This is a review of a sermon given by the pastor of First Baptist Church of Umatilla, Brooks Braswell, on Baby Dedication Sunday, January 12, 2015. To listen to other sermons (audio or video), go to www.fbcumatilla.org and click About Us and then click Resources. The scripture references for the sermon are Genesis 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 1:10-11, and Revelation 3:16. The recording of the sermon that is posted online is not the from the service I attended, and my notes are sparse, so there are instances where I’d like to insert a direct quote but can’t. If I unintentionally misrepresent Braswell’s words as a result, it is my hope and prayer that he’ll let me know (I contact pastors with blog links to sermon reviews), and then I’ll update the blog post with his comments. It is especially unfortunate that the sermon video is from a different service, because there were two particular things Braswell said that I wanted to address word-for-word. I’ll identify those later in the blog series.
Why come to church?
Braswell says there are three reasons to go to church:
1. To get fed spiritually
2. To feed others spiritually
Believers interacting with believers is a good thing. During my time as a member of the institution, I got fed spiritually and hopefully fed others spiritually. I went to big congregation meetings, participated in small group bible study, and interacted socially with other believers who I met through the institution.
Most of my spiritual growth during my time in the institution, however, took place when I interacted informally and socially with other believers — the conversations that didn’t involve study guides and weren’t facilitated or guided by a group leader. In my experience, the institution, functioning sort of like Facebook, was a platform for meeting other believers. It was and is definitely useful in that way. The real relationships with other believers happened not because of but in spite of the platform.
For example, let’s pretend Zuckerberg felt called by God to become a pastor, and he decided to make Facebook an online institutional church.
Imagine logging into Facebook and finding out that Zuckerberg would be doing most of the talking, and that if Zuckerberg were not talking, that all group conversations would guided and moderated by Zuckerberg-approved group leaders. Any conversation that wasn’t relevant to Zuckerberg’s sermon would be permitted, perhaps for a short period of time before and after Zuckerberg’s sermon, and during a three-minute meet and greet time. Any conversations that called into question Zuckerberg’s sermon content would be briefly tolerated, but once conversation threads with such content had more than a handful of comments, those threads would be deleted. Facebook members that persisted in such conversations would either have their accounts suspended until they repented or have their accounts deleted altogether.
Obviously, true freedom of expression and the opportunity to explore ideas that weren’t part of the planned group discussion would need to take place outside of the institutional church of Zuckerberg.
I know it’s a silly analogy, but it serves the purpose. The institution limits and defines the interaction of believers. And that’s part of the reason why the institution is in decline. Continue reading for more about this decline.
Maybe some Facebook members would argue that members get fed spiritually through Zuckerberg’s sermon, and that members get fed and feed others spiritually through small groups. I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I would argue that the unmoderated interactions of believers, especially when there is no threat of having one’s account deleted, would tend to be more genuine, more relevant, and more likely to lead to the growth of the Reign of God on this planet.
The goal of the church?
According to Braswell, the goal is to grow. My initial reaction to his idea is to wholeheartedly agree. The Reign of God is not yet all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28), but the more its slow (yes, slow and almost imperceptible Luke 13:20-21) growth continues the better off the entire human race will be. As believers fulfill their role as ministers of reconciliation, the Reign of God grows not only in their own hearts but in the hearts of others. This incredible transformation is an internal one that can’t be measured mathematically or scientifically, only measured in how we relate to one another, especially when there’s conflict.
Please understand that there’s a difference between the Church (any believers gathered anytime and anywhere) and the church (certain believers and sometimes not-yet-believers gathered as laity under the leadership of clergy, usually with a statement of faith, a religious organization).
I’m pretty sure that Braswell’s idea of grow and my idea of grow are two entirely different ideas. Thankfully, he offers definitions for the word grow, and then expounds on what grow means to him.
First, the definitions:
To undergo natural development by increasing in size and changing physically.
To progress to maturity.
To become larger or greater over a period of time, to increase.
Then, Braswell expounds,
The goal of the church, I believe that the Bible would teach that if a church is meeting, that the main goal is to grow. Not to sit still. Not to go backwards. A large, large percentage of churches all across the United States are either plateaued or they’re declining. Declining meaning they are losing membership. They are on their way to being extinct. You know, they’re losing and losing and losing, and they’re not ever gaining anything. They have no vision. They have no passion. They really have no ministry. They are kind of just stuck in that rut. They are being who they think they need to be, but they are not willing to make some changes that really need to take place.
And what’s sad is, folks, that’s the majority. I mean, you drive around Lake County — there’s churches everywhere. But why do they always look the same? Why do you never hear about what’s taking place in some of these other churches?
And then you hear about places like First Baptist Church of Umatilla, and I’m going to brag on the Lord for a little bit today. It’s not going to be about you guys, so don’t get excited.
And you hear about the growth of a church like First Baptist Umatilla, and it’s so rare. And what blows my mind is how can a message of hope, how can a message of salvation be a message that doesn’t change lives, where people don’t grow, where churches don’t grow, where they don’t go from one service to two and two to three, new buildings, and add things?
We have excitement. We’ve got unity. We’ve got a vision.
Which definition of grow matters most to Braswell? I have my suspicions, but I can’t say for sure, because only God knows a person’s heart and intentions. But I can say that he uses well over one-third of his sermon time to talk about various ways to grow the membership of FBCU and a good portion of the remaining time to contrast his perceived positive qualities of FCBU with his perceived negative qualities of other institutional churches in Lake County. Listen to the sermon for yourself.
Growing the institutional church is hard work. Personally, I don’t think the benefits (yes, I’ll admit there are some benefits) outweigh the time, money, and effort involved. I’ve been there, done that, and know how exhausting it can be — at least, for those truly invested in growing the institutional church (as opposed to those who just show up, throw a few dollars in the offering, and leave).
If you think that your time, money, and effort — all valuable resources God has entrusted to you — are more wisely invested in the institutional church than in other charitable efforts or non-profit organizations in your community, that’s between you and God. Just realize that as the centuries come and go, institutional churches spring up, spring leaks, decline, and go extinct, the Kingdom (or Reign) of God remains and continues to grow through the centuries.