Dear Oak Pointe Church family:
In all my 40+ years of speaking & teaching ministry, I have never received more than 3 or 4 emails or letters in response to a message series. Yet, in response to the recent Conversations series I have received hundreds of letters. When I gave out my email address at the end of the first interview with Pastor Sonny Smith, I honestly figured the trend would continue – 3 or 4 responses. O how I underestimated the volatile nature of the subject matter we were diving into. The letters I received ranged from absolute delight, gratitude and commendation on the one hand, to extreme hurt, anger and condemnation on the other hand (along with many letters of kind, constructive criticism in the middle). I have sat long and hard with all of the feedback. I do thank all of you for taking the time to express your feelings. After processing the overall response to this series with the elders and other staff leaders, it has become clear to me that both the content and the format of this series, while serving as a blessing to many, has left many others confused and, in some cases, disillusioned.
“If one member of the body suffers, all suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26). This verse from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us two things: First, we are ONE BODY. Second, when one part of the body is hurting, we ALL HURT. Parts of the Oak Pointe Church body are hurting. Therefore, we all hurt, and we all need to address the hurt and pursue healing in the church body.
I, as your pastor, take full responsibility for my choice of methodology and tone in the Conversations series. For those who have been tremendously upset, or hurt by the series, I have contemplated the impact on you and I ask for your forgiveness. This pastor, like all others, has feet of clay. I am not ashamed to admit when I have failed to shepherd you all with grace and truth through this difficult series, in a difficult season of life. Regardless of where you are, what you are feeling, or what concerns you have toward me, expressed or unexpressed . . . I do love you, and will love you. And I will do whatever I can to repair the ruptures that have occurred.
Allow me to say several things to help you understand why I did what I did, and how we can move forward together.
First, the timing for this series was critical due to the national upheaval and conversation. The church could not remain silent. One of my dearest black friends, Pastor Christopher Brooks (long-time pastor of Evangel Ministries, our close partner since 2011, now pastor of Woodside Bible Church) reached out to his white pastor colleagues Saturday, May 30. He pled with us to use our platforms to decry the injustices and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our black brothers and sisters. I took Chris’ words to heart, and pledged to use my voice and my platform to show my support for people of color, and to register my strong disapproval of the violence blacks were experiencing. So, in my heart, the timing was necessary and critical.
Yet, the timing was also less than ideal, because we were locked away in our homes with no opportunity to interact over these issues; our “sermons” had been intentionally shortened to take into account viewers’ weariness watching services online; I was left with almost no time to interpret or clarify statements made, no time to bring a substantial biblical perspective to the issues; and no opportunity for us to gather post-service into some discussion forums where we could interact, ask questions, discuss various perspectives, etc.
I do believe we had to spend these 5 weeks pondering these issues. Yet, in light of the isolated settings we were all in, and the limitations imposed by our online messaging, my methodology in taking us through these conversations was clearly not the wisest approach. And to this fact, my email inbox bears ample witness!
Second, I made a wrong assumption at the beginning of this series. The week before the first interview with Pastor Sonny Smith aired online, I had spent the better part of one day taping the first three interviews in their entirety (Pastors Sonny Smith, Norflette Shumake, Edgar Vann). I was not only shocked by their level of pain, but I was also struck with the profundity, depth and sincerity of their comments. These interviews, coming just one week after George Floyd’s death, were full of emotions that were incredibly raw. At the end of that day of interviews I thought to myself (my assumption): My flock at Oak Pointe is going to appreciate being insiders listening in to these interviews. This flock loves to process material from an intellectual perspective, knowing that the intellectual, spiritual and emotional aspects of our being/thinking must work in harmony. So I assumed (wrongly) that this approach of inviting you all to just listen for 5 weeks was the ideal approach for everyone . . . which it clearly was not.
The responses have shown me a divided feeling about my approach. Many people did love this approach and did benefit tremendously from sitting in on the interviews without much Bob-talk from the Bible. At the same time, many people did not appreciate this approach, feeling that they were left with too many unanswered questions, too many politically loaded phrases ringing in their heads without discussion or resolution, and too many concerns as to the church’s formal position on some critical issues.
Once again, I think this goes back to the format/methodology problem. I do, in fact, know that our congregation is composed of thinking Christians. And I do believe that this format of listening in on the conversations would have been very powerful IF it had been accompanied by these other important elements: definition of terms, discussion of different viewpoints, examination of biblical passages relevant to the issues, etc. All that to say, I think my assumption about our church was correct, but my assumption that the format was sufficient was incorrect.
Third, I chose an almost exclusively listening approach in this series for another more personal reason. The fact is that before this series started I was mostly ignorant on the issues. I could not speak with authority because I did not have sufficient knowledge from which to speak. Yes, I know my Bible quite well, and I could have given biblical messages on various topics related to the racism discussions. But a true communicator of God’s Word must have his/her feet deeply grounded in two worlds simultaneously: the ancient biblical world AND the modern contemporary situation. Pastor/theologian John Stott (of All Souls Church, London) wrote what I consider to be the very best book on biblical preaching and teaching. It is entitled Between Two Worlds. I first studied this book as a seminary student. In later years, I used it as the required text in seminary courses I taught on preaching. Here are a few quotes from Stott. I think these might give you some insight into my chosen approach of “listening” during this series.
“The best preachers are always diligent pastors, who know the people of their district and congregation, and understand the human scene in all its pain and pleasure, glory and tragedy. And the quickest way to gain such an understanding is to shut our mouth (a hard task for compulsive preachers) and open our eyes and ears. It has been well said that God has given us two ears and two eyes, but only one mouth, so that he obviously intends us to look and listen twice as much as we talk.”
“We need, then, to ask people questions and get them talking. We ought to know more about the bible than they do, but they are likely to know more about the real world than we do. So we should encourage them to tell us about their home and family life, their job, their expertise and their spare-time interests. We also need to penetrate beyond their doing to their thinking. What makes them tick?”
“The more diverse people’s backgrounds, the more we have to learn. It is important for us to listen to representatives of different generations as well as of different cultures, especially of younger generations . . . . Humble listening is indispensable to relevant preaching.”
That last line pretty much sums up things for me when it comes to this series on racism. Here is my honest admission. Six weeks ago, I would have scored 0 on a quiz with the following questions: Explain the Jim Crow era. What is redlining? Who was Frederick Douglass? What was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march about? How does the 13th amendment relate to the current unrest? How many blacks were lynched? What happened on a Sunday morning in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church? When were slaves first transported to America? By whom? In what conditions? How was the Bible used by slave-owners to condone slavery? Name one current system in our society that continues to make life difficult for blacks.
I really knew very little about the past or present of black life in our country. I am ashamed to say that it has taken me this long to learn something . . . but that is my reality. All that to say: I was in no position to speak as an authority 6 weeks ago! And I am certainly still but an elementary-grade student in these matters. Yes, I know my Bible. No, I did not know my world. Thus, I needed to heed John Stott’s advice: Shut your mouth . . . open your eyes and ears. I needed to just LISTEN . . . and wanted to invite you along to just listen with me. (I need to listen more to all the people from various cultures who now call Oak Pointe Church home!)
Fourth, I did have editorial powers over every recorded conversation. Each recording was anywhere from 45 minutes to 75 minutes. I spent days scouring every interview in detail choosing what I thought was both relevant, informative AND true. I did not intend to allow errors to be propagated under the guise of “listening.” I was evaluating every word, every phrase, every idea, through my personal grid of biblical theology. Thus, I take responsibility for the content that you saw and heard. It is now my responsibility, along with the elders, to go back through the content of the 5 conversations and to either justify their correctness, or to correct their errors.
I’ve rambled on long enough about the weaknesses in my approach with this series. Again, I own these decisions and the hurt that has resulted. This shepherd led the flock through some thorn-infested fields. Some came through unscathed, with stomachs full of food. Others came through with wounds and scars. Now, this shepherd needs to tend to all the flock . . . because when one sheep in the flock suffers, all suffer with it.
As to what we need to do next, we had a GREAT elders meeting last Tuesday night to chart a course forward. Here is what we intend to do.
1. Identify the flashpoints.
Five teams of two elders each will review each of the five conversations to identify the flashpoints: the words, phrases and thoughts that have provoked the most questions, confusion and disagreement.
2. Analyze the biblical perspective:
The elders will then enter into detailed discussion of biblical texts that speak to those flashpoints. In light of the numbers of questions we received, we will begin our analysis with conversation #5, and work our way backwards to conversation #1.
3. Communicate our findings:
Either in written form, in video form, or in a combination of both, we will be communicating to the congregation our position, based on Scripture, on the various issues that were raised. We feel it best not to wait until next Fall to address these issues, rather, to begin addressing them immediately and continuing through the summer season. You will likely receive the first communication within the next 2-3 weeks.
4. Facilitate further discussion:
Depending on when and where we are allowed to gather in person as a church, we may host one or more forums where we can discuss these issues in community, perhaps with a panel of well-informed presenters from both inside and outside of Oak Pointe Church.
5. Our goals:
Finally, what are our goals in all of this?
- We want to pursue the unity of the body, based upon sound truth. The church is never called to unity at the expense of truth; rather, it is always called to unity in light of the truth.
- We want to continue to honor the request of our black brothers and sisters to use our platform to cry out against injustice. We will not allow our friends to suffer alone while we remain silent.
- We are appointing a task force to help us, as a church, take significant steps to support the black community (and all our varied ethnicities) to realize their full dignity and opportunity as divine image-bearers.
- We want to call people everywhere to the only real lasting solution – the person and work of Jesus Christ. We can talk endlessly about social systems and reforms, but the ultimate reformation needs to occur in the hearts and minds of people who live in and operate the systems of our world. Jesus is the only Person who can bring about the change that our world is desperately crying out for. I believe He is the only One who can make His kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Thank you for reading this excessively long, but necessary letter. Our God has led His church through stormy waters before. I have no doubt He will lead us through the wind and the waves once again, by His mighty hand.
In His love and mine,