Today I visited Cherry Baptist. I arrived early enough to attend the Sunday school, and upon arriving the first thing I was asked was “Which Sunday school do you want to go to? We have five.”
“I don’t care,” I said, “Any of them.”
“I’ll take you to the men’s,” said the attendent. This struck me as a good idea. I have a hard time coming up with four alternatives to “Men’s,” but if by conjecture there is also Women’s, Children’s, Teen’s, and Young Couples’ (again, I am guessing), Men’s would be the best fit. Except that I don’t agree with splitting the body of believers into little monocultures.
The leader of the men’s Sunday school had written on his white board, “Be holy, for I am holy,” so I anticipated a lesson on this theme. I am not entirely sure if that is what I got or not. We started with an admonishment to pray for people of all political affiliations (for the discussion before the meeting got underway was on various anti-Democrat matters), since neither Republican nor Democratic govermental philosophies could address the actual need for government that was a result of sin. Nominal reminders that Democrats are not necessarily satanic are to be expected, but I thought the observation that the governmental problem was sin was a bit more acute than average. If the implications of that were actually realized, interesting political discussions could ensue. I am pretty clear that this was a theological statement, though, seperate from the political reality, which was to vote Republican for Capitalism and Christianity.
Getting in to the actual lesson, mention was made of Leviticus, of the impossible standard of holiness, the substitutionary nature of sacrifice, and Christ’s sole sufficiency as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. Then it was stressed repeatedly that Christ was raised bodily, and that this was extremely necessary, and the quackery of the Mormons made the sacrifice of Jesus of no effect.
Here things become hard to recapitulate, because while stressing the importance of the bodily resurrection, the focus shifted to the spiritual regeneration that allows us to practice holiness where before we could not. At this point someone asked a question regarding the assurance of salvation when a Christian knows he has sinned, and although this was somewhat addressed it was not explained very thoroughly and was promptly reintroduced when the leader went into 1 John for a verse on how one who rightly says he is of God does not sin (something like 1 John 3:6–but not necessarily that particular verse). I have a hard time sitting by when people with questions are left with inadequate answers, so I pointed out 1 John 1:8 to try to offer some balance to the picture, but it is sad that I should have to do that in a room full of regular church attendees at Sunday school. The room seemed to be filled mainly with retired farmers, with the next generation a close second; it’s a demographic that has probably been going to the same church their whole lives, and the pastor was the son of the previous pastor. There has been ample opportunity for these concepts to be well established.
Most of the points stated were already well memorized by the majority. A mummer of correct answers greeted any of the leader’s rhetorical questions. But the leader of the Bible study, the second in command or lieutenant pastor, if you will, did not offer more than theological points. I found no major disagreement with anything he said, but could not detect any coherence of thought or theme behind the succession of points, all of which he delivered in impressive, lively speech. As mentioned, he correctly insisted on the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ, but did nothing to explain its importance. Nobody mentioned 2 Corinthians 5, in the Sunday school or in the later sermon on a similar theme.
It was as if the ingredients for baking a cake were being presented, and all the ingredients were of unimpeachable quality; but lacking the appropriate mixture and heating, they made poor fare for enjoyment or growth. The same dissolution affected the principle sermon, where the head pastor delivered with even more impressive elocution, by turns sonorous and breathless, so that we might all feel divine shivers. But he failed to deliver any cogent development on his theme, of how Christ could endure the crucifixion, except for mentioning that it was for the “joy that was before him” and stressing the necessity of the bodily resurrection.
While in college a number of my peers mistakenly thought I knew everything because I frequently grasped the concept the teacher was presenting, understood and considered it, and then anticipated what the teacher was going to say by my comments. But this was not a matter of knowing beforehand the facts at the teacher’s disposal, as my colleagues supposed; this was understanding an idea presented. In the sermon at Cherry Baptist and in the Sunday school, I felt lost and disinterested, not because I could not understand what was said, but because I couldn’t understand why it was being said. It felt like wandering through a museum and staring stupidly at the displays, perfectly capable of reading the explanatory plaques but ignorant of the context of the display and the artifacts purpose and place in the larger society it came from.
It seems that the Protestants have simply reinvented Catholicism (and they, in their turn, Judaism), developing cathecisms and layers of certified experts to preserve and propagate knowledge of the truth, but lacking that living knowledge of God that grows organically from the seed planted in each person’s heart. The Baptists may have points of doctrine more sound than the other churches I went to, but if these doctrines are bricks, because they do not assemble them together, they have no stronger a wall then the other churches with their weaker “bricks.”
As churches today strive to increase their relevance and effectiveness with a multitude of demographically-targeted secondary programs, emphasizing smaller groups and more personal relationships, they still fail to provide what is missing, and propogate the deficiencies of having a few do all the teaching, thinking, and actual studious learning. The audience remains as bored and disinterested as one rightly is in viewing everlasting videos of someone else’s family, someone else’s life. Each of us needs to live a spiritual life of our own, and although comparing with and listening to others can help that, it can never replace it.
I think in this town and in this country all the places for spiritual food are serving chicken. Some are haute gormet and some are fast food, but they are all serving chicken, and after a while one has to wonder: Where’s the beef?