Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Friendship-West Baptist

I previously described my visit to Friendship-West Baptist Church in this post. In this present essay, I will provide a bit of analysis of that visit. Readers are encouraged to read the earlier post, as it provides the basis for this one.

With a reported average attendance of 9,000, Friendship-West is the eighth largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to information provided by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The church is in the southern part of Dallas, an area which has long been predominately black and economically deprived. The area has long been a center of political controversy, as it is widely alleged that economic and social policies promoted by the city favor downtown and the more affluent areas north of downtown to the detriment of the southern part of the city. This is the social environment in which Friendship-West exists and it serves to explain the reasons for some aspects of the worship service I visited.. While these factors do not excuse aspects of worship ministry that are unbiblical, they have to be considered when seeking to understand the church. After all, as will be elaborated on below, all of our churches reflect the cultural values of the people drawn to any given church, and sometimes those values, which often go unchallenged because we remain largely unaware of them, are not biblical.

This blogger has lived in the Dallas area for the last 10 years. I first became aware of Friendship-West in 2008, when then presidential candidate Barack Obama came under criticism after the release of tapes of the preaching of his minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Although Mr. Obama ultimately cut ties to his minister, Friendship-West's pastor, Dr. Frederick Haynes, was a vocal defender of Rev. Wright, who he described as a friend who had preached at the church.

Three of the ten churches I visited during this study were predominately black, but those churches reflected widely divergent traditions of black Christians in the United States. Earlier, I wrote about the Potter's House, where Pastor T.D. Jakes promotes a prosperity gospel of health and wealth -- arguably Rev. Haynes criticisms of the prosperity gospel in the sermon I reported on may have been directed particularly at Rev. Jakes. A church I will write about in the near future, Saint John Baptist Church, represents a mainstream expression of the black Baptist tradition. Friendship-West Baptist places a significant focus on social justice issues and ministry.

I suspect that the church would deny that its focus on social justice comes at the expense of personal evangelism. In its favor, I would note that the church's statement of beliefs on its website is more lengthy, specific and orthodox than many of the evangelical church websites I have looked up. During the service I attended, the pastor explicitly stated that the church stood for both evangelism and social justice, though the service did not reflect such a dual emphasis, as it focused almost entirely (some of the music providing the only exception) on grievances against social injustice. In addition to material in the sermon, the use of the church service to provide an advertisement for professional services, as well as the use of church time to promote candidates for secular office, should both be questioned. The pastor used the sermon to express strong disagreement with a court decision, urging an angry response in the process.

Of course, white Christians find it easy to disagree with these types of practices, but one might point out that we do not notice the way that our own cultural expressions get in the way of biblical fidelity. In fact, because our expressions reflect majoritarian culture, they may be even more difficult to identify. Thus, it is common for churches in the United States to have American flags in their churches during worship, in spite of the fact that there is no biblical rationale for doing so, and, in fact, the presence of such flags confuses allegiances, as God's people gather to worship a King whose kingdom extends beyond national boundaries. The practice is so common I rarely even notice it. Another example, expressed directly by Dr. Haynes, is the common pictorial expression of a white European Jesus. While I disagree with Haynes' rather extended but spurious argument that Jesus was actually black, he is certainly correct that Jesus did not look like the white portrayals. Dr. Haynes argued for black portrayals of Jesus. To the contrary, I would argue that we should stop altogether remaking Jesus in our cultural images. Both the white Jesus and the black one, for many reasons, are violations of the Second Commandment.

I appreciated Dr. Haynes' criticisms of prosperity preachers, who promulgate a message that is harmful to all people, particularly to the many poor people who live in the community around this church and compose, no doubt, many of its members. However, the message he preached also gave focus to a different gospel of cultural grievance. By looking to an eschaton that will come about through hostile political activism, the pastor seems to have buried the transformational hope that only comes about through the real Gospel of Christ, who himself experienced oppression in spite of living a sinless life, and who was crucified. That Christ rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us. Those who suffer for him also reign with him.

That is not to deny that social ministry can be an aspect of the church's ministry, particularly as it equips its members to work actively in their vocations for the good of the community. Indeed, using many New Testament passages as an example (several of Paul's letters highlight a , this should be a cooperative enterprise among believers. Sadly, the churches on the northern side of the DFW north/south divide don't seem to have much interaction with those to the south. One might wish that could change.

Finally, because many aspects of the service seemed openly hostile, with a generalized anger directed toward whites, I want to state that the people around me in the service treated me graciously during a fellowship time, as well as both before and after the service. In the pews, we were brothers and sisters in Christ.

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