Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Old vs New Church Realization

Seven months or so ago I switched from a large Baptist church to a smaller Reformed Baptist church. For awhile now I’ve tried to pin down the difference between the two, but every time I do I’ve come up empty. Until today. I think I’ve figured it out.

It’s not the people. The people at the new church are not more knowledgeable about the Bible, the elders are not more loving, and the Pastors are not more scholarly. Lots of people at the old church knew the Bible better than people at the new one, and this isn’t surprising, because given the state of people there really isn’t much difference from one place to another. People are people wherever you go. There is a much greater tendency to become an enclave at the new place, which leads to pride, arrogance, and standoffishness. Rigidity and cruelty don’t grow as well out of the doctrines at the old place like they do the new. Things like, “Our doctrines are better” or “we are doing well because we pray more” or “we understand things about God that nobody else bothers about” are easier to think here. But the smaller church feels more like a family, and the mega-church goers have their own traps to fall into, notably laziness, and so this is balanced out. People are people, largely even if they self-select. People aren’t the issue. Got great ones in both places, okay ones in both. Many in the old feel oppressed and angry that more Bible isn’t being preached, and clamor for faithful exegesis every week.

Pastors at the new church are no different either really. My favorite pastor at the new place is wise and bold, but can also be abrasive and unintentionally mean. My favorite pastor at the old place was no less loving, but suffered from being overly political and more hands off. Neither is the knowledge of one greater than the other. Pastors have not made the difference.
Structurally the new church operates out of a disadvantage since they have fewer people to pool gifts from, and in general larger churches are able to be more inclusive of doctrines that small ones can’t, to the detriment of the small church. The new church is more focused on holiness than the large one, but it in turn was much better about magnifying the loving mercies of God. The songs at the new place are hymns that generally lifted up the attributes of God, the former place magnified the wonder of things like regeneration and persevering grace. I’m comfortable in either, although I’d have to say the big projection screens means I have two free hands to deal with kids while the hymnal means I don’t have any free hands at all. They’re both committed to seeking and saving the lost; they both sing 3 or 4 songs a service and have an hour sermon. They have coffee before or after service.

I’ll even say this: the new church has bad habits that most churches (like the old one) stopped making awhile back. Like hooks for sermons. Please guy who’s preaching, stop telling 10 minute stories before you open your Bible, we’re already here, we’re already listening, just open it and get to work. And stop thinking that doing two or three words per sermon out of a text is more respectable or acceptable. The Bible was given to you as a narrative, take it as such, there’s nothing wrong with preaching a sermon on two paragraphs, or five if you’re faithful to the meaning. But I digress. It’s not the presentation, the people, the liturgy, or the facilities that’s different between the old and new churches. What then is it? What was that thing that kept the new one from sliding into an ugly doctrineless soup like the old one did?

The realization came this morning while listening to Doctor Robert Jeffers (a Texan known for his ‘best life now’ shtick) on the radio. Instead of saying how God wants His best for you like I expected, he was accurately laying out the necessity of the cross, making cross references to other relevant passages, and comfortably using (and correctly explaining) words like justification and election. He was working through the text systematically. That’s when it hit me: it’s not that these mega church pastors don’t know their bibles or don’t know how to preach through them carefully, it’s that they simply choose not to, believing something else is more important to say. The only difference between the new church and the old is that the new doesn’t seek to outsmart God. That’s it. That’s all. At some point the old church said “What would work to make a sermon better? What do people want to hear? What do they need to hear?” The new one never did that. They said, “When we open this book we hear God’s voice. Let’s just work through it systematically.” They never sought to do any more than this. That one tiny, seemingly insignificant detail has made the difference.

1 comment:

Joel Ellis said...

And what a difference it makes, especially over time. Thanks for sharing that insight, brother. I hope I can make it out to visit the "new place" sometime in the not distant future.