A “Road Kill” Church?
Two weeks ago on the front page of the Sunday paper the Dallas Morning News featured an article on Dr. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of downtown Dallas. “Conservative Crusader” the headline read with the blurb beneath it explaining – “With unabashed conviction, Robert Jeffress is leading revival at First Baptist Church.” And so he is.
The numbers since he took over have all been on the uptick – 600 new members in the last 4 years, 400 more people in worship from 4 years ago, and 29 million dollars more received in offerings in 2010 than were received in 2009 (partially explained by the fact that they are involved in an ambitious and significant capital improvement campaign). It is a success story for a church that was statistically slipping, earning First Baptist the designation of a “turnaroundChurch” – one of the trickiest maneuvers of all to effect.
As a minister in a denomination of largely plateaued or declining congregations, and as the pastor of one of those churches, I can either read about Dr. Jeffress’ success with ecclesiastical envy – but that’s a sin, and a deadly one at that – or with a more analytical eye, asking how has he done it, and if there is anything that I can learn from him that will transfer to my situation? After all, he is succeeding in a market where I am treading water at best. And so I went to the “love fest” of an article about Dr. Jeffress in the morning paper two weeks ago with an open mind. Not an easy thing to do, especially after it began with this summary of Dr. Jeffress’ approach to things in its first few paragraphs –
Homosexuality is a perversion. Mormons aren’t real Christians. Abortion is murder. Islam is a false religion. Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Oprah Winfrey is being used as a tool of Satan. Hell is a real place.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress has made many sweeping pronouncements since he became senior pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church almost four years ago. Using media and the pulpit, he swings a sharp sword as the city’s leading conservative culture warrior.
Jeffress’ critics say he often appeals to his followers’ fear and bigotry, which has the potential to harm his targets. He says he is merely preaching God’s word, and it’s not politically correct.
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” or so said Barry Goldwater in his acceptance speech of his party’s nomination of him as their candidate to run for President in 1964. And I suspect that Dr. Jeffress adheres to the very same point of view when it comes to Christianity – “extremism” in its defense is “no vice.” But as a Disciple, I find that I’m constitutionally and incurably moderate, and I suspect that this is true of most of us.
Theologian Gabriel Fackre noted that “modesty” and “mystery” are two of the most important virtues that can be cultivated in believers. If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement with that idea, then you would probably be pretty comfortable with the Disciple way of going at things. But if you aren’t – if the description of Dr. Jeffress’ positions and persona are more appealing to you instead – then you will most likely find the Disciple way of things not to be a particularly good fit for you spiritually.
It’s said that there are only dead skunks in the middle of the road (make that armadillos here in the Lone Star state). So be it. We Disciples just might be the road kill church (how’s that for a new denominational slogan?). I’ll freely admit to being a road kill preacher. I habitually, instinctively seek the middle ground. I’ve never brought a message at the end of which I haven’t thought to myself, “now, on the other hand,” and longed for another 20 minutes to present the other point of view. This doesn’t mean that I am without conviction. I could provide you with a list of what I think about each of the subjects that Dr. Jeffress has gone on record with as being “God’s word.” And my positions, while no less informed by the Scriptures, would in each case be more nuanced and generous than his are. I understand that by that admission, Dr. Jeffress would view me as part of the problem have me thrown out of the boat of Evangelicalism, But I, as a Biblical Christian with an Evangelical orientation, would hope instead for a faithful conversation with him during which our settled convictions and/or tentative conclusions might be more fully explored and explained. And that’s what makes me a Disciple. It’s more than just the content of what is believed, it’s the spirit with which that content is held.
Somewhere I’ve read that early during the Protestant Reformation, the Swiss churchman Ulrich Zwingli (the Reformer I’ve always thought of as “ours” as Disciples) was asked about the more radical directions that the Anabaptists were taking in their attempts to change the church. He was asked why he didn’t just join forces with them, and he is reported to have answered that it wasn’t what they were trying to do that he found to be so objectionable, but rather, it was how they were going about it.
Just like Dr. Jeffress, I want the church to be faithful – Biblically informed, spiritually vital, missionally engaged, Gospel-oriented and Christ-centered. It’s certainly not what Dr. Jeffress is trying to do that I find to be objectionable – I’m trying to do the same thing for heaven’s sake! Instead, it’s how he’s going about it. It lacks modesty and it fails to appreciate the mystery of what has not been revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29), or even suggest a modicum of appreciation for some legitimate diversity of interpretation for that matter (which is odd in light of the wonderful emphasis on the right of private interpretation and the spiritual competency of each Christian to be an interpreter that has historically been a hallmark of the Baptist tradition). He regards his conclusions and convictions to be the equivalent of God’s word, and that makes him way too confident in his own powers of interpretation, and leaves him in the position of being too certain of too much.
As Leonard Sweet argued in his provocative 1982 essay, “Not All Cats Are Gray: Beyond Liberalism’s Uncertain Faith” published in the Christian Century that can be found at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1327, the way to counter this overconfidence in one’s own settled convictions is not by making the equal and opposite error of becoming uncertain about too much, but rather, it is to get better clarity about “the great rocky facts of being” (Augustus Hopkins Strong), those “elementary but elemental truths you felt certain of, with certainty defined as… those convictions by and for which one lives and dies. He concluded –
A few years ago, while visiting MammothCavein Kentucky, I learned that spelunkers, before exploring unknown caverns, tie one end of a rope to an object outside. As they grope their way through the maze of passageways, they unwind the rope. Christians similarly need to be tied to some answers, some certainties on which they stake their lives. In a review of J. A. T. Robinson’s The Roots of a Radical, Don Cupitt beautifully summarizes Robinson’s spirituality: “One should be firmly rooted in a few central values, commitments, and doctrinal themes, while being open and exploratory at the edges.”
So, what are your “great rocky facts of being”? And if you don’t know, you’ve got some important work to do. Unlike Dr. Jeffress down at First Baptist Church, I won’t tell you what they must be for you, but I will be glad to share with you what I’ve determined them to be for me, and I would welcome an opportunity to show you how to go about figuring them out for yourself. After all, that’s the “Disciple” way.