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The Rev. Dr. William L. Self The Rev. Dr. William L. Self

The Rev. Dr. Bill Self is pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA, a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Johns Creek Baptist Church, Alpharetta, GA


Swimming to the Deep End of the Pool

1 Corinthians 3:10-13, 12:12-20

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

September 26, 2004

One of the joys of being a grandfather is getting to take your grandchildren to do special and wonderful things. Not long ago, I was called upon to take my two grandsons to their swimming lessons. I thought this would be the routine trip, but I was wrong. The pool was enclosed in a rather large building, and the sounds of all those excited children of different ages and abilities were deafening.

Upon further observation, I noticed something unusual. All the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool. The only sound coming from the deep end was the sound of experienced swimmers swimming with discipline and confidence. There was no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration. They were following the instructions of their leader.

After a lifetime of parish ministry, I have concluded that all the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool from those who haven't learned to swim with confidence or are not secure enough to venture into the deep water.

Churches reflect that clearly. The noise comes from the shallow end, not the deep end. Look at current statistics. Church attendance is up. Excitement is up. We have gone into show business, but if you dig deep into those statistics, you don't find discipleship being up, nor do you find godliness up. We find a lot of people who are attending but few people who are swimming in the deep end. There is not much Christlikeness or commitment. It's easy to draw a crowd. The people of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have taught us how to draw a crowd. But it's tough to build a congregation. One pastor said to me with tongue in cheek, "Our people are deeply committed in every area except three: lifestyle, mindset, and values. Other than that, they are deeply committed to the Gospel."

Jack Hayford, a California pastor, recently said in an article, "They come for the show, but they refuse to grow." I think that says what all of us are experiencing. People breeze through our churches as though they are at a salad bar, selecting the items they want, taking nothing that is unpleasant or challenging and, at best, paying only the minimum.

When I was graduated from seminary, I thought I had the solution to this. I knew more then than at any other time in my ministry. I was called to a young church that had had its share of difficulties as it was being formed. It was composed mainly of blue-collar families employed by the railroad. They were good people, and I was to be their first full-time pastor. I knew that all they needed was a good dose of theology and a working knowledge of the titan theologians-Niebuhr, Barth, Bultman-and the church would turn around. We were going to be the big-idea church, and I soon discovered that the big idea was not going to turn it around. They were more interested in billfolds and babies than Barth and Bultman. One old deacon wisely said to me, "Pastor, just put the cookies on the lower shelf where we can all get them." By going to the big idea church, I had turned God's chosen people into God's frozen people.

If ideas did not move them in my first parish, I thought action would in my second parish. So we put everyone into little work groups to develop action plans. I felt like a juggler who was spinning plates on the end of sticks. There was nothing wrong with a church that a demonstration, a petition, or a project wouldn't solve. People began to ask me what cause we supported or opposed, which candidates or boycotts or marches we supported or opposed. Even today, we still get questions like that. We have trained a certain segment of our culture to ask those questions. They want to know where the church lines up on the political spectrum because they think they are joining an action group. But I found out the big action did not revive the church. If the answer was not in the big idea or the big action, it had to be in the big deal. So I tried that in my third church.

As a background to this, you need to know I grew up in a small south Florida town, and the biggest thing that happened each year was the carnival coming to our little town. It always came in February, and that's a good time to be in Florida. A group of us would go, and we'd hear the pitch man say, "Step right up! Pay your money, knock out the balloons with the darts, and you'll win the wonderful prizes!" No one ever knocked them out or won the prize. Another man would entice us to take the baseball and knock down the bottles. The next man would say, "Pay your money and come in to see the tallest person, the shortest person, the fattest person, see all the freaks."

In my next church, I realized the American church-attending public is very style conscious and is basically made up of consumers of religion. So I set about to meet their style needs. This took the form of music that sounded like a night club, pulpit attire that reflected country club standards, sermons that did not intimidate and that were more a motivational speech than preaching the gospel. Alas, I discovered nothing vital happened.

In any city there are churches saying in like manner:

"Come to our church. Our preacher doesn't wear a tie. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes."
"Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals."
"We're fundamental."
"We're liturgical."
"We're liberal."
"We're moderate."
"We're denominational."
"We're mainline."
"We're dispensational."
"We have video."
"We have snare drums and screens."
"We're into political reform."
"We have a religious superstar preaching today."

Everyone is out front, just like the carnival barkers were, pushing their style, their religious product, but when we get inside we find-just like the carnival-that no one knocks out the balloons or knocks down the bottles. No one wins the prize. No lives are changed. The church of the big idea, the church of the big action, and the church of the big deal somehow leave us empty. Something is missing.

That is the issue Paul was addressing in this letter. Churches that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to die. Paul said, and I paraphrase, "I gave you a good foundation, Jesus Christ. You build on Jesus Christ. And if you build with gold and silver or straw, it will fade. You must build on Jesus Christ." Jesus earlier said in Matthew 16, "On this rock (the confession of Peter) I will build my church." During his last week, he said to his disciples, "I am the vine. Ye are the branches." In other words, stay connected to me, and you will bear fruit. If you get severed from me, you won't bear fruit.

I love to go to the North Carolina mountains and buy apples from my friend, Mr. Dendy. He harvests beautiful apples for about eight weeks every year starting in September. But he has a lifetime investing in cultivating the trees and pruning the branches. He has a lifetime invested in helping the trees to reach their optimum. Apples do not come full-blown out of nowhere. They come from apple trees. The fruit of the Christian faith does not come full-blown out of nowhere. It comes out of a branch that is connected to Jesus Christ. It comes out of a church that is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. I am not speaking against the big idea or the big action or the big deal IF that action, IF those ideas, IF that big deal flows out of a vital connection to Jesus Christ. We live in a world in which we think we can get apples without the tree. We can get the ideas, the actions and the excitement without having a connection.

I have realized in recent years that all we do to establish our niche in the church market may be a cover for an empty heart, a shallow commitment, and a secular mindset. Let's start the other way. Let's build on a foundation, a strong commitment to Jesus Christ and see what happens.

Less a church's foundation is Jesus Christ, there is no substance, no power. It is sound and fury. It is chaff. If Jesus Christ is the foundation, walks the halls, sits in the pews, and is in our classes, if he interprets the Bibles and sings our hymns, preaches our sermons, then we will know and do our mission effectively. If he is not there, no gimmick will make it happen.

The Scripture I read makes it clear that the church is Christ's body on earth. The church needs a passionate commitment to Jesus, not a passionate commitment to political, ideological, or stylistic ideas. We don't need to focus on consumer desires or even on one frame of reference theologically. When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our worship will be revitalized. We'll not be concerned about style as much as we'll be excited about content. We must rediscover the beauty, the majesty, and the power of a strong commitment to Jesus Christ. When that happens, we will not get bent out of shape about golf shirts and jogging shoes. The central question will be, "Did we meet Jesus?" not "Was my opinion or style supported today? To say that Jesus Christ is the root and foundation, the cornerstone, the vine, is not a way of evading issues. This is calling the church to understand that we are Jesus people. We are members of his body, and the church in all of its power and strength needs to rediscover Jesus.

When we rediscover Jesus, our mission will be sharpened. We will want to give a cold cup of water in Jesus name. When we rediscover Jesus Christ, we'll be liberated from the tyranny of style.

The Doonesbury cartoon is so serious that it often appears on the editorial pages of our newspapers. In one cartoon, Mike, the central character, was looking for a church, so he interviewed the pastor of the Little Church at Walden. He asked, "How did you get your church started?" The pastor replied, "I took a survey in the community, and they all wanted aerobics, so we started an aerobics class. Then they said they all wanted basket weaving, so we started basket weaving. Then they wanted jogging, and we started jogging. And the next thing we knew, we had a church. It's getting so big now that we have a whole denomination." In the last frame, Mike, who knows nothing about the Gospel, scratches his head and said, "So that's how religion is spread."

No, it's spread because Jesus Christ changes lives. Anything else will die. It may have its day, but it will die. When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our belief will be strengthened and focused. When the church rediscovers Jesus Christ, the people will come for the show, but they will stay to grow. The only noise we will hear in a church will be people swimming from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool because they feel safe in deep water.

Let us pray.


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