There is a lot happening in my life right now that is making it difficult to write posts for this blog, but I am trying. However, during this period, I've had another opportunity to preach, and that is now available below! Video captured by Stephen Hemenway, audio edited by Quenton Chestang-Pittman, video edited by me.
I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a point in the sermon that I am aware I did not adequately clarify when delivering it, regarding church membership and participating in mission. I stated at one point in the sermon that if the mission God has called an individual to and the mission of their church do not align, they should ask if they are at the right church. I stand by that statement, but I did not give any indication on what to look for when considering that issue, which feels irresponsible of me in hindsight. I do, however, have more room to explore that issue here than I would have as a tertiary point in a sermon, and I intend to take advantage of that fact.
What I mean by that statement is this: if God has called a person to a specific work, and called a person to a specific church body, then the person is also called to contribute to the specific mission that church is tasked with, and certainly not to hinder it. Likewise, the church is called to contribute to the specific mission the person is called to, and certainly not to hinder it. The Biblical statements about every member of the church needing every other member and every part of the body having a necessary function attest to this. If that is true, then it must also be true that a person who feels called to a mission that hinders, or is hindered by, the mission of their church is either on the wrong mission or at the wrong church or, in some hopefully more rare occasions, the church has the wrong mission; and it is vitally important that they find out which it is and correct it. The question is how to do that.
The first step is always going to be prayer and scripture, by the way. Going to God for wisdom and clarity, digging into the Bible for anything that may grant that wisdom and clarity, and earnestly listening for Him to speak will be necessary if you want an honest, usable answer. Every piece of advice that follows assumes you are only implementing it after spending some time in prayer and the scriptures. Also remember that this is only advice; the Bible does not give us a check list for this, and I can only share as much wisdom as I have so far.
The mission for which you are called is one which you, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do. This doesn't necessarily mean it is one you can finish, but it is certainly one you can perform for the season in which you are called to it. This simple statement gives us a few key things to look for:
Consider Moses. His gifting and skills enabled him to lead a large body of people, to judge fairly and honorably, to write the texts they would need going forward, and to face great trials. His interest in protecting his fellow children of Jacob enabled him to see their need and desire to find some freedom for them. His life experiences gave him access to Pharaoh, knowledge of the Midian desert, the skills he used leading Israel, and an unshakable faith that God would do exactly what He said He would do. His difficulty at speech meant he needed always to lean on God for his words and on his brother to deliver them, and his willingness to run when things got hairy meant he had to rely on God to be the example of strong leadership Israel needed.
Note first that this advice is only about mission compatibility. Nothing said in the sermon or here should be taken as an encouragement to leave a church over differences in style or preference. There may be times when you must leave a church for other reasons, and some of what follows may help in those situations, but this section is for a specific issue and should not be generalized.
Some initial questions:
If none of these resolve the issue (and sometimes even if they do), you need to talk to the church leadership. The exact person will vary based on your church's leadership structure and your relationships to them, but identify someone in a position to handle your questions and who you feel comfortable receiving honest answers from. Ideally, you will have been already talking to this person while analyzing your calling.
Personal mission and church mission do not have to be identical to be compatible. Our church hosts a growing food pantry which some members feel strongly called to lead or participate in; the mission statement of the church does not include that, but it does serve the church's mission goal of serving the community in a Christ-centered way that enables opportunities for us to share the gospel. Take the time to find out whether or not your calling and the church mission are actually incompatible. It is entirely possible that the church leadership will know about directions the church is going, ministry opportunities, or just detail about the mission that you don't know for one reason or another, and they can point you to a way to do what you are called to do under the umbrella of the church's mission. It is, in fact, entirely possible that what you are called to do is something that doesn't exist at the church yet because they are waiting for someone called to do it.
Seek ways to serve. Use your spiritual gifts under the guidance of the church and for the building up of the body. As much as possible, seek ways to be an active, contributing part of what your church is doing. But if all of this is not working, and it becomes apparent that you are simply not built for what the church is doing, then it may be time to prayerfully look into places where you can be active and invested.
Look, regardless of the church leadership structure where you are, the fact is that God puts leaders in His churches for a reason. The actual task of analyzing this matter should be handled primarily by the church leadership. By calling them to leadership, God has also called them to see the mission and push forward in that; and by becoming a member of a church, everyone else has submitted themselves to trust the leadership to do exactly that. There are times when questioning or even challenging the leadership is necessary, but if it is a habit or something you feel no hesitation to do, going to God about your relationship to leadership should come before your challenge is delivered.
That being said, when the leadership revisits the church mission, it will generally follow pretty similar steps to those for analyzing personal calling, with the additional understanding that church missions are generally paired with church visions; the latter being where the church is going, and the former being how it will get there. Wise church leaders will look at how the people God has called to that body can do a work that uses the available gifts, skills, and interests to engage with the church's context to participate in a work that only God can bring to fruit.
When I was a child in an evangelical church, there was a growing sense that the church in America was failing to cross cultural borders in the way the early church did. There was recognition that the first-century church included Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds coming together as equals in the shadow of the cross; and that the evangelical churches at the time could not claim that same unity. This was seen as an important issue, a failure of the church to properly practice and display the love of God to the world regardless of race, background, or culture. One of the things that began to happen in light of this understanding was a push for more diversity in our churches. Racial reconciliation was seen as a necessary part of the church pointing the way forward to a more powerful and effective image of the body of Christ.
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Ever since the case of Rodney King, conversation about the level of violence used by police in dealing with black people has occasionally broken into mainstream conversation in white America, but never really stuck and rarely became anything more than idle conversation. But tensions were rising and black people were having greater access to each others' stories and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement finally forced the issue into the spotlight and kept it there. And I have talked to and read the words of so many people of color who watched what the evangelical churches that were trying so hard to welcome them did in response to that. And, by and large, white evangelicals dismissed the concerns, argued in defense of the police in case after case, and then voted for a presidential candidate who was being widely criticized by every race but Europeans partly (largely or entirely, in some cases) due to his statements on women and minorities.
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
The highlighted segments in the trailer show, as "godless ideologies", speakers (some of whom are pastors themselves) calling for pastors to listen to the concerns of their black friends and congregants, to reach out to professionals for help in cases of sexual abuse or other areas they are not specifically trained to handle alone, and to take responsibility for making the changes necessary to facilitate varying forms of reconciliation. It also includes egalitarianism, which has been an issue in some circles but will not be discussed in this post. This has been met with a great deal of backlash, including some of the acceptable leaders shown in the video asking for their involvement to be removed because they feel they were misled about the nature and content of the documentary. One of the responses stated that he was asked to speak about Biblical authority and felt it inappropriate that his words were being used to attack leaders who were well within orthodoxy.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
Note: What follows is adapted from a paper written for my college course, Baptist History and Distinctives. This was originally written in March, 2018. The assignment was to identify what we felt to be the most important Baptist distinctive and then discuss it. Given that I also get asked offline what, exactly, a Baptist is, I felt it was worth adapting here.
When asked to describe the basics of Baptist theology, the easiest way to answer is to describe the parts that are most visible. The Baptist believes in believer’s baptism, through immersion, given no earlier than the baptized is able to make a true confession of belief and has done so. The Baptist believes the elements of communion to be fundamentally symbolic, bringing to mind the work of Christ. One may even go political and talk about the historically Baptist argument for the separation of church and state, or the ways Baptists have been seen interacting with the modern political environment. However, at the core of all of this, and much more, is the Baptist concept of the believer’s church. The Baptist, and those who have borrowed theology from Baptists, holds a view of the body of Christ manifest in the world that is distinct from other streams of Christianity and produces all the visible practices of the local church.
At the core of this issue is the question of what the church is. If the church is basically a regional expression, a sort of divine government over a parcel of land, then it should make sense that people be incorporated into it based on their place of birth, as citizens of both a physical and a spiritual nation. However, there is no trace of this idea in scripture. If Paul could say to the church in Corinth, “now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it,” then the church must be defined by its relationship to Christ (1 Cor 12:27 NASB). That is, in order for the church to be Christ’s body, the church must be in Christ - and no one is in Christ who has not been redeemed by him. If the church are specifically those who have become “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” then there can be no one in the church who are not yet dead to sin, and only those who have been made alive in Christ can be members of it (Rom 6:11 NASB).
So the Baptist holds that the defining trait of the church is that it is the body of Christ, or more specifically, the gathering of those who are in Christ into one body. This doctrine naturally flows into all others by which the Baptist can be recognized. If the body of those in Christ gathered is the body of Christ, then the local church is able to stand as the body of Christ. The local church is independent, not reliant on a larger body whether religious or secular for authority to operate as Christ’s body, and has for itself Christ as its head (cf. Col 1:18). This frees the local church not only from the structures of a larger religious body but also from the dictates of any mortal government. The local church is an expression of the fullness of the body of Christ just as Christ, though finite in His body, was able to express the fullness of the infinite God while walking the Earth. This enables the local church to carry out the full mission of Christ’s body in the world without borrowing authority from a larger structure, including ordaining, releasing, and holding accountable their own leadership; while leaving the local church free to partner with other local churches as equals.
If the church is composed of those who are in Christ, then the mark of entry into the body must be given only to those who are in Christ. The idea that baptism is the mark of entrance into the church is not specific to Baptists - most, if not all, denominations would agree with that claim. The different ideas on when baptism should be applied are based not on the function of baptism, but are fundamentally built on differing ideas of what the church is and therefore who receives entry. As stated above, a view of the church that equates entry with physical citizenship must baptize immediately, as the child is understood to be in the church at the time of birth. A belief that the church is the gathering of those in Christ’s body, however, demands that baptism be withheld until a person is actually in Christ’s body.
This also informs the difference between those bodies who believe that baptism has any ability to save or impute grace onto the baptized, and the Baptist who believes it to be only a sign. If baptism is applied after one is already in Christ, then the baptism itself cannot hold any power to place one into the body. It cannot change one’s nature into that which it already is. In fact, all ordinances of the church must be symbolic. If a person can only be in the church by already being in Christ and redeemed by Him, then no practice of those already in the church will have the power to bring people into it. Baptism cannot redeem because it is applied to the already redeemed, and the same goes for the taking of bread and wine in communion. The body and blood of Christ have no need to be physically present in the bread and wine because the body gathered is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ already. Christ is present in a special way whenever and wherever His people are gathered, they do not need to invoke Him into presence through another medium (cf. Matt 18:20).
When one is asked to define the distinction Baptists and Baptist-like bodies have with all other groups of Christians, the answer must begin with the doctrine of the believer’s church. All other things that define the Baptists as a specific and unique movement are born from this doctrine. However, the need to grasp this distinction goes beyond simply defining Baptists to those who are not Baptists. Keeping this understanding in mind also enables the local church to hold itself, its members, and its leadership accountable to its effects. The local church, as the body of Christ, must be working on the mission Christ has given it. The church must be vigilant that it recognizes those who are in Christ and refrains from giving undue authority to those who are not, whether they are attending church services or sitting in positions of political power. In order to faithfully carry out the identity Baptists have, the individual Baptist must know what that identity is- and it begins by grasping the doctrine of the believer’s church.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation