Well, I’ve been sporadic in the religious blogosphere for the last couple of years. But, as the new pastor of Augusta Heights Baptist Church, I decided that there is no time like the present to float out there again.
Palm Sunday was my first “official” day at the church (what timing for an opening sermon!). It was a terrific day. We didn’t have any baptisms. We didn’t have mass movement towards the front during the invitation. The pews were far from full. There was no power point, video, drama, or solo performance to put on YouTube.
But it was still a terrific day. Why? Because somebody learned something–mainly, me. In fact, I learned two things that are closely connected.
The first came from Mrs. Janie Taylor, a long-time friend of my parents and one of the “matriarchs” at Augusta Heights. Mrs. Janie agreed to read scripture on Sunday, and asked me which version I preferred. I expected to get a speech about how she thought the KJV was best, that was the one we “used” to read, if it was good enough for Jesus then it was good enough for us, etc, etc.
That’s what I get for my rampant agism.
Turns out Mrs. Janie prefers The Living Bible paraphrase. She was asking me because she was concerned that I would be too conservative to allow her to read a paraphrase!
I loved it. Absolutely loved it. She was respectful enough to ask, but had no fear about this being her preferred Bible for study. She had no concerns that I would “scold” her for choosing an inferior text (not that I would ever scold Mrs. Janie, or that she would ever permit it!).
I just thought it was awesome that an older member of the church would state, without fear or hesitation, that she did things a little different. And she wasn’t worried that some preacher, at her church or anywhere else, would judge her choice.
Then again, maybe that is to be expected at Augusta Heights, which brings me to my second lesson.
I found out over the weekend that the theme of the church for years had been, “Faith, Love, Unity, Diversity.” Yes, I said it. DIVERSITY.
That’s a word you don’t hear very often in Baptist life. Yet, it has been the mantra of AHBC since 1950.
Many Christians treat diversity like the Black Plague, something to be battled and its advocates subjected to waterboarding. Yet, here was a church claiming diversity as a part of its heritage.
It is in this setting that Mrs. Janie proudly and eloquently read her living Bible. It is in this setting that a 32-year old woman sits as chair of deacons.
It is in this setting that six African-Americans worshipped with a predominately white congregation. My bet: Less than 10 of the 200+ congregations meeting in Greenville, SC on Sunday had a higher percentage of diversity.
It is in this setting that a declining, but vibrant, congregation is attempting to reinvent itself…not just for its own benefit, but for the benefit of the community that needs it.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I would add that survival makes strange bedfellows. This is a congregation that is still struggling with our need to change; and even moreso, with what changes to make. But they have realized a lesson that some congregations numbering the hundreds (perhaps thousands) haven’t figured out: Principles are important, but Jesus always put them in the back seat to make room for people.
But perhaps the best answers for how to be the presence of Christ in this community on the edge of the city is to look to the PAST. And I’m not talking about the “glorious” past, but the principled past that unapologetically uses the term “diversity” as a statement of purpose.
Perhaps we should all read The Living Bible a little more often.