Monday, September 17, 2007

Messy Ecclesiology...

The cover story of a recent Charisma Magazine featuring the worship band of a certain church here in Waco began by stating that the front man of this particular band is "taking Christian music to a whole new level. And he's doing it from a Baptist Church full of college students." The sentence didn't read "And he's doing it from, GET THIS!, a BAPTIST church...," but I've been around enough to know that a sense of surprise at (and a subtle disdain of) the particular denominational heritage of a church that is impacting the worship music of a generation was most definitely implied.

Unlike many of the people I know who grew up in a Baptist church, I get a little defensive when others say or imply things about Baptists out of ignorance. Most students at the small Texas Baptist university I attended took great pains to distance themselves from being identified as a Baptist. If anyone asked them about what kind of church they attended, they would say something like "Well, I'm a Christian who just happens to be Baptist." (Of course, this was before it became sexy to call yourself a Christ Follower instead of Christian.) I've always found this a little strange, because I think most people who would ask anyone about their church probably have learned sometime during their lives that Baptists are typically Christian.

But people can only speak to what they know, and what many people know of what it means to be Baptist is understandably limiting. Whether it be from experience or hearsay, most, if asked to give a description of a Baptist church, would give an array of answers on topics ranging from the abstention from alcohol, dancing, and humor to the singing of hymns written in the 40's and 50's out of hymnbooks from the 70's. The interesting thing is, pretty much everyone would be correct in at least part of what it means to be Baptist. We are much more diverse than you may think. And the great thing is that we are allowed to be.

When I was a junior or senior in high school there was a business meeting at the church I had been a part of since birth that stands out, in retrospect, as one of the greatest testaments to me of what it means to be Baptist. These meetings typically followed a standard procedure, kind of loosely along the lines of Robert's Rules of Order. We opened with prayer then heard reports on people who wanted their membership moved from our church to another. (Letters, anyone?) After a financial report there would then be recommendations from various committees of the church. Each of these segments would be followed by a discussion and then a vote. It could be as tedious as bathing a cat, as we voted from things as significant as purchasing land to the seemingly mundane and no-brainer-in-Texas decision of whether or not to fix a broken air conditioning unit.

I cannot remember what the subject at hand was in this particular meeting, but I remember two things-- 1.) It was quite contentious and 2.) Whatever it was about didn't seem like a big deal to me. It was strange seeing people who spent life together, took care of each other's children, even took turns bailing each other out of sticky financial situations, arguing like children over something that seemed so trivial.

And another interesting sight-- The pastor, who moderated these meetings, stood in front of the congregation watching his side of the discussion being marginalized, reduced to just another opinion in a room full of equals. He looked absolutely wounded. I actually thought I saw a little tear of anger flow down his reddened face. It was an extremely uncomfortable moment to be a part of. It retrospect, though, it is a beautiful memory.

After I graduated high school and left town, I also parted ways with the church whose memory I've grown to love, perhaps more than the actuality of being there. In the years that passed the tensions grew among various factions in the church. Shortly after I left, a large chunk of the church left to become a part of another Baptist church outside of town, a church that has thrived ever since the new influx of people. A few years later those who remained turned on each other, resulting in about half of the congregants leaving to form a new church, almost equidistant from the original and the destination of the first diaspora.

The pastor stuck around for a few years, eventually getting the church to "follow his vision" in constructing a much-too-large building with money that didn't exist. As is the story with many small-town congregations, after proving he could "lead," he left the church with massive debt and a building with way too many unfilled seats.

This story shows that Baptists can be petty, childish, and vindictive, like most real people. It speaks of our human tendency to take our toys and go home when things don't go our way, and is indicative of a people who have splintered too many times to count over the course of history. But it also also acknowledges a tradition that, while far from perfect, celebrates community in ways that are holy and messy and everything good about living out our faith in the midst of each other.

There are books and movements popular these days that extol the virtues of embracing messiness in our approach to church and spirituality. People are beginning to acknowledge that God's movement among us can be equally felt when all the edges don't come out clean and the loose ends are frayed as when things turn out evident and clear.

Perhaps nothing creates more messiness in church life than certain Baptist distinctives. Ideas such as Soul Competency and The Priesthood of all Believers, in flowery religious language, celebrate the ability of every person to approach God, and make religious decisions on their own without coercion from the "spiritual elite." In more streetwise vernacular, however, they are a big middle finger and a sonic-boom-loud "Eph You" to the presumption of any single person who believes their position with God and among other believers makes them better able to exercise decisions about church life than anyone else. These distinctives are why Baptist churches tend toward congregational decision-making.

I don't believe every church should be one-member/one-vote in all decision making. The way most non-rural congregations are, it's hard (and I believe unwise) to strictly define who is and who isn't a member. And, frankly, there are decisions such as whether or not to replace a broken air conditioner in Texas, in the middle of the summer, that would be foolish to wait until a business meeting to make.

But I do believe churches silence the voice of the congregation at their own peril. Sure, things run more smoothly, facades remain in place, and most people in the pews could care less. But when large decisions are made unilaterally by the strongest, or most prominent, personalities, a sense of loss is felt among those whose very lives and vitality are centered around the life of the church. Long dissertations on "community" become empty and meaningless when community is encouraged in every corner of our lives together, except where important decisions are concerned.

The irony is that when big decisions are handed to the congregation, if true life-giving community is going on, the congregation will typically look at it and discuss it reverently, give guidance, then hand it right back and say "Ok, we trust you, because we know you. We know you do not take your responsibility lightly. We know your devotion to God and to the church, and so we believe you'll make the right decision here." When this happens then value, God-given, extravagantly holy value, can be acknowledged in the lives of everyone from the biggest rock star to the lowliest person of simple faith.

Otherwise, no matter how many times we repeat the word community, we might as well just cross ourselves and face Rome.


John said...

Oh how we like power. And typically we'll do whatever is in the best interest of preserving that power. That whole "submission" thing is way too dangerous for most "communities."

Melissa said...

I was one of the ones that threw out the "Christian that just happens to be Baptist" line a lot at ETBU. The difference is that when I got there, I was constantly asked (to my shock and confusion) what religion I was. "I'm a Christian," I'd respond. "Yeah, but I mean what religion are you, are you Baptist?" "...."

I got asked this more times than I have fingers to count. It just annoyed me so much that people didn't understand the difference between a religion and a denomination (although now I think some of them really did think of Baptists as being of a different religion).