Worship event on National Mall illustrates merger of evangelical music and politics

It was billed as a worship rally, but it could have been a political rally.

Last Saturday, Sept. 26, nearly 100,000 evangelicals gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the stated purpose of worshiping God. They were led by Vice President Mike Pence speaking and by Michael W. Smith in singing. Among the lyrics sung: “It’s your breath in our lungs. So we pour out our praise! Pour out our praise!”

Meanwhile, twice as many people — 204,000 Americans — have died from a disease that inflames the lungs, preventing oxygen from getting to the blood, causing organ failure. The United States has recorded the highest death rate from COVID-19 of any country in the world.

Yet the overwhelming majority of these evangelical Christian worshipers on the National Mall ignored such basic precautions as wearing masks and socially distancing, following the lead of an administration that has downplayed and misled the public about the global pandemic.

The event at the National Mall was organized by The Return and featured evangelical and Republican leaders such as Pence, Ben Carson, Michele Bachmann, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Anne Graham Lotz, and the “My Pillow” founder, Mike Lindell.

As has been the case over and again in the past year, the worship of God and the worship of a political ideology merged that Saturday. And worship music provided the soundtrack.

Playing with power

This past year has been especially political in the worship world. During President Donald Trump’s impeachment battle in December 2019 — on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — dozens of well-known worship leaders went to the White House to hold a “worship service,” and to pray for and take photographs with Trump.

These included Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes, Brian and Jenn Johnson, and Hillsong pastor Brian Houston.

Jobe, a Christian singer and recording artist, said: “I’ve just been in tears all day. It’s been incredible. I’m just so thankful to be a part of this today and just see what God’s doing in our White House.”

With a glow on his face, Carnes, an evangelical worship leader, joined in saying: “We’ve gotten to worship. We’ve gotten to pray for the president. And I just have been so encouraged today because there are so many good things happening out of this house. So many good things happening for the faith community and for the world. And things that we all believe in in the faith community that can change the world are being supported, and they’re happening in this house. So we’re just encouraged. And we’ve had just such an amazing time here today.”

Sean Feucht

Sean Feucht, an evangelical singer and activist, said: “We just laid our hands on (Trump) and prayed for him. It was like a real intense, hardcore prayer. It was so wild. I could not believe he invited us in, that he carved out time to meet with us.”

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted: “Wonderful stopping by a worship leaders briefing today at the White House!”

After a failed run for Congress as a Republican, Feucht has spent 2020 traveling around the country organizing more than 20 “riots to revival” which are billed as “worship protests” in communities that have been suffering from police violence. Feucht has joked on stage at these events that they are allowed to do this as long as they label it as a “protest.” Each event features sound systems to amplify their jokes and worship music over the cries of nearby Black Lives Matter protests.

These “worship protests” have attracted thousands of people, breaking local requirements to wear masks and socially distance. The “worship protests” include around two hours of singing, preaching and, of course, an offering. One gathering attracted 5,000 people. And Feucht is planning to continue the “worship protests,” culminating in yet a second massive event at the National Mall in Washington D.C. on Oct. 25.

The political power of praise

In her book, Singing the Congregation, Baylor University professor Monique Ingalls explores how worship events such as these function as both pilgrim gatherings and eschatological communities.

While many American evangelicals may not go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, they will buy a plane ticket to a major city in the United States. As eschatological communities, these events shape a gathering that evangelicals believe merges the worship of heaven envisioned in the book of Revelation with that moment’s worship — reaching across space and time in a way that reshapes the world religiously and politically.

Philip Wegner, a scholar on religious communities who teaches at the University of Florida, says these events create a “narrative utopia” of an imaginary community that has “material, pedagogical and ultimately political effects, shaping the ways people understand and, as a consequence, act in their worlds.”

Ingalls details how the Passion Conferences use primarily white American male worship leaders along with white evangelical music culture in a way that promotes “the idea that Christian unity is achieved through assimilation to the cultural — in particular, the musical —norms of white North American evangelical Christianity.”

She tells the story of the 2013 Passion Conference, in which everyone in the overwhelmingly white congregation was given a mask with a photograph of a — usually Black — child trafficking victim from a far distant country who was described as voiceless and powerless. The white worshipers held the Black children’s masks up to their faces and sang “God of Angel Armies.”

Ingalls adds: “Nowhere in the sung lyrics is the singer or community portrayed as a collaborator with God; God is the only active agent, and the singer-believer’s sole action is having faith in God’s sovereign control of all things … . Like the voiceless Others they sing for, worshipers are framed as undeserving, passive, grateful recipients of God’s salvation.” As she left the event, she observed how these children’s masks filled the stadium trash cans.

From the Neo-Calvinist theology of these events, Ingalls concludes that “Passion marries an ostensibly progressive social-justice cause with an essentially conservative, neocolonialist politics … . Passion’s performance seems designed to mask structures of earthly power rather than to make participants aware of their own complicity with them, perpetuating what Teju Cole has called the ‘white savior industrial complex,’ in which marginalized places and peoples serve as ‘a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.’”

Jonathan Cahn is a Messianic Christian pastor whose novel “The Harbinger” compares the United States and the Sept. 11 attacks to ancient Israel and the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. He was an organizer and key figure at the Sept. 26 rally on the National Mall.

At these worship conferences, participants are “never encouraged to question their own countries’ political structures or policies” and “no connection was made between the suburban North American lifestyle and the global economic and political structures that drive trafficking.”

As a result, she concluded: “No sense of responsibility was conveyed; rather, human trafficking was framed largely as voluntary charitable giving by the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots.’”

After these worship events conclude, the masses of white worshipers return to their communities with the illusion of having met with the worship of heaven, of having done something of political significance, and then they bring those merged religious and political illusions back to their own local worship and government contexts.

We’re the greatest

When you look at the top 100 worship songs of the 2010s, you’ll begin to notice one major theme emerge: Our God is the greatest. Of course, I’m well aware of the Bible verses used to promote this theology. And to be fair, if Jesus is God and did resurrect, then he would technically be greater than other gods that do not even exist.

But what we have in American evangelicalism is a worship culture that says: “Our God is the greatest. Our country is the greatest. So our God is better than your god, and our country is better than yours.”

Then we unite this religious and nationalistic elitism into a massive worship event that features the vice president of the United States and Republican politicians and celebrities leading 100,000 evangelical pilgrims into an illusion of heaven and the end times crossing space and time to meet at the National Mall to promote the re-election of Donald Trump.

Is anyone concerned about the spirit of elitism here? Does anyone wonder if there is a cult-like delusion going on?

We now have influential megachurches with Fox News contributors as pastors doing “Freedom Sundays,” and having the White House press secretary or even the vice president speaking, with congregations and choirs singing, “Make America Great Again.” And now there’s a new church planting network called the “Patriot Church Movement” which welcomes “disciples of Christ and Patriots.”

We should not be surprised, then, that in the midst of a global pandemic, evangelical Christians schedule two worship gatherings at the National Mall to promote the reelection of Donald Trump, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims singing about Jesus being the breath in our lungs as hundreds of thousands of their neighbors die by not being able to breathe.

Moving from worship to love

Worship leaders, we have an absolute mess on our hands. And it’s time to face some hard truths. I know this, because I have been where you are.

Worship leaders need to stop going to Washington, D.C., and start going to therapy. Our wounds are deep. We aren’t even aware that they exist, let alone how deep they run. And we need professional help.

On my first night as a student at the 10,000 Fathers Worship School, they told us we needed to have God-awareness and self-awareness. I thought my God-awareness was totally fine. But I never had considered having self-awareness.

When you look at the lyrics of the top 100 worship songs of the 2010s, self-awareness is virtually nowhere to be seen. We have been theologically formed by the Neo-Calvinists to focus so much on the sovereignty of God that we have become invisible at best and usually described with totally negative worship lyrics. It’s no wonder that in 20 years of leading worship, I never had thought about self-awareness. This concept doesn’t exist in our lyrics in any meaningful way.

The reason we are totally unaware of our neighbors is that we are totally unaware of ourselves. Jesus called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And unfortunately, we do. We love our neighbors with the same unaware, dismissive attitude that we love ourselves. And just as Sean Feucht is drowning out the cries of Black Lives Matter protestors with the amplified sounds of his “worship protests,” we have drowned out our own pain with the clanging sounds of praise.

We need to stop singing about how our God and country are the greatest, and start listening to our Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist, ex-evangelical, Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and LGBTQ neighbors. We need to learn of their wonders and grieve with them in their wounds. We need to learn to love them with a healthy love that grows from the love we will learn over time and from the healing we need to have ourselves.

Because of how we have used the language and sounds of worship in totally unaware ways to drown out our pain and the cries of the marginalized around us, we need to stop talking about worshiping God and start focusing on loving ourselves in a way that overflows into love for our neighbors.

If we love God, we will love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we will love our neighbors. If we love our neighbors, we will love God.

It’s time to repent of our worship that is severely damaging ourselves, our neighbors and our world, and instead begin to converge in love of self, neighbor and God.

Rick Pidcock is a stay-at-home father of five kids. He and his wife, Ruth Ellen, have started Provoke Wonder, a collaboration of artists that exists to foster child-like worship through story and song. Provoke Wonder’s first album, Consider the Stars, was released in March 2020. Their first children’s book, What If, will be released in 2020. Rick is pursuing a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary.


Four ways parents should nurture children during COVID

“Opportunity” often gets described as the opposite side of “crisis.” While the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a crisis for our nation and our world, it also presents parents with unique opportunities, what Robert Havighurst called “teachable moments.”

First, model a life of faith over fear.

David Garrard

COVID-19 has stripped away much of what we consider important and valuable. Children are caught in this as well. Schools closed back in the spring and still face an uncertain future. Sports leagues and camps are not happening. Having a friend over to play or spend the night is out of the question. Trips and outings have been canceled.

As Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It’s a crazy world out there and yet in the midst of so much fear, anxiety and uncertainty parents have been given a wonderful opportunity to talk and teach about what matters most.

My own children are 38 and 37 years old, but I still write them a letter every week. Every now and then I play the Dad card and try to let them know what I believe or how I feel about what is going on in our world. My wife and I want our kids to know that as believers in God and followers of Jesus we are choosing to live by faith, not in fear.

If they were still living under our roof today, they would hear that choice being expressed in our prayers and phone conversations. They would see it playing out in how we spend our time — my wife sewing masks, me making calls, writing notes and looking for ways to encourage others. If they were living with us, they might notice that every week we put a check for our church in the mail, small though that check often is. They would see our continued participation in Bible study, worship and small groups via the wonderful world of Zoom. In short, they would see that, like Daniel and his friends exiled and isolated in Babylon, we are trying to remain faithful to what we believe matters most.

“Like Daniel and his friends exiled and isolated in Babylon, we are trying to remain faithful to what we believe matters most.”

Psalm 31:14-15 says, “But I trust in you, O Lord. I say, `You are my God. My times are in your hands.’” Take advantage of the chaos created by coronavirus to remind your children that no matter what happens to us or around us, God is always with us. Show them how to live by faith, not in fear.

Second, teach children about the true nature and mission of the church.

In mid-March, I saw these words on an outdoor church sign: “All church activities canceled until March 31.” I knew what they meant, and in terms of church gatherings, they were correct — everything was canceled, not just at that church but at most churches, including my own. However, church activity continued on. As I wrote in my journal, “The activity that a church is called to engage in need not stop just because of the coronavirus. Worship, prayer, Bible study, giving, caring … these are all things we can continue to do, even though we cannot do them together.”

Giving, caring and serving are all activities children can participate in. As needs have increased, many churches have held special collections and drives. My church in Louisville collected food, toilet tissue, paper towels, dish detergent and several other items for a community ministry that serves our ZIP Code. We also had a workday in our community garden, and several children worked alongside their families.

“You won’t have to look very far to discover needs you and your family can meet and folks you can encourage.”

Even if your church doesn’t have anything like this going on, you won’t have to look very far to discover needs you and your family can meet and folks you can encourage. Help your children paint or color pictures for shut-ins or others who might be lonely. Make homemade get-well cards for folks in the hospital. Record a Bible reading or a song that can be shared via Facetime. Fix a snack box for the person who delivers your mail. Make goodies for first responders and other community servants. And don’t forget church helpers, including staff.

As you go about all of this, remind your children that when they serve others in these ways they are in fact serving Jesus and being the church.

Third, teach the priority of worship.

Pastor and teacher Steve Pettit says, “Every crisis in our lives is a call to worship a present-tense God.” Steve says Christians may not know how long difficult days are going to last but we do know what to do in such times. We turn to God in faith. We recognize God as our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). And that recognition and remembrance drives us to our knees.

Present circumstances — circumstances in which many churches are not meeting in person — make it a bit more difficult but no less important to include worship in our lives. Family worship may need to replace corporate worship experiences, at least for a little longer. Lots of kid-friendly resources are available for guided devotions that include Bible readings and prayer. Older children may be able to join in online worship, but they’re not going to watch if you don’t.

Circling back to what was said above about modeling faith over fear, our actions authenticate our priorities. The bottom line is that if something is important enough, you find a way and you take the time to do it. During a time when many are letting a lot of things slide, choose to make worship a priority for yourself and your children.

Fourth, worship together as a family at church.

This is an experience modern church programming has for the most part taken away.

Although planning and leading a separate worship experience for children was a major part of my job for 42 years, I never was a fan. My sense was that children best learned how to worship by worshiping with their parents and their faith family as opposed to being separated out from them. As I began to study and continued to learn, teachers and colleagues like Dan Aleshire gave voice to my intuitions.

In his excellent book Faithcare, Aleshire acknowledges the challenges of having children in worship with parents but says “These intrusions on my worship life, however, are merely congruent with the rest of my life, where the demands of good parenting have intruded into my civilized adult world.” As a parent, Aleshire tolerated these intrusions because his children needed to learn, and he realized he needed to be willing to do his part in teaching them.

He said: “If I want my children to discover the God of grace and learn to participate in the community of faith, I need to accept some interruptions of my worship. The teaching of Jesus, the mission of the church, and the nature of a community of faith all argue more for the effort required for including children than the convenience provided by excluding them.”

“With no child care and no separate worship experiences available for children, will parents opt to stay home?”

All of which brings us to the unusual state of church life in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. With safety precautions in place, many churches have begun to regather. However, most have decided not to offer anything beyond a corporate worship experience. This poses a problem for parents who are not used to having their children present with them during worship. With no child care and no separate worship experiences available for children, will parents opt to stay home? Or will they see this as an opportunity to worship together as a family and embrace the challenges that such togetherness presents?

After 42 years of working with children, I continue to believe the benefits of families being together in worship far outweigh any inconveniences and interruptions. I still remember the morning my daughter witnessed her first baptism. “What are they doing up there?” she whispered. And just like that, a door opened for a faith conversation. The same doors can open for you as you embrace the opportunity to worship together.

Children are going to remember 2020 as a time that challenged and changed life in important ways. But with a little effort on the part of parents, they can also remember 2020 as a time that brought them closer to God, to their family and to others.

Take advantage of the opportunities provided by these circumstances. You may have to be creative. You may have to be courageous. You will definitely have to be intentional, but there’s a lot at stake.

Remember that Christian truth can be contagious, more easily caught than taught. And unlike the coronavirus, the result is life.

David Garrard in 2018 retired from St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., where he served as minister to children for 42 years. He continues to pursue an active performing and speaking schedule as a professional magician

What has this pandemic revealed about your congregational aesthetic?

I wonder how many congregations have taken time during this pandemic to consider their aesthetic. As worship services and other educational or community programming have transitioned to online formats, how have our ideas of beauty changed or remained the same?

In his work Stranger’s Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture, historian Joshua Guthman identifies a “lonesome sound” in the music of Primitive Baptist congregations that he suggests characterizes a Primitive Baptist aesthetic. This sound transcended their harsh reformed theology and doctrine, capturing a disposition of ambiguity and uncertainty that typifies our human existence.

Primitive Baptists emerged in the wake of what historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. They challenged evangelical and missionary denominational groups, whom they considered arrogant. They preached that only God could save. Attempts to influence the salvation of others through missions, books and preaching were all futile.

These often-poor Appalachian and Southern congregations split off from missionary minded Baptists. Their worship included the singing of shape-note tunes and when hymnals were in short supply, a leader would line the hymns — singing a line that would be echoed by the rest of the congregation. Sermons often took on a song-like quality. Guthman identifies similar trends in Black Primitive Baptist congregations in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Shape-note version of “Amazing Grace” from an old hymnal.

While Primitive Baptists congregations experienced decline like many denominational groups in the 20th and 21st century, Gutham suggests that their “lonesome sound” remains a part of the broader American culture. The late Ralph Stanely’s performance at the 2002 Grammy Awards of the dirge “O Death” from the soundtrack of the movie O, Brother Where Art Thou serves as one, now popular, example of this Primitive Baptist aesthetic.

As I listen to worship services on my computer screen, void of the pomp and circumstance of communal singing, I see beautiful musical offerings from families and individual singers and instrumentalists. Such an aesthetic difference reminds me of Guthman’s idea of this “lonesome sound.”

Perhaps our time of physical distancing in 2020 gives us an opportunity to think about what constitutes beauty in our particular Baptist experience.

Our aesthetics will indeed be particular because, as Baptists, we champion the idea of local church autonomy. While we often think of this autonomy as an issue of doctrine and authority, it also is one of aesthetics.

Local church autonomy opens congregations to the possibility of adopting the aesthetic ideals of their local context. No Baptist groups demonstrates this better than the Evangelical-Baptist Church in the Republic of Georgia. Recognizing that Western European and American aesthetic ideals would not translate to Georgian culture, Baptists in the Republic of Georgia adopted some of the aesthetics of their local culture, heavily influenced by the Orthodox Church.

Baptists in Georgia experience worship with incense and iconography. The denominational group also has a system of leadership that includes bishops, and it is not uncommon to see congregational leaders in ornate robes.

There is a decidedly different aesthetic between Baptists in the United States and Baptists in the Republic of Georgia. This difference, however, has not kept Baptists in Georgia from forming strong partnerships with groups in the United States, like the Alliance of Baptists.

“Our conception of aesthetics does not need to be limited to worship either.”

Our conception of aesthetics does not need to be limited to worship either. For myself, when I think about the Baptist aesthetic of my childhood, I think about a Wednesday night potluck — a table set with an uncountable number of dishes with various casseroles, colorful and fragrant.

There is a beauty in watching everyone construct their plate and join tables of their friends and loved ones to share a meal.

Perhaps we think about the aesthetics of a baptism. The baptistry in the church I grew up in was adorned with what I am certain some would consider tacky wallpaper depicting the Jordan River. For my congregation, however, this wallpaper provided an aesthetic link between my baptism and the baptism of Jesus. Such an aesthetic differs from an outdoor baptism or even a baptism in a plain baptistry.

As many congregations are now well-practiced in virtual worship, perhaps we can take a step back to consider our Baptist aesthetics anew. How have we translated our in-person ideals of beauty to a digital format? What elements of our congregational aesthetics have been lost? What new ideas of beauty have we gained?

Nurturing a congregational aesthetic functions as a means of building and reinforcing communal identity, as groups like the Primitive Baptists demonstrate. It pushes beyond intellectual doctrine and ideals that bind congregations together in order to appeal to shared emotional and affective ideals.

In a world ravaged by COVID-19, famine, white supremacy and greed — among other things — perhaps pausing to consider what we as Baptists find beautiful would provide congregations the imaginative energy to dream new futures. If we can see, and taste, and smell, and hear, and feel the kingdom of God, we might better be able to imagine it on earth as it is in heaven.  

The sacrament of not touching: a gift of grace made literally a matter of life and death

Bill LeonardThere’s a story about the Appalachian Baptist preacher who declared, “In our church, we ‘love one another’ like Jesus taught. We reach out to each other with the right hand of Christian fellowship and the laying on of hands. We used to give each other the kiss of peace, but some people got to lingering a little, so we had to give it up!”

In 2020, the year of our Lord and COVID-19, “lingering a little” isn’t the only practice avoided by Christian congregations. The novel coronavirus compels us to relinquish touching altogether. Such “outward and visible signs” of Christian love, grace and community as the right hand of fellowship, the laying on of hands, passing the peace and anointing with oil have given way to socio-physical distancing, sheltering in place and shuttered church buildings.

In these days, Holy Communion with a common cup of fermented wine is questionable enough; but Holy Communion with a common cup of temperance grape juice is a potential death sentence. Baptism of infants or adults, with a little or a lot of water, is life-threatening for those who cluster around the baptismal font or “wade in the water” of the fiberglass baptistery.

Worse yet, the very “sanctuaries” in which Christians long shared communal worship are now potential danger zones for infecting members of the Body of Christ, especially senior adults or persons with vulnerable health conditions. At this moment in time nationally or globally, it’s nigh impossible to be physically present for worship with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

“COVID-19 has shut down those Sunday gospel encounters, and I find myself a bit lost without them.”

As congregational separation and virtual worship persist, I find myself longing for the healing touches consistently dispensed in our home congregation, First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem – sacraments of grace I’ve taken all-too-for-granted. Sunday after Sunday we hear the collective invitation to “come to the altar” or to join hands with folks in a nearby pew as we pray together. Some Sundays, ministers and members lay hands on individuals who face a new calling or dire circumstances, reaching out in collective love and intercession. Sunday services also include a “fellowship moment” when we greet each other with blessings, handshakes and lots of hugs, mindful of the minister’s admonition of “no long conversations.” (He knows we are a loquacious bunch.)

These days, I especially miss my “pew neighbors,” folks who consistently gather in the same section of the sanctuary each Sunday. For the last 23 years, our family has occupied a specific congregational locale, to the right of the center aisle, about two-thirds of the way back. Close enough to let the Spirit find us, but not so close that it can get out of hand. We are joined by other practitioners who consistently claim that proximate sacred space. Over the years we’ve become what the 17th-century Pietists called an ecclesiolae in ecclesia, a little church within the church.

Each Sunday we reach out to one another physically and spiritually, singing and praying together, sometimes bearing one another’s burdens, conversing before and after (OK, sometimes during) the morning service about assorted spiritual, communal and political issues that challenge us. One dear friend and I confess our shared love for Jesus and Democratic politics, usually in that order. Another often engages me in conversations about scripture. We frequently “share our mutual woes,” as the old hymn says, as well as small bottles of hand sanitizer, passed around after the “fellowship moment,” just to be safe.

These practices “tangibilify” grace, as Albert Cleage Jr. called it, in both the spirit and the flesh. COVID-19 has shut down those Sunday gospel encounters, and I find myself a bit lost without them. I suspect that’s happening to a lot of folks in many congregations.

When traditional resources for gathering around God’s grace are lost to us, what then? Perhaps the upheavals of the present moment are unwelcome yet poignant reminders that sometimes we don’t find grace; it finds us. When the shared comfort zones that bless and bind us to Christ’s body vanish or seem distant, we explore other venues for experiencing the “inward and spiritual grace” of God collectively and personally.

The early church learned that lesson quickly, often adapting “normative” practices when necessary. A wonderful non-canonical text called The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, probably compiled around the year 110, established the norm for administering baptism while also providing immediate alternatives should the ideal form not be possible. The Didache says to:

“baptize in running water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you have no running water, baptize in other water [ugh!], and if you cannot use cold water, use warm. If you have neither, pour water on the head three times, in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”

For those second-century Christians, when circumstances often dictated that the ideal means of grace was not available, grace was present, nonetheless. Baptism was so important, indeed essential, that even when the best elements were not obtainable, the sacramental act was not to be abandoned. Even in less than favorable conditions, i.e., “other water,” the grace of God was there.

That’s where we are here and now.

At such a time as this we are called to practice the sacrament of not touching, a gift of grace made literally a matter of life and death. Like our second-century forebears, we too must go looking for other means of grace, worshiping alone or with our families via streaming or video-recorded worship services, Zoom gatherings or other internet tools, decked out in our Sunday best jeans or jammies and posting our “Amens” on Facebook.

“Perhaps the upheavals of the present moment are unwelcome yet poignant reminders that sometimes we don’t find grace; it finds us.”

These days we are learning to text or “phone in” our prayers, love and care to the quarantined, the ill and the dying, reminding them and their families that they are still part of God’s Beloved Community. We bless the “healing touch” of caregivers – physicians, nurses, ambulance drivers and other “front-line” people – best offered when they are garbed in layers of protective clothing. (And we lobby government to provide for these essential items.)

For the church, the gospel stories of Jesus’ healing touch to the disabled, the broken and hurting may be less immediate to us at this moment than the profound post-Easter affirmations of Paul to the struggling Corinthians, not only worth quoting at length but reading and re-reading:

“Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in; bewildered, we are never at our wits’ end; struck down, we are not left to die … As God’s servants, we try to recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance: in hardships and dire straits … We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behavior, our grasp of truth, our patience and kindliness; by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God … dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 6:9-10, NEB).

Audacious grace. For us. In such a time as this. Thank God.

Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic:

Discovering your community through the practice of the Labyrinth

A dimly lit sanctuary offering rest and nurture amid a bustling downtown; an underpass surrounded by sounds of a roaring interstate where worlds collide; a somber park where the Lady Peace stands erect in the shadow of reckless violence as nearby workers eat their lunch unaware, and a skyscraper standing tall against adversity as a beacon of hope for a broken community.

A place is much more than a place. It bears witness to the history of its making, the people who call it home, and it has the power to invite or disaffect others from joining it. What are the layers of stories that shape the places we inhabit today? What are the things our communities are saying without speaking a word?

In March of 2016, a group from Truett Seminary traveled overseas to dissect the essence of “evangelism” and its impact and place in post-modern Christianity. We met with leaders in London who were reimagining evangelism through intentional community, social impact and cross-cultural friendship.

Alchemy Project founder Matt Valler introduced our group to something he calls the “City Hack” or the “City Labyrinth.” Over the course of four hours, we walked a labyrinth that took us all across the City of London, forcing us to slow down and notice the architecture, sounds, sights and smells of the community around us.

“A place is much more than a place. It bears witness to the history of its making, the people who call it home, and it has the power to invite or disaffect others from joining it.”

The Labyrinth – a walking meditation that helps you to focus and be still as you enter God’s presence – has been a part of the Christian tradition as a spiritual practice since the Middle Ages. You may find one outside your church.

As you walk the labyrinth path, you’ll enter God’s presence and see the cathedral from different perspectives as you walk the path to enlightenment.

A labyrinth has only one path to its center. Unlike a maze, it’s not trying to trick or confuse. It takes you instead on a spiritual journey to inspire, challenge and comfort you.

It’s typical to stop at the center and wait for what God might teach you. Then you walk the path back, remembering that God always leads us back into the world.

For as long as cathedrals have been built, architects have attempted to make a statement of doctrine through their work. For example, the space in which the pulpit sits (center stage or flanking the sides) shows that congregation’s value on the Word of God and the importance of proclamation and preaching.

I challenge you as you worship this week to ask yourself a few questions. What is it about this room that ushers you into worship? Is it the grand organ, the stained glass, grand pulpit or the communion table that speak to you? And is this room speaking your same language? We show what we truly value through how much space we allow it.

As I moved from Truett Seminary to the Diana Garland School of Social Work, I held on to my experiences and questions from my London city labyrinth. As I dove into my macro community practice social work courses, and we discussed asset-based community development, I couldn’t help but think about the intersection of faith and practice and the ways we survey and assess our communities.

“What are the layers of stories that shape that places we inhabit today? What are the things our communities are saying without speaking a word?”

If the labyrinth is really about our growing awareness of how our physical environment affects our communal understanding of who we are, then it’s the perfect tool for community assessment. So I set out to create a city labyrinth in my own community of Waco, Texas.

Here are some simple steps to creating your own community labyrinth:

  1. Set your boundaries. I chose the downtown area of Waco. You won’t be able to labyrinth your whole city, so take on a few important blocks or a historic neighborhood in your community.
  2. Get out there and walk it! A labyrinth is meant to be walked. You may do an initial windshield survey, simply driving around in your car to take an inventory of the area, but to truly wander your community, you have to get out there on the ground and walk the streets, become uncomfortable and notice things in ways you’ve never noticed them before.
  3. Map your labyrinth. Use tools such as Google Earth to create a map for other journeyers to follow and to show the physical path you want to walk. Tell the story of your city by creating cards with information on particular stops along your labyrinth with historical background or questions you want your travelers to ask themselves.

Some things to consider as you wander your community and prepare to create your own community labyrinth:

  • Go slowly and purposefully
  • Notice and write down everything
  • Use technology to help you “hack” your city. I found wacohistory.org to be a helpful resource as I learned more about my city.
  • Experience the community
  • Look for the resonance and the dissonance in your community. What symbols and places seem to be sending the same messages, and which ones are at odds?

“If the labyrinth is really about our growing awareness of how our physical environment affects our communal understanding of who we are, then it’s the perfect tool for community assessment. So I set out to create a city labyrinth in my own community of Waco, Texas.”

Not only is the city labyrinth a tool for community assessment, but it is also a tool for inner transformation. As the pilgrims of yesterday walked this path for enlightenment, you will also walk a new path as you become more aware of your space and purpose in this community.

Walking the city labyrinth is a spiritual tool for those who wish to rediscover God’s presence in the daily spaces you inhabit. As you wander, seeing your community with fresh eyes, ask yourself some tough questions. How does this space make you feel? What does that symbol mean? When was it put there and why? For whom was this built? Who does it seem is welcome in this place? And who might not feel very welcome here?

As you walk, think about the family that might live in that building or the young adult that spends more time at this job than at his own home. As we boldly ask these questions, research, find answers, and find even more questions, we rewrite history. When we discover together, we can imagine new ways of life in this space together. Every city has a story hidden in plain sight. Go and find it.

If we truly believed in God, how could we be sad?

Growing up, my friends and I were pretty much in the “happy-and-you-know-it” camp. At Vacation Bible School we sang the happy-face song, stomping our feet and clapping our hands in rhythm before shouting “Amen!” As teenagers we learned the secret of joy (a topic for another column) because that’s what we were all about. We had the joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.

I’m not so sure about all of that now. The trouble isn’t in finding deep joy in our faith. The trouble comes when joy is used as the barometer of faith. Doing so marks those who are sad or depressed as less than faithful. In its most direct expression, this joy-centric faith tells people if they are sad or depressed then it’s their fault; they just need to pray harder, trust more and have more faith.

In a slightly more subtle expression, people are made to feel guilty for even having such emotions. If we truly believed in God, how could we be sad?

“The trouble isn’t in finding deep joy in our faith. The trouble comes when joy is used as the barometer of faith.”

Such a joy-centric theology betrays us. It splits feelings into “good” or “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Such labeling can make us feel shame for our “weakness” in succumbing to the “unacceptable” feelings. When we feel shame, we try to distance ourselves from these emotions and never admit them to anyone (most of all ourselves).

Shutting ourselves off from difficult feelings, we wind up distancing ourselves from the joyful, fun and happy feelings as well. It’s like the paper guide in my printer; slide one side in and the other side moves in as well. We cannot live the fullness of life that God intended with only half of our selves.

We have painful and difficult feelings because sometimes life is painful and difficult. I was getting a few things at the grocery store when the young woman behind the checkout counter commanded me to smile. That morning my mother had unexpectedly been moved to ICU and in a day or two we’d be making the decision to take her off life support. No, I wasn’t going to smile.

We have painful and difficult feelings because sometimes they are the best way our hearts and souls have of getting our attention. Working with clients for many years, I’ve seen such feelings emerge as markers of old griefs that have gone too long unacknowledged and unattended. They are nudges that our work doesn’t work anymore or that a relationship isn’t healthy anymore. They are an alarm going off that our lifestyle doesn’t bring us life. More and more research is helping us understand that depression is multifaceted and can spring from an interplay of how we think, how we eat, how we move, how we sleep, etc.

“If we truly believed in God, how could we be sad?”

Sometimes we have painful, difficult feelings because that is where our souls feel most at home. This is not because we are some kind of spiritual masochists but because all of the hand clapping, feet stomping and amen shouting never resonated with us. Following the death of his wife, church historian Martin Marty wrote a beautiful book entitled A Cry of Absence. Marty delves into the psalms of lament as a counter to American Christianity’s incessant praise band culture. He draws a distinction between “summer” and “winter” spirituality.

Christians with summer spirituality are the ones giving the testimonies about their joy in Jesus. We look to them as examples of great faith. By contrast, winter spirituality people are seldom asked to share their testimony because who wants to hear about all that doubt and not knowing? Those with winter spirituality may wonder if they really do believe because the mountaintop is never a part of their faith journeys. And yet, Marty argues, their faith is just as real and valid as any other, just sung in a different key. He finds their kin in the psalms of lament.

When we model and teach only one season of faith in our congregational life and worship, we give the implicit message that only one season is acceptable. The result is that some Christians feel forced to put on a happy face in order to participate – or they choose not to attend at all.

Ken Medema sings of authentic Christian community and worship in “If This Is Not a Place”:

If this is not a place where tears are understood
where can I go to cry…?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked
where can I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
where can I go to speak?


Religion Notes: Many young adults believe while most aren’t so sure

Many young adults who attended church as teens continue to consider themselves strong in faith, but many more harbor serious doubts about the importance of Christianity and fellowship in their lives.

That’s according to a recently published LifeWay Research project.

The organization said it surveyed 2,000 Americans, 23 to 30 years old, who attended Protestant churches when they were teenagers.

“Today, 39 percent say they consider themselves a devout Christian with a strong faith in God,” the Nashville-based research organization announced in an online summary of the survey.

But the remaining 61 percent report decreasing levels of adherence to the religion.

The next largest group, at 27 percent, said they “consider themselves Christian, but not particularly devout.”

Next were the 14 percent who believe in God “but are uncertain of Christianity,” while those who “consider themselves spiritual, but not religious” represented 11 percent, LifeWay Research reported.

Five percent said they are “uncertain about” belief in God and 4 percent said they “don’t believe in God or in any higher being.”

The survey also found that 66 percent, or two-thirds, of those who attended church consistently during high school stopped their attendance for at least a year as young adults.

“During the years most young adults are gone from church, they tend to hang onto their faith but don’t make it a priority,” Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said in the report summary.

The survey also looked at attitudes young adults had toward their churches when aged 18 to 22.

Those who dropped out during those years were much less likely to say they agreed with the beliefs taught by their churches, that sermons related to their lives, or that they felt connected to church. For those who continued attending, it was the opposite.

“Some of the starkest differences we see between those who attend church as young adults and those who don’t is how connected they feel with others at a church,” McConnell said.


5,000 immigrants anticipated

Faith-based organizations on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. border are preparing to serve about 5,000 immigrants expected to arrive soon in Tijuana and Piedra Negras, Mexico.

Among them are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches and partners, and other religious organizations, Fellowship Southwest said in an email to supporters.

Mexico’s federal government has asked churches to assist with the needs of the arriving immigrants. It has donated a 5-acre parcel to a Tijuana church which is a ministry partner of the Fellowship.

“We have enlisted churches along our Texas-Mexico border to help with the group of people arriving in Piedras Negras, like Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz from Laredo and Pastor Israel Rodriguez in Piedras Negras and others,” Fellowship Southwest said in the appeal.

It informed donors that a $75 donation will provide a set of beds to sleep three people.  Donations may be made online.

The organization also urged supporters to come to Eagle Pass, Texas, located located across the border from where the immigrants are arriving, to serve as volunteers. Those wishing to do so may contact Jorge Zapata at [email protected]

And believers are urged to pray “for the people who are desperate enough to make this journey, for the people tasked with serving them, and for the funds to be made available.”


American Baptist office on the move

The Office of the General Secretary of American Baptist Churches USA announced it will move into a newly purchased facility sometime in mid-2019.

The office joins other ministry partners leaving the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania facility ABC-USA has occupied since the early 1960s. Those offices and organizations have been acquiring space in the area, and near each other.

“As we transition from the current Mission Center, we have created an American Baptist neighborhood,” General Secretary Lee Spitzer said in a Feb. 7 American Baptist News Service article.

“Centuries of Baptist history affirms that what unites us is Jesus, our common mission aims and ABC identity, not real estate,” Spitzer said in the article.

Baptist News Global has published news of previous ABC-USA ministry partner moves.  A listing of the new addresses of other denominational partners is available online.

U.S. not only place where ‘nones’ on the rise

Looks like you don’t have to be American or European to give up on religion.

And the same is especially true for young adults, who are becoming “nones” around the planet just as they are in the U.S., according to new data published by the Pew Research Center.

So, if nothing else, church and denominational leaders in the states can take comfort knowing that they’re not alone in the struggle against declining memberships and affiliation.

In a June 13 study titled “The Age Gap in Religion Around the World,” Pew found that young adults globally tend to be less religious than older people, and that “the opposite is rarely true.”

The expansive report delves into a range of factors that predict religiosity. Those include income levels, life span, geographic region and social standing.

It starts off by recapping what American religious leaders have come to know all too well: that congregations are getting older, and young people are increasingly unlikely to identify with a religion, believe in God or participate in religious practices.

“But this is not solely an American phenomenon,” Pew said in the report.

“Lower religious observance among younger adults is common around the world,” the research group said.

The age gap in religions is larger in some places than in others. But on average, adults 40 and younger are less inclined to view religion as “very important.” And that’s the case in nations such as Canada, Switzerland, Iran and Nigeria, Pew reported.

Still, there are exceptions.

“While this pattern is widespread, it is not universal,” the report states. “In many countries, there is no statistically significant difference in levels of religious observance between younger and older adults. In the places where there is a difference, however, it is almost always in the direction of younger adults being less religious than their elders.”

Pew identified 41 nations where people 18 to 39 years old “are significantly less likely than their elders to have a religious affiliation.”

Those include Canada, the U.S., Mexico and most of South America. It also includes much of Europe. Chad and Ghana are the only countries where Pew found younger adults to be more religious than their elders.

What’s true about attitudes also holds for behaviors.

“Younger adults are less likely to say they pray daily,” Pew said. Only in Chad and Liberia are young adults likely to pray twice a day.

“And adults under 40 are less likely to attend religious services on a weekly basis in 53 of 102 countries,” Pew said in the report. The “opposite is true in just three countries (Armenia, Liberia and Rwanda).”

The gaps between generations are small in many countries. The overall average is 5 percentage points for affiliation, 6 percentage points for worship attendance and 9 percentage points for prayer, Pew said.

But there are some countries where the differences are much wider, and the U.S. is one of them.

“There are gulfs of at least 10 percentage points between the shares of older and younger adults who identify with a religious group in more than two dozen countries – mostly with predominantly Christian populations in Europe and the Americas,” Pew researchers found.

American adults under 40 trail their elders by 17 percentage points in identifying with a religion. The rift is 28 percentage points in Canada, 24 points in South Korea, 18 points in Uruguay and 17 points in Finland.

Longer church commutes OK with Christians wary of ‘evangelical gimmicks’

Most churchgoers — almost 70 percent, according to new research — drive 15 minutes or less to get to Sunday worship.

That does not describe Todd and Marcia Putney of Macclenny, a rural community located along Interstate-10 in Northeast Florida.

The Putneys — he’s a retired American Baptist pastor, she’s a former school teacher — drive a about a half hour to Jacksonville Sunday mornings to worship at The Well at Springfield.

And they’re perfectly OK with that.

“We are not grumbling at all,” Todd Putney said.

But survey information published by Baylor University in September shows such attitudes and behaviors are in the minority in the United States.

Researchers found that 47 percent of Americans drive six to 15 minutes to connect with their fellowships while the commute takes 16-30 minutes for another 23 percent. Almost 22 percent said the drive takes less than five minutes.

Meanwhile, 9 percent say they commute 30 minutes or more to get to church, according a portion of the Baylor Religion Survey released in September.

Black Protestants are most likely to drive the furthest; close to 20 percent of them drive a half hour or more to church with Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, and Catholics, following in single digits.

Todd and Marcia Putney

Catholics lead in the 6- to 15-minute drive category at 56 percent, researchers found. They are followed by Mainline Protestants at 48 percent, Evangelicals at 45 percent and African Americans at 26 percent.

“The gap between a person’s place of residence and their place of worship has implications,” the study said. “Half of Americans who live within 15 minutes of the place of worship report attending religious services weekly or more. “As the distance from a congregation increases, the likelihood of weekly attendance decreases.”

Again, the Putneys buck that trend — which is no small effort because getting to The Well requires not only an interstate trip but several minutes negotiating Jacksonville’s downtown and inner-city neighborhoods.

“Sometimes we drive in five days a week, but generally we go in three,” Putney said.

Their motivation is likely that of anyone who drives a long way to church: finding an approach to service and fellowship that transcends distance.

“There is a segment of the Christian population that is very intentional about what they are looking for, and it involves much more than a Sunday worship experience,” he said.

For the Macclenny couple, the draw is to a small, open, progressive church that is highly involved in the community. The Well is a church plant of both the national and Florida branches of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“The Well is interested in social justice applications of the gospel,” he said. “It’s biblically based and yet very applicable socially to what’s going on in our community.”

And there is, in Pastor Susan Rogers, an inspiring leader and preacher who keeps the small, sometimes-roving congregation focused on its mission.

It’s not altogether unlike the American Baptist congregations Putney said he himself has pastored, including Community Baptist Church in Kodiak, Alaska.

There was plenty of competition from other congregations on the remote island. Community Baptist was there for Christians who wanted to live a progressive, compassionate faith.

It has a lot in common with The Well.

“There is no sophisticated music and none of the evangelical gimmicks or come-ons to get people to come to church,” Putney said. “And you’re there because you want to be there.”