I spent Mothers Day with my Mom. It was a great chance to spend some time with her, and we’re both at the ages to know that those chances are a finite set.
Talking with Mom these days involves a lot of reminiscing about the past. We talked about my childhood (none of those stories will be a part of this post), milestone events along the way in our family, people we loved who are no longer with us, and HER childhood. I’ve loved hearing more and more about when she was younger.
The other day in passing she said something, a reflection about her father. Alsia Yancey Carter went by the nickname “Doc.” He loved fried catfish, teasing his grandchildren, and Cardinals baseball—not necessarily in that order. He was larger-than-life in the nine years that I knew him. My strongest recollection of him is standing in the hallway of his rural home and peering into the darkness of his bedroom (Pawpaw Doc went to bed before 8:00), perceiving only the sound of the Cardinals game on KMOX and the sight of the burning end of his cigarette. Mom’s most pressing recollection of him was somewhat different.
“The thing I’ll never forget about Daddy,” she said, “is the way that he cried at church. He was so tenderhearted. The music, the preaching, the burden of lost friends and family members—so many things would move him to weeping at church.”
My grandfather was a man’s man. He was a cotton farmer all of his life. He had hands like a vise. While out tilling the fields, when he spied a venomous serpent he would take it up by the tail barehanded, swing it around, and “pop” its head with a whip-action, killing it. Fishing with Dad once, he ran out of bait when the crappie were biting (I told you that he loved fish), but he couldn’t bear the thought of stopping. He paddled the boat over to the side of the river and before Dad realized or could react to what was happening, Pawpaw snapped off a branch from a tree that was holding a hornet’s nest, rapidly submerged the nest into the river, drowning (most of) the ferocious insects, and then picked out the larvae to use as bait. Dad was terrified; Pawpaw was nonplussed.
I felt compelled to write the preceding paragraph defending his manhood after I told you how much he cried in church. That fact alone tells us something. We are plagued by a sense that the overly emotional are either girlish or Charismatic or unstable. Indeed, we quite easily categorize “emotional” as “overly emotional” in ways that our forebears might hardly recognize. In the 1970s and 1980s in Arkansas, Pawpaw Doc was not alone. I knew several men in the churches there who wept regularly in the worship service. One dear saint generally held it together, but whenever he would pray aloud in church, eventually he would be overcome and would break down into weeping, barely able to continue as he addressed the Lord.
Will my children recall of me that I regularly broke down in tears in the worship service? They will not. In fact, as Mom spoke, it occurred to me that there is no one in my children’s lives whom they will remember in that way. Yes, in some ways people are more expressive now than they were then. People raise their hands in worship, and that’s not something I saw in my childhood. Sometimes people hop or sway in ways that didn’t grace country Southern Baptist churches in the mid-century. Some expressions of emotional approval and affirmation of the music in a worship service are far more common today. But weeping over personal sinfulness or over burden for the lost? We do not much see that here. Nor have I visited any church lately in which one would reliably encounter a tear-stained altar. Why is that? Are preachers less diligent? Are believers less mature?
Throughout its history the churches have veered between more intellectual and more emotional epochs of our existence. The intellectual moments contribute some things that are worthwhile. They correct doctrinal errors (and produce a few). They lay the foundation of propositional truth for all that the churches do. In our intellectual phases movements like Calvinism tend to become prominent, although Calvinism is not alone in this regard. Scholastic theology was the fruit of one such intellectual age, giving us the riches of such luminaries as Aquinas. We live in one of these seasons of the intellect right now.
Alternating with these epochs are the seasons in which the churches turn from the head to the heart. It is in these emotional ages of church history that evangelism surges and spiritual awakenings blossom. Yes, excesses appear, too, during all of these seasons. Heresy gains a foothold. Hearts untethered by truth often reveal that they are deceitfully wicked. But for all of these woes, the rescue of the faith from its more arid expressions is a blessing, especially since (as I suggested above), intellectualism produces heresies, too. Revivalistic seasons give you Mormons and Millerites; intellectual seasons give you Unitarians and Universalists.
The idea that we live at the apex of a swing toward the intellectual side of Christianity shapes my thought in a number of ways:
- It causes me to believe that people who try to draw a causal link between neo-Calvinism and declining evangelistic fervor have made an incorrect analysis of our situation. These things, I think, are common effects of the same cause (increasing intellectualism in Christianity) rather than one’s being the cause of the other. Evangelistic decline is bad, but it is a bad thing that is, as far as I can tell, equally observable in non-Calvinistic churches as in Calvinistic ones. The tilt of Christianity toward the mind and away from the heart shows up in different churches and in different people in different ways, as does the beginning of the swing back into something healthier. Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Fuller, and Charles Spurgeon all represent the movement of arid Calvinism toward the “religious affections.”
- It causes me to value the prospect of racial reconciliation in the churches even more. Hispanic and Black churches tend to be more comfortable with emotion than are White churches. I think we need racial reconciliation not only because racial reconciliation is a good thing in and of itself but also because we need one another and can “supply what is lacking” for one another in ways that we perhaps sometimes fail to perceive.
- It drives me to search for value in the ministries of people who are not exactly the same as me. I am a less-emotional, more-intellectual sort of pastor. I appreciate the ministries of friends who are on the opposite end of that spectrum, benefitting from their preaching and their examples.
- It motivates me to balance my own ministry. This is one of the ways in which I so admire Paige Patterson. He is no intellectual slouch by any stretch of the imagination, but he also has a keen emotional intelligence. His preaching does not bring logos at the expense of pathos. He works with both the mind and the heart. I want to work to become more and more adept at employing logos, ethos, and pathos in my preaching and my ministry.
- It gives me hope for the future of our churches. If we are overly intellectual right now, I know that over the course of two millennia such problems have tended toward self-correction. The Holy Spirit gives us a longing to serve the Lord with both mind and heart. Eventually the churches hearken to His voice.
- It leads me to value the altar call invitation. These moments of appeal are the contexts in which I have most frequently seen the visible display of emotional conviction. This is, perhaps, the very ground upon which an overly intellectual Christianity criticizes them. I don’t believe in a magic walk. I don’t believe in a magic location at the front of the meeting house. I don’t believe in any magic incantation that saves people. I do believe in crying out to God in prayer for forgiveness and salvation. I do believe in the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I do believe that the Holy Spirit uses biblical preaching as means to effect conviction. And along with all of this, I believe in the value of visible, emotional brokenness before God to soften the hearts of others in attendance. Whether by means of an altar call or by other means, I believe that it is valuable to a congregation to be able to mourn corporately. Go back and read Ezra 9-10 again. When Ezra’s grief over sin became visible, it became contagious. God used Ezra’s visible mourning to effect conviction of sin among His people.
I believe that we need to recover the heart of Southern Baptist church life. I don’t mean by that a syrupy sentimentality. I don’t mean by that a showy sensationalism. I mean an emotional sensitivity to the movement of the Holy Spirit coupled with a humble spirit unafraid to let others see that God is breaking my heart.