How Far Does the Second Amendment “Right to Bear Arms” Go?

Does it mean that you can arm yourself with military style weapons, load them and head into a Wal-Mart store?

There is a lot of debate and argument going on now over exactly what the second amendment guarantees when it comes to the right to bear arms.  Some insist that the principle comes from the colonial militia, the men who could be summoned to protect communities and homes in the event of an emergency and who became an essential part of the American military during the Revolutionary War.  Others say that there was a distinction made between those who could be called up as militia and those who weren’t.  Only the militia, who were trusted and recruited from among the general male population, were given the right to be armed according to their needs as a defensive military force.

The time I have spent studying American History, fairly extensive since I’ve taught it to high school and college students for several decades and still have an interest in reading and writing about it in order to develop school curriculum that is effective in teaching students what they need to know (which most public school history courses no longer do) leads me to believe that the right to bear arms for personal safety and the right to bear arms as part of local militia are two different and separate things.  One is for the mutual protection of the community, an armed “police” force designed to protect from an outside threat while the other is for protection of personal property.  Hunting is not mentioned or considered, by the way.

The militia could be summoned by those whom the community gave authority to govern and lead and could be used, as some suggest, to fight off a tyrant if the community will called for doing so.  But that decision was not left up to individuals to decide.  So an individual gun owner does not have the right to bring his weapon with him to use for his own protection while he isn’t defending his home or his property.  Such use would mean that his “rights” would supercede the same rights accorded to others and thus, would not be constitutionally protected.  So if a business posts a notice on their door or entrance which states that personal weapons are not permitted on their property, they are within their rights as a property owner to do so and it is not interfering with a gun owners “right to bear arms.”  The rights of the property owner supercede the rights of any individual and they have the right to choose who will protect them and how they will be protected.

The incident that the article refers to was a particularly stupid move.  Coming just days after a similarly armed gunman killed 22 and injured 20 more in  a Wal-Mart store in El Paso, Texas, to walk into a Wal-Mart armed to the teeth to “test” whether Wal-Mart honors the second amendment was an act of sheer stupidity.  And it looks like the punishment will fit the crime.  It is not a violation of anyone’s second amendment right to bear arms for a private business owner to restrict the possession of any form of weapon on their property.  Your rights stop at the boundary where their rights begin.

These active shooters aren’t dummies.  The shooter in Dayton clearly figured that there might be people around with permits to carry out in public where he planned to carry out his act of mass murder so he acquired some body armor and was wearing it.  The argument that if there are other armed individuals present in the immediate area which is, in and of itself a protection against mass shooters doesn’t hold water.  The Dayton shooter killed 12 people and injured many others in 30 seconds before armed police officers could figure out what was going on and shoot him to stop the carnage.  Note that it took professionals, not citizens carrying guns, to neutralize the guy and stop the shooting.  Too late.  In the El Paso Wal-Mart, it’s doubtful any citizen with a gun could have reacted in time to prevent what one guy with an automatic rifle did in a short period of time.  And if someone else had opened fire, whose to say that more people wouldn’t have died in the crossfire?

There’s common sense legislation that has been proposed that probably won’t stop every single mass shooter, but which will stop enough to drop the death toll and help get a handle on the problem.  Delayed purchases and background checks do not violate anyone’s second amendment rights!  The constitution doesn’t say anything about how long it takes to purchase a gun, how soon you can have it nor does it say anything about restricting the sales of military style weapons to non-military personnel.  Nor does it say that a “red flag law,” which would allow temporary removal of weapons from an individual suspected of planning a massacre or with some other notable instability is unconstitutional.  These are both excellent starting places and it looks like we are finally going to get there.  It is taking the clear threat of a massive number of voters planning to vote against members of Congress supported by the NRA to get action.  Well, if that’s what it takes, then it is time for some members of the house and senate to go home.

I work in a school where two thirds of the students are under the age of 12.  The student body is about 70% Latino, mostly Puerto Rican with a mix of Mexicans, Central Americans who are mostly Guatemalan, Honduran or El Salvadoran, about 10% African American and a scattering of Caucasians and Asians.  I’ve been through several training sessions on securing a school building and what to do if an active shooter either enters  your building or is on your property.  I’ve seen videos from the Columbine and Jonesboro shootings and pictures of the aftermath of Sandy Hook.  It absolutely sickened me to hear the screams, the sounds of the automatic weapons going off continuously, the silence that follows.  There is no way you can sit through a training session on ways to secure your building in the event of an active shooter, realize that if it ever happens to you, there is going to be loss of life no matter how well trained you are and then sit there and do nothing because your pet politicians and their party are against it because they need the campaign funds from the NRA.

The drills are very frightening to the children, because they know why we are doing them and the fact that we have to do this tells them that their classroom may not be safe and that someone could walk in and start shooting.  The drills are designed to protect as many students and staff as possible, knowing that if an active shooter ever does come to your campus, not everyone is going to survive.  And yet, that’s not enough to move the Republican members of Congress, the Senate Majority leader who already has several bills in front of him that would at least be an improvement over how things are now, or the President.

If they cared about the children of this country, they’d do something.


More Controversy for Southern Baptists over Women’s Roles, Social Justice

About that Trailer

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. ”  I Corinthians 13:12, RSV

It seems that there are many people within the scope of Evangelical Christianity, and within specific denominations who have appointed themselves as the doctrinal police.  They have assumed the responsibility for correcting errors and putting people on the “right path” as far as God is concerned.  It’s not a new thing.  Claims by groups of Christians in this country to being the only agents of Biblical truth blessed by God based on the doctrine they’ve developed based on their particular interpretation of the Bible are as old as the divisiveness of American denominationalism, and of European sectarianism prior to that.  Europe’s bloodiest and longest wars can be attributed to religious bigotry arising out of a blend of nationalism and religious fervor stirred up by those who believed they were right and that they were “fighting for the truth” with God holding their coattails and cheering them on.

We’re now forty years down the road from the initial movements that launched the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention.  The whole impetus behind the resurgence was to pull the denomination “back” toward its “conservative theological roots” and rescue it from a dangerous “liberal” drift that included the abandonment of belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the original autographs of the 66 books of the accepted Protestant canon.  In so doing, the leaders of the resurgence would restore the teaching of sound Biblical doctrine in the seminaries which would then translate into the churches.  The denomination would then be on the road to revival, not decline like the mainline denominations who, resurgence leaders claimed, had abandoned belief in scriptural authority.

Events that have transpired in the SBC since the initial movement of the Conservative Resurgence, led by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler in 1979 show that the convention didn’t have far to go to get back to its “conservative roots.”  Most of it was already there.  A few tweaks to the doctrinal statement used as a general standard by the agencies and institutions developed into the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000” made the denomination’s perspective of “Biblical Inerrancy” clear.  It also established the doctrine of “complementarianism” regarding the role of women in the church and family by stating that the office of “senior pastor” of a church is reserved exclusively for men.  Over time, the few Southern Baptists who objected to these changes formed the loosely connected “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” made up at its peak of 1,800 churches, a fraction of the 45,000+ that make up the SBC and most of those churches never severed their denominational affiliation and remained Southern Baptist.

It should be expected, among Baptists, that there would be those who did not think the resurgence went far enough and who have continued to agitate for a form of doctrinal conformity that is far narrower, and imposes far more in the way of specific interpretations of scripture into what they believe the SBC should enforce among its churches.  While Calvinism has never been a major influence in the SBC, at least one Calvinist-based group of churches, known as Founders Ministries, let by Florida Pastor Tom Ascol, continues to push the SBC toward a higher level of doctrinal conformity.  They claim that the SBC is, once again, drifting to the theological left and needs a course correction specifically based on their particular interpretation of the scripture.  They think that the walls of “complementarianism” are being broken down, due to an erosion of commitment to inerrancy.  And the bottom line is that because they are reformed, they don’t have a framework for existing within a denomination that doesn’t enforce five-point Calvinism.

The SBC is already beset with problems.  A major scandal involving sexual abuse on a wide scale by church leaders and pastors hit pretty hard, not just that it had been happening, but that up until recently, denominational leaders were complicit in shoving it under the rug and failing to deal with it, shielding themselves from responsibility with “local church autonomy.”  Several of its entities, including the North American Mission Board and Southwestern Seminary, have gone through downsizing and major leadership changes because stacked trustee boards failed to hold leaders accountable until it was too late and the cost became high in terms of wasted funds at NAMB, and major loss of enrollment at Southwestern.  On top of that, the SBC has lost more than a million members in just one decade, something that doesn’t sit well with denominational leaders who expected the doctrinal shift to the right to take care of the problem.

So how much more fine tuning can you do, doctrinally, in a Baptist denomination without losing a large constituency of churches and members?  I’d say, not much.

Southern Baptists can be notoriously arrogant when it comes to doctrine and theology.  Even though the Christian church has come to a fairly wide variety of beliefs on secondary and tertiary doctrine, including some disagreement as to what actually constitutes secondary and tertiary doctrine, among Southern Baptists is the widespread belief that there is just one interpretation closest to the truth of the word, and it is their’s.  The love of Christ is seldom evident in comments, discussions and even sermons by prominent Southern Baptists, who are harshly critical and dismissive of theological perspectives that can be interpreted compatibly with belief in the inerrancy of scripture, abut different than the hard line literalist view of most Evangelicals.

The denomination itself cannot do anything about those churches that have differing perspectives on secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs.  The SBC has excluded a few churches with a “welcoming and affirming” stance on gay, lesbian and transgender inclusion by claiming that their interpretation of scripture requires a departure from the Baptist Faith and Message’s declaration that the Bible is “truth without any mixture of error.”  They have excluded churches which have called and ordained female pastors based on the statement in the BFM that declares the office of senior pastor to be reserved by men.  But they can’t enforce their narrower complementarian view so there is some bullying going on in that churches which give much more open access to women in leadership are said to be part of a new “drift toward liberalism” along with those who give consideration to social justice issues.

So what Ascol and his Founders Ministry group bring to the SBC is controversy.  There’s nothing wrong with standing by your convictions when it comes to the way you interpret the scripture.  What is wrong is thinking that it is the only correct interpretation and feeling compelled to rebuke anyone who disagrees with you by using catch phrases and buzz words.  There are nuances of difference in the way Christians of all kinds use the term and practice “social justice” and some churches get distracted from their Biblically defined function when they get involved in issues.  But escalating controversy will be the result of attempts to force a much narrower view of these issues on churches by the denomination.

The SBC still doesn’t seem to have grasped the seriousness of their clergy sexual abuse scandal.  Some major steps were taken at the Birmingham convention in June which will give the denomination the ability to take action against churches that don’t deal with accusations properly, especially when it comes to reporting abusers and making sure they aren’t passed along to another church, but there is resistance to acknowledge the perspective of many of the female victims who feel the abuse, in many cases, results from the strict complementarian views held by most Southern Baptists and Founders Ministries seems to articulate that resistance.  Their post about the trailer, while somewhat conciliatory and which does express a desire to be truthful in representing the viewpoints of those whose comments they had previously included in the movie, seems to indicate that they were taking a more strident perspective at the outset.

Social justice means different things to different people.  One of the reasons it is so controversial within the SBC is that so many Southern Baptists, like many other Evangelicals, have allowed conservative politics to interfere with and blend with their Christian beliefs and perspectives.  We live in a country, under a constitution that theoretically guarantees equality of opportunity.  How that is achieved is a matter that has created vastly different perspectives including whether or not the churches are obligated to participate and assist in ensuring that equality happens.  There are Christians who think “social justice” is liberalism and apostasy because they believe the founding fathers created a “Christian” nation and that they should be privileged by government, not equally treated along with Muslims, Jews and Atheists.  There are those who do not see advancing social justice as a Biblical function assigned to the church.  And there are those who think that avoiding it runs counter to every principle that is revealed as God’s truth in his inerrant, infallible word.  Southern Baptists hold all of those perspectives, so a group like Founders Ministries, which pushes for the first view, creates controversy when they do.

Even the “essentials” on which Southern Baptists and many other Christians agree upon are interpreted differently and terms do not always have the same meanings when they are used.  When you say you believe in “salvation by grace through faith in Jesus,” that seems pretty clear theoretically.  But within a denomination, or even a local church, you will find numerous explanations and exceptions as to how that is interpreted.  Is repentance required first?  Can someone just come to the conclusion that they are a sinner in need of grace without being convicted by the Holy Spirit and led to the cross?  Does the Holy Spirit convict everyone at one point or another, or only a predestined, select group of people?  You get the point.  In hierarchical churches and groups, the answers to those questions are determined by those who have been given the mantle of leadership, along with the authority to direct the expression of churches when it comes to doctrine and theology.  In the SBC, the authority for faith and practice is each individual congregation, so conformity at the denominational level has to be determined by the messengers from the churches and nothing the convention does is binding on the churches.  Except now, on some points of interpretation, they’ve given authority to remove a church from denominational cooperation.  Attempts to use denominational influence to enforce differences of opinion on doctrine generate unnecessary controversy which disrupts cooperative ministry.

The SBC needs efficient, effective leaders, not a narrower interpretation of its doctrinal position.





This is America

Today, four members of the House of Representatives did exactly what we elect representatives to do.  Singled out and criticized by the President because they don’t share his perspective, he made the mistake of attacking them personally, based on their ethnicity and their religious beliefs.  In a relatively short amount of time, his twitter tirade attacking the four representatives has quickly become a political firestorm.  He inadvertently gave them an open platform to respond and they did, by laying out the issues which got them elected by their constituents and by refuting the falsehoods in his accusations.

In start contrast to Trump’s angry blast, the four Representatives took advantage of the attention focused on the moment to give clear, concise explanations of their perspective on the specific issues they believe are priorities for the people they represent.  Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York were the objects of a Trump tweet and comments that said if they hated America so much, they could go back to their “broken and crime infested countries.”  In a few short minutes, their response refuted every point of Trump’s accusation, including his statement that they are “constantly complaining” and that they “hate America so much.”

Representatives are supposed to “represent” their constituents.  These four freshmen women house members clearly get that, emphasizing their very clear awareness of issues that are important to their constituents and that their position on those issues was exactly why they ran for Congress and why they were elected, overwhelmingly in all four cases, to the House of Representatives from their respective districts.  They are not “angry” at America, or mad about living in America as Trump tweeted and mischaracterized them completely.  And they underlined the fact that the President doesn’t seem to get this. They pointed out, clearly and correctly, that taking a different perspective from that of the President is not hatred of America, it is what makes America great.  It is one of the inherent values of a democratic republic.  It appears, from the reaction they received, that much of America certainly loves “the Squad.”

Only Rep. Ocasio-Cortez referenced the President’s statement regarding “returning to their broken and crime infested countries,” by noting that she is from the Bronx and that she is going back there in order to be able to represent her constituency.  She illustrated her understanding of the American government with a story about a visit to Washington, DC as a child, when her father had her sitting on the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument and told her that everything she was looking at belonged to her, and to all of the people of this country.  Two of the other three in the group are, like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, native born American citizens.

It is interesting to note that the First Lady has not been in the United States as long as the only one of the four, Rep. Omar, has been here.  Omar’s family came when she was a child.  Ocasio-Cortez, of Puerto Rican ancestry, comes from a native-born American family that goes back generations and is of longer tenure than that of Donald Trump.

Rep. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Her father fled the country when she was still a child because he and several other family members had been involved in civil government in Somalia and were under attack by rebels and revolutionary groups when the country fell into anarchy.  They came to the US and were granted refugee status seeking asylum.  Her grandfather became involved in local government and civic organizations and was the primary influence in her decision to become involved in politics by serving as his interpreter when he attended caucus meetings.  She earned a degree in political science and international studies from North Dakota State University, not exactly a radical, wild-eyed liberal place.  She is an advocate for the living wage, affordable housing, student debt relief, immigration reform that includes the humane and decent treatment of children and families and favors abolishing ICE.  She has, along with many other Americans, expressed opposition to Israeli treatment of people living in Gaza and the Occupied Territories.  To accuse her of “hatred” toward America is blatant and inexcusable ignorance.

Rep. Tlaib was born in the United States, in Michigan.  Her family ethnicity is Palestinian Arab and she, like Rep. Omar, is a Muslim.  Politically, she is on the far left side of the Democratic party, in the same general ideological group with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.  She is opposed to US aid to Israel and is an outspoken critic of Israel’s actions and policies regarding the Palestinian state and people.  She is also an advocate for universal health care, particularly Medicare-for-all and has been opposed to the current President’s tax and economic policy which she claims favors only the wealthy at the expense of those who work for a living.  There is little question about her perspective on economics and government, nor over whether her positions are supported by an overwhelming majority of her constituents.  There’s no evidence in anything she has said or done to indicate that she is anything but a patriotic American.

Rep. Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in Chicago.  Her political background includes service as an intern to Rep. Joseph Kennedy III which explains her positions on issues considered to be progressive, including being an advocate of “Medicare-for-all”, addressing violence against women, human trafficking, child abuse and domestic violence.  She falls within the same political spectrum on economic reform as the other three, to the left of most members of the house, including those of her own party.  She, along with Rep. Tlaib, have been outspoken in their support for the impeachment of the President which explains his accusation of “hatred for America” against her.  That doesn’t prove any hatred for America.

When has dissent on issues supported by a sitting President ever constituted “hatred for America”?

This is America.  We are a nation of immigrants and a country that is built on a foundation which recognizes what is stated in our Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.  Whether our family recently arrived or our ancestors have been here for a while does not matter.  The color of our skin and our ethnic background does not matter.  The religious beliefs we hold do not make any difference in the recognition of our equality.

It is a testimony to the veracity of this basic American principle that a child whose parents came here fleeing tyranny and anarchy in Somalia could continue to pursue her interest in public service, something she learned from her family and wind up getting overwhelmingly elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives.  It is a testimony to this principle that a young African American girl could get a quality education at a private school in Chicago with a strong academic program and advance to a position from which she can influence American public policy and get elected to the US Congress.  It is a testimony to this principle that a girl growing up in a low income area of the Bronx, and who supported herself by working at two jobs including as a waitress could aspire to run for Congress because she felt compelled to make a difference.  And it is a testimony to this principle that a girl who was born and raised on the west side of Detroit among a community of refugees escaping persecution and oppression including the loss of their homes and land could win the trust of the entire district in which she lived in order to be overwhelmingly elected to serve in Congress.

This is America.  These views, expressed by these people, are part of who we are just as much as those who press for things conservatives think are important.  These women went through the process of running for office and through all of the steps necessary to win the confidence of the voters in their respective districts.  Now, thanks to the President, we are aware of the fact that they are doing exactly what they were elected to do, which is to represent their constituents in the House of Representatives.  They don’t hate America, on the contrary, their presence in Congress is fulfilling a civic responsibility that is a demonstration of true patriotism and love for America, not hatred.  The positions they have taken on the issues are legitimate, whether you agree with them or not, and they are the reason why their constituents elected them rather than their opponents.

This is America.  There is no religious test for serving in government.  While Christianity has been the dominant religious influence on American culture, there have been people here representing all of the major world religions since colonial days.  The Muslim community in this country is made up mostly of people who were born and raised in the United States and those who weren’t came here legally, by their own choice, not because they hated this country but because they loved it and wanted to invest their lives and families in it.  Muslim history in this country goes back to colonial days, though they have only recently begun to participate in the political process but they have served and sacrificed in our military.  Being Muslim doesn’t mean they are loyal to another country, they live here by choice and the vast majority of them are just as horrified and saddened by terrorist activity as any other Americans.

These four women, freshmen members of the United States House of Representatives are working to make their country better, because this is their country, not someplace else.  Mr. President, they are “back where they came from,” and every one of them has a list of things they want to accomplish, not to boost their own reputation, but on behalf of the constituents who overwhelmingly elected them to office.  They are representatives in the truest sense of the term.

Because this is America.  



Cartoon Goes Viral, Artist Loses Job

The Canadian artist who drew this cartoon lost his job after it went viral on social media.  His employer said it had nothing to do with the cartoon and there is some credibility in that statement.  His publisher is also Canadian, operating publications in New Brunswick.  In Canada, a political cartoon lampooning the President of the United States would probably not be a hot enough topic to cost someone their job.  The current President is not very popular among Canadians these days, so it is likely that the publisher’s statement about the cartoonist’s job is reasonably accurate.

But what about cartoons like this?  Is it in poor taste?

The tragedy that met the family whose photos were flashed all over the news last week is no laughing matter.  People are leaving Central America in large numbers because living conditions in several of the countries there have become unbearable as drug cartels and a generally lawless atmosphere are overwhelming national governments who do not have the resources to control it.  The Trump administration cut significant amounts of aid to Central America which they were using to try and stabilize their countries.  Most of the drugs produced in Central America are exported to the United States so there is an obligation on our part to help put a stop to it.  When our aid stopped, people began packing up and heading for the border.

Why shouldn’t they?  Even though the United States has interfered in Central American politics for almost the entire existence of the countries in the region as a “security” issue, and most of the political turmoil related to revolutions and shifts in power have been caused by American interference, the United States is still seen as a haven from oppression and a land of opportunity by most Central Americans.  So they are willing to trek across Mexico, on foot or however they can get here, to the United States.  The United States has, on other occasions, welcomed much larger groups of refugees and asylum seekers.  Cuba is the best example from Latin America.  We also took in as many Vietnamese as were able to escape when the Communists over-ran the south after we left.  In both cases, far more people were admitted to the United States than we have allowed to cross the border from Central America.

Criminalizing them by claiming they are breaking our laws through illegal entry is a ridiculous claim in light of our refugee and asylum policies.  Claiming that they are increasing the crime rate and are really just a means for terrorists to “sneak in” is the same lousy logic that was used prior to and during WW2 to keep European Jews out of the country.  Yeah, read that little bit of history.  The United States is today a friend of Israel, but from 1932 to 1945 we restricted the entry of Jews fleeing Hitler, deliberately closing doors so that those who could escape after the war would pile up in the neutral European countries instead of coming across the water.  We claimed fear of spies and saboteurs among them but the United States always has had and still does have the resources to make sure those who are granted admission are not spies, saboteurs or terrorists.

I can certainly understand the frustration that produced this cartoon and caused it to “go viral.”  On the other hand, a father and child lost their lives just feet from the freedom and relief they were seeking because it was worth the risk to them to attempt to wade across a river to get to the kind of life that you and I take for granted every day.  Clearly, the policy that is being put in place at the border doesn’t represent the perspective or feelings of the vast majority of Americans, including my own.  But that father and daughter deserve our respect.  As much as that cartoon may make a valid point, we need to find a better way to honor the dead.

Canadian Artist Fired Over Cartoon Of Trump Golfing By Dead Bodies

Random Thoughts and a Few Regrets…

A graduation announcement arrived yesterday.  It was from a location and time in the past, a student whom I’d gotten to know while serving as administrator of a Christian school a few years back.  The student was graduating from the public high school he left in order to enroll at our private, Christian school.  Apparently, things did not work out for him as he had planned.

When he and his parents initially visited the school, I didn’t think he was going to be interested in coming.  Their reasons for seeking us out were more negative experiences with public school than from any real desire to be engaged with a Christian perspective of education.  That’s not uncommon in a Christian school, parents often think we can work miracles and solve all their children’s problems.  But this young man wasn’t seeing anything positive about coming.  In spite of that, I had one of those small, inner voice moments where you subjectively feel that something is going to work out even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface.

Failure is perhaps the best perspective which keeps such inner-voice impulses in check.  Even under the common banner of faith in Jesus there is enough divergence of opinion related to lifestyle, politics, personal opinions and subjective decision making to divide rather than unite people.  Being part of a small class in a small school with daily interaction can be intense.  This arrangement didn’t work out and after a while, the student returned to a public school, willing to accept the negative experiences there in order to finish high school than stick with his classmates in Christian school.

The class he joined was smaller than normal and had experienced more attrition over the years than some of the other classes.  There were 30 of them in two home rooms in ninth grade, boosted by some new additions who contributed to both athletic teams and fine arts.  By the beginning of their senior year, there were fewer than 20, mostly kids who had been around for a while.  The newbies didn’t stick.  One of the other boys who came and left around the same time, a very talented and conscientious student who went back to home schooling to finish, told me there just wasn’t anything to attract him back to the school socially or spiritually.  He was an athlete who also enjoyed participating in the school’s plays and musicals.  But he was teased because he was a suburban kid who dressed “G.Q.”  There was a little more to it than that but not understandable at any rate.

There are those who interpret weaknesses in one’s faith as a lack of faith.  They draw conclusions and judge a person’s spiritual condition as “lost” because they do not seem to conform to the norms of “Christian” behavior that the person making the judgment has determined to be the standard.  Well, years and years in Christian school education has led me to believe that there are a lot of kids who are school aged who have uttered words we call a “profession of faith” but who don’t exhibit one whit of understanding about what those words mean.  The young man of whom I am speaking here didn’t exhibit a lot of behavior that would be considered consistent with having made a profession of faith in Jesus.  He had, but hadn’t been through enough discipleship to understand that there was a connection between personal salvation and personal behavior.  The other young man of whom I spoke, the one who returned to homeschooling, did have a very mature understanding of how his behavior reflected his faith but he wasn’t warmly received either.

We are personally accountable for our own lives and selves before God.  I know that.  Still, I wonder whether following that “small, inner voice” in this case, and admitting this young man to school was a blessing to him or a curse.  What if I’d said “no,” and he hadn’t come?  And is there really anything to having the experience of subjectively making a decision when there’s not a clear objective conclusion?


Leaving a Denomination: Reflections of a Former Southern Baptist Part 2

As I stated in my previous blog post of the same title, the decision my wife and I made to join a church of another denomination after a lifetime of membership in churches affiliated with the SBC had little to do with any specific incident or action of the denominational leadership.  Church membership is an objective decision made by following the Holy Spirit.  I use the term “objective” because the basis for membership in any particular church is rooted in scripture, not personal preference.  The most specific instruction I can find which provides guidance for church membership is I Corinthians 12.  The Apostle Paul says that each member is a separate and necessary part of the body because they are uniquely gifted to serve the local church.

My wife and I were both raised in Southern Baptist churches and knew nothing else.  We grew up with Sunday School, training union and mission groups on Wednesday night, VBS in the summer, youth group and we both went to state convention related Baptist colleges.  We were married the semester after I started at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, so she went through that experience with me as well.  I’ve been on the payroll at both the North American Mission Board and Lifeway for various ministries over the past thirty years as well as several SBC churches.  There are many ways that denominational loyalty gets developed among Southern Baptists and my wife and I have experienced most of them, including the influence of family and culture.

I know many people make their church membership decisions based on a church’s denominational affiliation.  My home church, in Arizona well outside the boundaries of the deep South, attracted most of its members from among those who had moved to town from somewhere in the South.  The largest employer in the area was a military base twenty minutes away, so many of our church members were civilian employees or military personnel who were from a Southern state.  There was a Texas based natural gas company with a compressor station on the edge of town that provided another group of members, and an electrical contracting firm based in Jackson, Mississippi that brought in others.  The First Baptist church in town was not SBC and it didn’t take these folks very long to migrate up our way after visiting there once or twice.

I believe the passage I referenced earlier in 1 Corinthians is pretty definitive when it comes to church membership.  We live in a much different culture, but God still builds the body of Christ by gifting its members spiritually for service and ministry and fitting them together in local bodies of “called out ones,” the Church of Jesus Christ.  But I was taught, by Sunday School teachers, pastors, parents and professors, that I was given spiritual gifts and opportunities to learn in order to be a minister, whether vocational or volunteer and that I needed to discern where those gifts would be best used when making a decision about joining a church.  The influence of denominational loyalty has always been a powerful one as well, as it is for most people who grow up in an SBC congregation.  Having been on the payroll at both Lifeway and NAMB, and having earned a degree from Southwestern, I have a clear understanding of the power of denominational loyalty to the SBC.

But I do not see a Biblical basis for the divisions and lines that are drawn through the church as it has separated itself into denominations.  The emergence of denominationalism in Christianity was divisive, fracturing the unity of the church at a time when it was being pulled into secular politics and when it was coming out of a long period of persecution that had ravaged its membership and weakened its commitment.  The whole history of church schism, from the split between the partriarchal Eastern church and the development of the Papacy in the Western church to the Protestant Reformation is one of disunity, the influence of false doctrine, conflict that often erupted into war and not very much when it came to the Biblical functions of a local body of baptized believers in Christ, gathered together as his Church.

If you take Paul’s words about each member being gifted and fit together for service in the church as the basis for church membership, then the things that happen in the denomination your local church belongs to shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not you remain a member or leave.  It’s the local body that makes the difference.  When an opportunity to serve as administrator in an institution belonging to a different denomination came along and my wife and I determined, through prayerful consideration, that I was a good fit for the job, we accepted and moved to a part of the country where there are few SBC congregations.  We were not required to join the church with which the school where I was administrator was affiliated, and we looked for an SBC church first if for no other reason than out of habit.  But it became clear that our gifts and ministry service were going to fit with a small church of a different denomination.  It was, we discovered, not all that different from any other church where we had been members.

There are some things that have happened in the SBC in recent years that I have found disappointing.  My years at Southwestern were, for me, a personal spiritual revival.  Some of the closest lifetime friendships I made happened while a student there and the education and training I got there were exactly what I expected from a seminary education.  It grieves me to see what has happened there, the result of using a seminary presidency as a reward for being a leader in a denominational political fight instead of hiring someone with appropriate background and experience in theological higher education.  I just hope and pray that the damage can be repaired and the seminary continue to operate.

Having been extensively involved in several of NAMB’s missions programs, including several stints on the paid staff, I am also grieved by what has happened there.  NAMB became a crossroads for the influences seeking power within the denomination and, like Southwestern, administrative positions were given as rewards for loyalty rather than based on the expertise of the administrator.  Money, spent on extravagances that have been well documented, evaporated.  What should be one of Southern Baptists’ most effective cooperative ministries linking state conventions to evangelism and church planting efforts is cash-strapped and struggling, laying off personnel and explaining inflated numbers on reports.

Yes, I know there are ways for Southern Baptists to have a voice in convention decisions but that’s much more of a cliché than a reality.  I’ve been a registered messenger at many conventions over the past 25 years.  Most of the decisions are made in trustee meetings and executive board meetings and then a campaign is conducted to drive messenger votes toward the desired outcome that has been determined in advance.  I’ve observed the tactics that the elected officers and committee on order of business use to deflect questions on subjects they don’t want to discuss and to manipulate votes to go the way those who influence and run the convention want it to go.  I’ve had a motion made in a business session “referred” to the appropriate committee with the expectation that they would answer the question in the motion and get back to either me, or report on it in their next meeting.  Didn’t happen.  When I called to ask when I should expect a response, the committee chairman didn’t remember the motion and could not find it anywhere in the business that had been referred to the committee.   I had to send them a copy of the convention minutes (getting those before the annual is printed is an expedition that builds character and develops patience) and was then told, “Oh, well, we wouldn’t have done anything with it anyway.”  That’s why I stopped wasting my money on hotels and travel to attend the convention.  I suspect that’s probably why thousands of others have stopped as well.



Two Kinds of Baptists Meeting in Birmingham This Summer

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold their annual meetings in Birmingham, Alabama.  Both groups met in Dallas days apart last summer as well.  I don’t think there’s anything behind it, except, perhaps, they are looking for good rates on hotels and cheap prices to rent convention centers.  From the perspective of significance, there is some, I guess, in the fact that while Southern Baptists are the largest Christian denominational group in the state of Alabama, by a wide margin, they’ve not had their annual meeting in the state in more than 50 years.  In fact, the last time the SBC met in Birmingham, which was its last meeting in Alabama, it was 1941.

Ironically, Alabama ranks second in percentage of total state population belonging to a Southern Baptist church, at 30% and is the second most-shunned state in the South when it comes to the number of times the SBC has met within its borders.  Mississippi has never hosted an SBC meeting, but it ranks #1 in total percentage of its residents who are Southern Baptists, at 31%.  There are over a million Southern Baptists in Alabama, over 250,000 of them live in the greater Birmingham area.  Among metropolitan areas in the United States, only Charlotte, NC, Jackson, MS and Nashville, TN have a higher percentage of Southern Baptists in their metro population.

As a convention city, Birmingham is, well, it’s no Orlando.  It’s not Phoenix, either.  Perhaps one of the reasons it’s not been a recent host of the SBC has to do with that.  It has a relatively small convention center, which hasn’t been an issue for Southern Baptists in recent years, with just one hotel within walking distance.  A perfect storm of issues has come together to create potential for making getting to and from the meetings a struggle.  The main interstate highway through the city will be shut down for construction.  Birmingham is not normally a city with major traffic jams, but I-20/59 through the heart of town carries thousands of cars of travelers just passing through and this kind of shutdown can back traffic up there for miles.  Issues within the hotel connected to the convention center have left it without half of its rooms available for rent.  So a good number of Southern Baptists will be driving to and from a convention center by alternative routes.  The vast majority of Birmingham’s hotel rooms are off the interstate that is closed, at both the eastern and western end of the city.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the splinter group resulting from the effort by conservatives to gain control of the SBC’s trustee boards and committees, is also meeting in Birmingham about a week after the SBC has departed.  It was the same scenario in Dallas last year.  No one got hurt, I don’t believe.  I don’t think anyone had to take a doctrinal shower to wash off the effects of the previous group meeting in the same city.  The doctrinal, philosophical and church practice gap that has formed between these two groups over the past two decades has grown wide and deep, though most of CBF’s partnering churches also continue to support the SBC cooperative program to a lesser or greater degree, many of them tipping CBF on behalf of a handful of members.  Alabama has not been friendly territory to CBF, only 18 churches in the state are affiliated, eight of them in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

Although CBF is made up of mostly ex-SBC congregations, or in fact, about 80% of its partnering churches are still dually affiliated with the SBC, the business of the two groups will be very different.  Both groups are suffering from declining attendance, membership and the corresponding drops in revenue that accompany those kinds of statistics.  I’ve heard the financial situation at CBF described as a “crisis” by individuals who are involved and have a good grasp of what is happening.  The SBC’s venerable Cooperative Program is down, but only along the lines of the declines it has experienced in recent years, nothing drastic.  But both groups are reeling from the effects of being broadsided by social issues and internal conflicts that they seem to be slow to come to grips with, so there will be a lot of speculation going on and many eyes focused on Birmingham just to see how the leadership handles the problems.

Southern Baptists have been beset by a stubbornly declining membership for almost a decade now, one that has only become worse as time passes on in spite of best efforts to arrest it.  It’s leadership, a “conservative resurgence” that once claimed the SBC would be on the road to decline if moderate Baptists continued to allow creeping liberalism to run things, is at a complete loss as to what is causing it and even more ham fisted when attempting to find ways to deal with it.  The convention was still growing when conservatives took control, within just a few years of securing complete control of all the boards and agencies, membership flatlined and then started its downward trek.  More than a million members have been subtracted from the roll in a decade.

More recently, a clergy abuse scandal that has been going on for years came to the surface.  Not only did the SBC find that several hundred pastors and church leaders were involved, but it reached into the administration of two of its seminaries.  One of them, Southwestern in Ft. Worth, is also reeling from financial scandal caused by lack of full accountability.  It’s hard to use lofty spiritual language and talk about ministry and missions when those things are on the business agenda.

CBF has had its own issues.  Controversy over a hiring policy that did not allow for the inclusion of gays, lesbians or transgendered persons erupted.  A new policy was included in the “Illumination Project” allowing for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons as employees, but not as missions appointees.  More controversy followed, since the report did not require adoption at an annual meeting.  There’s been little to no discussion, and no formal vote taken at a general assembly.

So did CBF just accept this, or have there been problems?  Reports are that the contributions to CBF’s general fund are down considerably this year.  Is there speculation that this might be the result of this annual research done last year or not?  Hard to say, but I bet that it has something to do with it, even though CBF leadership has become expert at couching disaster in pleasant terms.

Another group of Baptists lives in Birmingham.  These folks, mostly people of color, for the most part do not belong to the churches that either send messengers to the SBC or send members to the general assembly.  They worship at places like the 16th Street Baptist Church, still there, renovated and bearing no scars from the explosions on those mornings long ago that caught four young girls heading to a Sunday School class by surprise.  That these Baptists are, for the most part, not connected to those who will come to their city by the thousands this summer, is a testimony to racially fragmented Christianity.  I had hoped, by this time in my life, that Christians would be more united around Christ than we are, but clearly we are not and won’t be for a while yet.  Race, cultural boundaries, prejudice, yes all things that are products of individual selfishness still separate the church.  So the biggest news out of Birmingham for both groups who meet there this summer will be decline in influence, service and evangelism.








Leaving a Denomination: Reflections of a Former Southern Baptist

“Yeah, It’s Worth It” – Why I Stick with the SBC

The article linked above, on SBC Voices, started me thinking about my own denominational experience.

The church in which I grew up and where I was led to a saving knowledge of Jesus was a small, SBC congregation in a small town in Arizona.  Most of the members were transplanted Southerners who moved out west because their jobs brought them there.  My earliest recollections of church are there and though I went away to college after high school graduation, I didn’t join a church there until halfway through my sophomore year.  I earned my B.A. from the college related to the Baptist state convention where I grew up and my initial graduate degree from Southwestern.  For all but a few years of my career, at least until recently, I worked for either an SBC church, or an entity or institution related to one.

That changed in 2010.  An opportunity to take an administrative leadership position in an institution owned by another denomination in another state presented itself and by the objective and prayerful manner in which I have always made these kind of decisions, determined that it was a ministry calling from God.  So we moved from Texas to Pennsylvania.  There was no requirement placed on the position I accepted to have my church membership in the same denomination, nor in the institution’s sponsoring church.  We also discovered, after moving there, that the county in which we lived had just one Southern Baptist church and it was not located in a place that was practical for us to attend, though we did the first Sunday we were there, out of habit, mostly.  We always give our church membership prayerful consideration as well.  Our new community had several non-denominational churches along with several churches affiliated with the denomination of the school I now served.  After perhaps two or three months of “visiting around,” we settled on a small church affiliated with the same denomination as our school.

Denominational loyalty runs deep, so leaving to join a church of another denomination wasn’t an easy decision.  Doctrinally, the church and denomination we joined were almost identical to Southern Baptists.  In fact, going through their extensive statement of faith, I found the only differences were in the terms used to express beliefs and the way their doctrine was organized.  Other than being just a shade more on the Calvinist side, there weren’t many differences.  But if you’re raised in a Southern Baptist church, and then go to a Southern Baptist college and then to one of the six seminaries, you’ve had a lot of instruction in the kinds of things that build and support denominational loyalty.

When I share this testimony with friends, the most common question that comes up is “Why would you do this after all of this time?  There are several answers to that question.

One reason was that the SBC congregation in our county would not have been a fit for us.  When my wife and I join a church, we consider what it is that we have to offer and how we can be involved and use our spiritual gifts in the church’s ministry life.  We attributed the lack of a warm welcome, which happened on both occasions we visited, to their geographic location.  But there wasn’t much else going on either and among the members, about 20 people mostly in their 70’s and 80’s, not much interest in having anything going on.  They were the remnant of a long conflict between a pastor and the deacons.  But there were other reasons.

Over the past decade or so, there are things that have developed in the SBC that are being expressed in local churches as well that I do not consider positive representations of a Christian denomination.  There’s an arrogance related to certainty on doctrinal correctness that isn’t attractive and doesn’t come across well.  Not at all well.  When I was a kid I remember a couple of my Sunday School teachers, great ladies who were solidly committed and meant well even if they didn’t know better, telling me that Baptists were the Christians who were closest to the truth and to the heart of God “because we believe the Bahble (imagine someone from Mississippi saying that) and other churches don’t.”  Yes, and that was the final word.

That was not what I heard at college, or at Southwestern.  With a minor in Biblical studies at college, and 68 hours of master’s level credit for a degree in Christian education that included a healthy dose of theology courses, I never had a single professor at either school deny that the Bible was the inerrant, infallible written word of God.  Not one.  But I also never had a professor who drew conclusions for his students and left the impression that his view was the final word.  I was never taught to doubt the veracity of the word itself, but I was taught that interpretations, even well informed, heavily studied interpretations that include a healthy understanding of the original language, are not infallible and that there are many places in scripture where there is plenty of variety when it comes to interpretation.  I don’t hear much of that anymore.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I have been fully known.  

We do not know it all and in this life we never will.  There’s a growing insistence on drawing tighter lines around secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs and requiring individuals who work at the denominational level, and missionaries who serve in the field, to accept them if they want to keep their job and their ministry.  It’s not been completely codified in the doctrinal statement upon which the denomination has agreed as a basis for ministry cooperation but it has been enforced through actions of trustee boards and through the leadership selection process of committees and boards.

The denomination to which the church we joined belonged resembled the SBC when I was growing up in that the willingness to cooperate in ministry far exceeded the importance of secondary and tertiary doctrinal differences.  It was a denomination built around support for international missions and it supported a worldwide missionary force larger than the SBC’s IMB.  There are fewer than half a million members in the denomination’s North American churches.  The whole denomination functions as an international body centered around its missionary enterprise so cooperating to carry out that ministry is more important than any other consideration.  I would venture to speculate that if the SBC ever became that invested in international missions, to the point where the work done domestically was all focused on providing resources for missions, the doctrinal bickering and jockeying for power would cease.

We did not leave the SBC specifically because of current issues which are the result of too much of an emphasis on who runs the show, who gets the reins of power and who gets the sugar plum denominational posts, and the issues that have cropped up because of the way things have been done in that regard.  Circumstances led us to consider a ministry calling in a place that needed our spiritual gifts and it happened to be in an educational institution that belonged to another denomination.  But our openness to joining a church of another denomination certainly took into consideration our experience in “SBC life” and the impressions which it left behind.  I’ll admit to being tired of the nit picking and fussing, arguments and denominational politics that accompanies it.

People are people.  Christians are sinners forgiven by God who will never achieve perfection in this life.  The church we joined had many of the same problems every church we’ve ever belonged to has had.  The denomination, in spite of a much greater focus on international missions than the SBC, still has problems with influence peddlers and power-seekers and attempts to build personal kingdoms, though those are usually squelched pretty quickly because the work requires a genuine commitment and real skill.  But the church of Jesus Christ exists in many different forms and it is doing ministry in many different ways.  Clearly, even Christians who don’t conform to the cultural or social restrictions of Southern Baptists are being blessed by the Holy Spirit in their work.  And that was something that we needed to experience.

This is long.  Part 2 is coming soon.





Evolving in Monkey Town

In case you did not recognize it, that was the original title of Rachel Held Evans’ first book, more recently known as Faith Unravelled.  I read it.  If you think that picking up a book and reading it automatically means you’ve identified with all of its themes and ideas, then you need to stop here.  No need to read further.  You won’t get anything out of this.

The book resonated with me, not because I could check the box of agreeing with every idea before moving on but because what she describes as the “evolution” of her Christian faith is an experience that is common to most people who were raised in a church and a Christian faith that was handed down to them by their parents and lived out mostly in the context of a local church.  Though Evans was raised in a Fundamentalist church (capital F to distinguish a particular brand of Protestant, Evangelical, American Christianity) and her experience is unique to that culture, I would imagine that the curiosity, the questions about the assurance of the correctness of the official doctrine, the preaching and teaching, the rituals (yes Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are as ritualistic as the Catholic or Orthodox churches, though they don’t recognize it in themselves) and the expectation that children simply accept what it taught without question are common to children raised in churches of all faiths.

The Christian background I share is similar to Evans’, though not exactly the same.  I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, outside the deep south but full of members who moved to Arizona from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.  The local job market, which included a nearby military base that was the home of several operations once based in Georgia and North Carolina, an electrical contractor based in Mississippi, a natural gas compressor plant belonging to a company based in Texas assured a steady stream of members for a congregation of 120, once they found out that the “First Baptist Church” in town was affiliated with–g*a*s*p–the Yankee Baptists.  My parents were from West Virginia, my Dad raised in a Disciples of Christ congregation and my Mom a Pentecostal Holiness church but after their own period of drifting, they “got right” in a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church and then, not finding one of those when they moved to small town Arizona, got very comfortable among the Southern Baptists of similar background, theology and culture.

I was blessed to have Sunday School teachers who were spiritually gifted and strong students of the Bible.  They probably never realized that it was their teaching which actually raised the questions I had about Christian faith from what I would say was a relatively early age, since I was in Sunday School and church every week for as long as I could remember.  Only one of them had graduated from college, two of them never finished high school but in addition to being spiritually gifted teachers, they realized their responsibility and did a lot of outside reading and study.  When I was in middle school, my Sunday School teacher couldn’t get through a lesson without quoting Herschel Hobbs.  She had all his books.  I also frequently heard names like R. G. Lee and A. T. Robertson.  There were two developments in my life that came from this early church experience.  One was that I knew a lot of answers to a lot of questions.  The other was that there were some questions that weren’t going to be answered in church or in Sunday School with anything except “The Bible says…” without a scripture reference or “Because we’re Baptists.”

I suspect that’s been a similar experience for millions of kids raised in church in this country.  Evans’ book resonated with me because she had a similar experience.  Her experience led to a unique place for her, as did mine.  But there was much to be gained from reading her words and the experience she shared.  The Fundamentalists among whom Evans grew up are perhaps the most staunchly insistent of all Christians that their way is right and there is no other way.  But in spite of that, it seems that many of those who are raised in their churches as children don’t see it that way, don’t accept everything at face value and wind up leaving, some for other churches, most just leave and stop attending.

I never left the church.  I realized, after four years at a Baptist college, a minor in Biblical studies, friendships and relationships with others who were questioning and having doubts like I was, that there is an important element missing in most of what I’d been taught and consequently missing in those expressions of Evangelical Christian faith that major heavily on “right doctrine.”  It’s the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”  

It took seeing the spirit work in people’s lives to realize that it is the most necessary element in interpreting scripture and indeed, in having a relationship with God that starts and sustains the process of salvation of the soul from sin.  “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”  That’s in John’s epistle, 4:2.  I studied the Bible and had my doctrinal ducks in a row long before I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and that changed everything.  And a lot of what I see proclaimed as “right doctrine” leaves this important aspect out, or denies that some expressions of it are part of the experience.  That leaves them with nothing to preach except condemnation.

Rachel Held Evans died this week, unexpectedly and from a medical perspective, tragically.  God does not give any human being the privilege of knowing the eternal destiny of any other human being.  I never met her, except through the words she penned and spoke.  From that, I can easily discern her confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, not just empty words but supported by actions.  Did she have all of her doctrinal ducks lined up?  No, but neither do her critics who are maligning her and it is much more difficult to detect the Spirit of God in their words and deeds than it is in hers.  She is “wrong” in the eyes of a particular interpretation of Christianity but affirmed by many others.  We will not get through heaven’s gates riding “right doctrine.” I don’t see her critics applying the scriptural truth of I John 4:2, nor practicing the scriptural truth of Ephesians 4:29.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.



Corporate Church, Consumer Membership

The business of church statistics and research seems to be expanding in recent years.  Apparently, churches and denominations are willing to spend an increasing share of their budget money to find a way to increase their attendance and subsequently their budget from contributions in the collection plate.  Many of the posts show up on social media, linked by friends of mine who are pastors or denominational staffers trying to make a point.  There are a few who are able to crunch theoretical numbers and write articles to convince us that what is a genuine drop off in the attendance and membership of Protestant and now Evangelical Christian churches isn’t really a drop off, just a shift in the way we look at statistics.  Others are pretty honest in identifying the problem, but not very Biblical in providing a solution.  And that’s at least part of what I believe is one of the root causes of the problem in the first place.

A church may be able to grow numerically by employing some principles of modern American corporate business.  But that’s not going to generate evangelistic, “Kingdom growth.”  For that, you need to turn to the Bible.

In 2010, my wife and I relocated because of a job offer I received.  We were both raised in Southern Baptist churches but this job involved working for an institution that belonged to a different denomination and while they didn’t require us to join one of their churches, the area where we moved did not offer the kinds of church choices that we experienced in the South.  In fact, there was only one SBC church in the county where we moved and it wasn’t geographically situated in a place that made it possible for us to consider regular membership.  What we prayed for was that God would lead us to a church where our spiritual gifts would be needed and used.

The first church we visited identified itself as a “community church” by name.  It was what I would call a fairly typical non-denominational, Evangelical church.  I noticed, to my wife’s amusement, that they borrowed heavily from Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area.  Well, I’d been to a couple of their small-group conferences and recognized some of the “branding” concepts.  The pastor was a “series preacher,” each series was 12 sermons in length, each organized around a specific theme.  On Sunday morning, the ushers, church staff and the pastor were all wearing yellow T-shirts with the sermon series logo and title on the front, and there was a stage setting on the platform that had a backdrop with props that matched the logo and color theme.  There was video equipment to record each sermon (not the worship beforehand, though) and in the foyer, there was a counter where you could sign up for a series of church events, and purchase the video from the previous week.  You could also buy the study guide.

The building was mostly sanctuary and offices, the auditorium doubled as a fellowship hall and the few classrooms were for preschoolers and the nursery.  The Bible teaching ministry took place during the week in small groups in homes.  The one we went to had about 20 adults present.  There was a 20 minute video of the pastor, in his theme “T”, elaborating on a couple of the points of his sermon.  There was about a 20 minute question and answer time.  The group leader played the video of the pastor asking a question then paused,  There was some discussion and a couple of people answered, then the video came back on and the pastor told us the correct answer to the question.  Refreshments were served afterward.  Oh, the group leader also wore the yellow theme t-shirt.

Think that’s branding overdone?  Think again.  That’s a pretty common experience for most Evangelical Christians who attend a mega-church, or even a mid-sized non-denominational church like this one.  Satellite churches are also becoming more common and not just multiple locations of a local church.  We visited one during this same period of time when, following the worship time, a large screen dropped down during the “prayer time” and we watched a satellite feed of the pastor preaching at a different location.  We were in Pennsylvania.  He was in Georgia.  And I understand that people in half a dozen different states were tuned in at the same time.  That’s where the collection was sent.

That kind of “branding” does attract people.  Mostly, it attracts people who are looking for a church that will serve them, help them meet their needs with some inspiration and motivation on Sunday, provide something for their children to do and maybe get them marginally involved in a weeknight group around coffee and sandwiches and a twenty minute mid-week motivational boost video.  From what can be observed by the statisticians and researchers, it is attracting a lot of marginal members out of existing churches into the larger ones, because a larger gathering produces a large enough offering to pay for the smorgasbord of services provided to keep the people who have been attracted to the church.  It’s designed to appeal to people who are already familiar with church and who are attracted to all of the offerings of a big church.  All they experience in their smaller congregation are persistent requests to serve and an amateur praise band made up of volunteers, or perhaps just a piano and an organ and a “song director.”

Church growth by evangelism takes a little more than theme t-shirts, a flashy stage setting with appropriate lighting and a paid praise team.  It takes looking into the scripture to become familiar with the message of salvation, become familiar with things like the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and how to be supportive and be used by God to “draw the net” when someone falls under it.  It requires making and building relationships with people who aren’t in your Tuesday night Bible study-Pastor video watching group and maintaining those relationships whether you get a response or not.  It requires understanding and patience instead of judgement and condemnation.  It requires a regular prayer life, a connection to the Holy Spirit, and growing in knowledge and wisdom from continuous study of the scripture.  It requires you to let God be God and take the lead and sensitivity to know when to follow.

I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church in a small town in Arizona.  The church was formed in 1954 when a nearby military base was re-activated and a group of people transplanted by job or military service from somewhere in the South and another group from Texas who moved when a natural gas compressor plant opened up, started a Baptist church there.  It’s never been a congregation of more than 120 people, though through outreach and evangelism it has become less made up of transplanted southerners and more reflective of the local population which, typical of a growing community in Arizona, is from everywhere.  Their “branding” is typical Baptist church of the 70’s.  The worship music is led by a 70 year old lady with an absolutely beautiful voice accompanied by a piano and organ.  They have upgraded the sanctuary since I was in the youth group, replacing metal folding chairs with second-hand pews purchased from another church somewhere, carpeted the tile floor and the platform and replaced the baptistery curtains, though the painting of a creek flowing down from the mountains by a local artist is still there.  They sing hymns and a couple of choruses.  They pass a plate and take an offering.  There is a choir special before the sermon.  The last time I was there for a service, there were 12 people in the choir and about 100 in the congregation.  They had Sunday School classes “for all ages” at 9:45 a.m.  They baptized five people in this service, all adults.  According to their annual profile, their membership is 221 and they baptized 20 people last year.

Collectively, if you did the research, you’d find that most of the evangelism taking place across the spectrum of Evangelical Christianity in this country is happening in churches that are branded just like this one.