Last week, I shared with you some of what I learned at the Mercer Preaching Consultation at St. Simons. This week I would like to share with you some reflections on Dr. Bass’s presentation. Some of these are Dr. Bass’s reflections and some are my own.
First, Dr. Bass noted that Baptists and Methodists fared really well in the 2nd and 3rd Awakenings. We were able to change in ways that spoke to the culture without abandoning our values. We were able to help the culture see the importance of those values. I suppose it remains to be seen how we will fare in the fourth awakening.
As for me, I could not help but wonder if the current awakening is being prolonged a bit. The first three took place over about a forty year period. If the current awakening began in the 1960’s we are around fifty years into it. My sense is that we are also still in an early stage of the cycle, the section in which there is great division and in which fear is still prevalent.
Dr. Bass believes the awakening that is to come won’t take place in the church so much as in the community. Perhaps this explains why the current awakening is taking a bit longer. In the past, the spiritual journey for most people has moved from belief, to a change in behavior, to becoming involved in a faith community. We are seeing a shift in that pattern to one in which people become involved in a community, to belief, to a change in behavior. Rather than the church being a closed community in which you have to “prove” yourself in order to participate, the church embraces people, nurtures their belief and then allows their belief to transform their behavior.
I have to say this pattern of embracing people, nurturing their belief, and letting that transform their behavior seems to me to be closer to the way Jesus went about his ministry. While this “new order” does represent change for the church, I feel it is a positive change wherein we rediscover Jesus’ model for growing the community of faith. This will also require us to be open to how we do things and who does them. For one thing, more of our ministry will need to take place outside the walls of the church.
One of the most striking observations by Dr. Bass was that, in each awakening, it wasn’t just the church that changed, but our perceptions of God changed as well. In each case we began to perceive God as being more accepting and inclusive. Dr. Bass characterized this as “movement” on the part of God in which the table of faith becomes bigger.
Perhaps this is simply a reflection of my own bias, but I would suggest that God was not moving so much as our understanding of God and his message was becoming clearer. I think God has always been more accepting and inclusive than we have been ready to admit. Baptists learned this lesson the hard way with regard to race relations and women in ministry, but we are, by the grace of God, continuing to learn.
Finally, those of us who heard Dr. Bass’s presentation heard it as a word of hope or, at least, I certainly did. What we are experiencing today, while sometimes baffling and frightening, is not new. The church and the culture have gone through these cycles before. Rather than this transformation being a harbinger of “the end,” perhaps it is simply another opportunity for us to be transformed by the grace and the power of God. I firmly believe that God continues, each day, to shape his creation, including us, to more closely conform to his will. I believe that God will be victorious in the end, and that is the most hopeful word I know.