Convention down to three hours. While the Unity Pledge is based on Scripture, it exists because we just can’t say we believe the Bible and we are going to prove it by our actions.
I dare say this pledge is a waste of time. Pardon me, the prophet may be about to come out. Let’s face it, when churches fight, fuss, and fire preachers on an ongoing basis are they really going to take this seriously? Who are we kidding? We Baptists are known more for business meetings rather than prayer meetings, for firing preachers rather than praying for them, for committees rather than having all things in common.
Knowing that the church is autonomous, the denomination can’t do anything about the fussing, fighting, mean-spirited, demon possessed, flesh-driven, democratic rule groups that call themselves a “church” and bear no resemblance to Jesus Christ and His mandate. That being said, I wish we had the boldness to break fellowship with churches that act in such a way that they bruise the body of Christ, misrepresent the Spirit of Christ, and damn a community to hell by their unChristlike behavior inside and outside of church. It might cost us Cooperative Program money, but who wants money from people who bear little or no resemblance to what we say we believe.
I know we can’t do this, but I’d show up to have a vote that put some teeth in our belief in church discipline on the tens of thousands of churches in our denomination that are being driven into the ground by the carnal. Let’s call sin what it is. Let’s call a carnal church what it is. Let’s print a directory of churches that have run off preachers. Let’s print a directory of people that move from church to church spreading their poison.
Oh, we can’t do that because that would be unloving. Paul named the troublemakers in Philippi. Nehemiah told us who the troublemakers were when he was trying to do a great work. Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” and “of your father the devil.” But then I guess that’s the Bible, and we need to “be real.”
Then, as I understand it, there was lengthy discussion about our need to be prepared for an “Ethnic Millennium.” Having been sinfully silent during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, having been lily white for so long, we get burned just walking in the edge of the light. We are now, just now, going to take seriously the ethnic makeup of America? I call that about 50 to 100 years too late. One thing about our God, He’s certainly patient.
I pastor a church that is working diligently to practice what we’ve sung for ages: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” That has not always been the case in this church I’m privileged to pastor. There was a day when, to be honest, there were bigots and racists in key positions in the church. Today, as best I can tell, they are dead and gone (to wherever bigots and racists go). John wrote, “You can’t love God and hate your brother” (1 John 4:20).
Since 1994, Mt. Zion Baptist Church (the largest African American church in Albany, Georgia) and Sherwood have been in a growing partnership to do ministry and build bridges in this community. It has cost Pastor Daniel Simmons and myself friends and members. It has not been easy, but it’s been right. Today, Daniel is one of my closest friends. He and I consider each other “co-pastors” of our churches.
We do more than recognize Race Relations Sunday—who thought of that idea? That’s an admission that we are clueless about who we are in Christ. “…neither slave nor free, Jew or Gentile.” For us, and for our churches, we don’t view each other as black or white, but as brothers in Christ. I don’t refer to Daniel as my black pastor friend; he’s just my friend. He’s been a better friend to me than many Southern Baptists have been.
If we need a resolution or a reminder in this 24/7 news world that we are living in a nation made up of immigrants, ethnic diversity, and people from almost every tribe and tongue, it means we’ve been hiding our heads in the sand. It seems to me that we are behind the curve and losing traction. It may be too late to keep us out of the ditch. A few “hires” by our boards and agencies is not the issue. The fact that even at this late hour, people of other races aren’t welcomed and wanted in our churches is our problem.
I pastor in a town where the African American population is 70%. Because we decided to reach our community, we have been intentional and purposeful in reaching out. Today, as a result of a little back-door revival as well as a membership that is embracing the Great Commission, we are seeing an increasing percentage of our membership coming from within the African American community.
As we’ve been making movies over the last ten years, we’ve filmed all of them in Albany. We can’t afford to film in any other location. After Facing the Giants we realized we needed to reflect the diversity of our city and region. It was an intentional, prayed over choice.
As we’ve written scripts to depict people of other races, we’ve sought counsel from Pastor Simmons and others to make sure we were not in any way giving a caricature of anyone. We wanted to be honorable and at the same time accurate.
In Courageous we have an exclusively black gang. In talking to pastors and local authorities, we discovered that the gangs in our area never cross racial lines. We have 32 gangs in our community. We did our homework. But we also made sure we included two key African Americans as the strongest male role models in the movie. We also have an incredibly strong Hispanic family that honors God.
When I pastored in another state, the issue wasn’t African Americans, but American Indians. Racism knows no boundaries. A blindness to the gospel being for all people is evident in our pale, white, “proud of it” churches. I had a lady say to me one day that she had no problem with racism. I asked her how many people of other races lived in her community (in New Hampshire) and she said, “None that I know of.”
One day God showed me what Paul said about the church. He didn’t divide churches into “Jews over here, Gentiles over there. Slaves in this building, masters in the other building.” He said, if I may say so, “You people have the Holy Spirit inside of you. Get together and figure out how to worship and work together.”
This is not rocket science, folks. Nor is it optional. We’ve let sociologists tell us that certain groups do better together. They do, if all you think about is sociology. But I’m committed to the gospel, where a man or woman is no longer viewed by the color of their skin, their education, or their bank account, but by their relationship with Christ.
I don’t think we can “become more exclusive and more white” than we already are. We’re there, and that’s part of our problem. We won’t admit that we are most comfortable with people who look like, dress like, smell like, and act like us.
When God begins to change a church, it brings opportunities. We now have guys coming to church who were in jail the night before. We have people from the poorest part of town joining almost every month. In the 1980s we were called a “country club church.” That tag had to nauseate the Lord Jesus.
I had a conversation a few years ago with a pastor of one of the most diverse churches in America. He said to me, “Michael, you’ll have to help people unpack their baggage. They’ve been lost so long that when they come to Christ, they’ll need time, love, and discipling to help them see what Christ has done for them.” This, to be honest, makes ministry exciting.
Reaching the least (in the eyes of the world) brings its own set of problems. We have a lot of people with baggage. Rich people can cover up their baggage behind facades, face lifts, fun and games, gated communities, fancy cars, and designer clothes. The least have no ability to cover up. The scars of life, the evidence of drug addictions, the harsh realities of living from day to day show in their eyes and on their faces.
Today we are baptizing homeless men that we’ve been ministering to for years. We are opening a 60,000-square-foot facility that was given to us to begin our inner city ministry. We have people who live in the poorest part of town sitting with people who live in some of the largest homes in town. We aren’t there yet, but I can tell you, we are intentional about it. We are working at it. We are praying through it.
I want to pastor a church that looks like heaven. That means I’ve got to change. My church has to be continually changing. It’s not enough to adopt an unreached and unengaged people group (which we are doing because it helps us fulfill the Great Commission) on the other side of the world—we have to start across the street. We have to start with people like you and me.
We don’t need any more resolutions, we need revival. We don’t need to be aware, we need to be broken of our arrogance. We don’t need to be inclusive, we just need to be like Jesus. He took the long way to get to Samaria to reach one woman. We won’t change our prejudice to reach a world.
If we don’t change, my brothers and sisters, then even heaven can’t help us. We are doomed to be laid to rest in the denominational graveyard.