Monday, August 21, 2006

Reflections...(Part 4)

This post is a continuation in my series of posts on my reflections on my first year in divinity school.

As many of you know, Wake Forest is an ecumenical seminary. About half of the students are Baptist, but the other half come from a wide variety of Christian denominations. I have long stated that I believe this is a positive, not a negative and I plan to expand a little bit on my reasons for this in this post. Much of this post will discuss the "Baptist Wars" but I believe my conclusion equally applies to the relationship between Baptists and other denominations.

First, I think it is important for churches to forget the idea that we are in competition with one another. I believe that God has a unique mission for every church. He does not call every church to be a Saddleback, Willow Creek, or Lakewood church. So, it worries me when I see so many churches trying to emulate what these churches are doing so that they can be more "successful." Before any church embarks on a campaign to become "Purpose Driven" or "Seeker Sensitive" or even "Emergent" for that matter, they need to seek God's will for their church. Every church needs to measure their success the way God measures success, not the way men do. Is it possible for a small church in the same neighborhood as a mega-church to actually be more successful than the mega-church? Absolutely! If that small church is carrying out the great commission in its own unique way and acting in accordance with God's will for that church, it is successful and I believe God will bless it. Does that mean it will ever be even a tenth the size of mega-church? Maybe not. But isn't that using our measure of success rather than God's? Isn't it more of a blessing to have a church where God's word is taught, Christians fellowship with each other and support each other on the Christian journey? Is a big fancy building, a large budget, and thousands of members worth more than that? Of course not! It is also important to understand that I am not implying that the mega-church is not doing God's will, God could be blessing the mega-church in much the same way. My point is that we need to be very careful how we measure success.

If you believe the above is true, then it becomes obvious what every church needs to do. Every church needs to prayerfully consider what God is calling that church to be. Once you decide what that is, Go for it! Don't worry about what another church is doing. Don't worry about what style of worship they have, what literature they are using, etc. In other words, if you are different, don't worry about it. I am well aware that this is not as easy as it sounds. Church members are always more than willing to point out what they think other churches are doing better than you are. But always remember, the church is the body of Christ, and a body is made up of very different parts that function the best when they are doing what they are intended to do. If you go to First Baptist Church, be the best First Baptist Church you can be. I guarantee you will be a better church than you will be if you try to be the next Willow Creek.

So, how does this apply to the so-called "Baptist Wars?" I think that both sides need to acknowledge that it is not only possible, but it also the most desirable outcome, for God to bless both the SBC and the CBF. So, how do we get there? I believe that Paul identifies the root of the problem for us:

1 Timothy 1 (Paul's warning against false teachers)
4 ...These promote controversies rather than God's work which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

Titus 3:9-11
9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

I firmly believe that the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC promoted controversies rather than God's work. Consequently, I believe that those who formed the CBF did the right thing when they left. I believe it would have been unbiblical for them to stay and continue to "promote the controversy." I believe that by leaving, they made it possible, although I do not yet believe this is the reality, for the SBC to re-focus themselves entirely on the work of God.

The two recent articles published by Baptist Press show that the SBC has still not reached the point where they are able to get above "promoting the controversy." The passage I quoted from Titus, however, has given me a new respect for the way CBF responded, or rather did not respond. They could have continued to "promote the controversy" but instead they followed the advice that Paul gave to Titus and had "nothing to do with them."

I also have a greater appreciation for the way the CBF is organized. There is no method in the CBF of bringing a motion to the floor to do something like organize a boycott of Disney. It is my believe that this was done with the intention of following Pauls advice not to promote controversy and instead focus on God's work. CBF is simply a group of Baptists who have decided to network and help each other do God's work. That's what I love about it. Is it a perfect organization? Of course not. But it feels like home to me. Gay and I are hopefully going to be a part of a new generation of CBF leadership that is able to put the controversy behind us. CBF needs to concentrate on its own calling, and let the SBC concentrate on theirs. And yet, the SBC doesn't seem to want to let us do that. They continue to promote controversy by publishing articles that criticize CBF in one way or another. CBF appears to be trying to move beyond the controversy, and I hope the SBC will let us do that. While it may be hard for those hurt by the leadership of the SBC to pray that God will bless the SBC, that is certainly the Biblical thing to do.

I wrote in an earlier post that I am Christian first and a Baptist only a distant second. I believe that many of the above arguments apply equally to other denominations. As Christians, we should pray for the success of the church as a whole. As Baptists, we should pray for the Methodists and Presbyterians, the Moravians and the Quakers. I think that is what Jesus would want.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Reflections...(Part 3)

This is the third in the series of my reflections on my first year in divinity school. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the recent events at my home church may want to skip reading this post.

Shortly after I announced my call into ministry to my home church, Bayshore Baptist in Tampa, Gay and I started hearing from some church members and former ministers (Bayshore has more than 20 former ministers) about how well the church would treat us during our time in school.

I attended Bayshore from the time I was three until I was twelve and my family moved too far north for us to continue attending a church in South Tampa. However, I returned to Bayshore in 1998 after I moved back to south Tampa. My wife and I were married at Bayshore in 2000. I was ordained as a deacon there in 2002, and Gay and I were ordained into ministry in 2005. So, this church has played an important role in my life, and Gay and I love many of the current and former members of Bayshore. The former minister of congregational life, Nancy Burke, helped both Gay and me answer God's call into ministry. The former minister of youth, Dr. Sam Hestorff, has shown me that the church of the future can adapt to meet the the needs of a changing world, and Dr. Tom Pinner has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. So, it is with great sadness that I write this entry, but I felt that any reflection on my first year in Seminary had to include my disappointment with the support, or more specifically the lack of support, I have received from the leadership of my home church.

I decided to write this post in response to some questions that I and my parents have received asking about the status of scholarship funding from Bayshore. I wanted to give the members of Bayshore who read this blog the chance to hear the truth straight from me. So, here it is.

Before we left Bayshore last year, I was awarded some funding from a Bayshore endowment. The sole purpose of this endowment is to provide funding to seminary students. Before I received the award, I was told that this was my funding for this year, and I could receive it however I wanted, one payment, two payments, etc. I was also told that the minimum balance specified in the endowment would have to be changed for me to receive further awards, but that the change was possible, and a church business meeting would be held sometime during the next year to address that issue.

So, when I decided to take Hebrew over the summer, I wrote a request to the Bayshore Scholarship committee requesting financial assistance to pay for the classes. I received a call a month or so later saying that there was no money available, so Bayshore was going to be unable to help me. However, I found out a few days later that the committee never met to discuss my request. Rather, the pastor simply told a committee member to call me and tell me that no money was available. It is important to understand that this money would have come from a designated account and would not have affected Bayshore's finances. I would also have no issue if the Pastor had actually called a meeting of the committee to discuss the matter, rather than making the decision on his own. Contrary to some reports I have received, I was never told that the initial reward was the only reward I would be able to receive. If that was the case, I would never have taken the time to write the request, and would not have been encouraged to write the request by a member of the committee at Bayshore. Before writing this post, I also took the time to verify my own memories with others at Bayshore, and my memories proved to be accurate. So, the long and the short of it is, I do not expect to receive additional support from Bayshore.

But, I feel it is also important for me to point out that there are additional ways to support seminary students. Since we left Bayshore, we have not received a single call, letter or e-mail from the pastor. I firmly believe that it is part of the staff's job to keep our names in front of the church and remind them to be in prayer for us. Bayshore currently has four students in seminary. In addition to me, there is one at Duke, one at BTSR, and one at Emory. Bayshore should be proud of these students and celebrate our successes. If that has happened, I have not heard about it.

When we moved here, I joined Statesville under watchcare, because I wanted to keep my membership at Bayshore. Even though I am not a member, they have supported Gay and me one-hundred percent. I can remember being at a Wednesday night dinner after I finished the Spring semester, and the Minister of Education congratulated me on finishing the semester with all A's during the announcements. I have started teaching a wonderful Sunday School class that gives me the freedom to explore different ways to apply what I am learning at school to real-world ministry. Their willingness to discuss the difficult issues and share their opinions with me has been a real blessing, and I know they are praying for Gay and me on a regular basis. When Gay mentioned the fact that I was seeking money to pay for Hebrew over the summer as a prayer request in staff meeting, a staff member encouraged me to make a request to Statesville's education endowment for the necessary funding. They readily agreed to pay the tuition and books for my summer classes. A few weeks ago, the chair of the committee came to Gay and asked her how they could help me this semester, and they have agreed to buy my books. They have no idea how much I appreciate the fact that offered to help me before I even asked for it. They are supporting me, both spiritually and financially, even though I am not a full member of the church. I believe that is the way the church should work.

I would also like to thank Florida CBF for their support. They have supported me through a scholarship which has been renewed for this year, and they also keep up with Gay and I on a regular basis. Tommy Deal and Carolyn Anderson have been wonderful, and I was honored to be able to speak to Florida CBF during the general assembly in Atlanta.

Finally, I would also like to thank the individuals that have supported us at Bayshore over the past year. Your prayers, letters and e-mails have been appreciated. My disappointment is with the pastor at Bayshore, not with the members.

Feel free to e-mail me, or leave a comment if you have any questions. In order to filter out comment spam, I review all comments before they are posted, so if you want your comment kept private, just mention it, and I will honor that request. There is an e-mail address listed in the column on the right if you don't have one for me.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

CBF Response to SBC Articles

Earlier this week Baptist Press, the official news agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, posted two articles attacking the CBF in one way or another.  You can read them by clicking on the links below:

CBF church count violates church autonomy, scholars say
SBC, CBF seminaries differ in educational approach, profs say

I commented on the second article briefly in one of my earlier posts.  It is interesting that both articles are written by the same person and both articles use the same scholarly sources.  The SBC doesn't want moderates (although we are soon going to have to replace the word moderate with the phrase "anyone that doesn't agree 100% with a small group of SBC leaders) to come back, and yet they don't see to want to let us leave and do our own thing either.

CBF has responded to these two articles, and you can read that response here:

Response to Baptist Press stories on August 11

You can also read a few blog responses by clicking on the link below:

Leave us alone and get your facts straight
The Red Herring starring the CBF

Remember that crisis in leadership thing I was talking about?  I think that certainly applies to the SBC as well.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Reflections...(Part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post. I am reflecting on the completion of my first year in divinity school.

Training for the ministry involves both academic and practical education. Although the formal portion of my practical education starts this year, I have spent enough time in churches to identify some issues worth mentioning.

One of the biggest crises facing the church in the area of leadership. In my opinion this crisis applies equally to both lay leaders and ministerial leadership. There are many in leadership who seem to forget who the church belongs to. The church certainly does not belong to the pastor, to the deacons, or even to the membership, but there appear to be many in leadership who forget that. So, whose church is it? Let's look at Matthew 16:18:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Notice that the verse does not say "I will build the church" or "I will build a church." Jesus states pretty clearly that he is going to build his church. My point is that those in leadership should not do with the church as the wish simply because they have the "power" to do so. Every decision should be made only after prayerful consideration and study. Being a church leader is a huge responsibility, a bigger responsibility than we can possibly handle on our own. We need to remember that all of us are "servant leaders" and that we should only help the church go where God wants it to go and should not blaze our own trails.

So, how do we know if we have made the wrong decision? If the decision has to be kept quiet, it is probably the wrong decision. If the decision has to spun in order to be presented to the church, it is probably the wrong decision. If a board, committee, or staff decide to do something that they believe is contrary to will of the church as a whole, it is probably the wrong decision. If you decide to take an action simply because it is the recommendation of the senior pastor, another minister, chairman of the deacons, or someone else in authority without seeking the will of God, you probably made the wrong decision. Finally, if you make a major decision without taking the time to pray about it first, chances are very good you will make the wrong decision. If more than one of the above is true, you definitely made the wrong decision.

To be continued...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Reflections...(Part 1)

Well, I have finished the first year of divinity school at Wake Forest, and most of the time it has actually flown by. I am all finished with Hebrew, which I have to admit got just a little bit tedious toward the end. Working on it every day obviously helped me learn it faster, but it was also tough not getting much of a break. The amazing thing is that 10 weeks ago, I didn't know the Hebrew alphabet, but by the time I finished the class, we were reading Ruth from the Hebrew Bible, although the reading went very slowly. I am happy to report that I got an "A" in both classes. If it weren't for the minuses (ex. "A-" rather than "A") that Wake uses, my GPA would be 3.90, as it is, it will be a 3.7 something I think, I am still waiting for it to be computed.

I am not posting the above to brag about my success. Rather, I am posting it because I believe it is a reflection of my commitment to my call into ministry. I have never looked at these three years in school as a break. I look at them as more of a gift. God has blessed me with the opportunity to spend three years learning everything that I can to prepare for the ministry. The only way I feel I can be true to my calling is to devote all the energy and effort I possibly can to my studies, and that is exactly what I have done. I also posted these results as a way of thanking those who have supported me over the past year, both financially and with prayer. I wanted to make you proud of me, and I hope I have done that. I appreciate everything you all have done for me and everything you will continue doing for me both through the next two years at Wake and throughout my ministry.

The SBC posted an article today that was critical of "CBF Seminaries." (You can read this article by clicking here.) When I read the article to my wife Gay, she pointed out that the article never even talked about "the call." It never pointed out that maybe, just maybe, students should attend the theological institution God is calling them to attend. Those of you who have known me for a while, know that WFU was not my first choice when I began visiting schools in 2004. It was the last stop on our tour, and we really just stopped here because it was so close to Campbell and they happened to be having their "Discovery Day" on the last Saturday of our trip. But, the most amazing thing is that as soon as the day was over, Gay and I both said, "This is it!" We both knew that this is the place that God was calling us to. And, a year later, I still feel the same way. I know for sure that I am getting a top quality education. Wake is a small university and a very small divinity school, but that size means that I am able to get to know many of my professors on a one to one basis. At how many schools can one sit around a table with only half a dozen other students and discuss contemporary Christian issues with the dean of the divinity school who is one of the foremost Christian historians in the country and the former director of the Baptist Joint Committee? That was was we did in my "God and the NY Times" class. I have no doubt this class will be one of highlights of my education, and it would never have happened in a larger school.

Why do I go to The Divinity School at Wake Forest University? Because that is where God called me! And I take offense to anyone who criticizes me for that decision, or criticizes Wake simply because it is small, or because we have non-Baptists. I look at Wake's diversity as a strength, not a weakness! I am Christian first, and a Baptist a distant second. I am studying at a school with other Christians, and I don't really care whether they are Presbyterian, Moravian, or Quaker. We are all Christians, and we can all learn from each other. Baptists do not have all the answers, and they never will. So, as you can see, I am proud of my school and the education it is providing me, and I thank the Lord for allowing me to attend here.

I know so much more than I did a year ago, and I think about my faith in a different way. I approach the Bible in a different way, for example. Whenever I study now, I read the text several times. The first time I read it through just to get my own thoughts on the text, and I ask myself, "What is the text saying to me?" Then I often read the footnotes and commentaries to answer the question, "What has the text said to others." Then I read it again and I ask myself, "What would this text say to me if I was not a Christian?" I try to look at it from the perspective of ancient Jew (if I am reading the Old Testament) or as a non-Christian. How does that make me see the text differently? How does that help me teach the text to others? I then stop for a while, pray, and ask "What is God saying to me through this text?" Because, in the end, that's really what it is all about. It isn't really all about who wrote the text, when the text was written, or whether the event being described actually happened the exact way it is being described. Those things can be important, and they are certainly interesting, but they are secondary. They are secondary to the message that God is trying to give me, through the text.

To be continued...

Friday, August 11, 2006

What Would Jesus Recognize?

I'm sorry I haven't blogged for a while, but, as many of you know, some things have been going on at my home church that required Gay and I to make a trip back. For those of you in the middle of this situation, seek the truth. Don't trust what you are hearing. I will write more on this later.

I saw this article in the latest edition of Baptists Today, and I thought it was very profound. It is in a section called "The Lighter Side" but I thought the message behind this article is very relevant to the church today. It is called "What would Jesus recognize?" and it was written by Brett Younger.

Jesus wouldn't recognize...
  • heated, fiberglass baptisteries (Rivers are better symbols that bathtubs.)
  • grape juice at communion (What exactly does Welch's represent?)
  • pictures of Jesus (Do artists know what Jewish people look like?)
  • DaVinci's The Last Supper (Why are they all on one side of the table?)
  • walking the aisle (There's not a single instance of walking the aisle in the New Testament.)
  • the "plan of salvation." (There's not a single "plan of salvation" in the Bible; there is a "person of salvation" who reveals and offers God's grace.)
  • timid Sunday school lessons that don't upset anyone (After teaching Sunday school in Nazareth, the class tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.)
  • age-graded classes (Wouldn't it be helpful to learn from people who aren't our age?)
  • requiring someone from another Christian tradition to be re-baptized (Baptists didn't show up until 1,600 years after Jesus.)
  • Robert's Rules of Order (What were they thinking when they let this into the church?)
  • Steeples (Towels are more symbolic of servanthood, but it's hard to picture a 40-foot towel on top of the building.)
But Jesus would love...
  • worshipping in spirit and truth (We lift our hearts to God.)
  • congregation singing (We join our souls in celebration.)
  • listening for God's voice (We discover what it means to follow Christ.)
  • prayer groups (We share concerns and dreams.)
  • Vacation Bible School (We give thanks for gloriously noisy children and gloriously patient teachers.)
  • adults asking hard questions (We open our minds to mystery.)
  • children hearing the stories of faith (They learn that they are their stories too.)
  • church supper clubs (Jesus said the kingdom is a banquet.)
  • disciples who share their lives (We become lifelong sisters and brothers.)
  • people who hug (Hugs are 21st-century "holy kisses.")
  • prayer groups (The prayers of the saints hold the world together.)
  • those who visit the homebound (Remembering the elderly is radically Christ-like behavior.)
  • mission trips (They are more fun than Disneyland -- and cheaper, too.)
  • class parties (Jesus came "eating and drinking.")
  • Sunday lunches and Wednesday suppers (Would you want to go to a church that didn't eat together?)
  • world hunger offering (This is the kind of offering St. Paul would take up.)
  • Habitat for Humanity (Carpenters, in particular, appreciate this one.)
  • people who know their way around Hospitals ("I was sick and you took care of me.")
  • food pantries ("I was hungry and you gave me food.")
  • clothing rooms ("I was naked, and you gave me clothing.")
  • smiling greeters ("I was a stranger and you welcomed me.")
...Jesus wouldn't recognize everything at our churches, but there is so much that much make Jesus smile.