Archive for September, 2009

preacher2cropsmallIt happened at both services on Sunday.  I gave an invitation, stepped down from the pulpit for the hymn, and sang all four verses of “Let Your Heart Be Broken” while waiting to see if anyone would come forward to join the church or give their heart to Jesus.

Nobody came.

That’s not unusual in my experience.  In fact, before coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church it was far more unusual when someone did come down the aisle.  Those were smaller congregations, with fewer prospects, but even so, on those Sundays when nobody came down the aisle, someone would invariably try to comfort me afterward.  “I felt so sorry for you standing down there all by yourself,” they would say.  “Especially after such a good sermon!”

That connection between a good sermon and someone coming down the aisle dates back to the “revivalism” that originated on the American frontier.  James F. White claims that it was evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1895) who domesticated some of the forms of frontier worship and developed a pattern that soon came to dominate American Protestant Worship.  He writes:

Characteristically, its normal Sunday service had three parts: a song service or praise service sometimes caricatured as “preliminaries,” a sermon, and a harvest of new converts….  The 1905 Methodist Hymnal suggested an order of worship that ended with an invitation “to come to Christ or to unite with the church.”  Those so persuaded were to come forward during the singing of a final hymn.  It is basically the order of worship still used in thousands of United Methodist churches in the South.  Sunday after Sunday, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and many other denominations make this three-part form their basic order of worship.  It reflects revivalism’s basic technique of warming up, calling to conversion, and reaping the results in calling those converted to come forward for baptism.

Effectively merchandised today by radio and television, the basic structure has not changed much except to become still more polished.  Recent attempts to move the sermon back to a place earlier in the service are often resisted because the expectation is still strong that the sermon should lead to immediate results.  Among Disciples and Churches of Christ, the sermon often comes after the Lord’s Supper so it can produce obvious fruit.  Americans respect success, and here is a form of worship that has proven itself thoroughly successful in reaching the unchurched who happen to be present or have turned on the radio or television (Protestant Worship, pp. 177-178).

Understood in this way, the service has as its goal not worshiping God but making converts, and it is structured toward that end: the singing of emotional hymns to soften hearts, the “sales pitch” of the revivalistic preacher, and the hymn of invitation (usually “Just As I Am”).  If nobody comes down the aisle after the first few verses of the hymn the preacher might ask the organist to pause while he makes a second appeal.  If nobody comes after that he might try again after a few more verses.  This is why “Just As I Am” is the perfect invitational hymn:  it has lots of verses (I’ve heard as many as seventeen), and each one ends with the words, “O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

If people think that’s what the worship service is for, then you can see why they would feel sorry for me if nobody came down the aisle, especially if it was a good sermon.  They would be thinking: “The preacher made an excellent sales pitch, but couldn’t seem to close the deal.  What a pity.  What a shame!” 

So, I have a question for all those preachers who get left standing at the altar from time to time, and for all those people who sit in the pews shaking their heads and feeling sorry for them:

Is that what worship is for?

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I went to hear the Richmond Symphony perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana this afternoon.  It was incredible.  I had heard it before at the Kennedy Center in Washington but this was even better.  I had to pinch myself to believe it was happening right here in Richmond, at the newly restored and absolutely breathtaking Carpenter Theatre.  Fortunata Imperatrix Mundi (“Fortune, the Empress of the World”) has been one of my favorites for years, but I think it was performed this afternoon with as much gusto as I’ve ever heard.  I’m attaching this You Tube clip of the opening section, “O, Fortuna,” to give you a taste of it.  Turn up the volume!

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spacesuitI went down to the basement level of First Baptist Church on Wednesday to greet the people who come for our shower ministry.  I try to do this every week, partly because I love the people and  partly because it keeps my ministry “real.”  Instead of visiting only with the sweet-smelling and freshly scrubbed Christians of First Baptist Church I get to spend some time visiting with people who are down on their luck and out on the streets. 

It was one of those people who was telling me on Wednesday that the bodies in which we live are only the temporary accommodation of our souls.  “Your body is like a house,” he said, “and the real you lives inside it.  Or maybe it’s more like a spacesuit…or an earthsuit!  Yeah, that’s it!” he said, slapping the table.  He seemed pleased at having coined a new word.

We talked about life inside the earthsuit for a while and as we did I couldn’t help thinking about his.  It looked like he had been wearing it for seventy years or more (or maybe he had only been wearing it for sixty hard years).  He had a long, white beard and dark glasses that made it impossible for me to see his eyes.  I’ve heard that eyes are the “window of the soul,” and I had a feeling that if he would take off those dark glasses I could catch a glimpse of the real him inside the suit.  But he kept the glasses on and kept on talking about his earthsuit.

When I saw him last week he was wearing a yarmulke.  I asked him about that and he told me it came from the gift shop at the Messianic Jewish synagogue just down the street.  He said the Hebrew letters on it spell out “Jesus is the Messiah.”  “I wouldn’t wear it if it didn’t say that,” he told me.  “And I wouldn’t wear a Muslim prayer cap.  I’m a Christian.  But I like to wear that yarmulke,” he said, lowering his voice, “because I have a little bald spot on top.”

“You don’t have a bald spot,” I said, grinning.  “Your earthsuit does!”  And somehow that made it easier, to think that it wasn’t really him who was getting older and balder, but only his “earthsuit” wearing out like everything else we own eventually does.  I wished him well, said goodbye, and then walked away with the slight limp I’d had since running the day before. 

I’m not sure what caused it…

Maybe I pulled a muscle in my earthsuit.

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FE_PR_richmond-vaI was invited to a retreat at Richmond Hill recently where area pastors were going to be talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  Well, how could I resist?  That’s what I’ve been talking about since I got to Richmond!

So we gathered for worship in that beautiful old chapel, and then had a delicious meal in the refectory, and then moved on into a meeting room that looks out over the city, a place where people have been praying for Richmond since 1866 and still do.  Pastoral Director Ben Campbell got us started with prayer and then invited each of us to share our vision for ministry.

There were about twelve of us around the table, from Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian, and Pentecostal churches.  We took our time, talking about the work we do and the neighborhoods in which we do it.  But as we talked it became clear that our primary concern was for the churches we have been called to serve, about how to make them bigger, stronger, happier, healthier.  When we finally got back around to Ben he said, simply, “I love the city more than I love the churches.”

I suppose I should have expected that.  Ben is not the pastor of a local church; he’s the director of a spiritual community that has as its mission praying for the city of Richmond.  But something about the way he said it made me realize that we pastors have a tendency to focus on what is happening within the walls of the church rather than what is happening in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, or the world.  We could easily end up with glittering edifices perched on top of garbage dumps. 

But not Ben.

I pictured Ben driving around Richmond jotting down notes about the people and things his community needs to pray for:  sanitation workers, educational institutions, police officers, and prisoners.  He has lifted his sights above the concerns of a single church to take in the concerns of the whole city.

But here’s the thing: God’s sights are even higher.  Not only does he love and care for Richmond, he loves and cares for the world.  That’s his mission, and he’s looking for churches that will help him do that.  So, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’ve been asking not, “Does the church have a mission?” but “Does the mission have a church?”  In other words, does God’s mission have a church?  Will First Baptist, Richmond, help him love the world? 

Well, we want to, of course.  We want to do whatever God asks.  But it will require lifting our sights a little higher.  Instead of seeing only the beautiful buildings and grounds of First Baptist Church we will have to start seeing the whole city, even the parts that aren’t so beautiful.  And then we’ll have to lift our sights even higher, to see the world God loves and to think about how we might share his love with that world.  That’s not easy for us, or for anyone.  It goes against the grain of our human nature.  But it does seem to be essential to the divine nature, and part of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. 

In him the love of God dropped into the world like a stone into a pond, and began to ripple outward.  As we follow his example may that same love ripple outward from the church to the neighborhood to the city to the state to the nation and, finally, fully,

to the world God loves.

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crying_babyHere’s a story from Sunday’s sermon that everyone seemed to enjoy.  It’s based on that passage in Mark 9 where Jesus takes a little child into his arms and tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (vs. 37). 


At one of my churches some of us used to go to a nearby trailer park on Saturday afternoons to work with the children there.  On one particular Saturday afternoon, a little girl came dragging her baby brother along with her. 

“What’s his name?” I asked. 

“Doo-Doo,” she answered. 



So, Doo-Doo it was.  He was really too young to be there.  We usually worked with children four and older.  But his sister held him on her lap and for a while he did fine.  But then he began to get tired, and then he began to cry, until the tears spilled down his fat brown cheeks and his nose began to run.  It went on for a long time until finally, exhausted by all that crying, he fell asleep right there in the middle of the floor.  I begged the children not to wake him but to their delight they found that they couldn’t wake him, no matter how hard they tried.  They were poking him, prodding him, clapping their hands in front of his face and shouting, “Doo-Doo!” I began to feel sorry for him, and asked someone else to take over while I took him home.

He lived just a few trailers away.  And as I walked with him in my arms I looked down at his face.  That peaceful expression, at last.  Those tightly curled eyelashes.  The salty tear-tracks on his cheeks.  The dried mucus under his nose.  Away from all those other children I could focus my attention on this one child, and as I did I began to imagine the life that was ahead of him:  probably he was just one more child in a trailer that was already too full.  And probably he would go off to school when he was old enough, without any preparation, without anyone having ever read Dr. Seuss to him.  And probably he would try, for a while, until he failed so often he stopped trying.  And then he would stumble through a troubled adolescence and into an even more troubled young adulthood.  And if the statistics proved true in his case there was a good chance that he would never live to see his twenty-fifth birthday. 

As I held him in my arms I seemed to see his whole life stretched out before me, his whole, short, sad life.  And my heart went out to that child, and I almost cried myself.  I came to the trailer where he lived and knocked on the door.  I waited until a tired and bored-looking young woman yanked it open.  “Is this your baby?” I asked, holding him out.  “Yeah,” she said, as if it wore her out to admit it. “He fell asleep,” I said.  And then I put him into her arms and watched as she jerked him inside and shoved the door closed with her hip.  For a full minute I stood there, wondering what I could do.  And then I turned and said with a sigh, “God, please take care of Doo-Doo.” 

He was just a little kid.  And in the eyes of the world he will probably never amount to anything.  He won’t be a soccer star, or the pastor of a prominent church, or the president of the United States (I mean, really, can you imagine the bumper stickers?).  Yet in that moment—in that crazy, upside-down, Kingdom of God moment—I saw him the way Jesus saw him.

Nobody was more important.


For the full text of the sermon click HERE.

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