Monday, May 30, 2011

What is the problem with "organized religion"?

It's an old refrain, but I seem to be hearing it more these days - from more and different corners of society. From friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, I hear "I believe in God, and I love Jesus, but I just don't believe in 'organized religion.'"

Now I realize I'm preaching mostly to the choir here. Most of you who read this blog are participants, on some level, in "organized religion." Most of you are churchgoers, many of you actively serve in your church - whether as staff or laity, and some of you even give financially to support your church's ministries.

But most of you are going to hear, at some point, "I just don't believe in 'organized religion'" - whether it be from a co-worker, a close friend, or, in many cases, a son or daughter. So we ought to give it some thought and be prepared to respond thoughtfully.

This is the response I've come up with so far:

So what exactly is it in "organized religion" that you don't believe in?

  • Is it Texas Baptist Men, whose volunteers are in Joplin right now, making sure that survivors of that devastation get proper medical care, as well as food and clean water? Who have similarly traveled to Alabama to help tornado victims, Mississippi to help flood victims, and even Japan to minister to the needs of earthquake and tsunami victims?
  • Is it Woman's Missionary Union, whose HEART (Humanitarian Emergency Aid for Rebuilding Tomorrow) Fund helped to provide jobs in Southeast Asia following the tsunami, helped rebuild a nursing home in Chile following an earthquake, and helped send children in Haiti back to school following an earthquake?
  • Is it Catholic Charities Immigration Services, which provides low-cost immigration counseling and support to families and individuals who are eligible for immigration benefits and cannot afford private assistance?
  • Is it Buckner International, formerly Buckner Baptist Benevolences, which has worked tirelessly for over 130 years to meet the ever-evolving needs of orphans, vulnerable children, families, and the elderly?
  • Is it the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and its World Hunger Offering and its tireless insistence on justice for the disenfranchised?
  • Is it the local church, where Christians come together to worship, celebrating their common faith while being challenged to live out that faith?
  • Is it the Sunday School, where fellow Christians study the Bible and help each other in their struggle to understand it better and to search out its relevance to their lives?
Well, I could go on, but by now you get the idea. There's no end to the good things being done cooperatively around the world by Baptists, not to mention the rest of "organized religion." (By the way, I thought Catholic Charities Immigration Services was worth mentioning, because I have a cousin who heads up one of their offices, and I have a deep admiration for him and the work he does there. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Baptists don't have a monopoly on ministering to the "least of these.")

Throughout this post, I've enclosed "organized religion" in quotation marks, because it is used by many as almost a pejorative term, one that has gained a negative reputation through the worst moments of some of its practitioners. Perhaps it's a sexual scandal of some preacher or some holier-than-thou politician - thus exposing their hypocrisy; or some outrageous, hate-filled proclamation by a notable televangelist; or simply a bad personal experience in a church where the person felt ostracized and alone.

Well, we all have our bad moments, don't we? I would hate to be evaluated solely on the evidence of my worst moments. But that seems to be the church's lot. "Organized religion" has had many bad moments, because it's populated by human beings, and human beings are sinners. Our attitudes are not always right, our motives not always pure, our actions not always perfect.

For that matter, as I wrote in my post last week, we Baptists have done a poor job of responding to the needs and interests of 21st-century young people. We need to make the church experience relevant to their needs, or else we are not being faithful to the spirit of Christ, who always meets people where they are.

But many of the loving, caring acts in the world would have never happened had Christians not gathered together in community and pooled their resources to do more together than we could have done alone.

That's what organized religion - in its Christian form, anyway - is really all about. Cooperation in community - being the presence of Christ "to the uttermost parts of the earth," as well as in our own backyard, just as He commanded us to be.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Baptists' Future Depends on Young People

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, held on the campus of Dallas Baptist University.

This year's theme was Baptists and Education. Among the many topics addressed by speakers in both general and breakout sessions were the legacy of Baptists in securing religious liberty in the U.S.; a comparison of women's and men's theological education among Southern Baptists in the Seventy-Five Million Campaign of the early 1920s; and the origin and development of Houston Baptist University.

On Saturday morning, a two-part panel discussion addressed the question, "What is a Baptist university?" Part One focused on the mission of Baptist universities; Part Two focused on how they put that mission into practice. Panel members and attendees agreed in expressing concern over the difficulty of communicating the importance of Baptist history and principles to today's generation of college students.

This is a concern facing not only educators but all who care about the survival of the Baptist movement. I don't have the answers, but I'm looking for them wherever I can find them, as all of us should be. Keep dwelling on the old solutions, and we'll lose the young people. They are the Baptist future - if there is to be one. They are the only ones who will be around to tell the Baptist story to generations yet unborn.

During the conference last week, one Baptist leader told me, "I wake up every morning thinking about how to reach young people." It struck me that this should be the attitude of every concerned Baptist. We - and that includes me - have let our focus on perpetuating Baptist institutions blind us to our alienation of Baptist youth. We are losing them! They don't care about building bigger institutions. They don't care about doing church just for the sake of belonging or even of worshipping. What they do care about is giving their lives to something that actually makes a difference in people's lives - and their lives.

If we truly believe that being Baptist is important to authentically sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we should be concerned not only about our loss of those young people but about their loss.

God meets us where we are, not where our parents were; by the same token, we need to meet these young people where they are, not where we are.

We need to start listening to our young people - and responding to them on their terms, not ours. The old rationales won't suffice! We must hear what's important to them and discover - and communicate - how Baptist history and principles are relevant to their concerns.

That should be our mission as Texas Baptists. I can guarantee you that these young people are on God's heart - they're God's mission. If we are to be faithful to God's call, we must make them our mission as well.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blessing God's Call - and Being Blessed by It

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the ordination of a young woman to the Gospel ministry.

For 2 years, I have watched as she has ministered to the people of our church and they have ministered to her. I have heard her preach . . . teach Sunday School . . . present the Lord's Supper . . . speak homilies at special services. I have heard stories of other ministries she has carried out as a pastor-in-training caring for the needs of the sick . . . the grief-stricken . . . the searching. In occasional personal encounters, I have found her to be full of Christ's grace . . . wise beyond her years . . . inquisitive . . . humble . . . confident . . . and always listening carefully to hear and understand the other person's concerns and perspective.

None of us who attended her ordination were spectators . . . we were participants in blessing her ministry and expressing the blessing we have received from her.

I couldn't help but ponder the contrast with the church my wife and I left 7 years ago. Shortly before we left, the pastor announced that God had spoken to him and changed his mind about the issue of women teaching men. He issued an edict that women would no longer be allowed to teach men in Sunday School in that church, and he "fired" three women . . . long-time faithful servants . . . who had taught "co-ed" Sunday School classes for years. If any member dared to disagree with the pastor's new position well, God would "prune" you from the church; yes, he actually said that from the pulpit.

This same pastor treated the Children's Minister a woman as if she were inferior to the men on the ministerial staff. Her opinions were somehow of lesser value, her calling obviously suspect because she was a woman. Ordaining a woman in that church was, of course, not even an issue it was unthinkable!

Which brings me to my point. Texas Baptists Committed values historic Baptist principles. One of those is local church autonomy. I would never want to restrict a church's right to decide where it stands on the issue of women in ministry, whether teaching men, being ordained . . . all of the ramifications of that issue. By the same token, I don't want a pastor co-opting the church's right by issuing "edicts," either.

While I would never presume to dictate a church's position on this issue, I will always reserve my right as a Baptist Christian to emphatically defend and advance what I firmly believe to be the biblical position  that we should never tell God whom He can and cannot call to ministry, whether it be as pastors, deacons, missionaries, Sunday School teachers . . .

This isn't a "feminist" stance, though some would like to label it as such. It involves freedom in Christ for which TBC will always take a strong stand  but it's not even a "freedom" stance. In essence, it is a "knowing our place" stance and it is not our place as God's servants to tell God whom He can and cannot call to ministry.

Our church has an interesting way of modeling this truth. At every service, all worship leaders preacher (usually the pastor but not always), music leader, prayer leaders, Scripture leaders, and so forth are seated on the chancel for the entire service. One intention of this practice, as I understand it, is to demonstrate that all of us are ministers and are all equal before God.

Unfortunately, some Christians tend to interpret Scripture in a way that elevates them to prominence (remember James and John?), whereas we should be letting the Holy Spirit interpret Scripture for us in a way that keeps us low before God.

Dictating whom God can and cannot call to ministry is a way of placing some of us above the others. But we don't belong there. Only God does. Take a close look at Christ's life and the people He called Christ's call was expansive, not exclusive. He wasn't interested in your station in life . . . your gender . . . your ethnicity . . . or even your past. All He cared about was your heart.

The high point of Sunday's service was the laying on of hands. As is typical of our church, this wasn't limited to deacons or members of the ministerial staff. All of us were invited to participate. I didn't time it, but I'd estimate that it took anywhere from a half-hour to 45 minutes because of the waves of people who wanted to express their personal blessing on God's call to this young woman who has already ministered to all of us in such a special way.

The ordaining council had determined that God's call to the Gospel ministry in this young woman's life is unmistakable, and every one of us was just as convinced that God's call to her is real. So we simply recognized and blessed the call that she heard from God years ago.

I've said all of this to say that, when we limit and deny God's call, it is we who miss the blessing. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Baptist group says National Day of Prayer is misguided, unnecessary, unwise

NOTE: This article was originally published on May 4, 2011, by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty on its Web site.

Congress’ official designation and the president’s proclamation of a National Day of Prayer is misguided and unnecessary, says a Washington, D.C.-based church-state organization. A recent court decision said the law calling for the day of prayer cannot be challenged in court, but an official religious declaration by the government is still “unwise,” according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling the American people what, where or when to pray or even if they should pray,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.

In the proclamation designating May 5 as this year’s National Day of Prayer, President Barack Obama stated, “I invite all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I ask all people of faith to join me in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our Nation.” The proclamation also said, “let us ask God for the sustenance and guidance for all of us to meet the great challenges we face as a Nation.”

“There is nothing wrong with the American people getting together to pray on a designated day, even public officials,” Walker said. “In fact every day should be a day of national prayer.”

“The problem with the National Day of Prayer is that it is an . . .”

Click here to read the entire article.

Baptist Brief, Wednesday, May 4 - New Baptist Covenant: The Celebration (part 2)