Thursday, July 24, 2008

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Yes, it is summer. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, children are happy, and pastors are moving! At least six ministers of my acquaintance are in the process of leaving Tennessee to serve churches in other states. The interesting thing is that four of these folks are leaving churches that have little or no affiliation with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to work in churches that are clearly identified with both CBF and their state CBF organizations.

Now, these are not “bait and switch” situations. These ministers are moderates. Even those who served churches that would not openly espouse the CBF cause have been friendly with me and a couple have even participated in TCBF activities while working with churches that had no interest in CBF.

So what’s going on here? Are we just grooming leaders for greater kingdom service in greener pastures? Would these people have stayed in place if their churches had been more open to moderate Baptist life? I don’t have answers, but I am a little sad to see these friends leave. At the same time, I am excited about the new opportunities available to them.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

An interesting combination—a vacation in Daytona Beach with two grandchildren, a movie theater next door, and three rainy days. The result—seeing three movies in three days (but a couple out of necessity rather than desire). So what did we see? Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, Wall-E (with the younger grandchild), and The Dark Knight. I am sure that each film has its merits, but my favorite was the latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight.

Director Christopher Nolan has once again produced a remarkable addition to the Batman mythos. Christian Bale is back with just the right balance of self-doubt and righteous anger as the Caped Crusader. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in small but essential roles as the men who keep Bruce Wayne grounded. Aaron Eckhart gives an excellent performance as the courageous and unfortunate Harvey Dent. Maggie Gyllenhaal is so good as Rachel Dawes that you forget that Katie Holmes played the role in the previous movie. Gary Oldman is outstanding as Lt. Gordon; his character may be the most three-dimensional in the film. Of course, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker is the performance that is most discussed and with good reason. Ledger’s character embodies not only evil but chaos. The term used for the Joker is “terrorist” and it fits well. Here is a villain not motivated by money but by a desire to challenge the morality of the good citizens of Gotham City and their leaders, attempting to show them up as venal and self-absorbed while inciting them to anarchy.

As in Batman Begins, this is a morality tale, but this time it is played out on a larger stage. This is not just about one man’s demons; it is the struggle that all people face to make sense out of their lives and be more than they ever imagined they could be. The movie is densely plotted with lots of action but with great dialogue and character development as well. This may well be the best movie of the summer.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

By My Own Reckoning

I have just finished Cecil Sherman’s autobiography, By My Own Reckoning. Although a generation younger than Sherman, I grew up with many of the same experiences, so I can identify with his pilgrimage in many ways. Sherman’s memoir discusses very candidly his commitment to and ultimate disillusionment with the denomination that had nurtured him. He explains how it was necessary for him to leave one Baptist entity and begin another in order to maintain his integrity.

This is more than a report on the “controversy,” however. Sherman shares warm memories about his family of origin in Fort Worth, his preparation for ministry, and finding Dot, the love of his life. His accounts of his pastoral experiences in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas will be informative reading for anyone who is in the ministry or plans to be a minister. His role in opening the doors of First Baptist Church, Asheville to African-Americans is a true "profile in courage" as well as a lesson on congregational politics.

Sherman struggles to present the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in a fair manner, but the hurt and anger are still there. He is candid about the deception and personal attacks he faced during those days. Late in the book, he admits that he probably still has not dealt with some of his feelings related to those experiences. He also acknowledges his reputation as an agitator with the comment, “It is difficult to be in controversy and not become controversial in temper.” The latter part of the book recounts the descent of his strong and loving wife into the grip of Alzheimer’s disease.

The remarks that Sherman made at the General Assembly and the subsequent response from many folks show that he is still a controversial figure, but how many 81 year olds can instigate such a response? It is a testimony to his stature and personality that people still take notice!

I encourage you to read the book. We do need to remember where we came from and who walked with us during the “bad old days” even as we move on to new challenges.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid!

As I read Cecil Sherman’s By My Own Reckoning, I was reminded of my own journey growing up in the Baptist culture of the South. Although I am a generation younger than Sherman, many of my experiences were similar to his. I grew up thinking that Southern Baptists were “God’s last and only hope” (a phrase chosen by Bill Leonard as a book title). I was active in the youth group at church, served as a summer missionary with the Home Mission Board, went to conferences at Ridgecrest and Glorieta, attended a Southern Baptist seminary, used the Sunday School Board curriculum (I even wrote some of it!), took the training, did the time, swallowed the Kool-Aid! When I discovered that denominational identity was not all it was cracked to be and could even be idolatry, I went through something of a crisis of faith.

Sherman’s memoir discusses very candidly his commitment to and ultimate disillusionment with the system that had nurtured him. He explains how it was necessary for him to leave one Baptist entity and begin another in order to maintain his integrity. Even though he was a major architect in the founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, you detect one who has been burned by an institution in this statement about the founding of CBF, “We knew what we were against; we were not agreed on what we were for, and, truthfully, that indecision still lurks around the edges of CBF” (p. 218) He has no illusions that the organization that he helped to create is infallible or perfect.

The experience of those of us who no longer call ourselves “Southern Baptists” is a warning that any humanly-created institution is inherently flawed and potentially dangerous. In an ordination message, I heard Loyd Allen say to the candidate, “Love God and serve the church.” The statement puts things in the right order. We should not let anything—even the church—become between ourselves and God. We are called into community, but we have a personal responsibility first to God. As believers we are called upon to serve God with faith, love, and integrity. Everything else is secondary. As a friend said to me when I was recovering from the 1990 meeting of the SBC in New Orleans, “Who do you serve anyway? Christ or the SBC?”

Sherman has reminded me that it is important to keep one’s priorities in order.

See How They Grow?

In his book By My Reckoning Cecil Sherman, the founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, notes that one of the tasks that he took on was to lead churches to leave the SBC and join the new CBF movement. He writes, “If the CBF were to grow, it had to grow at the expense of the SBC.” Later in the book, he comments that the inerrancy controversy that divided the SBC “continues to splinter churches away from the SBC.”

This is no longer true, at least among Baptist churches in Tennessee. As new conflicts appeared on the scene (over missionaries, women in ministry, and higher education institutions), those of us who are moderate Baptists would say, “This is the tipping point. This will bring moderate churches to their senses.” Nope. Hasn’t happened. There has not been a windfall of churches “coming to see the light” and joining the CBF movement. For some folks, the sun has not come up yet (to paraphrase one of Cecil’s popular sayings).

Although some CBF leaders may still think that the path of potential growth is in winning over SBC churches, they can forget it. We can mount rational arguments, show statistics, and draw comparisons, but it’s not going to happen. When we deal with people and their allegiances, we are dealing with emotions, comfort levels, and traditions. These are hard to change. More than one moderate Baptist has said to me, “I don’t like the fact that my church supports the SBC, and I don’t care much for the direction that the pastor is taking our church, but my family is here and I like my Sunday School class . . . .” Logic will not prevail; emotion will win every time.

If this is so, what will be the source of future growth in the CBF movement? Here are some ideas:

First, an individual or a church will change when one of their own is hurt by the SBC power structure. If one of “our folks” who is serving as a missionary is terminated or resigns, the church will respond. If a longtime member of the church is fired by a denominational agency, it might make a difference. If one of our young women is called to ministry but rejected by the denomination in some way, people might just pay attention.

Second, if the SBC decides that it won’t seat messengers from churches who financially support CBF in some way, this may cause some churches to join the CBF cause. More likely, it will cause some church splits. Of course, the denominational machinery moves slowly. The SBC in session this year took note of the controversy at Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and some presented the argument that “messengers from Broadway should not be seated.” When was the last time Broadway even sent messengers to the SBC?

Third, we can start new churches. Everyone thinks this is a good idea, but few respond. I applaud the work of Bruce and Debra Gourley and Ryan and Courtney Tucker who are taking the lead in a movement to plant CBF-related churches in Montana (see We need to think about new churches targeted to unreached people groups including college students. There is potential for growth in such an initiative.

Fourth, we can court community churches who don’t consider themselves Baptists, but who usually share our theology and are seeking mission partners. Many of our young adult leaders have gone in this direction, starting churches that do not have a clear Baptist identity, but driven by their Baptist DNA! Let’s give them a place to call home.

Fifth, we can reach out to our American Baptist and National Baptist friends. Although their churches may be reluctant to unite with CBF, we can work together in local, state, and national ministries, thus multiplying our efforts. This has already happened in response to Katrina, but do we have to wait for the next natural disaster to find ways to work together?

The CBF movement can grow, but the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now the real work begins!