Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Open and Open?

 Warning:  The following blog will touch on an issue that many will consider taboo, perhaps even sinful.  It will almost certainly be controversial, and will make almost everyone who reads it angry for one reason or another.  If you don't care about the workings of denominations or Christians in politics, you should probably go watch TV or play outside if its not too hot.  Feel free to comment, but please be respectful.

I debated myself for a couple days as to whether or not I wanted to write this blog.  It will almost certainly cause me some trouble, but at some point I think trouble is worth it when it means we can come to a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

In my last blog post, I mentioned that my wife and I were going on vacation.  That was only half the story, it was actually a "working" vacation, so for half of the week I attended the 20th CBF National Assembly in Tampa.  (I will post my thoughts on Tampa, and the convention as a whole later)

The elephant in the room, or at least in the hallways, was whether or not the CBF, or any of the leadership, would make any kind of official statement about the "issue" of homosexuality.  Of course the vote that was taking place in the New York State Senate during the convention heightened expectations, but ultimately didn't lead to any satisfaction for those looking for an official word.

I heard a story about a state level CBF official who was asked on a college campus what the "official stance" of the CBF was in regards to homosexuality, and his response was, "we have the same stance as Habitat for Humanity, if you are willing to swing a hammer we will work alongside you."  While I love this answer, it does stop short of what is needed from our leadership.  This is a divisive issue among our churches and in society as a whole, and these are just the things I think I think about it.

Lets be clear, when we say the "issue" of homosexuality, and when people debate it in the hallways, we are actually talking, not about one issue, but three:

  1. The Legality of Homosexual Marriage
  2. The Acceptance of Homosexuals in our Churches
  3. The Affirmation of Homosexuality as a lifestyle
 So, fresh off the Assembly, and feeling a refreshed affinity for my CBF brethren, I thought I would give my thoughts on what the CBF should and shouldn't do.  Please note, these are not necessarily my own opinions on homosexuality, rather they are my opinions on what the CBF on a state and national level should and should not offer on an official level.

First, on the issue of Homosexual Marriage.  This, to me, seems the most obvious and easy place for the CBF to take an official stance.  If the government of the United States is going to be involved in marriage (and the libertarian in me asks why they are) then we should not allow the government to discriminate against people because of a religious belief.  Being founded on a principle of separation of church and state, it would seem that all Baptists could, and should, come forward to speak out for justice for all citizens of the United States.  Now, if there are reasons that aren't religious to continue to disallow homosexual marriage, then that would muddy the waters, but frankly I haven't heard any.  Since the CBF already publicly supports institutions such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, this would not cause much of a stir among the churches.  In fact, my guess is that the CBF would say that their support for BJC is a tacit statement in itself.  So this seems like a pretty easy place to start, and one that would not cause any fractures within the fellowship community.  (of course, that's an easy thing to assume from the safety of my keyboard!)

With the easiest question out of the way, lets move on to the issues that could cause a little more disturbance in the "fellowship" force.  In order, they are, "do we accept homosexuals as equals?" and "do we affirm homosexuality as a lifestyle," or put more bluntly, do we say "homosexuality is not a sin?"

I think the first question is not that difficult.  If "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," even if we call homosexuality a sin, it certainly isn't the sinniest sin that ever sinned, right?  Its not more sinful than marital infidelity, right?  Or greed?  Or lying?  So if we as churches say that homosexuals aren't welcome, then what we are really saying is no sinners are welcome, which would certainly help churches that have parking problems!  Now, I have heard some say that the difference is that homosexuals aren't repentant.  That is certainly a valid point, but frankly ignores the reality of our brokenness has humans, and God's capacity to forgive seventy times seven.  I think here again, the CBF on an institutional level would be well within their bounds to make an official statement stressing the common humanity of homosexuals, and the common love that God has for all people.  If God loves people, all people, then He doesn't want any of them bullied, or treated as less-than, or discriminated against, or told they are unworthy of a place at the table.  We as churches should understand the civil rights movement taking place, and take our stand along side those seeking simple equality of treatment.

From here, the issue gets a little more complex.   Being limited to a work force compiled of exactly 100% sinners, most churches among the the Fellowship are willing to allow sinners to serve the church, and I would assume that since we've already established that at the very most homosexuality is just one of a berjillion human failings, we would allow them to serve our churches as well.  Do we allow them to lead?  That is another question altogether, and its at this point that I think the issue gets divisive.

To me, it seems that this moves to the level of affirmation, since most churches are seeking leaders who at least try to model Christ-likeness before their people.  Now, certainly, Christ-likeness can't be understood by a simple list of things-we-do and things-we-don't-do, but it is an overall pursuit of Godliness.  Like it or not, many churches, and their people, still believe homosexuality to be against God's created order.  They have come to this belief honestly using the best scholarship of Biblical texts, cultural understandings of the past and current church and society, and leading of the Spirit.  In other words, they have every right to believe this way, as they have come to it honestly, and not by simply prooftexting Leviticus.

On the other hand, many believe that the Bible's treatment of homosexuality is a cultural component that belongs in the dustbin alongside women being forced to cover their heads, and prohibitions on bacon.  (mmmm.... bacon....)  These believers have come to understand that God is love, and God honors loving committed relationships, even if they are among the same sex.  They have also come to believe that God desires humble servants who seek to help the poor, lost, and hungry and that He doesn't discriminate when it comes to His workforce.  These believers have also come to their position honestly, and not with a reckless disregard for Scripture as some would have you believe.

Many CBF churches are part of CBF, not because they are liberals, (whatever that means these days) but because they don't want theological positions imposed on their churches from on high.  As Baptists, we have always resisted theological statements that go beyond the very basics of our faith, and rightly so.  I think for the CBF to make a statement affirming homosexuality would be a step beyond simply pursuing justice and love for all, and move to an imposition of a theological position on the Fellowship Churches.  So at this point I would say the CBF should remain open to churches and individuals who affirm, but institutionally neutral.  In this way we preserve the unity of the Fellowship and preserve the autonomy of the local churches that have many varied theological positions on this most important of debates.

So I think the CBF can, and perhaps should, come out with a statement that on a State and National level, we are Open and Open.

Open to homosexuals being equal parts of society and of our churches, and open to churches and individuals who have genuinely come to either position on the affirmation of homosexuality as a lifestyle that honors God.

Like I said at the outset, I'm sure this makes pretty much nobody happy, but I think it is true to who we are as Baptist Christians, and free people worshiping freely.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vacation: All I Ever Wanted!

This one is going to be short and sweet, since it is Wednesday (you know, one of the two days preachers actually work - *cough).

I am going to be away next week.  Away.  No blog posts.  No Tweets, or Twits, or whatevers.  No Sermon prep, no serious reading about the implications of Jesus' Jewish identity, or the deconstruction of the American Dream within our religious paradigm, or how to create effective lay leadership within our congregation.


Last year I spent much of my vacation interviewing for this job, and house hunting for our new life here in Charlotte.  That was a year ago, and it was the last time I missed a Wednesday night or a Sunday morning at church. 

This new adventure has been great, but its also quite challenging.  I equate it to trying to turn an oil tanker around 180 degrees.  This church had quite a lot of negative momentum when I was called here, and frankly I feel like I've spent my first year bailing water and welding bulkheads.  Now, finally it feels like we are going to get an opportunity in the next few months to start adding that new limbo deck and converting this tanker into a rescue ship.

But that is for later.  Now, I'm tired.  I used to be ashamed to admit that, but not any more.  I'm tired, and I need rest.

Now I'm ready to be away.

I'm ready to be still and know that He is God.  That the church will still be here with all its greatness and warts when I get back. 

Now I'm ready to find a quiet place and rest.  Me, Jenn, Evan, and a lot of nothing to do.

Until next time, the peace of God be with you.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Passion for (re)Planting

My wife and I have taken up gardening.  My sister gave us a variety of plants from her greenhouse, and we planted them in our little table-top garden patch, high above the reach of prowling rabbits, and the dogs who chase prowling rabbits!

At first, we thought we might have totally bombed, since our little plants limped along for several weeks, showing very little life.  Then, as if over night, whoosh!  Up they went!  We are now looking forward to all the goodies we're going to be making with our homegrown tomatoes, squash, peppers, herbs, lettuce, blueberries, raspberries, etc...

We didn't plant the plants, we REplanted them, and we're now about to reap the rewards.

I read an article recently that the SBC was setting aside $15,000,000 for church planting funds.  The CBF (our little home in the Baptist world) has Church Planting teams and conferences.  All over, its seems like "new" is the the driving force for missionaries across North America and beyond.  The idea is one that we learned quite well in my Religious Education degree at Gardner-Webb University - new units, whether they be Sunday School classes or entire churches, create excitement and growth.  From a missional perspective, the idea is that by planting a church rather than doing social missions, you create a lasting influence in a community (and hopefully that lasting entity will then turn around and perform the kinds of social ministries that help spread the Gospel).

Can I tell you my honest response?  My first thought was, "why aren't they setting aside money for REplanting older churches? 

First off, lets not confuse the issue.  I wholeheartedly believe in planting new churches.  I think that some of them even need to be focused on particular age groups.  This isn't an either/or statement I'm trying to make. It just seems to me that in our drive to create new, exciting, fast-growing congregations with slick multimedia worship services and "cool" music, we have forgotten the generations that are watching in horror as their own churches stagnate, and sometimes decline into nothing.  Generations that have carried on the faith, and even funded and created the very structures that are now neglecting them!

I can hear some of you getting ready to clack out a response on your keyboards that goes something like this, "OH YEAH, WELL IF THEY WEREN'T SUCH OLD FUDDY-DUDDIES THEN THEY WOULDN'T BE IN THIS POSITION!!!!."  Frankly, there is a mixture of truth and error in that statement.  Yes, there has been a good deal of stubbornness on the part of traditional congregations, and yes some of the wounds have been self-inflicted.  So what? 

Why is it that we can bend over backwards to create churches for people who have never been a part of our churches, but we can't forgive a basic human failing like "stubbornness" in those who have been believers for decades, faithfully giving money and service to our churches?

Are we only graceful to those who haven't yet received God's Grace?

In case you haven't noticed, this is my passion.  I was told by my pastor long ago at Cliffside, preacher Larry Fleming, that I should become a church planter.  Frankly, the idea really appealed to me, because I love modern worship, and I love youth and 20 and 30 somethings, and the way they worship, and the way they stress relationships over structures.

What God had in store for me was something I never saw coming - He called me to a little town called Belhaven and a little church called First Baptist Smithton to basically "replant" a church.  The strangest part?  I absolutely loved it! 

I love the challenge of getting generations of believers into the same room, because we have much to learn from one another.

I love seeing the cornerstones of faith within a community filled with pride as their congregation sees new life and new purpose.

I love seeing just how willing those "fuddy-duddies" really are to go the extra mile to meet the younger generations where they are.

Its the reason I'm here now, at Grace Crossing, undertaking the very same challenges on a larger scale.  Would it have been easier to take some of the other jobs offered during the search?  Yes, probably for me and for Grace Crossing, but we do church the hard way because we believe it has value.

  • We are pushing hard towards a truly "blended" service because all generations deserve a voice in worship.
  • We are congregational rather than led by leadership teams, because we believe that all the members of the church deserve a voice.
  • We open our doors to all people because we believe that God is bigger than our differences, and Grace covers all sins.

So I guess my question is, where is our help?  We certainly aren't the only church in need of a replant, so why aren't associations and conventions setting aside funding for churches like ours? 

Where are the funds for hiring young worship leaders to help revive music?
Where are the funds for training in media, or hiring media specialists?
Where are the funds for consultants to identify community values and demographics?

I don't ask this for us, we have already undertaken most of these things (although if you know of a good worship guitarist, we'd certainly love to have a little help there!) but there are hundreds of churches like ours, some who don't even realize they need to change, that could be replanted all over this country.

They already have facilities, families, workers, and name recognition.  - all they need is a little help from the very structures they built and maintained locally, statewide, and nation-wide for decades.  On a practical scale, it seems like the idea is a no brainer!

Just like moving plants from the greenhouse to the garden, there is a little pain and a little risk involved, but the reward is so great!  The fellowship of multiple generations (re)filling our churches, energizing them, creating new life out of old.  The witness to the community at-large that says God can redeem and reclaim all things, even old fuddy-duddy churches!