I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Texas. I was licensed and ordained as a Southern Baptist pastor (excuse me, that’s Reverend Steve to you) in that church. My mom still attends this church. The things we did back in the day are highly “stupidesque”. As a matter of fact, the church I attended as a youth hasn’t changed that much, except in Saddleback fashion they dropped Baptist from their name a few years back. Now that caused quite a commotion.
Get this, the church I grew up in was featured in the Wittenburg Door’s “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” section many years ago. Oooohhhh… now that hurts. (If you are not familiar, “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” is part of The Door’s magazine where they show church ads or Christian news stories that are high on the Stupid Church People meter).
Now although this church was and is full of people that do Stupid Church People things, it was also the launching pad for shaping and building my character and beliefs for better and worse. On one hand, I can blame much of the teachings of this church for giving me a staunch black and white conservatism regarding people that “are not like me” in religion and society. They also were the foundation for much of my misconceptions about sexuality, personal relationships, gender roles, movies, books and the arts in general. I became a product of their system, where church attendance and keeping up appearances bordered on addiction.
Yet looking back, I have always felt that this church was home and family. Although this church is mega (about 2,500 people or so) I am always recognized and welcomed warmly when I return. My mom still attends, as do many of my childhood friends and their families. The Pastor who started the church in 1968 as a 26 year old man still preaches every Sunday morning. Although much has changed cosmetically over the years, not much has changed internally from what I can tell when I listen to sermons and hear my mom talk about the people, although she can’t believe “we aren’t Baptist anymore” (her interpretation of them removing Baptist from the church sign). There is a comfort and familiarity at the church, and it is based in the commitment and consistency of the leadership.
The pastor, Bro. John, did shape me in many ways as a progressive teacher and leader for his times. Wherever I have served or attended church, I have recounted things that he has done as a pastor that were revolutionary and very forward thinking. Many churches could benefit from them today.
For example, back in the 70’s, Bro. John felt impressed from his understanding of Scripture that no church (or person) should ever have debt in their life (homes possibly being the one exception). He felt that churches that were in debt are tied and “in bondage” to their lender, and the monies going to pay interest on the debt was a misuse of the offerings that were being given. So he led our church to retire all of our debt.
In the midst of this campaign, Bro. John didn’t think that it was right that offerings were taken during the services. He felt it interrupted the service, put the focus on money and not God and made visitors feel compelled to give. He also felt that if people were called by God to give, they would do so. Receptacles were placed at the back of the room where people could place their offerings at any point.
Everywhere I have been, I have made the challenge to pastors to drop the offerings from their services, because I see it as such an innovative idea that could lead to a certain type of “reform” within the mindset of the people that attend. It has been met with resistance at every turn. We are willing to be so creative in our worship, in our sermons and in our advertising, but why not this? We talk about faith, but can’t imagine that people wouldn’t give unless we put an empty plate in front of their faces. That has always raised an eyebrow with me.
So thanks Bro. John for teaching me some things about family and faith. These are two of the things I took from my upbringing and early church life. I still believe pastors and churches are centrally about these two elements and instilling and risking for both. Family and faith: Two of the reasons I left the church and probably two of the reasons I will return.
More to come in part 4…..