Pastor’s Friday Comments (08.02.19)

On Wednesday night I polled the group that gathered for Bible study on a single question: How many of you became Christians in a Baptist church before the age of fifteen? Easily ninety percent of those present raised their hands. 

The fact that this was a bunch of Christians who faithfully attend “prayer meeting” on a summer night, almost a relic of days gone by, may have skewed the results, but I think the size of the affirmative response indicates that a large portion of our congregation shares a heritage — a common background in the evangelical Baptist tradition.

The major feature of that background is a belief that each person is responsible for making a personal decision to follow Christ. We made professions of faith, we prayed the sinner’s prayer, we walked the aisle of a church, we were baptized.

Being able to go back in our minds to that experience grounds us in our faith. It reminds us of the security that is ours through the promise of God. It has been on that solid foundation that we have “worked out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). For me, that was the single most important decision of my life. Everything that I have done since then has, in some way, been affected by that event.

And yet, as with every truth, there is more to the story than can be gleaned in a few words. What we understood as our need was very personal and completely individual. We emphasized that no one else could do it for us; it was something completely between God and us. The very Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer underscored this individualism. But this approach leaves out a great deal of what it means to be a Christian.

In a recent Christian Century blog , Angela Denker outlined in a way that I found very helpful both the drawbacks of a focus on individual Christianity and a more inclusive approach. I commend her post to you, but this is a pertinent section:

Americans have long vested too much of salvation into human hands, taking a faith that insists upon a God who loved and acted first—prior to human action and individuality—and foisting on it a can-do, frontier independence.

But a world ruled by sin and death cannot long sustain a theology based on human power. To grow up is to learn that you are but a grain of sand in a world wracked by earthquakes, floods, and a human propensity to violence and greed. No prayer or virtuous desire can save this world—not even a band of teenagers united by the confidence of their religious convictions.

The popularization of an individualistic salvation earned by prayer and human righteousness has done wide damage. It perpetuated a white Christianity in which you could ignore your African American neighbor—except to encourage him to pray and repent personally, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, even as the structures of a so-called Christian government conspired against his people. It absolved the church of responsibility for establishing and sustaining communities of believers, the church’s raison d’être for millennia.

This is a harsh critique, but any honest Christian who grew up in an evangelical setting would have to acknowledge that she is telling the truth. 

I continue to be grateful for the emphasis my family and my church placed on the need for me to make a personal commitment to Christ. I believe that is consistent with the teachings and commands of Jesus. However, I would also affirm that  we have failed to look beyond that individual aspect of our relationship with God to recognize that God is the one who saves and not us, and that our responsibility is to create the loving environment in which God can do God’s work.

And we are clearly called to be stewards of this grace, not by keeping it for ourselves, but by sharing it with the world, not simply so that others might become Christians themselves, but because they are already part of God’s creation and worthy of our love. We will keep talking about “being saved,” but I will also try to be mindful that there is more to following Christ than being concerned with what happens to me.