church life

Baptists face Christmas, present and future

This is the time of year when many pastors sit in their offices muttering, "It happened again." The Rev. Rick Lance knows all about that. He has long been one of the true believers who battle the waves of "Happy Holidays" messages that define one of their faith's holiest seasons as the civic tsunami between Halloween and the inevitable wrapping-paper wreckage on Christmas morning.

The problem is that whining doesn't work. Thus, Lance has grown tired of preaching his all-to-familiar annual sermon on why the faithful should "keep Christ in Christmas" while making fewer pilgrimages to their shopping malls.

If people actually want to celebrate Christmas differently, this countercultural revolt will require advance planning and real changes.

"To continue playing the game of 'ain't it awful what they have done to Christmas' may be a cop-out," argued Lance, the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "After all, we contribute to the commercialization of Christmas. We are a part of the supposed problem of abuse that the Christmas season has experienced. ...

"A revitalization of Christmas will not come from Wall Street, Main Street, the malls or the halls of Congress and the state legislature. The chatter of talking heads on news programs will not make this a reality."

It would help if their churches offered constructive advice. That's why it was significant that, just before Dec. 25, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service published several commentaries by Lance and others raising unusually practical questions about how members of America's largest non-Catholic flock can fine-tune future Christmas plans.

For example, Christians for centuries have marked the pre-Christmas season of Advent with appeals to help the needy. It's significant that Baptists -- who tend to ignore the liturgical calendar -- have long honored one of their most famous missionaries and humanitarians by collecting missions offerings during this timeframe. This Baptist missionary to China even has her own Dec. 22 feast day on Episcopal Church calendar.

Thus, Lance noted that, this year "my wife and I decided to make our largest gift ever to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. … This may be a small step, but we believe it is a step in the right direction."

One big problem is that America is a highly complex culture that observes at least three versions of Christmas, with the secular often bleeding into the sacred. They are:

* The Holidays: Formally begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. The season slows around Dec. 15, with few events close to Dec. 25. Shopping malls and lawyers define these Holidays.

* Christmas: This season begins in early December in most churches, with many concerts and festivities scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 20, so as not to clash with travel plans by church members. There is at least one Christmas Day service.

* The 12 days of Christmas: This celebration begins with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Dec. 25 and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6. This ancient tradition is all but extinct.

So what are believers supposed to do next time to restore faith to the Christmas season?

The Rev. Todd Brady of First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., urged parents to think twice before -- literally -- adding Santa to their outdoor Nativity scenes.

"Children in today's world already have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality," he said. "Christmastime often blurs even further the line between what is real and what is not real."

Church historian Nathan Finn also asked parents to weigh the implications of discussing that magical list that determines "who's naughty and nice." Children quickly realize this is an empty threat.

"Far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children," he noted. The problem is that the real Christian Gospel insists that, "every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal. ... There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list."

The bottom line: The true meaning of Christmas isn't that Santa Claus is the highest authority on sin and grace.

"We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list," stressed Finn, "not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us."

Church signs along the road

Donald Seitz had suffered through a long day during a bad week at his office on Nashville's famous Music Row.

On his way home from a business call, he drove past the Greater Pleasant View Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. As usual, the no-tech sign out front offered a folksy thought for the week. This one caught his eye.

"He who kneels before God can stand before anyone," it said, in black, movable letters inserted by hand into slots on a plain white background.

Seitz pulled over and got out of his car to study the sign.

"It's all about timing," he said. "I've driven past thousands of church signs in my life, but this was the right sign on the right day. It got me. That's the thing about these signs. They grab you when you least expect it. They move you, somehow."

Before long, the president of Redbird Music crossed the line between intrigued and somewhat obsessed.

Along with his wife and their young son, he packed their car full of camera equipment and "lots of sippy cups" and hit the road. His goal was to find as many of these old-fashioned signs as possible -- the kind that say things like "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous," "Exercise daily, walk with the Lord," "God answers knee mail" and "Give God what is right, not what is left."

They spread their trips over three years and Seitz stopped keeping track of the miles after they passed the 20,000 mark. The result was "The Great American Book of Church Signs," which contains 100 photographs taken in nearly 40 states. The pilgrimage, he said, was like reading "one long American sermon."

Seitz did have questions. He wondered if these signs are still common at rural churches, but rarely used by city megachurches. Also, do some denominations embrace them, while others they are too simplistic? Would he find a red-church vs. blue-church pattern?

Many of his preconceptions were based on his experiences living and driving in the Bible Belt, especially two-lane roads in the Southeast.

"This book could have been done in Tennessee, alone. In fact, I think I could have done a whole book in Nashville," said Seitz, laughing. "In this part of the world, you can throw a rock in just about any direction and hit four or five churches that have these signs. ...

"Church signs are more common in some places than others, but if you keep looking you'll find them at all kinds of churches all over the country."

Thus, the Harmony Hill Church of God in Fayetteville, Tenn., proclaimed, "Faith is a journey, not a destination." But Seitz also found a sign that said, "Love God with all of your heart, then do whatever you want" in front of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, New York.

The Tompkinsville (Ken.) Church of Christ's sign warned rural drivers that, "A dam holds water back. It's not my last name. God." On the other side of the doctrinal aisle, the sign at the South Church Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Portsmouth, N.H., announced -- with typically broad-minded sentiments -- that, "True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess."

Seitz said he was surprised that he saw very few signs that included political themes, although it was easy to read between the lines of one that said, "The Ten Commandments are still posted here." It was

also easy to interpret another marquee that stressed, "God is not a Republican or a Democrat."

This is not advanced theology. The message on a typical sign is only eight words long and is the product of a volunteer's clever imagination, research in old church bulletins or, in the digital age, a quick search on the World Wide Web. Most combine a chuckle with a moral message that strives to appeal to strangers as well as members.

After all of his travels, Seitz decided that the archetypal church-sign message was this one: "Life is fragile. Handle with prayer."

"It's succinct, it has that little pun in there and it's powerful, if you think about it for a minute," he said. "That's the essence of a good church sign message. That's what you're trying to do -- get people to stop and think for a minute."

Gallup, statistics and discipleship

George Gallup Jr. has been studying the numbers for a half century and nobody knows better than he does that they just don't add up.

Most of the familiar, comforting statistics that describe public religion remain remarkably stable from poll to poll. Somewhere around 86 percent of Americans say they believe in God and another 8 percent or so in a "higher power" of some kind. Sixty percent say faith is "very important" in daily life and another 15 percent say it's "fairly important."

In the typical poll, around 80 percent identify themselves as some brand of Christian and claim membership in a congregation. Somewhere between 41 and 46 percent of Americans say they attended church or synagogue in the previous week. Can religious faith answer all of today's problems? Six in 10 say "yes." Throughout the 1990s, nearly two in three affirmed that "God really exists and I have no doubt about it."

But there is another side of this religion equation, said Gallup, during a recent address at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.

"Sadly, our society continues to be wracked by domestic problems," he said. "Four in 10 American children go to bed without a father in the home. One-third of teens have been physically abused in the home. One-fourth of all Americans say that drinking is a problem in their home and half of all marriages this year will end in divorce.

"What lies ahead? Will democracy remain viable? ... How can our faith make a difference? How can it sustain us?"

That final leap of logic -- linking morality, politics and faith -- may seem strange to those who have followed his meticulous work as America's most trusted brand name in public information and the author of 16 books. But Gallup is convinced that most Americans believe that the state of the nation is closely tied to its spiritual health.

Now, the 74-year-old pollster has officially retired. But this doesn't mean Gallup will disappear. As a young man with a religion degree from Princeton University, he considered entering the Episcopal priesthood. No one expects him to stop asking questions about the role of faith in American life.

Truth is, Gallup has more questions than answers. But he said being retired will allow him even more time and freedom to discuss the strategies he thinks clergy should adopt if they want to help the faithful follow the doctrines they claim to believe.

"Surveys reveal an unprecedented desire for religious and spiritual growth among people in all walks of life and in every region of the nation," he said. "There is an intense searching for spiritual moorings, a hunger for God. It is for churches to seize the moment and to direct this often vague and free-floating spirituality into a solid and lived-out faith."

The key, he said, is that too many pastors naively assume that church members know and understand the core doctrines of their own faith.

"For example, half of all Protestants have no idea whatsoever what the word 'grace' means and what it has to do with their salvation," he said, in an interview not long after the Massachusetts address. "Now, that's pretty basic doctrine. Pastors today assume that their people know the basics. They don't."

Clergy assume that believers are familiar with the contents of those Bibles sitting on their bookshelves. They assume church members understand the teachings of other major religions and can hold thoughtful, respectful conversations about the differences between these faiths.

Many even assume their members sincerely want to repent of their sins, amend their lives and become serious Christians.

Gallup said he is constantly shocked to hear that few pastors ever ask members -- person to person, face to face -- about the status of their faith and personal lives. Many pastors no longer see the need to openly discuss the impact of sin.

"Someone has to challenge people to be true disciples of Christ," he said. "Someone has to ask the hard questions. If we don't talk about the whole dimension of sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness, what is the faith all about? What are we doing? ...

"Without true discipleship, the church can simply turn into a social services agency."