Pastorally pushing the congregational reset button
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Pastoral opportunities are often tied to current events, said Knoxville pastor Mike Smith to a fall gathering of ministry peers here.
He pointed to two events that occurred within two weeks in 2015: the racially motivated murders of African-American church members in Charleston, S.C., and the U.S. Supreme Court decision calling for nationwide legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
“You could feel it as a pastor,” Smith, pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, said in a presentation at the Mercer University Preaching Consultation.
Such moments offer fresh contexts, he said, for the “ongoing ministerial task of helping congregations and individual Christ followers to hit the reset button.”
Ministers spend much time and energy on helping congregants hit the reset button, he reminded his peers, from life-changing personal issues that rescue a person from self-defeat to altering familiar congregational practices such as using baked bread instead of communion wafers.
Particularly, Smith focused on the pastoral challenge of helping Christians “reset their approach to the interpretation and application of the Bible.” The starting place he commended is found in discerning the “existing default.”
“Through observation and conversation,” Smith said he determined that love of Jesus and the Bible remains high among church members who also, when asked, agree that all scripture is to be read and interpreted in light of Jesus.
With diversity of thought regarding theology, politics and social backgrounds, the congregation finds that “the Jesus-centered approach to interpretation and application helps them live alongside one another, give one another some space, and even build community,” he said.
Yet when facing “a matter of keen dispute,” he noted, there is a tendency to default to a “flat-Bible approach” that bases one’s opinion on an isolated text or texts.
The pastor’s task, Smith noted, is one of helping members see the difference between their profession and practice.
“I ask myself how I might help them better remember that Jesus — not Moses, for example — is Lord for Christ followers.”
This pastoral role, he said, enables congregants to “not only see but feel the quandaries and tragedies generated by a ‘flat-Bible’ approach to interpretation and application.”
In doing so, he said, the larger task is to help them to be who they say they are or want to be: followers of Christ. And this task is better accomplished, he noted, when they know that you actually like them — even if they disagree with you.
Such needed pastoral work is done in a variety of ways, said Smith, but “surely preaching must be one of them.”
Smith said his Knoxville congregation avoided common knee-jerk reactions to the big news stories of 2015 regarding racism and homosexuality. But he didn’t avoid the pertinent matters in his preaching.
Two sermons, he said, “produced some results” for the congregation.
Smith said his “behind the scenes” work through pastoral conversations increased dramatically after the racist-induced shootings in Charleston and the Supreme Court decision on marriage.
“I found myself dealing with tradition, fear, prejudice and politics,” he said. “Underneath all such matters, though, most of the members seemed to be struggling with what to do with the Bible, more specifically their framework for interpreting and applying the Bible.”
And as is often the case, many turned to the default position of a “flat Bible” and were trapped by its limits, he said.
OPEN OR CLOSED?
Smith used as the text for his first sermon Luke 24:36-49, in which the risen Christ appeared to his confused and fearful disciples. He focused on one phrase in particular: “Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
Pointedly, Smith asked his listeners: “Is your mind open or closed?”
He noted that the disciples’ minds were closed although they knew the scriptures well. They were “trapped in an interpretation loop of which they were unaware, a loop which led them always to the same arguments and conclusions.”
Smith pointed out that Jesus opened their minds so they might examine the familiar scriptures yet find new conclusions.
He noted that Peter and Paul had changed their scriptural interpretations too, although it caused much backlash. As a result, a new interpretive tradition — welcoming gentiles into the faith — became the new norm.
In conclusion, Smith reminded his listeners: “Minds open to revised and new interpretations of the scriptures often produce lives which honor Christ, lives which change the church and the world.”
In Matthew 15:3, Jesus asked some Pharisees and scribes: “Why do you break the commandments for the sake of your tradition?”
In his second sermon, Smith delved into how Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of those who used their interpretative default to evade the clear, overarching commands.
Regarding what Jesus deemed the greatest commandment, Smith said: “It’s amazing how clever religious folk can be at using religion to get them out of loving God and loving others.” He was pleased to see heads nodding in agreement.
After showing a clip from the movie Selma in which an older black woman is unfairly thwarted from registering to vote, he reminded the congregation that such injustices were carried out primarily by white court clerks in good standing with their churches.
He speculated that most of them knew and affirmed the command to “love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Yet they found a way around that clear command when it came to racial equality — using the default of isolated biblical texts.
Smith shared how Richard Furman, a prominent Baptist leader in the early 1800s who progressively promoted education and benevolence, could not see persons of color as his neighbors. Grounding his perspective in scripture, “he saw them as inferiors, best suited to a life of slavery.”
Slowly and painfully, the traditional perspective held by Furman and other Baptists of the South changed. “There was and will always be reinterpretive work to be done,” he said.
Smith concluded: “What the church and the world need now is what God wants the most: Christians who are willing to rethink their approach to and take on the scriptures in light of Jesus and the great commandment. Otherwise, we will always have good church folk developing religiously sanctioned ways to get out of caring for others … [and] finding ways to keep others (even Jesus) in ‘their place.’”
He invited his listeners to join him in the hard and risky work of taking on the task of reinterpretation and application.
To bring home the tragedy of being caught in a deficient interpretive way of thinking, Smith told the story of “Old Man Shaw,” as he was known. The long-time church member eagerly offered public prayers and dependably taught Sunday school for seventh and eighth-grade boys.
He was also “a profound hater,” Smith recalled. “He hated people whose skin color differed from his own, people from Eastern Europe, women who thought themselves equal to men, stray dogs and Democrats.”
Old Man Shaw, said Smith, read his Bible daily and memorized its content. He claimed that the Bible was the only book he had ever read, and based his whole life on it.
He also severely beat his sons — though no one in the community said anything about the obvious abuse. To Old Man Shaw, the Bible granted him the full authority as head of the family and endorsed what he considered to be strong discipline.
“His Bible clearly told him that dis-obedient children ought to be stoned, but he was content to settle for a belt and a cane,” said Smith. “Old Man Shaw, of course, was a sadist masquerading as a father and Christian” — who “used his interpretive approach to scripture … to justify breaking the great commandment and ignoring Jesus.”
Smith noted that the other adults in the rural community of his upbringing did not know how to challenge Old Man Shaw because they too were locked into the false assumption that if something can be found in the Bible, then it must be right and operative for all time.
Smith confessed: “Each time I am tempted to settle for an interpretation of the Bible that suggests God endorses hurting, shutting out or devaluing others, I remember Old Man Shaw and say to myself, ‘Never again!’”
Then he asked the congregation simply, “What about you?”
What followed were more pastoral conversations about how to interpret scripture than Smith recalls ever having in his many years of ministry. And, because of the comfort level with his congregants, many of those conversations related to human sexuality.
Emerging from this time in the life of the congregation is a phrase that gets repeated when wrestling with matters of biblical interpretation: “Are we having an Old Man Shaw moment?” NFJ
By John D. Pierce