(ABP) — Few words spark more immediate anxiety in a pastor than, “Preacher, we’ve found a great book, and we’re going to get a group together and teach it.”
This came home when two women informed me they were going to teach Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life one day a week for a couple of months. They planned to gather a small group of women, enjoy a light snack and dig into the book.
My mind started racing down a familiar track. Would they become caught up in the Calvinism that undergirds the book’s assumptions? Might they, without intention, create an uninformed conversation in the church family and spark tensions we did not need? Could I do something to head off their plans? There had to be a better book for them to use!
I decided to test them a bit. Gently, I asked, “How do you plan to handle Warren’s Calvinism?” Surely, such a question might lead them to ask for my help. Once they made the request, I could take control of the situation and head off potential problems.
“Oh, Mike,” they laughed, “That’s not a problem. We just deal with the stuff we find useful and ignore the rest.”
So much for the pastor’s ego and control issues!
Afterwards, I reflected on the exchange. Could it be they had something to teach me? My thoughts drifted back to some of the first advice I received as a fledgling pastor: “Teach the people as best you can, then trust the people with their lives.” How could I have forgotten that friend’s counsel?
I think a combination of factors led me to doubt the maxim. Certainly, the Baptist war of the last third of the 20th century played a role. During those decades, my ability to trust the intent and judgment of others took a beating. Ministerial life in Baptist congregations sometimes eroded the dream of an informed people of God, who were fully capable of making wise decisions. The religion marketplace offered a plethora of bad books and programs, extolling everything from “name it and claim it” theologies to prejudice poorly disguised as Christianity.
I cut myself some slack. Given all the factors, it wasn’t surprising that I had slipped into relatively mild efforts to control what my church members read, or at least what they discussed under church auspices.
What might I do to regain my nerve, to start once again to teach as best I knew how and trust the people with their lives?
History helped. I thought about John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, the two founders of the Baptist movement. Smyth was a clergyperson, Helwys a layperson. Smyth soon left the emerging Baptist movement to pursue other religious interests, while Helwys went on to write one of the most influential defenses of religious liberty in history. Had it not been for Helwys, the layperson, the Baptist movement might have faded away.
Thinking back through personal history contributed to my recovery as well. I remembered my grandfather, who did not finish high school yet knew well how to distinguish between good and bad theology. He took what some might regard as a simplistic approach, using First Corinthians 13 as his theological touchstone. I recalled a deacon in the first church I served, a retired construction foreman, who brought wisdom to every discussion the church entered, regardless of how a given discussion might have begun. At that point, the dam burst, and a host of wise laypersons from my past looked out from where they had hidden in my memory.
To a person, they practiced what I sometimes call “common sense theology,” testing all things by Scripture, in light of their own experiences and in ongoing conversation with others. More often than not, and sometimes more slowly than I might have liked, their approach worked.
Hopefully, I’ll remember that the next time someone says to me, “Preacher, we’ve found a great book, and we’re going to get a group together and teach it.”
Mike Smith is pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, Tenn.
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