Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My First Visit to a Southern Baptist Church

At North Oaks Baptist Church
Until last Saturday morning I had never set foot in a Southern Baptist Church.  I know some of my friends who live in the South may find this hard to believe, but it is true. There is a Southern Baptist Church in Mechanicsburg, PA, but I have never visited it. 

As part of my recent trip to Houston I was invited to give a presentation on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: Historical Introduction at the North Oaks Baptist Church in Spring, Texas.  When I told the congregation that this was my first experience with a Southern Baptist congregation, some of them looked at me like I was from another planet.  After all, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. (I responded to their sense of shock with a few New Jersey jokes.  That seemed to work).

Frankly, I did not know what to expect.  John Wilsey, the current interim pastor of the church, told me that his congregation was largely made of up theological and political conservatives, many of whom championed a "God and Country" approach to religion and politics. The motto of the church is "We Preach from the Bible and Sing from the Hymnal."  I quickly learned that the Baptists at North Oaks prefer the King James Bible (I have never been in a church with a KJV pew Bible) to other translations and reject the more contemporary praise music that dominates worship at so many mega-churches throughout the country.

My visit was part of a larger Saturday morning event called the "In God We Trust" revival.  The website advertising the event proclaimed: "A priority of all Christians should be to stand up for Christianity and to keep our national motto of 'In God We Trust' alive."  Had anyone (besides Wilsey) read my book before inviting me?  Nevertheless, I was happy to get a chance to talk about Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in the heart of David Barton country.  The people of North Oaks are the kind of people I want to reach with my book, so I was glad to be there.

John Wilsey shares many of my ideas about the relationship between church and state and the place of Christianity in the American founding.  I highly recommend his One Nation Under God?: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America.  He is a conservative evangelical who is wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.  He wants his congregation to think deeply about the relationship between American Christianity and American patriotism, and his insider status as the interim pastor has allowed him to win the trust of his congregation on these matters.

The "revival" began with some good old fashioned hymn-singing.  Doug Wood, the minister of music at North Oaks, scared me to half to death when he announced that all visiting speakers were required to sing a solo on a verse of their choice from any of the hymns being sung that day.  This brought uproarious laughter from the congregation and it went a long way toward easing whatever anxiety I may have felt about my talk.  I was really glad to sing some of the old hymns. These hymns have the kind of theological depth to them that most contemporary praise songs do not.

Wilsey began the "revival" with a sermon entitled "Christian Freedom and Responsibility."  He is a good Baptist in the sense that he is skeptical of the Christian church's propensity to mix religion and politics.  His message challenged the congregation to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's."  He debunked the idea that America was exceptional, a "chosen people," or a "new Israel."  It was a great sermon.

I was up next.  I was a bit worried that my public lecture would not be suitable for a "revival" meeting, but Wilsey calmed my fears.  After presenting my standard lecture on Christianity and the American founding I fielded questions that came from a variety of theopolitical

perspectives.  This was a thoughtful congregation.  They wanted to be faithful witnesses in the world and use history responsibility.  (I even got a few "amens").  They expressed concerns about the lack of religion in American history textbooks.  They grappled with the meaning of the phrase "separation of church and state."  It was a privilege to help them think through these issues.

I was expecting the North Oaks Baptists to hit me with talking points from David Barton, but they did not.  I don't know what they really thought of what I had to say, but they were generally curious.  They also bought a lot of books.  Most of the preconceptions I had of this congregation were unfounded

The North Oaks Baptist Church visit was the final event in what was a great few days in the Houston area.  I wrote about my experience at the Darrington prison here.  I posted on my BBQ dinner with some American religious historians from the area.  But I also want to thank John Wilsey and his wonderful family, the administration of the Houston extension of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the people of North Oaks for their hospitality during the weekend.  I hope one day I can return.