July 8, 2018

Presentations at BWA Annual Gathering

At last week's annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Zürich, Switzerland, I presented during four sessions. The text of one of those presentations is below as I've had several people request a copy of it.

On Tuesday, I led the annual communications seminar. The topic was "Social Media as the New Reformation Platform." It seems to have sparked an increase in social media postings during the BWA gathering!

On Wednesday, I spoke in a session of the Commission on Christian Ethics on the topic of "Communication, Ethics, & Evangelism."

On Thursday, I spoke in the meeting of the North American Baptist Fellowship on the topic of "Renewal & Culture."

On Thursday, I also spoke in a session of the Commission on Ministry on the topic of "Art & Science of the Creative Use of Digital & Print Media Ministry."

Thursday's presentation on renewal and culture during the NABF meeting started with three panelists each giving a seven-minute talk, followed by a half-hour dialogue between us and the rest of the attendees. Below is the seven-minute talk I gave to start the conversation. I hope it will continue to spark dialogue.

(Top two photos from Tuesday's Communications Seminar by Brian Ford and Ferrell Foster; bottom two photos from Thursday's NABF presentation by Starlette Thomas and Trisha Miller Manarin.)

Renewal & Culture

The year in the 20th century that Gallup found Americans reported to be the happiest was 1957. (Sorry, I do not have comparable data for Canada.) 1957 - an ideal candidate for those so-called "good 'ole days." Dr. Seuss published his delightful Cat in the Hat. The "perfect" family premiered on TV in "Leave it to Beaver." Wham-O started selling flying discs called "Frisbees." And America's grandfatherly general - the Ike in the "I like Ike" - started his second term in the White House. An innocent time. A happy time.

Or, at least that's what the white folk answering Gallup's annual polls said. 1957 didn't seem so happy for blacks denied basic human rights and still threatened with lynchings or other brutal killings simply due to the color of their skin.

And 1957 didn't seem so happy for Koinonia Farm, an interracial Christian farming community started in southwestern Georgia by a Southern Baptist couple and a Northern Baptist couple in 1942 - when MLK was still in middle school. The best-known of the four, Clarence Jordan, used his Ph.D. in New Testament Greek from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to craft the Cotton Patch Gospel translation and worked with Millard Fuller to create the pilot program for what became Habitat for Humanity. I see no other Baptist community at that time in the U.S. South (and perhaps in the whole nation) that more biblically and prophetically lived out the renewal from the culture of racism and violence and greed that still haunts us today. 

Yet, 1957 - that supposedly happy year - was the hardest year for that community. Because Jordan dared to challenge the racism of his culture - a culture created and led by "good" church-going people - those at Koinonia saw crosses burned on their land, their roadside shop destroyed with dynamite, and their houses and playground shot at with machine-gun fire. And the people of Koinonia armed themselves in response with only prayers and flashlights to point at cars with machine guns in the night, believing that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Renewal - true renewal that prophetically names and challenges the sins of our culture - cannot be measured quantitatively. In fact, the experience of Koinonia suggests that such needed renewal will actually - particularly in the short and medium term - lead to statistical decline. Before we experience renewal, we’ll need to shed ourselves of our western capitalistic and consumeristic values. 

Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodlawn Hills Church in Minnesota (which is part of NABF-member union Converge) discovered this as he converted away from jingoistic nationalism that celebrates - perhaps even worships - military might and places national allegiance ahead of the red letters of scriptures just as we place the national flag ahead of the one with the cross in the sanctuaries of our churches. As he led his church through this renewal, 1,000 people (about 20 percent) left to find a more culturally-comfortable pew. Statistically, a church in decline. Biblically, a church in renewal. Perhaps that's why the best way to silence a prophet is to give them a pulpit and a pension.

Yet, we must still push this for renewal away from the Christendom culture. Perhaps if we had done so sooner, we would not have seen 81 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. embrace a candidate whose rhetoric can be described as nothing less than vulgar, bigoted, violent, authoritarian, and, above all, racist. Speaking as a Millennial, let me say that number - 81 percent - will leave a mark on the witness of the Church for a generation (or more). 

Paul, Peter, and other early church leaders didn't face the problem we face in the modern western world. When they denounced the false gods and idols of their culture, there was no confusion. When they declared Christ is Lord - that politically-charged statement that got many of them killed - they clearly proclaimed that Caesar is not lord. Our challenge is the false faith of our empire that arrogantly worships power, lusts for bloody sacrifices of obedience in wars of profit, and with insatiable lust demands more and more and more bricks - that idolatrous system goes by the same name we use: Christianity, and even Baptist. Sure, such theologians must flop through the scriptures with as much ungracefulness as World Cup players. Yet, still they explain away the clear red-letter words of our holy text to twist passages so they can justify ripping migrant children from their parents or seek loopholes to the questions of "who is my neighbor" or "can I fit through the eye of a needle."

We need to be born again again - this time away from cultural Christendom preaching power, fear, and hate. Slavery in the U.S. continued sixty years after the British abolition because of "good" church-going people. Thousands of blacks were lynched by "good" churchgoing people. Blacks were forced to use separate water fountains, bathrooms, and schools because of the fears held by "good" church-going people. Monuments to celebrate white supremacists were erected by "good" church-going people. Racist leaders were elected, praised and defended by "good" church-going people. And those "good" church-going people shot at prophets like Jordan who instead preached the real Gospel.

Jordan lamented that churches didn't lead the way in pushing integration and start the movement at the communion table, but that it instead had to start at bus depots at Woolworth counters. He noted "the Supreme Court is making more pagans be Christian than the Bible is making Christians be Christian." He added, "If anybody has to bear the blame and guilt for all the sit-ins and all the demonstrations and all the disorder in the South, it is the whitewashed Christians who have had the word of God and have locked it up in their hearts and refused to do battle with it."

So, what does renewal look like if not packed pews? I'm not sure beyond what I saw as I closed my eyes during a pilgrimage to Koinonia and imagined what 1957 looked like there on that holy ground. If I was willing to actually daily pick up my cross (burning or otherwise), perhaps I wouldn't have to imagine what renewal looked like. 

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