Sunday, October 3, 2010
I sang in the youth choir (for some reason, the music leader always looked at me when someone sang off key at practice). The summer after my junior year, I went with the youth group to Ridgecrest, North Carolina, for a week with Baptist youth from all over the South. It was a great week; I even ended up with a new girlfriend.
Late that summer, there was a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. It took place in Texas, and there was one major controversy that was going to be resolved – and that was whether local Southern Baptist churches should open their doors to African-Americans. There wasn’t a rule against it, of course, but longstanding tradition had the force of church law. The vote went against the resolution to open the doors.
This mattered to the youth group. It mattered a lot. At the next Sunday morning service, after the pastor had returned, he explained during the sermon how the debate had gone, and how he himself had voted. “I could not, in good conscience, vote for the resolution,” he said. The adult members of the congregation nodded in approval.
Sitting in the balcony (church youth groups always seem to sit in the balcony if there is one), the youth group was stunned. We knew how the vote had gone, but we had assumed the pastor voted for the resolution. His two sons were in the youth group, and they had assumed their father had voted for it. But he hadn’t; he had voted the way the congregation wanted him to vote.
The ridiculousness of this was obvious. Even assuming an African-American wanted to attend the church, which was highly doubtful given the denomination’s reputation at the time, would they be barred at the door? Would a deacon or usher throw a body block? Would the church lock the doors?
The youth group fractured and broke up. My best friend stopped going to church, and told his parents he was finished. A really good friend of his and mine told her parents she was changing churches, and she did. Others stopped coming altogether. The youth choir disintegrated. I finally stopped going, too. And I didn’t attend any church for the next five years.
I was reminded of this story while reading “Accepting the Real Jesus,” chapter 8 of Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. Knowledge of who Jesus is, even the limited knowledge of who he really is, is not enough. Acceptance must come, too. And these are the things, Spencer says, that must be accepted about the real Jesus:
• That Jesus preached, taught, and demonstrated the presence and priority of the Kingdom of God.
• That Jesus practiced radical inclusion of those who were excluded (and thus my story about the youth group).
• That Jesus was constantly engaged in producing disciples.
• That Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity.
• That Jesus’ movement proclaims the gospel, encourages disciples, and witnesses to the presence of the Kingdom.
It wasn’t that the church youth group possessed more wisdom than the adults. And there were undoubtedly some feelings of superiority directed at the adults and the pastor for such a colossal failure in judgment, understanding and faith.
But the youth group did understand something the church didn’t. Virtually all of us went to public schools, and the public schools had been integrated two years before. After a year of upheaval and even some violence, everything calmed down; the kids figured out how to go to school together. And we discovered that white students and African-American students wanted the same things, and they could learn to work together and even trust each other. In other words, we were all people with the same hopes, desires and dreams. And to keep the church doors shut to anyone was unconscionable.
And this is what the church youth group knew: Jesus wouldn’t have just thrown the doors open to all comers; he would have gone out and ministered to them and talked to them and lived with them as one of them.
Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page is leading a blogging discussion of Spencer’s Mere Churchianity. See also what Fatha Frank has been writing at Public Christianity.