I think it’s time to challenge the way we think about church. We all agree that we want more diversity in our congregations. Look around us, look at who is present on Sunday morning. Are we a diverse congregation? What does diversity really mean? Are we merely looking for more “young people” in our congregation, or are we truly seeking to reach the WHOLE changing world for Christ? Are we willing to acknowledge that the world is changing and that requires us to adapt? How do we do that? What is required of us to become a diverse congregation?
I want us first to think of the church as a borderless church. We put up walls (physcially, spiritually, and metaphorically) around ourselves and our churches. But we are not called to put up walls, we are called to build bridges. The most segregated place in our world today is the church. We seek places of worship that make us feel comfortable and we search out houses of worship to be around people who look like us, think like us, and worship like us. But, is that really what God wants from us?
I believe that not just as Baptists, but as Christians we are called to reach out to all people-not just a specific demographic-but all who are seeking to know Christ and to do his will in their lives.
In Isaiah 56:1-8, we read this: “Thus says the Lord: maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely separate me from his people.’ And do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL (emphasis added) people.” (NRSV)
Many interpret a prophetic book, such as Isaiah as an announcement of events that will happen. In this passage, however, the emphasis is on ethics, not on events. The emphasis is on practice, not prophecy. The study of prophecy is not to entertain the curious or to intrigue the intellect, but to encourage holy living. The study of prophecy gives us a purifying hope.
Isaiah is speaking here that the house of the Lord is for ALL people, not just one particular group, but for everyone. He even gets specific pointing out in verse 3 and following that the foreigner and the eunuch are welcome into the house of the Lord, if they follow the commands of God. The foreigner who joins himself to God came to be known in Judaism as a proselyte, a member of the synagogue who was not a Jew by birth. The position of the proselyte was a controversial one in Judaism. Not all Jews were prepared to grant them full covenant rights. Such openness to receiving Gentiles who would commit themselves to God was actively resisted by some. In this passage God assures those who voluntarily seek to join themselves to God, for example to the covenant community of worship, they will have full acceptance in the house of God.
Another group that was excluded from the temple were eunuchs. They were used in eastern courts in many capacities. They were used in Jerusalem and Samaria, as references in 1 and 2 Kings showed. An early convert to Christianity was the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:27-37. Eunuchs were prominent at court, but forbidden to enter the temple. They were also considered by mainstream thought of the day to be sexual deviants, or perverts. In this story from Acts, we find the eunuch reading a passage from Isaiah and Phillip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch asks Phillip to help guide him through the passage and in doing he bore witness to Christ and the eunuch was baptized. Now, he didn't stop being a eunuch, but he became a follower of Christ. The prohibition to enter the temple and to be a part of God’s community, according to scripture is now removed on God’s authority and through Christ is open to all.
Verse 7 in Isaiah 56 shows us just how much God will accept them into the house. “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burn offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL nations.”
The standard for entrance into the temple is still the same: commitment to doing God’s will, to doing right and justice, to keeping the covenant. But all who love God and want to do these are welcome and accepted. A house of worship without borders.
I recognize the argument raised against such openness. Some say that it is naïve to open the doors so wide and let just anyone in. It implies that persons of evil intent will take advantage of the innocent, and that we may lower our standards and betray our values. Realistically, if we wanted to be safe from other views of thought, be comfortable in our worship and in church, we would shut the doors and raise up high walls and borders (metaphorically of course) around the church. Also, some say that to open membership to just anyone is to invite trouble and vulnerability. But, God prefers the vulnerable openness. He paid the price of suffering so that all might gain access to the kingdom of God.
What this passage is telling us is that all are welcome into the house of the Lord, and all are welcome to become a part of our fellowship and family of faith. Those that profess Christ as Savior are welcome into the family of faith regardless of race, gender, social status, or orientation. As Baptists we affirm that the gospel is open to all and closed to none.
In Ephesians, Paul points out that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15 NRSV) According to this passage, Christ’s cross has enabled the construction of a new house “without walls”, articulated specifically in verses 19-22. This undivided house is not architectural at all, but an organic, human entity joined sinew to sinew and heart to heart. Eph. 4:16: “From him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
On June 1, 2008, two San Diego area ministers led a bi-national prayer vigil and love feast in the Moravian tradition at the US and Mexican border fence at Friendship Park. Rev. John Fanestil and Rev. Jamie Gates passed sweetbread and juice through the fence to the Tijuana side in an effort to demonstrate Christian solidarity across borders. They and others began weekly Sunday communion services at the fence.
On February 21, 2009, Gates and Fanestil called for a major worship service with congregations on both sides of the fence, including a cross border choir complete with singing. This time some 150 participants on the US side were surrounded by media, loud anti-immigrant protestors and an unprecedented show of force by the police, rangers, coast guard and border patrol. For the first time a group of heavily armed officers prevented the ministers from approaching the fence to serve communion. After Fanestil served communion to those on the US side, he turned to serve those on the Mexican side of the fence. Border patrol agents raised their guns then arrested, handcuffed and detained the minister simply for serving communion. (Story taken from Our God is Undocumented, Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell, 2012 Orbis Books; Maryknoll, NY)
The gospel of Christ wrecks havoc on the ideologies of xenophobia, racism, and exclusion. We are called to love God and love others. The love of Christ transcends all barriers that we put up. In Matthew 22:37-39 Christ himself points out “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
We are called to love God and love others. A diverse congregation is only achieved when we set aside our own mindset of how people should act, dress, walk, talk, and look like. We are called to be a church without a border!
What is the challenge of diversity?
Diversity challenges us to learn. Opportunities to learn language and culture are all around us if we will take advantage of them. What a joy it is to see a face light up when an International friend hears something in their language. What fun it is to see the surprise when you do something that shows an understanding of their cultural values, such as hospitality. What a refreshing experience to attend a cultural festival and walk into another world.
Diversity challenges our opinions. Discussions on politics or economics can raise blood pressures when others don’t fall in line with our thinking. Allowing our opinions to be challenged forces us to hear the other and entertain the possibility that their way of thinking has merit. This opens doors to understanding and friendship. You do not have to agree with everyone whom you come in contact with, but you should have respect for their opinion.
Diversity challenges our own cultural morals. I read a story about a missionary couple in Asia. As their children were growing up overseas, they were very particular about celebrating Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day. They felt a need to stay connected to their American heritage in that way. Now they have dear friends from different countries who still call them on Thanksgiving Day and one still sends her list to them of the things she is grateful for. But it was hard to hold on to that. Rather the holidays and festivals of the various places where they lived began to play a part in their calendar year and celebrations. As various cultures here in our own country bring their own celebrations or their unique ways of living life, we are challenged to perhaps let go of some of our Americanism or southernism or north easternism to something more Asian, Latino, African or Middle Eastern. We are also challenged to understand and accept their need to hold on to those aspects of their culture that is integral to whom they are as people.
Diversity challenges our individualism. While we value the needs and rights of the individual and go to great lengths here in the U.S. to protect those rights, many of the cultures coming to us today consider the needs of the group to be a higher priority. We just don’t understand when the young woman forgoes her education or a career in order to marry the man chosen for her. In learning to appreciate the values behind such decisions, we learn to be more cognizant of the greater good of the group versus our personal good.
Finally, diversity challenges our faith. Never in American history have different faith systems bumped up against each other so frequently and at times forcefully. This particular challenge has compelled me to examine my own faith, to try and understand what I believe and why I believe it. It has strengthened my faith, not weakened it. This has come as I have had opportunity to learn what others believe and why they believe it. If we appreciate this diversity and grow from it, then we have no need to fear it. Many of us have never had our faith challenged, many of us don’t know what to do or say if our faith is challenged. We often times get defensive or argumentative when others don’t agree with us. It is important to maintain a dialogue-you don’t have to compromise your values in any way, but you can still remain in fellowship together.
What is to be gained from diversity?
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a great promoter of unity in diversity. One of the problems that occurred over the past 25 years in the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to make people fit within a box-we are all supposed to believe the same things, act the same way, and worship the same way-legalism and fundamentalism has cast a great stain on our convention. The takeover of the SBC that occurred 25 years ago was built on deceit, power grabbing, and lies told by those that wanted the power. Men like Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, Adrian Rogers, W.A. Criswell, and Charles Stanley orchestrated a coalition of people that sought to “cleanse” the SBC from any that disagreed with them. They ripped through the seminaries firing professors and presidents that refused to bow down to their way of thinking-or professors that taught individual thought and comprehension of God’s Word. Southern, Southeastern, and Southwestern Seminary all fell victim to the hostility and anger and divisiveness that they caused. This is not what the Bible teaches us. Division is not what God called us to bring, Christ came to tear down the walls that blocked people from having access to the kingdom. Are their main values that we should all hold like the Bible being the inspired word of God, Christ being the only way for salvation? Of course. But, we cannot get bogged down in secondary issues that leave us fighting with one another and cause division in our church. Are we going to disagree, yes, is it okay to disagree, yes. Unity in diversity is possible. I am thankful to say that many of those ties that were severed are now being repaired, but the damage for many is done for good.
We need to be “big tent” Baptists who are bridge builders rather than rock throwers, and we find comfort in other Baptists who speak our same language. Being this kind of Baptist provides space for relationships, friendships, and community for people who seek unity in our diversity.
How do we achieve diversity in our congregations?
Be willing to accept the fact that not everyone believes exactly as you do-not everyone looks like you-not everyone comes from the same socioeconomic background as you. We are all different. Be respectful of other cultures and beliefs, be willing to allow freedom for people to express their beliefs and ways of worshipping. Agree not to target a specific demographic. We are called to reach ALL people, not just some.
It’s time to tear down the borders, it’s time to stop dividing and start uniting-true growth comes from when we love God, and love others working together for the common cause of Christ.
This is what it means to be a Baptist! We are denomination that believes in diversity and helping others who do not have freedom. We believe in the freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. We support the separation of church and state-the government shall never tell us who to worship, or how to worship. We believe in the priesthood of all believers and affirm the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government. We believe in the authority of Scripture. We believe the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, is central to the life of the individual and the church. We affirm the soul freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This is why I am a Baptist! I am proud of who I am, of whose I am, and thankful that I serve a God that loved me enough to send His son to live, die, and live again so that I might live with him.
The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the congregation of Clemmons First Baptist Church.
Seventeen years ago I began my ministry at a small church in Hampton, VA. I was the youth minister and during the summer I would take my youth to Centrifuge in South Carolina. For those of you who aren’t familiar with youth camps, let me refresh your memory. It is a great “mountain top” experience that puts students in a controlled and isolated environment that allows them to grow in their faith at a, most often, very rapid rate. The music, bible studies, and activities are all designed around this concept. And it works! It worked for me, and my first year as a youth minister I wanted my kids to have this experience.
So there I was, summer of 2000, five kids in tow and a youth mom on our way to North Greenville University (it was just a college back then). All five of those students had no idea what to expect, many of them didn’t want to go, but I kept pushing them along and telling them they would have a great time. Needless to say, three days into the camp they didn’t want to leave. On our way back to Virginia I heard the same thing over and over again. “Why can’t our Sunday morning worship service be like what we had at camp?” There it was-a phrase that I have heard over and over again for years, and it never stops.
Sure, the places that people want our service to look like change depending on whose making the statement. For teenagers and college students they want Sunday morning to look like what they see and experience at camps, conferences, and concerts. For older adults it’s what they see and experience at revivals, concerts, and Bill Gaither Homecoming videos. For the rest, it’s what they see and hear on the radio and TV.
First, let me say this: I have NOTHING against any of those things. I like concerts and I appreciate youth camps, conferences, and concerts for what they offer. Holly and I have sung and done many revivals over the years and I have even been known to view a Bill Gaither video for a few minutes. But, all of these things target a specific group. Worship on Sunday morning does not do that, nor is that its purpose. Corporate worship on Sunday is about God, and bringing the community of faith TOGETHER, and creating community within the family of faith and creating connections to a living God through a living faith. We cannot muddle or dumb down worship to fit a certain demographic. And, if you think that church is about reaching a certain demographic (i.e. young people) then you need to go back and read your Bible because the last time I checked, we were called to reach ALL PEOPLE!
DON’T DUMB IT DOWN
Worship is not a popularity contest-I said that in my last article and it’s still true.
Marva Dawn is one of my favorite worship theologians and in her book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (1995 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing) she says this:
“Many churches who want desperately to attract people to Christ miss the point by offering worship so shallow that not enough of Christ is proclaimed to engender lasting belief…If people are introduced to Christianity composed only of happiness and good feelings, where will the staying power be when chronic illness, family instability, or long-term unemployment issues threaten? If worship is only fun, how will those attracted to such worship have enough commitment to work on the conflicts that inevitably develop because all of us in the church are sinful human beings?” (Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down; pg. 280; 1995, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing)
If our goal is to “make disciples” there needs to be genuine discipleship happening in the church, and worship should play a pivotal role. Leonard Sweet said that churches need an “MRI”. They need to be missional, relational, and incarnational; as opposed to being attractional. (Leonard Sweet, So Beautiful; 2009; David C. Cook Distribution)
If people are going to grow in their faith, their needs to be depth in what is taught. The same applies to music that is used in worship.
Holly and I this past weekend attended a reading session for church choral directors. As 125 choral directors gathered in that small Methodist Sanctuary from 9-1, there were pencils flying, people making notes, people trying to sing notes, and all enjoying the company and community of church musicians, but we all took note of one thing, every piece of music that we sang through had depth in theology as well as creative musical expressions.
THE "LITMUS" TEST
I asked the question previously, what is the yard stick that I use in selecting music for our worship at First Baptist? This is the first test, does the text say something and does it have theological depth? When did songwriters become lazy? This has been a burning question on my mind lately. It seems that all of the “and can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood” (Charles Wesley) has been replaced with “yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord,” (Darrell Evans; 1998 Integrity Hosanna Music) or a “your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me, your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me, your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me” (Brian Johnson, Jeremy Riddle, Christa Black Gifford; 2010 Bethel Music, Christajoy Music, Vineyard Publishing) It addition to mindless lyrics there is also an epidemic of "woahs", "ohs", and "yeahs."
If the text says nothing, then it’s not worth singing. If the song’s sole purpose is to get people “hyped up on Jesus” then it’s not worth singing. If the song repeats itself into a mindless void of repetition causing the listener to get swept away in some “trance-like” state, then it’s not worth singing. The song needs to say something!
The second test to pass musically is can the song be sung by a congregation that has never heard it before, have a melody that can be picked up easily, and be in a comfortable range for all to sing it. This is my biggest complaint with utilizing music from the radio for congregational singing. The songs were not meant to be sung by a congregation, they were meant to be sung by an individual or a group. Hymnody is full of music that was meant for a large group to sing-is was written for all people. I have no problem with letting a soloist or small ensemble sing something from the radio (as long as it has something to say), but if it’s not meant for a congregation to sing, then don’t have the congregation sing it. There are many great songs out there that I love that are new and fresh, but they don’t fit a congregational voice.
Here’s my final point. For me, there is a large hurdle that songs have to jump for me to use them with the congregation. I am not going to be a music minister that chooses songs based on their popularity (I think I’ve made that point very clear), but I will be a music minister that chooses to create an environment of worship so that ALL can participate and respond and express their praise to God.
There is a story of two men coming out of a Sunday morning worship service. One man looks at the other as they walk out of the church and says, “I really didn’t like that service this morning.” Unmoved by the man’s comment, the other man says, “That’s fine. We weren’t worshiping you anyway.” Which led me to ask the question, “Has worship become a popularity contest?”.
On my social media account I subscribe to a blog called Patheos, which is a stream of authors from varying viewpoints of faith (Christian, evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, conservative, and progressive) and many authors who are practicing atheists and agnostics. This blog is a great host of conversations about faith and what it means to live a life of faith. Recently, I read an article by a Christian theologian and worship leader about the “popularity contest” that worship has become. He began his article with a simple statement: “worship is not about making you happy, it’s not about making me happy, and it’s not about what makes the world happy-it’s about God!”
As I read on, I was struck by an example he gave of a church that had passed out a survey to the congregation on their worship service-you heard me a survey! This survey was given to rate how satisfied they were with the worship on Sunday morning. They were to say if they were very satisfied, just satisfied, or not satisfied with the service, then to write any comments they had that could improve or would improve their experience. I was appalled! First, it has been my experience that if you pass out a survey in church, you are only asking for trouble, and second, the first question we should be asking is “is God satisfied with our worship?”. Thankfully, the “worship wars” are over (this was fought in churches in the 80's and 90’s when contemporary praise and worship music was beginning to thrive) and unfortunately for music ministers populism has won out.
When I was in seminary, my conducting professor and mentor used to tell us to do a variety of music to show the breadth and depth of worship possible in the church-and jokingly he added offend as many people as possible! What this allows is for the music minister to pick the best of the best music out there, and the freedom to do so, without being tied down to a certain style demanded by the congregation or staff. This is what I have done for the past 17 years in my music ministry and what I will continue to do until the day I retire.
So, what is the criteria for congregational music? How about choral music for children, youth, and adults? What about handbells and instrumentalists? What is the yardstick that I’m using to shape the worship and music ministry at First Baptist? This has become more and more of a question that I have been hearing through the grapevine of our church, so I am taking some time to answer those questions in order to educate people about worship and church music. Hopefully the answers to these questions will invite dialogue and conversation about worship and enhance our overall experience as a family of faith on Sunday morning.
Before I dive into specifics about the corporate worship of the church, let me pull back the curtain on what goes into planning a service. There are four main components of worship that I think about in my planning; first, there needs to be congregational singing. I’ll get into music specifics later, but this is a must. Worship is not a concert, it’s not a time when the congregation sits and only listens to pretty music, there must be congregational singing. Singing stirs the soul, it focuses us on the message of Christ and his redemption and resurrection. Congregational singing allows for freedom of expression of a great God and it creates community within the family of faith.
Second, worship must be responsive. In other words, the congregation needs to be involved. This comes in the form of singing, responsive prayers and readings, scripture, giving an offering, and most of all, communion. Third, worship must have a flow. Our worship here is thematic, meaning that music, scriptures, readings, prayers, and sermons are all based on a theme. Right now, we are working our way through The Story which is lectionary based-meaning we are working our way through the whole Bible. Thankfully, nowadays we have an abundant amount of resources for worship planning. There has been a flood of new songs and hymns out there that congregations can use. Unfortunately, this has also invited a lot of poorly written music too which has penetrated our churches. Because we are moving through the Bible in a lectionary fashion, I have had to use a lectionary based hymnal which contains MANY new hymns that will fit our service. This has allowed for more variety in the songs we sing and given me an opportunity to stretch myself, our musicians, and the congregation musically.
Finally, and most importantly, worship must honor God. It’s not about what hymns or songs you like to sing, it’s not about whether or not a song or style gets you to raise your hands. It’s not about whether or not we sing with drums, a praise team, an organ or choir. It’s not about what you grew up with or sang at your “mama’s knee”; it’s about honoring God. If there is one thing that I can say for certain about our worship at Clemmons First Baptist is that it honors God and I will always strive to make sure that it does.
Our worship is not based on a style or what’s on the radio-worship never should be. Our worship is not based upon the 50 hymns that everyone knows and has sung since the Hoover administration-worship never should be. Our worship is based upon what honors God, what fits the theme of the service and what creates a moment in time when we as a people of God can open our mouths and give him praise. That is what our at First Baptist worship does. If you are seeking something that is more popular and driven by what people want, then you will not find that here on Sunday morning, and I can give you churches that do just that. However, if you are looking for worship that honors a living God, then I’ll see you at 10:30 Sunday morning in the Sanctuary.
Living a Life Like Christ
Jeremy Poplin is the Minister of Music at Clemmons First Baptist Church. He lives in Mocksville with his wife Holly. He loves music, books, and learning more about what it means to live a life like Christ. Jeremy has a passion for worship and ministry that sees people transformed by the love and grace of Christ.