Southern baptist Identity

To follow this question, you might want to download the pdf of Ed Stetser’s talk here.

Quoth iMonk:
In this quote, Stetzer puts the challenge simply: can we cooperate with those who LOOK different? Not those who believe differently. Not those with a different confession, but those who simply look different.

I am reminded of how often I've read reformed blogs make fun of the physical appearance of twenty-something emerging type pastors, or how other non-confessional, non-gospel aspects of emerging churches will be mocked as being "trendy, faddish, etc."
I am one of those blogs, iMonk. I admit it, and I’m really not ashamed of it. Here’s why it’s an object of ridicule: while you might be able to find a handful of these guys for whom this “look” is missionally necessary, it is by-and-large a Seminar student fashion statement akin to people in MFA programs who keep hand-written journals, or music majors with black hair, or even SBC pastors who still wear corporate suits everywhere and have, as you have astutely pointed out, 1950’s corporate haircuts.

It’s a lemming mentality. It’s the idea – the impulse – to follow the outward appearance of some thing which is happening without actually pursuing the thing itself. If there’s any guy on the face of the earth which proves this doesn’t have to be this way, it’s John Piper.

Piper doesn’t show up at Passion dressed like, well, Louie Giglio – and I have a lot of respect for Giglio. But there’s Piper, speaking to thousands of college kids, dressed like he always dresses – like a 1980’s college professor. He’s 60 (more or less) and he doesn’t have to pretend he’s hip, or relevant, or cool, or informed. He opens up the Bible, and preaches exactly the same way he preaches at Bethlehem Baptist every single Sunday.

And I bring that up to say this: if that’s what was happening even 7 times out of 10 in so-called “emergent” and “missional” churches, I think there’d be almost no fight. There’d be some fight – but it would be far less anathemacious than what is happening right now.

Seriously: think about what is happening in SBC churches for the most part. Most of them have transitioned to some more-contemporary form of worship, or at least what is called a “blended” style. That’s more than half-way to a “missional” concession. Most pastors who have the facilities are using multimedia – Powerpoint, video, multiple sites receiving one pastor’s preaching via some kind of local media loop. Many, many pastors are streaming their Sunday message via church web sites.

Guys like me – and others who you would associate with me – aren’t wigged out about using the means at our disposal. We’re wigged out that some kid with a bible college degree, or maybe an M.Div., and about 2 years of understudy at some middle-sized church is going to go ahead and take on the trappings of a culture which neither you nor I would say is God-honoring and somehow, through his hair products and his skater layered look – and for the hard-core, a tat – teach people that Jesus commands repentance. You’ll excuse me for asking, but “with what?”

I have an anecdote which will be useful to demonstrate what I am talking about here. When I was working FT at the bookstore, one day this beater Pontiac pulled into the lot, and this biker guy climbed out – very ZZ Top after about 100 miles of dirt road. We greet everyone the same as they walk into the store: “How are you today?” I did exactly that, and he didn’t even look over at me.

He went straight back to the Bibles. I give everyone about a minute to get their bearings, and then I walked back and I asked him, “Anything I can help you with?”

He doesn’t say anything, but he’s looking intently at the Bibles. After about another minute, he asks me, “You work here?”

Well, yeah. “Can I help you with something?”

He commences to tell me that he was saved in prison, and that he just recently got out, and he’s now in prison ministry, and he needs “prison bibles”. I told him honestly (I was still a rookie) that I didn’t know what a prison Bible was, and he told me it was a Bible with a paper cover with big print. I had one by accident, and he swiped it up – and so I don’t forget this part, I gave it to him for free for teaching me what a prison Bible was.

Anyway, big, hairy guy, covered in tats, terrible teeth, hair like dirty rope – completely insane for Jesus. We spent an hour talking about his testimony and his ministry to prisoners and his approach to ministry. I didn’t count, but I remember thinking that he didn’t have any words bigger than 2 syllables, except “resurrection” – and he said it “res-RECK-shun”. He left with a free bible, and came back several time over the next year to get more Bibles, and to get equipment for the Lord’s table, and other books.

The question, as I think about this in the terms you have positioned, is whether this guy needed to get a haircut and a daily bath and shave to be an acceptable minister of Christ – and I think the answer turns out to be “no”. And that answer is really points at the question I asked above about the kid with the fashion statement. With what will this guy – the ex-con in prison ministry – preach the Gospel? With actual authenticity and not make-believe authenticity.

But if that is the right answer, should some middle-class kid who, after bible college and an internship at Respectible Community Church, grow out dreadlocks, stop shaving, stop bathing and “down size” to one set of clothes in order to follow a call into prison ministry because my anecdotal brother in leather is clearly OK that way?

See: it turns out to be a question of authenticity. I know the missionals get all “Annie Armstrong” at this point, but there’s a massive difference between being an indigenous missionary to a completely foreign people and being a transplanted person inside one subculture who speaks a common language.

If the legitimate example is Tim Keller – and he’s a brilliant example, the one everyone else ought to be studying – then open the other eye and look at him. He’s not a stinky bohemian even though he is ministering to the stinky bohemians of NYC. If the missional prototype is Tim Keller, then it seems to me that “authentic” doesn’t mean “clothes by Aeropostale”, a paper cup of half-latte decafe glued to your left hand, and the Garth Brooks wire mike stuck in your ear. It means being personally authentic rather than branded. And to bring this parenthetical to a close, someone who dresses like a biker but has never really lived that life is kidding himself if he thinks people will accept him as a biker when he’s obviously a middle-class kid trying to prove something. He’d be better off by far to wear his usual clothes and demonstrate the love of God and declare the Gospel to dying men.
Southern Baptists have long struggled with their reputation as a stereotypical Southern denomination, right down to the suits, KJV Bibles, Sunday School pins and hymnals. Stetzer is asking us to see that culture and set it aside as a norm or a stereotype. He brilliantly emphasizes that Biblical faithfulness, cultural relevance and counter-cultural are NOT opposing characteristics.
I agree with this. There’s no question that this is what he’s calling us in the SBC to do. None.

The question is if having some kid from North Little Rock dress like he’s from Compton will make him a credible witness to anything in actual Compton. See: if he’s willing to lie about who he is really, why wouldn’t he be willing to lie about his so-called “Good News”?
Is Stetzer right: a church can be faithful, relevant AND counter cultural? Or is he wrong? Does cultural relevance- even in an intentional counter culture- always mean compromise on the Biblical message?
It’s the last question there which intrigues me. I think I answered the other two, above, but if I missed something, please take a free redirect on me.

That last question – does cultural relevance always mean compromise on the Biblical message – is such a double-edged sword. There’s no question that it drops an anvil on the Wile E. Coyote of SBC stoginess – but it also drops an equally-weighted anvil on people who are doing the exact same thing on the other side of the fence. Because the question is not “should we be ‘relevant’?” The question is: in what way is the Gospel relevant? That is: in the 1920’s, man was still sinful and Christ still died for sins, but what was the context in which people would receive that?

Do I need to dress like Chappell for people to listen to me? Or maybe like Brad Pitt? Or maybe like Justin Timberlake? Is it really true that there’s no way to communicate with people unless you dress like them and hang out in the same dives they hang out in? Do you really need a beer to break out the Gospel – is the Gospel like asking someone out for the first time?

See: I think I get the Tim Keller thing – because Keller is on about answering the questions people actually have, not the questions we wish they would ask. Keller is on about demonstrating the results of the Gospel today to these people here rather than as if you were doing a set piece from the 1840s. But If Keller is the missional guy, why are so many so-called missionals not like him? Why are they so phony in their authenticity? Why are they plainly dumb (and for the sake of peace, I’ll not list any blogs I think are in that category on either side of the missional divide)?

I think it’s a fine point that in many cases, as Michael Horton said on this week’s WHT, people are afraid of “otherness” – and some of what is happening right now in the SBC is a fear of “otherness”. But the reality is that the so-called “missional” side of the bridge is simply awash in theologically-questionable people with non-transparent motives.

And let me close this answer with this, from your last response: you say you want trust to be the watchword in cooperation. Paul says, “it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy”. When he says this to the Corinthians, he is chastising them for elevating themselves above the apostles when they are themselves unworthy to be called stewards – they can’t even discipline a guy who’s sleeping with his step-mom. But in that, trust cannot be taken for granted: trust has to be earned and it has to be serviced in some way – there has to be a way in which trust can be fortified over time. It is not a given.

Given the state of the “emerging” movement – and that it is not filled with Kellers or even Driscolls but with fellows who are far less grounded and focused – the question of whether the trust can just be granted is a completely fair question.