All the Answers

questionsAndAnswersI had lunch yesterday with someone who had all the answers.

I asked him the question someone had asked me recently, about the tension between science—which claims the earth is billions of years old—and the Bible—which suggests it is much, much younger than that. 

“Well, there are two kinds of revelation, right?” he asked.  “General revelation and special revelation.  General revelation is how God reveals himself through nature and special revelation is how he reveals himself through scripture.”

I nodded.  I still remembered this lecture from my days in seminary.

“In both cases it is God who is revealing himself,” he said, “and so if there is an apparent contradiction, it is a result of our misunderstanding, since God cannot contradict himself.”

And then he took a sip of iced tea.

“So,” I said, “if the scientists tell me a fossil is billions of years old and the Bible tells me probably not then either the scientists have misunderstood how old the fossil is or I have misunderstood what the Bible says, right?”


“So any apparent contradiction is a result of human error?”


Well, that made sense.  It made sense to me especially since I know how capable of error I am.  If I were a scientist I would almost certainly misread the data, estimating the age of that jar of pickles in the back of the fridge at something between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.  And I don’t claim 100% accuracy when interpreting the Bible, either. 

But that’s why I keep reading it.

I came away from lunch yesterday thinking that while, on one hand, it must be nice to have all the answers, on the other hand it’s nice to have all the questions, because the questions are what keep me digging around in Scripture, and having fascinating conversations over coffee, and saying “Wow!” when I look up at the night sky. 

When I see this quality in other people I sometimes describe it as “intellectual curiosity,” which doesn’t mean that everyone who asks questions is an intellectual, but that they have curious minds; they want to know why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way.  They might spend a week digging for artifacts in Ethiopia one summer and visit the Houston space center the next.  They tend to read a lot of books, and seek out new experiences, and ask a lot of questions.  Once they find an answer, of course, they come to the end of that particular quest, and if they should ever find all the answers then the journey of intellectual discovery would be over.

And how disappointing that would be.

It’s my questions that keep sending me to the pages of Scripture, digging down into the deep places, finding things I never dreamed of, and the good news is that I never come to the end of that particular journey.  God keeps speaking in new ways through those ancient words.  Sometimes I will drag something into the pulpit I haven’t even identified yet, but I’m so excited about the discovery I can’t wait.  I will ask my congregation, “Have you ever seen anything like this?  Does anyone know what this is?” 

I’m sure it’s not supposed to be like that.  I’m sure I’m supposed to have all the answers instead of all the questions.  But I like the questions. 

They keep me looking, and finding…

And saying “Wow!”

When Cool Music Isn’t Enough

guitarThe latest issue of Leadership Journal has a fascinating article on ministry to twentysomethings.  It tells the story of “Axis,” the young adult ministry of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, one of the nation’s first true megachurches.  Axis started in 2001 with 2,000 young adults gathering on Sunday nights for alternative music and relevant teaching, but by 2006 attendance was down to 400. 

What happened?

When John Peacock tried to reorganize Axis in the Fall of 2006 he recognized that twentysomethings would no longer show up just because the church offered a combination of cool music and relevant teaching.  “Media-savvy young adults could download all the great teaching and music they wanted for their iPods.  Nothing seemed to impress them,” he said (p. 27). 

And so Peacock decided he would equip twentysomethings to serve as missionaries in their own zip codes.  He launched missional community hubs, where a core group of four to six young adults move into an apartment complex or condominium unit.  Meeting three times per month there, the missional community hubs focus on prayer, Scripture and community.  Keeping with Willow Creek’s mission, the small-group gatherings remain accessible to unbelivers.

And they’ve been successful.

“The model must be relational,” Peacock said.  “If it is based on the big event with one person teaching, I just don’t think it’s going to work.  We’ve learned to break these things down into smaller communities where people actually know each other.  We didn’t come up with it, but our mantra is, ‘People belong before they believe before they behave.’  Many people in this generation are already coming in with distrust toward God and the church.  The more relational environments we have, the more trust can be built and people will be more open to exploring Christianity” (p. 28).

A commitment to relationship rather than events also explains Peacock’s drive to partner Axis members with mentors.  There are currently more than 30 people over the age of 50 attending Axis gatherings and actively mentoring younger believers.* 

This is interesting input in the ongoing conversation about how we will be doing church fifty years from now.  It sounds as if the younger generations, at least, are looking for something a little more substantive than cool music.

*Information gathered from “The X Factor” by Collin Hansen in the Summer 2009 issue of Leadership Journal.

At the Ashland Feed Store

ashlandA few months ago I preached a sermon that started like this:

Somewhere in my collection of childhood memories there is a hardware store, the old-fashioned kind, with wooden floors and lots of interesting things on the shelves, and that smell that can only be described as an old-fashioned hardware store smell: a blend of rubber boots and baby chicks, metal buckles and leather straps, fresh lumber, finishing nails, and one other smell I can’t quite put my finger on.  Maybe the something else is the smell of seed corn in galvanized metal buckets near the front door, because that is always a part of this memory.  When I was a boy I would go to the hardware store with my dad, and in the springtime, while he was paying for whatever it was he had come looking for, I would squat down and thrust my hand into one of those buckets of corn, feeling the smooth, cool seeds giving way and then closing around my small, warm hand. 

It was a sermon from John 12, where Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”  The hardware store illustration was only a way to get onto the subject of seeds, but for at least one couple in the congregation that day it was more than that.

John and Mary Adams are some of our newer members, even though they have lived in the area since 1968.  Their son, Dan, owns the Ashland Feed Store, which was established in 1918 and hasn’t changed much since.  They invited me to come to Ashland for a visit and yesterday, during the lunch hour, I did. 

When I stepped inside the building I found it to be almost exactly as I had described the old-fashioned hardware store in my sermon: those same wooden floors, that same blend of smells.  Sure enough, right there near the front door was a chicken coop with a dozen baby chicks inside.  John took one out and put it in my hands where I could feel its soft, downy feathers and remember the Easter chick I had bought at the hardware store when I was a boy.  We moved on into the store where I saw a black and white cat was stretched out on a feed sack, napping.  Against the wall were bins of vegetable seeds that could be scooped out, weighed on an ancient scale, and dumped into brown paper bags—celery seeds, cucumber, and squash. 

John and Mary kept steering me toward the back of the store and when we got there I saw why.  There on the wooden floor was a galvanized metal bucket full of seed corn.  “Do you want to stick your hand down in it?” John asked.  I did.  I rolled up my sleeve and reached down into the bucket, feeling the smooth, cool seeds giving way and then closing around my hand.  “Does that take you back in time?” John asked.

“I’m six years old again,” I said.

That was a nice gift, wasn’t it?  A little trip back in time?  And lunch at the Smokey Pig afterward was a nice gift, too. 

I’m not saying all our new members have to take the pastor back in time and then take him to lunch, but it was a treat to spend that time with John and Mary, to get to know a little bit about the town they call home, and to appreciate the fact that somebody out there was listening to the sermon.  And if you’ve never been to the Ashland Feed Store I would recommend a visit.  Even if it doesn’t take you back in time it will be an experience. 

And maybe you’ll come home with a baby chick.

Baptists at the Bolshoi

bolshoisharpAs a follow up to the post below about what kind of Baptist I am:

I went on a mission trip to Russia several years ago with a group of Baptists from Washington, DC.  We were visiting some of the churches in Moscow to discuss potential partnerships and one of the pastors scored tickets to the Bolshoi theatre for an opera called “The Czar’s Bride.”  They were really good tickets.  We ended up in box seats just one box away from where the czar himself used to sit. 

As we were settling into our seats and taking in the opulence of that majestic theatre I noticed a man wearing the purple shirt and the clerical collar of a bishop.  I asked him about it and he said he was a Luthern bishop from Seattle.  “What about you? he asked.  “We’re all Baptists from Washington, DC,” I answered.  “What kind of Baptists?” he asked, and I sighed.  I’m sure he meant well but I hear that question so often, and often it is from people who want to pigeonhole in me in some way, who want to make up their minds about me on the basis of some religious stereotype.   So I took a quick look around at that impressive place, and all of us sitting there, waiting for the opera to begin.  And I said:

“We’re opera-going Baptists.”


What Kind of Baptist?


When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a pastor, and when they ask what kind of pastor I tell them Baptist.

“What kind of Baptist?” they ask.

“Just Baptist,” I answer.

And that’s when the conversation gets interesting.

“Not Southern Baptist?” they ask.  “No.”  “Not American Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Cooperative Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Alliance of Baptists?”  “No.”  “Not National Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Primitive Baptist?”  “No.”  And when they run out of all the options they can think of they ask, “What are you then?”

“Baptist,” I say.  “Just Baptist.”

I sometimes tell newcomers to Baptist life that there is “a Christian way to be human and a Baptist way to be Christian.”*  That’s what I’m talking about: the Baptist way of being Christian.  It goes back four hundred years to that time when a group of Christians left the Church of England to start a church grounded in the New Testament scriptures and committed to the principle of freedom.  They felt that believers should be free to make up their own minds about Jesus, and free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  They felt that the local church should be free to determine its own mission and ministry, and that it should be free from any control by the state.  Those four freedoms are essential to the Baptist way of being Christian. 

Our grounding in the New Testament scriptures has led to an emphasis on missions and evangelism through the years.  Baptists really are an apostolic people (from the Greek word for “sent”), meaning they understand themselves to be sent by Jesus to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).  That commitment led Baptists in this country to organize for effectiveness, and in 1814 the Triennial Baptist Convention was formed (so named because it met once every three years).  The purpose was to elicit, combine, and direct funds for the support of the Baptist missionary enterprise, mostly overseas.  In 1845 the Triennial Baptist Convention split into two parts—the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention—primarily over the issue of slavery. 

When I became a Baptist in 1981 I did it by joining a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.  If you had asked me then what kind of Baptist I was I probably would have said Southern Baptist, and I would have said it with pride.  The Southern Baptist Convention was the largest Protestant denomination in the world, sending thousands of missionaries into dozens of countries, including this one.  But by the time I went to my first annual meeting in 1987 the Convention was embroiled in conflict.  People were talking about the “Battle for the Bible,” and at that meeting affirmed an earlier resolution stating that women could not serve as pastors in Southern Baptist Churches because the first woman, Eve, had committed the first sin. 

That’s when I first began to reconsider my relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I hadn’t been in seminary very long but even I knew that while Eve ate the forbidden fruit Adam also ate it, and apparently he didn’t even need to be talked into it.  Excluding women from pastoral leadership simply because Eve was the first to sin didn’t seem like a good enough reason even if it was in the Bible, and I began to suspect that there were other reasons behind this resolution, reasons that had more to do with the question of “Who will control the world’s largest Protestant denomination?” than with the question of “How can we faithfully live out the teachings of Scripture?”

By the time I graduated from seminary in 1991 that first question had been answered.  The Southern Baptist Convention was controlled by those who called themselves “conservatives” and whom others called “fundamentalists.”  Baptist agencies and institutions had been taken over; Baptist journalists and seminary presidents had been fired; local congregations had been divided by conflict.  There may have been those who were celebrating the victory but all I could see was the ravages of war. 

So when I came to Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina I came determined to leave denominational conflict behind, focusing my energies instead on loving and serving the Lord and that little congregation.  It wasn’t hard; those people were easy to love.  And it was during that time, when people asked me what kind of Baptist I was, that I began to say, “A Wingate Baptist,” meaning the kind of Baptist I found in that wonderful church: Christians who were committed to the historic Baptist principle of freedom and to the New Testament emphasis on missions and evangelism.  It’s hard not to love people like that.

I’ve been at Richmond’s First Baptist Church long enough now to feel that way about this place and these people, too, and maybe next time someone asks me what kind of Baptist I am I’ll say that: “I’m a First Baptist Richmond kind of Baptist.”  Those who know the church will have some idea of what I mean, and those who don’t know the church may just be curious enough…

…to come and find out for themselves.**


A related article on former president Jimmy Carter’s decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 can be found HERE

*I attribute this quote to Dr. Randall Lolley, former president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.

**Interestingly, Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780, sixty-five years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I’m guessing that I’m  not the first pastor of this church to identify himself as “just Baptist.”