See Paris First

istock_000002390324xsmallAs a follow up to my Ash Wednesday sermon about overcoming our fear of death by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus (“volunteering to die” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it), let me offer this wonderful poem by M. Truman Cooper, first shared with me by my dear friend Judy Skeen.  It’s called “See Paris First,” and it’s about knowing what it is you fear and facing up to it–approaching it squarely and head on–so that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life being afraid.  The poem itself is simple and spare.  It may take more than one reading to appreciate it, but I assure you…it’s worth it.

Suppose what you fear
could be trapped
and held in Paris.

Then you would have the courage
to go everywhere in the world.
All the directions of the compass
open to you,
the degrees east or west
of true north
that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare
to put your toes smack dab
on the city limit line.

And you’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside
miles away
and watch the Paris lights
come up at night.
And just to be on the safe side, you decide to stay completely
out of France.

But then danger
seems too close
even to those boundaries,
and you feel the timid part of you
covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend
who learns your secret and says,
“See Paris first.”

—M. Truman Cooper

So…Why Not?

negativity-change1In my last post, I told you that SO FEW people know the purpose of the church, but now that you are one of those people I have a question: if the essential purpose of every Christian church is service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship, then why do we not organize ourselves that way?  Why do we not have—in large churches, especially—a minister of service, a minister of outreach, a minister of fellowship, a minister of education, and a minister of worship?  If these are the essential minstries of the church then shouldn’t we be doing them, and wouldn’t it help to have someone in each of these areas who could recruit, train, and motivate our members toward that end?

It seems obvious, but I don’t find many churches that are staffed that way.  Instead I find churches with youth ministers, children’s ministers, ministers to young adults, median adults, senior adults, etc.   In other words, churches seem to organize around specific populations within the congregation, and I think there’s a reason for that.

I think that when the baby boom moved through the church it overwhelmed the leadership.  Pastors who had been perfectly capable of caring for small congregations were suddenly trying to care for all these children and all their parents.  As each population reached “critical mass” the church called another associate: one for children, one for youth, one for “college and career,” etc.  At a time when the culture was pushing people through the front doors of the church it was all the church could do to keep up with the growth and provide for the needs of those people.  The emphasis was, necessarily, on things like fellowship, education, and worship—all things that happen inside the building—because that’s where the people were.

But what do you do when the culture is pulling people out  the back doors of the church?  Do you panic?  Do you change your worship style to make it more compatible with the culture?  Do you ask your staff to come up with more exciting programs to reverse the tides of change?  Do you go to church growth conferences hoping to fill those emptying pews?  Or do you take a deep breath, relax, and return to the essentials, to those things the church of Jesus Christ has been doing from the very beginning: service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship?

I think you do, and I think you will find when you do that two of those five things have their focus outside the walls of the church: service and outreach.  If we live in a time when more people are outside the church than inside, then isn’t it wonderful that Jesus anticipated such a time and told his followers to go (out)  into the world and make disciples of every nation, to go (out) into the neighborhood and love our neighbors as we love ourselves?  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take him at his word, and do what he asked us to do?

I think it would, and I think that if we did it faithfully we wouldn’t have to worry about how many people are inside and how many people are outside the building.  We would minister to both in the same way he would.  We would throw ourselves into the joyful work of service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  And to be more effective we might even organize ourselves for that purpose—the essential purpose of every Christian church.

Why not?

Suggested Reading

I just received an email with a link to an article by my friend and former seminary classmate J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  Brent does a good job of describing the historic Baptist principle we call “The Priesthood of Every Believer.”  It’s a short article.  You can read it in about two minutes.  But if you do you will know a good bit more about what it means to be Baptist.

Click HERE to read the article.


purposeI used to teach a fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class where we used the church constitution and bylaws as our curriculum.  Just what a fifth or sixth grader is hungry for, right?  But there was a lot in that little booklet, including the church covenant, articles of faith, and a statement of purpose.  When I taught that last item I would say “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church,” and then I would tick off those five letters on the five fingers of my right hand: “S.O.F.E.W: Service, Outreach, Fellowship, Education, and Worship.”

In my study of dozens of church mission statements and purpose statements since then I have discovered that these five things make up the essential purpose of every Christian church.  Although they say it in lots of different ways, every authentic church seems to be occupied with service, outreach, fellowship, education, and worship.  I think that’s because we all look to the same New Testament, and to the same Lord, for cues as to what the church should do. 

For example: Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself (Mk. 12:30-31).  From that “Great Commandment” we derive the purposes of worship (loving God) and service (loving others).  Jesus also told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Mt. 28:19-20).  From that “Great Commission” we derive the purposes of outreach (making disciples) and education (teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded).  Finally, Jesus told his disciples to love one another as he loved them (Jn. 13:34).  From that “New Commandment,” the only commandment Jesus ever gave, we derive the purpose of fellowship

As the writer of John’s Gospel concludes, “Now Jesus did a lot of other things that aren’t written here” (Jn. 20:30), and he said a lot of other things that haven’t found expression in any church’s purpose statement, but these things have, these five things, and it’s a shame that “SO FEW people know the purpose of the church.” 

I hope that from now on you will.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things


Today I’m driving to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), to visit my mom and dad (every relation).  I’m going mostly because Mom had some minor surgery last week—nothing serious, but it does give me a good excuse to go see them. 

When Dad turned seventy a few years ago I gave him a book called, “Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad, in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday.”  It was so well received that when Mom turned seventy, two years later, I wrote one for her, too. 

I wanted to share some of those memories here as a way of introducing you to my parents, so that while I’m driving down Interstate 95 today you can get to know the people who gave me my life, my faith, and so much more.  If it’s true that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I’m glad I fell from this one. 

MY DAD: James Somerville, b. 1931

1.      The classic memory is this one:  One winter morning all five of us boys were gathered in front of the little gas heater in that drafty farmhouse up on the hill in West Virginia.  We stood there shivering, and complaining that, at ten degrees Fahrenheit, it was too cold to walk the mile to school.  Dad came in from milking the cow, and when he heard our complaints he didn’t say a word.  He just set down the bucket, took off his coat, took off his gloves, took off his hat, his boots, his socks, his coveralls, his T-shirt, his boxers, everything—and out the back door he went, naked as a jaybird.  We watched from the window in disbelief as Dad leaped around in the foot-deep snow, got down and rolled in it, made snowballs and threw them at the window.  And then he came in and toweled off, got dressed, and got on with his chores.  Well, what could you say after such an exhibition?  We got dressed and went to school.


2.      I remember watching Dad split kindling on some of our family camping trips.  I was amazed by the way he could prop up a piece of firewood, swing the axe over his head, and come down in one clean blow after another, splitting off beautiful, polished pieces of kindling that looked like they had just come from the factory.


3.      Dad used to push back from the table after we had enjoyed an especially good supper and he was feeling relaxed and happy.  He would get this twinkle in his eye and then ask, “Who are we going to make cry tonight?” which was his way of challenging us to a game of Monopoly.  We loved Monopoly, and when Dad issued the challenge we would jump up to clear the table, get the board, make popcorn or peanut butter fudge (part of the tradition), and on the best nights we would put on crumpled fedoras and old neckties so that we looked like big city gamblers.  Usually, it was Dad who made us cry.  He knew the game of Monopoly backwards and forwards, had memorized all the pieces and prices, and had a way of making the dice do just what he wanted (“Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”).  But there was always the possibility that one of us might win, and occasionally we did, and that’s what kept us coming back.


4.      Dad taught me how to shave, of course.  I watched him for years, taking mental notes on how to puff out my cheeks and upper lip for a smoother shave.  When he watched me the first time he saw how much shaving cream I squirted into my palm and let out a gasp.  “That’s way too much, son!” he said.  I’ve been a frugal shaver ever since.


5.      People have asked me what it was like to be a “preacher’s kid” and I have told them it wasn’t like that at all.  For one thing, Dad didn’t have a regular church most of the time I was growing up.  He was more like a home missionary, doing all he could to help the poor in West Virginia.  But also Dad wasn’t “pious” in the sense that we ever felt guilty about having fun.  Dad had fun, and we had fun with him.  And anybody who can roll naked in the snow, wear a mop on his head to make his children laugh, or wrestle with five boys at the same time is not your typical preacher anyway.  No wonder that I was not a typical preacher’s kid.


MY MOM: Mary Rice Whiting Somerville, b. 1933


1.      Might as well get it out of the way:  I remember that Mom used to wake us up in the morning by playing “America’s Favorite Marches” on the stereo, loud enough to wake the dead and almost loud enough to wake her five sleeping sons on a school day.  To this day I have a fear of marching bands: “Sousaphobia” they call it, as in John Philip Sousa.  But then again . . . sometimes she would come upstairs and sit on the edge of my bed and stroke my head gently while she eased me into the morning.  “Honey?  It’s a new day.  The sun is coming up over the top of the mountain.  The chickens are out scratching up their breakfast in the back yard.  The bacon is frying in the cast iron skillet . . .” All in a very soothing voice that made waking up almost a pleasure.  Ahh.  That was sweet. 


2.      I remember the wonderful Bible stories she used to tell us when we were boys, especially at our second house in Wise, Virginia. We dragged our mattresses out into that central room upstairs and Eddie, Scotty, and I listened as Mom made the Bible come alive.  It was there, I recall, that I first heard the story of Jael from the Book of Judges, how she crept up on the sleeping Sisera and hammered a tent peg into his temple.  It was a gory story, but we were boys, and the gorier it was, the better we liked it.  Much of my love for the Bible—and for storytelling—comes from the way my mother told those stories.


3.      She once made my brother, Scott, an “airplane” birthday cake—just cut the shape out of a sheet cake, frosted it with gray frosting, and wrote “SWS” across the wingspan for Scott Whiting Somerville.  I liked it so much I told her I wanted a rocket cake for my birthday, a month later.  I think my mother stayed up most of the night before trying to make a cake that would stand up on cardboard tail fins covered in tin foil.  When I saw it I was amazed.  I had thought she would make one lying down, like Scott’s, and probably told her so.  I may have forgotten to say, “Wow!  Thanks for being the most amazing mom in the world!”


4.      Mom used to write numbers on the ivory keys of her Steinway grand piano with a pencil so we could get our fingering correct as we worked through the John Thompson piano book, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.”  That’s not something most people would do to a Steinway, but it was just one more way my mother taught us that people were more important than things.


5.      I can’t remember how many times someone would huff and puff up our hill there in West Virginia looking for Dad, wanting some kind of help.  Mom always seemed to have coffee to offer and some time to sit and listen.  In my thinking this was how she helped Dad with his ministry.  While he was out doing “Matthew 25” kind of work (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.), she was at home doing “Matthew 28” kind of work (making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded).  Whether or not she thinks of it that way, one of the disciples she made—this one—does.


Thank you, Mom.  And thank you, Dad.


See you soon!

Hangin’ with Roslyn at First and Broad

Image courtesy of Google maps

I did a crazy thing last Tuesday.

I rounded up David Powers, our media minister, and Allen Cumbia, his right hand man, and the three of us jumped in David’s car with two cameras and a microphone and drove down to the corner of First and Broad.  I wanted to do some “man on the street interviews” with people who live in the heart of the city.

I started by asking them if they knew the Lord’s Prayer, especially that part that says, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Everybody knew that prayer.  I said, “It sounds to as if Jesus was asking his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come to earth—right here where we are—and not just stay up there in heaven.”  They agreed that it did sound like that.  I added, “And maybe he even wanted them to help him do that, to bring heaven to earth.  What do you think?”  They thought that maybe he did.  And then I asked, “If the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church wanted to help Jesus bring heaven to earth what could they do right here in your neighborhood to make things a little more heavenly?”

Many of them laughed out loud when I said that.  They looked around that street corner and shook their heads as if heaven were a million miles away from First and Broad.  But some of them were more practical.  “You could do something for the homeless,” they said, and one of them added, “I don’t think there will be any homeless people in heaven.”  Others suggested doing something about all the abandoned, boarded-up buildings in that part of town, or helping people find work in these difficult times.

Some people had trouble understanding the question and David suggested that I ask, “What would you do for Richmond if you were God?”  That’s what I asked Roslyn, who stood there wearing a loud clash of colors and a big, big smile.  “I know you!” she said.  “I come to your church for showers” (First Baptist offers hot showers, clean clothes, and a generous helping of Christ’s love to our homeless neighbors four times a week).  Roslyn told me it was her birthday and right there in front of the cameras I sang the Happy Birthday song.  She seemed pleased.  “Now,” I said, “if you were God, what would you do for Richmond?”

“Buy me some lunch,” she said, with that same big, big smile.

You probably know how this story turned out.  David, Allen, and I agreed that if God would buy Roslyn some lunch then maybe we should chip in and do the same.  We did.  And when Roslyn got her lunch she was so grateful she gave me a kiss on the cheek—a big, red, smeary, lipstick kiss that I would have had trouble explaining to my wife.  But for a little while on Tuesday, in the warmth of Roslyn’s smile and the kindness of that meal,

Heaven came to earth.

See the man-on-the-street interviews by clicking here.  Hear me sing Happy Birthday to Roslyn by clicking here.

Like an Ostrich Egg Through a Boa Constrictor

1950s20church20pic1In each of the churches I have served there has been a “legendary” pastor.

In New Castle, Kentucky, it was Bill Hull.  People would talk to me about how things had been back in “Bill Hull days,” when they had 300 people in Sunday school (a lot for that little church) and had to put folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate the crowds on Sunday morning.  I was a seminary student at the time, doing all I could to build up the membership of that church, but we didn’t have anything like 300 people in Sunday school.  The numbers were usually under 100.  I knew Bill Hull.  I admired him.  But every time someone mentioned his name I cringed at the comparison.  They didn’t say it out loud but they must have been thinking: “Bill Hull used to pack them in.  What’s wrong with you?”

At my next church it was Dewey Hobbs.  People used to tell me how things had been back when he was pastor, how they built the new educational wing to accommodate all the people who were coming to Sunday school and how, on Sunday mornings, they used to put folding chairs in the aisles (what is it with these folding chairs?).  I got to know Dewey Hobbs while I was there and liked him a lot.  I could see why people remembered him so fondly.  And yet there was some part of me that was relieved to move on from that place, knowing I wouldn’t have to hear his name every day.

I had been at First Baptist, DC, about ten minutes when someone asked me if I had heard of one of their former pastors, Dr. Ed Pruden.  Yes, I had, but over the next seven-and-a-half years I heard a lot more.  Dr. Pruden was pastor when the church built its magnificent new sanctuary.  He was pastor when Harry Truman used to come to worship.  His portrait hung in the church parlor and the pulpit from which I preached Sunday after Sunday was called the “Pruden Pulpit.” 

There is no doubt that each of these men were gifted and able pastors, but only at my third church did I realize that each of these men had served during the 1950’s, a time when going to church was—for so many people—the “Sunday morning thing to do.”  When someone asked Dr. Pruden how he was able to grow such a large church he replied, “In those days it was a matter of opening the door and getting out of the way.”

It’s not that way any more.

The churchgoing boom coincided almost exactly with the Baby Boom (1946-1964).  Couples wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had.  They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children!  And because all their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries.  They built them, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly.

Sometimes when I am driving through the rural South I will see three church buildings along the highway.  One is the original sanctuary, built sometime in the 1920’s; next to it is a much larger sanctuary, built sometime in the 1950’s; and next to that is an educational building, built sometime in the 1970’s.  When you look at the three of them in a row like that you can see how the Baby Boom moved through the church like an ostrich egg through a boa constrictor.  I would guess that the Sunday morning crowd these days could easily fit inside that original sanctuary building.  I would also guess that those people are telling the current pastor how good things were back in the 1950’s.

My guess is that it isn’t the pastors who are the problem, usually.  My sense is that pastors these days are working harder and smarter than ever before.  But the culture has changed in ways we are only beginning to understand, and the forces that once pushed people into the church are now pulling them out.  “I can’t come this Sunday; my son has a soccer game.”  “I can’t come next Sunday; we’re going to the beach.”  “I can’t come at all; I have to work on Sunday.” 

So we sigh, and shake our heads, and look back to the good old days, when churchgoing was the Sunday morning thing to do.  And there are some in our congregations who still hold on to the hope that if we could just find the right pastor, if we could find another Bill Hull, or Dewey Hobbs, or Ed Pruden…

… it would be 1955 again.