On December 14, at the conclusion of the service during which I preached my first sermon as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, my family and I joined that church. Trying to be funny, and perhaps succeeding, I said that we had planned to shop around a bit before we decided which church to join but that we had been so moved by that morning’s service, and in particular by the sermon, that we felt compelled to join right then and there.
It wasn’t a hard decision, of course, given that it would be pretty unusual for the pastor and the pastor’s family not to be members of the church served by the pastor. It apparently is a much more difficult decision when the people having to make the decision are the President-elect of the United States and his family. At least that’s the idea one gets from all the speculation in the press about which church the new First Family will join.
Many eyes are upon the Obamas as the nation awaits their choice of a house of worship; indeed, interest in this question seems to be eclipsed only by the burning issue of what type of canine will be chosen to serve as First Dog.
This church watch is fueled in part by the fact that President-elect Obama’s last church was led by a pastor who was a focus for controversy during the recent election. People wonder if the Obama family will decide to join a congregation that is associated with one of the great African-American denominations such as the AME Church or if they might go in another direction; so, for example, the latest edition of the Christian Century asked, “Will the Obama family pick a black church?”
It’s an interesting question, I suppose, but the sad thing to me is that there are people out there who are going to analyze the Obamas’ church choice to see if it sends some kind of political message and the even sadder thing to me is that some people will analyze every word said by the pastor of that church and every position taken by the people of that church and every ministry performed by the members of that church to see if they can make political hay out if it.
I’m not sure for whom I feel sorrier: the Obamas or the pastor and people of whatever church they choose.
For what’s it worth, here is the advice I would give Barack and Michelle Obama as they try to pick the right church for themselves and for their daughters.
First, find a church where you can worship. There are all kinds of worship styles and some suit you better than others; I would assume that your previous church involvement indicates that you prefer an energetic and vibrant style of worship with strong and sometimes edgy preaching. If that’s the kind of worship environment in which you sense a true encounter with the Holy, don’t abandon that for political reasons or for any reason. On the other hand, if you feel like you are at a place in your pilgrimage where a different worship style would suit you, then make a change; don’t worry about whether anyone will say that you did that just to try to avoid the controversy that can sometimes accompany a dynamic preaching style—I mean, they’ll say it, but don’t let it worry you.
Second, find a church where you can serve. I realize that you’re going to be insanely busy for the next four years and nobody in her right mind would blame you for doing nothing else through your church except showing up for the occasional worship service. But I would encourage you to do more than that; I would urge you both to find a church that has some ministries in which you would like to participate and then do so—one ministry each would be plenty. President Carter sometimes taught Sunday School while he was in Washington, after all. I know that we’re not supposed to do our good works in order to attract the attention of people, but in your case you could provide a great example to church people and a great witness to the world by giving of yourselves through ministry to the community and to the church.
Third, find a church where you can be served. What I mean by “served” is “ministered to” and “fed” and “nurtured” and “shepherded” and “loved.” You are embarking on a vocational journey that should be wonderful but that will also be extremely challenging. You will need a family of faith to support you in your humanity with its accompanying frailties and struggles; you will need a pastor to stand with you in the times of victory and the times of defeat; you will need a people who will be your people through thick and thin; and you will need the Word and Spirit of God to be a check to your pride, to be salve to your wounds, and to be hope in your trials. Accept your humanity and embrace a church that will embrace you; you will need friends and you will need a family. Insofar as possible, then, find a church that will not be terribly impressed that you are President but that will be greatly pleased to love you and your girls because you are people.
And as for the rest of us, I would suggest that we acknowledge that the choice of a church is very personal and that once we learn in which church the Obamas are going to participate we pray for both the First Family and their new church home. Oh—and I would suggest that we pay more attention to the kind of church in which we worship and to the ways in which we worship and serve in that church than we pay to the worship preferences and church choices of anyone else—the President included.