A very lovely woman greeted me and my friend after the 9 am worship service at Denton Bible Church, located on University Drive east of TWU. She eagerly asked, “What did you think about it?” I hesitated for a moment, looking for the right words to express my heart and mind and finally said, “It was impressively professional.”
And it was, with enthusiastic applause to the exquisite music performances that sandwiched a forty minute clearly delivered message.
We had arrived a few minutes before the 9 am service. The first thing we saw as we entered was the well-staffed media center, giving us opportunity to purchase copies of messages and books. Bypassing it, and after introducing ourselves to the ushers, we entered the worship center where the service would take place.
According to the posted notice, the space would hold about 4700 people in comfortably cushioned theater seats, complete with seat numbers. From the catwalk above the stage, to the strategically positioned cameras, to the massive screens, to the to-die-for soundbooth, to the set-up of the large orchestra to the subtlety of the ever changing lighting on the giant cross in the background, we found ourselves prepared to focus our eyes forward.
We found a couple of unclaimed seats in one of the front sections, noting that many prime seats were saved for later occupation by Bibles placed across arm rests. At 8:58, the orchestra began to perform JS Bach’s “Sleepers Awake”, with the space about 20% full. As the sounds of music helped usher in many others milling in the spacious hallways, the casually dressed choir began filling the wide risers at the back of the stage.
The prelude was immediately followed by several minutes of announcements made by a well-dressed man. The first thing we learned: multiple voter registration booths were set up around the campus to encourage greater participation in coming elections. The announcer stated that because of increasing threats to religious liberty in the US, the church would also be hosting a Religious Freedom Conference in a few weeks.
At 9:06, we were invited to stand, sing, and greet one another. Then the audience lights darkened, brightening the stage, as we were treated to an anthem that told the story of Jesus, almost a creed set to music. Another well-dressed man came to the pulpit and read the Scripture passage for the day, 2 Corinthians 1:12-24 ,as everyone around us opened their Bibles and followed along.
Now 9:24, all attention went to the screens as the youth pastor spoke on video of the challenges of their meeting space. Photos displayed clearly the overcrowding and how much they need the new building currently under construction, an 80,000 square foot, $10 million facility that will provide everything needed to keep the youth happy, taught and connected to each other.
At this point, the senior pastor, Tom Nelson, one of the thirteen male elders who oversee the church, came to the pulpit to deliver his message. As be began, he reaffirmed the need of the new building and explained the financing and construction timeline. He also disclosed that the current youth building will be leased to Serve Denton, an umbrella organization which will bring together under one roof many social service agencies in the area. The lease terms? $1/year.
Pope Francis may be warning of World War III breaking loose in this messy world, but inside the walls of Denton Bible, things are clean and orderly. Nelson assured the congregation that children being raised in this church environment will not make the same mistakes of their parents. Within these ministry walls, they will be safe and far less prone to fall into error. They will, he said, pay their American Express bills on time.
Pastor Nelson then began an in-depth exposition of the 2 Corinthians passage. It begins with the writer, the Apostle Paul, straightforwardly addressing the Corinthian church’s complaint: that he had not kept his word and visited them as promised.
Nelson stated that this was the equivalent of someone complaining of a spiritual leader’s choice to drive 80 mph in a 60 mph speed zone and overlooks the far more important work of proclaiming the uncompromising truth. It is this task to which Paul is called, and he, as the bearer of that truth, is the glory of the Corinthian church–it is he who gave them the light of salvation. Without blushing, Nelson proclaimed that he, too, is the glory for this church and for other groups where he speaks and gives the unchanging, never-compromised truth. He reminded those in worship with him that they, too, can be glory-bearers as they take the truth from this place and offer it to others.
At about 10:20, before the orchestra began another piece to indicate the dismissal from our comfortable seats and back into the world again, Nelson offered the invitation to receive Jesus and be saved. As their doctrinal statement clearly reads, “Man is created in the image and likeness of God. In Adam, all mankind fell into sin with the result that all men are sinners. Men are justly condemned to eternal judgment and can do nothing to merit salvation.”
While gender-exclusive language is not the written or spoken norm in most other places today, it is here, both in the written statements and from the pulpit. I know that I personally have to interpret each use of “man” to see if the usage also includes women, but also know that such language reflects the important emphasis on male headship and leadership that characterizes this church and its uncompromising stance on truth.
[Note: this article originally ran in the religion section of the Sept. 19, 2014, Denton Record-Chronicle.]
I felt the subtle seduction of this perfect and orderly world pulling at me the whole time I was there. In fact, I was very nearly hypnotized by it. I spent many, many years in the “non-compromised truth” world of the Bible church movement and received my first theological degree from one of the seminaries that affirms this stance. I worked so hard to buy into it and to be the perfect Christian, the one whose doctrines lined up neatly, complete with incontrovertible proof texts.
I failed. I saw too much, too much of what I eventually started calling privately the “great Evangelical lie,” this idea that when one’s life is guided totally by correct belief, then everything will turn out fine and our children will grow up drug-free, teen-pregnancy-free, trauma-free and become perfectly functioning, unscarred adults. It doesn’t happen. It’s not true. And it very nearly killed me. A very brief part of that story is here.
My companion on these Denton journeys into various churches, a local businessman and good friend, and I went to breakfast afterward at a restaurant near where I live in downtown Denton. We discussed the service at length and this near-hypnotic reaction I was having to it, this longing to find that perfect, that clean and orderly world instead of the chaos and doubt and questions I live with now.
He started looking around the restaurant and suddenly said, “Not one person in here would fit into that church culture.”
My back had been to the rest of the restaurant so I turned and followed his gaze. I saw the best of funky downtown Denton, scruffy looking college students deeply engaged in conversation, anything but clean-looking family groupings, quiet, poorly dressed elderly or near homeless nursing a cup of coffee, musicians still dazed from a long night of work. He was right: they don’t fit into the clean world of Denton Bible.
Nor do I. I will not go so far to say that it is an illegitimate world, this place of sartorial and doctrinal perfection, but I will say that those are not the types of people Jesus preferred to hang out with. He did indeed eat with sinners, and he touched the sick and unclean, and he dared heal on the Sabbath and speak with foreign women. He broke through that religious culture’s insistence on perfect order and cleanliness–and we, as the church, must continue that pattern of breaking through the safety of order and straight lines and embrace the chaos of swirling, scruffy, smelly humanity.
This is why I was so drawn to the United Methodist Church: it is here that I saw fluid enough boundaries around disputable doctrinal stances. yet with all sitting on the solid foundation of Wesley’s three general rules: Avoid evil, do good, stay in love with God. Here, I could actually do good while embracing my own slow and always uneven movement to perfection in love.
And it for this reason that I view with increasing concern the very loud and well-funded voices (like the IRD, Good News and other very conservative movements) that want to impose tight doctrinal boundaries and shut down discussion, particularly over sexuality issues. Yeah, it’s neater. It gives easy to see lines and clear “enter” and “exit” doors. But I don’t think it is in any sense Jesus-like.
So, I stay very concerned that a movement that began in the dirty, despairing parts of England is now scrubbing itself so clean that we who know we are imperfect and who also know that we know only in part, will no longer have a place.