Revisiting a Baptist Service

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Introduction

I don’t go to Easter Sunday mass.

I tried that once: the Easter I was confirmed. Never again. Nope.

After the intensse beauty of the Easter Vigil mass, there’s simply no need to fight the crowds of “Holiday Catholics” making their bi-annual pilgrimages. So this past Easter I went to a Baptist service (naturally) with my wife and siblings-in-law.

It was strange being “back.” Like moving to the city of one’s youth after a long absence, I sort of knew where everything was and could find my way around, but it was disorienting all the same. Much of the service followed the format that I remembered (which I found ironic for a group that so strongly eschews tradition and liturgy!). As familiar as much of it was, though, most everything felt different. As the service proceeded I had a few thoughts that I will share here.

The Music

The service was held a rented out building. The layout was standard lecture hall style with nothing but the coffee bar and an information table to distract the audience from the stage. Something like this is not unusual for startup ministries – and I was glad it was not a school gym or movie theater like many of the groups I have worshiped with in the past. I noted how fleeting such a place felt now. Everything from the folding tables and chairs to the makeshift displays and banners had a temporary feel to them. Of course, around the world people worship with far fewer amenities than even this place offered (the first Christians met in graveyard caves!), but the casual setting contributed to the overall lack of gravitas that now seems proper to places of worship to me.

As we walked in, the worship team (a four-piece band) was doing sound check on the stage, and coffee was being served all in the same room. Most everyone was dressed in street clothes and just sort of hanging out talking.  At some point an announcement was made that the service was beginning and the band got going. That was the sum total of the transition from casual hang out to worship. We remained standing for a couple songs during which a few people raised their hands (I had forgotten about that!) some of which I knew. Then we settled in for a sermon that lasted nearly an hour. Phew! (I had forgotten about hour-long sermons too. Phew!)

Again, I was familiar with the formula, but now it seemed to reflect a lack of reverence even though it did not seem that way when this sort of thing was my regular experience. (In fact, I distinctly remember my pride at attending services that extolled such things in the past.) Now I found it difficult to get passed the jeans, t-shirts, coffee mugs (my own included, mea culpa), and decor that all now contributed to what now seems to me to be very non-Church. It was clear that many here were very tuned into their individual worship experiences/expressions, but almost nothing about the service had really been much different than any good coffee house musical performance.

The Message

Instead of a typical Easter message, a new “sermon series” was launched (I had forgotten about sermon series launches!). It revolved around Jesus as an “overcomer.” The message was full of good thoughts, and I learned a few things that I will likely use in the future. Along the way, though, there were also some interesting . . . missteps. These were most certainly not things I would ever have noticed as a Baptist, but now seemed rather glaring. Three things in particular stood out to me.

Unity

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At one point early on, the preacher thanked everyone who came that morning for passing by 25 other churches to get to this one. Not much later he read about the sin of Christian division from 1 Corinthians where St. Paul admonished believers for dividing over their favorite teachers. The preacher acknowledged this as a problem, but I did not sense that he made the connection between that and his opening statement. (This was not surprising. In my experience at least, the issue of biblical unity in Baptist circles is largely eclipsed by what they consider to be biblical separatism).

Historically, Protestantism not only rejected Paul’s admonishment concerning teacher-favoring disunity (each of whom was a legitimate, apostolic, Church leader, BTW), they institutionalized it (e.g.,  LUTHERanism, CALVINism, WESLEYanism, ARMINIANism). But Baptists went even further. They elevated every single member to such a level that one ultimately was only responsible to follow one’s own interpretation of the Bible (a doctrine known as soul competency). 

Baptists are such a fiercely independent group, in fact, that they are not even considered a Protestant denomination (in fact, they were too radical for the Protestant Reformers!). In the Baptist world, therefore, pastors are basically just believers who have gathered followers. Given that a Baptist service is little more than singing and preaching, then, the preacher is essentially the only legitimate factor in choosing between communities (after all, it would be superficial to choose based on musical preference or social life). I wondered if this state of affairs ever bothered the preacher.

Holiness

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One of my biggest “Ah-ha!” moments came when the preacher began talking about holiness and the effect that the presence of God had on otherwise mundane objects (e.g., the burning bush, the tabernacle, or the temple). It was a superb message, and as I looked around at the stage, coffee bar, and the jeans and t-shirts, my issues with them suddenly made more sense. These things weren’t holy (they were not set apart) because God’s presence wasn’t here (not in the manner under discussion at least).

Now, I’m not being judgmental or mean here. This is what Baptists themselves teach. You see, Baptists reject the sacramental nature of physical reality – the things they have and do in their worship service are at most symbolic memorials (even their “ordinances” of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). It follows from this that they do not believe that God is present in their gathering in the same way that He was at the burning bush or in the temple. That’s why they can replace a the altar with a lectern, the sanctuary with a stage, vestments with jeans, and the Eucharist with grape juice and crackers. Yet another irony in an excellent message: extolling the physical sacredness of biblical worship in a community that tacitly endorsed its rejection.

(As an aside, it was also quite a contrast to have spent the previous evening watching people who had spent nearly two years in serious study and prayer receiving the Eucharist for the first time with a service where anyone who considered himself a believer could join in “communion” with everyone else. It was nice to see that they had communion every Sunday, though – as Baptists often only commemorate the Lord’s Supper a few times a year.)

Cleansing

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The best part of the sermon for me was the ramp-up to its climax where Jesus’ miraculous actions were summarized and contrasted with Jewish ceremonial law. It was great material – excellent in principle, but the message became murky due to what I thought of as evangelistic confusion. Because Baptist sermons are generally expected to conclude with an “altar call” (getting people to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their savior), they sometimes confuse messages suited for believers with those for unbelievers.

In this case, the preacher asserted that holiness was not about becoming a better person – rather it was found in coming to God. He backed that idea up by listing several instances where Jesus approached ceremonially unclean people to heal them (i.e., he came to them in their unclean state, He did not wait for them to become clean first). While the analogy was true from the point of view of an unbeliever who has yet to come to God, such is not the case for believers. Yes, Jesus came to the unclean (which in the analogy = sinners) and healed them without their cleaning themselves (= becoming better people) first, but He then expected them to change! The woman caught in adultery was told to go and sin no more. The woman at the well was confronted concerning her adultery. The demoniac was commanded to spread the good news.

Yes, Jesus showed that He could clean the unclean – and that’s great news for unbelievers who need to receive Jesus. But this truth should not be a comfort to those who have already been cleansed and yet have not changed (e.g., John 13:1-11; 15:1-11). I might have missed the transition (I was on baby duty and was still recovering from a 3 hour Easter vigil the night before!), but it seemed that these two very distinct audiences were mixed during the sermon. I am afraid the excellent message thus could have become dangerously confused.

Conclusion

Overall, it was really very interesting to visit a Baptist service again after nearly three years of Catholic mass. It was better in many ways than I had experienced previously. The coffee was good, the kids had fun in Sunday school making little empty tombs out of cookies, the music was well done, and the message had a lot of good points as well as a good (if potentially confusing) main message. If the service was not what counted as church for so many people, I’d have been able to appreciate it more. I am sure lots of good ministry is going on there – but without the sacramental presence of God, it stops short of truly being Church (holiness being one of the Church’s four marks – along with unity).

In summary, not much has changed while I’ve been away – except me.

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