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Ask Fr. Rob (St. James – Piqua): The Three Marks of a “Good” Church

30 December 2009

Fr. Rob Baldwin of St. James Episcopal Church (Piqua) has a series out on YouTube where he fields your questions.  In one of these, he is responding to the question,

“What is it that I hope to see in a successful, thriving church? .. What are the qualities, that for me, indicate a wonderful church to be in?”

“First of all, have a church that proclaims the Gospel.” 

Sounds good so far.  But, what does he mean by that? 

“To read the Gospel and to proclaim the Gospel are two different things.  The quality for me is, ‘Does the message that you come away with, whether or not if it’s from the music or the readings or the sermon or liturgy and the prayers that you do – Does the message show you, teach you, reveal to you, God’s love?”

Sounds good (sort of).  But what does he mean by “God’s love?”  Let’s see…

“Or as my grandmother used to say, ‘Do I feel better going out than I did going in?’  (I’ve been to a few churches where I left feeling worse than I did coming in) .. So, first and foremost, does it proclaim the Gospel? “

Okay, so we know that we have heard the Gospel if we feel better going out than we did going in.  But wait – that could easily describe the situation of an unbeliever going into a tavern or a “gentleman’s” club.  They certainly feel better going out, than they do going in. 

The other problem with this is, what if “the message” (as Fr. Rob puts it) convicts us of sin?  What if we are further convicted by the Holy Spirit working through the message, that we have to give up things that feel good to us, but offend God?  Certainly guilt doesn’t feel good.  And certainly the aim in giving up sin is not anywhere near “feeling better going out than we did going in.” 

What is particularly ironic about Fr. Rob’s first criterion is that in another such video, Fr. Rob explores the question of whether or not Jesus was at times, a “jerk” :

The irony here is that we see that sometimes (And as far as I can see, Fr. Rob does not dispute this in the “Jerk” video), people go away from Jesus feeling bad.  It would appear that Our Lord fails test #1 for Fr. Bob’s definition of a pastor for a “good” church. 

Oh dear. 

Fr. Rob goes on (returning to the “What makes a good church” video)

“Second, does it welcome people in?  I’ve been to some churches that were less than friendly to newcomers that came in;  I’ve been to churches that were incredibly friendly to newcomers when they came in.  And I think that this is a big part of what makes a church successful.”

I concede that having a welcoming community doesn’t hurt a parish’s chances of becoming successful… provided the parish is rooted in the Word, first and foremost.

“..You know, Jesus said, ‘Go forth and baptize new believers.”

Actually, no.  What Jesus said was, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  (Matt 28: 19-20a, ESV). 

And that’s not just to say, ‘go ahead and pour the water over them’ but it’s to welcome them in as full members of the family, is to really baptize (..) a new member into the Body of Christ.  And so does a church do a good job of welcoming people in and making them feel comfortable and loved and like they belong”

In other words, for Fr. Rob, Baptism is like a warm gooey group-hug.  Gee, that’s odd..  I had thought that it was a sign and seal of passing through judgement (as opposed to an Ex Opere Operato regeneration by the Holy Spirit**).  I admit that the group-hug theory is one I hadn’t heard.  😉

“Finally, are they being the hands and the body of Christ in the world?”

Oh, dear.  It appears as though Fr. Rob’s seminary had failed to teach him fundamental ontological truths articulated by the New Testament.  In this case, he seems to be unaware of texts which assert that in fact, Christians ARE already, the hands and the body of Christ. 

One question that our former bishop used to ask () is, ‘If your church disappeared tomorrow, would anybody other than the members in the pew, know?’ 

Again, a valid point.  And again, the answer falls apart when Fr. Rob goes on to explain what he means. 

And I think a church that makes its mark on its community through whatever kind of service it does – Here at St. James, we have a food pantry, we have the adult literacy programs, other churches do soup kitchens, others do child care centers .. Every church has been given the commission by Jesus Christ to make the world a better place by its being there.  And so the churches that really make their mark in terms of outreach into the community – in lots of different ways – that, for me is the sign of a church that is alive in the Holy Spirit.  Everything else is incidental…”

I’m not knocking soup-kitchens and child care as means to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but every function here can be taken over by secular organizations.  My question would be, if St. James disappeared tomorrow, could the resulting void be filled by a group of non-Christians?  If such is the case with St. James Church, then well, there is a problem with this parish. 

Finally, Fr. Rob then proceeds to ‘poach’ anyone who might not be happy in their present church situation. 

“Now, if you’re watching this, hopefully you’re part of a wonderful church.  And if you’re not, I invite you to mine…”

I wonder .. what if the sheep he’s trying to steal, aren’t happy because they are under church discipline?  And what if they both need and deserve the discipline?

Er.. Thanks anyways, Fr. Rob. 

– Elder

PS .. I am so grateful for the Internet.   😉

**PPS:  NOTE:  The comment is not meant as a dig against my Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran brothers;  as I could have easily used the Baptist view as a foil. 

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Categories: Fisks, Theology, Worship
  1. Pearls Before Swine
    30 December 2009 at 3:53 AM

    Elder, thanks for posting and fisking this. I did not force myself to listen to the videos but I did read what you had transcribed. There is absolutely no care for eternal souls that ever even enters into anything TEC does anymore. It is purely a secular institution doing a very poor and inefficient job at the things Fr. Rob thinks it should be doing, and not at all even attempting to do the things a Christian church should be doing. In other words… your question about a secular group being able to do what St. James is doing is redundant.

    So, would the bishop say that these videos are good or are they severely lacking?

  2. Elder Oyster
    30 December 2009 at 10:21 AM

    RE: ” In other words… your question about a secular group being able to do what St. James is doing is redundant.”

    I prefer, ‘appropos.’ 😉

    RE: “So, would the bishop say that these videos are good or are they severely lacking?”

    Interesting you should ask, because they’ve done one of the videos together. In this one, Fr. Rob threw Bp. Breidenthal a slow-pitch question:

    Regarding your question, I’ll just plead ignorance and .. leave it at that. 😉

  3. 31 December 2009 at 12:24 AM

    There are so many weak explanations of church vitality, and I guess we all lapse into them. “They have lots of kids!” But where in the NT is that a standard for a vital church?

    The problem always comes back to defining the church’s health by what makes me/us “feel good.” The persecuted church doesn’t feel good, but can be superabundantly vital.

    The New Testament church is the body of Christ, and so it can be vital through suffering, in conflict that differentiates it from the world, by enduring slander – in short, by being true to the mind of Christ in spite of what feelings that brings.

    It can be vital while full of wretched people who “do the evil they would not do,” but find hope in the message of grace.

    It can be vital while the culture ignores it and goes off in a crazy direction. “Is it nothing, all you who pass by?” Christ was vital while irrelevant.

    On and on I could go – vitality is the action of the Holy Spirit and “Does it make me feel good?” is an unreliable tool for discernment, easily manipulated by the evil one. Positive feeling is not irrelevant to discernment – the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy and peace! But true discernment looks into whether or not these good feelings grow from fidelity to Christ, or are just passing consolations of the flesh. I can find temporary feelings of love, joy and peace in a bottle, after all.

  4. Elder Oyster
    31 December 2009 at 1:45 AM

    Hi Fr. Timothy,

    Welcome to The Oysters. It is an honor, sir.

    I’m glad that you are blogging again, but am not sure how you keep up the pace. Honestly, I had set a goal of six posts per week, and found it was killing me. How do you do it?

    Yours in Him,
    – Elder

  5. 31 December 2009 at 2:37 AM

    A rush of manic (but hopefully Spirit led) composition, spread over the week by time stamps.

  6. Elder Oyster
    31 December 2009 at 9:02 AM

    Ah yes, the time-stamp. I know it well.

  7. Fr. Rob
    9 February 2010 at 2:20 PM

    You know what would have been really effective? If you posted the whole transcript instead of just proof-texting it.

    But it’s okay. Let me address your criticisms.

    “The other problem with this is, what if “the message” (as Fr. Rob puts it) convicts us of sin? What if we are further convicted by the Holy Spirit working through the message, that we have to give up things that feel good to us, but offend God? Certainly guilt doesn’t feel good. And certainly the aim in giving up sin is not anywhere near “feeling better going out than we did going in.” ”

    Conviction without the revelation of grace isn’t the Gospel. Even the harshest of prophets revealed the desire of God for reconciliation. I believe that conviction is a necessary precursor for Grace, but the absent of the promise of God’s love isn’t what we should be preaching.

    “In other words, for Fr. Rob, Baptism is like a warm gooey group-hug. Gee, that’s odd.. I had thought that it was a sign and seal of passing through judgement (as opposed to an Ex Opere Operato regeneration by the Holy Spirit**). I admit that the group-hug theory is one I hadn’t heard.”

    “Oh, dear. It appears as though Fr. Rob’s seminary had failed to teach him fundamental ontological truths articulated by the New Testament. In this case, he seems to be unaware of texts which assert that in fact, Christians ARE already, the hands and the body of Christ. ”

    On the other hand, baptism with a manifestation of a transformational aspect in ones life suggests a pointless ritual. And a failure to serve in any facet of ministry suggests the kind of Church whose lampstand might be taken away.

    So self-identification does not a Christian make, but life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, whose influence is supposed to be evident.

    “I wonder .. what if the sheep he’s trying to steal, aren’t happy because they are under church discipline? And what if they both need and deserve the discipline?”

    No, the ones who aren’t part of a church at all.

    “PS .. I am so grateful for the Internet. ”

    Me too, which is why I put my name, address, and email contact on every video I post. You know where to find me (200 W. High Street, five days a week at least). Why not approach me in person and raise your questions and concerns directly, instead of through a blog post you didn’t even bother informing me about?

    • Elder Oyster
      9 February 2010 at 5:44 PM

      RE: “You know where to find me (200 W. High Street, five days a week at least). Why not approach me in person and raise your questions and concerns directly, instead of through a blog post you didn’t even bother informing me about?”

      Hi Fr. Rob,
      Thanks for writing in. I’ll respond a bit later.
      – Elder

  8. Fr. Rob
    9 February 2010 at 5:40 PM

    ” baptism with a manifestation of a transformational aspect in ones life suggests a pointless ritual”

    That’s a typo, it should (hopefully obviously) read “without a manifestation.”

    Thanks, and I appreciate your posting my response.

  9. Elder Oyster
    9 February 2010 at 10:49 PM

    RE: “You know what would have been really effective? If you posted the whole transcript instead of just proof-texting it.”

    As I see it, I did one better than posting the transcript. I posted the YouTube videos, so readers were (and are) free to check whether I’m quoting out of context, or missing the forest through the trees.

    RE: “But it’s okay. Let me address your criticisms.”

    Okay.

    RE: “Conviction without the revelation of grace isn’t the Gospel. Even the harshest of prophets revealed the desire of God for reconciliation.”

    Prophets like Jonah? It would seem that the Holy Spirit can use a message of pure condemnation to change people’s hearts: “Let’s wager that this God of wrath is also a God of forgiveness…”

    RE: “I believe that conviction is a necessary precursor for Grace, but the absent of the promise of God’s love isn’t what we should be preaching.

    This sounds different than, “do you feel better going out, than you did going in.” I’m not sure I agree that conviction is a -necessary- precursor for Grace. But I definitely have no problem with people leaving church feeling worse than they did coming in; particularly if the discomfort prompts them to a closer relationship with God.

    RE: “On the other hand, baptism without a manifestation of a transformational aspect in ones life suggests a pointless ritual. And a failure to serve in any facet of ministry suggests the kind of Church whose lampstand might be taken away.”

    Not sure what you mean here. First, we’re talking about transformation in the life of the person baptized, then we’re talking about a body of Believers (?). Please clarify.

    RE: “but life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, whose influence is supposed to be evident.”

    Will get back to this one. I have a busy evening ahead of me.

    RE: “No, the ones who aren’t part of a church at all.”

    Really? It sounded like the choice was between a ‘wonderful parish’ and your parish.

    Here: “Now, if you’re watching this, hopefully you’re part of a wonderful church. And if you’re not, I invite you to mine.”

    RE: “Me too, which is why I put my name, address, and email contact on every video I post. You know where to find me (200 W. High Street, five days a week at least). Why not approach me in person and raise your questions and concerns directly, instead of through a blog post…”

    YouTube is a public forum. Your parish office is not. You posted on a public forum, and I responded, publicly.

    RE: “.. you didn’t even bother informing me about?”

    I’ve known for some time that the Bishop reads my blog; though not sure how frequently. I assume that whatever DSO web content that I fisk will be seen by the Bishop. So, it’s not really as surreptitious as you suggest.

  10. Fr. Rob
    10 February 2010 at 12:02 AM

    “YouTube is a public forum. Your parish office is not. You posted on a public forum, and I responded, publicly.”

    My point is that I have the courage to put my name behind my beliefs and argue them, publicly or privately. I’ve read your reasons for shielding yourself with anonymity and find them wanting.

    If I received an unsigned letter at my office, I’d ignore it. I’m going to do the same here until you remember that Jesus told us to face our detractors and our persecutors with courage. Until then, peace with you.

  11. Elder Oyster
    10 February 2010 at 1:44 AM

    RE: “My point is that I have the courage to put my name behind my beliefs and argue them, publicly or privately. I’ve read your reasons for shielding yourself with anonymity and find them wanting.”

    In other words, you think me to be a coward. Fortunately, I have made peace with that already. I can’t be all things to all people. Oh, well.

    RE: “If I received an unsigned letter at my office, I’d ignore it. I’m going to do the same here..”

    And I’m completely devastated. Especially because you came over here with the pretext of having a conversation, insinuated me a coward, then did your own “advance to the rear,” by declaring that you were going to ignore me. And you mock me too, by declaring that you’re ignoring me, rather than simply ignoring me in the first place.

    Woe is me. I shall retreat in despair to Sheol, but not before living a long and desolate life. 😉

    – Elder

  12. Elder Oyster
    10 February 2010 at 1:47 AM

    PS – He’s right, you know. You’re really only encouraging me. ;D

  13. Pearls Before Swine
    17 February 2010 at 7:10 PM

    Bummer. I was hoping Fr. Rob directly answered your question, “if St. James disappeared tomorrow, could the resulting void be filled by a group of non-Christians?”

    He did indirectly answer it though with:
    “On the other hand, baptism with a manifestation of a transformational aspect in ones life suggests a pointless ritual. And a failure to serve in any facet of ministry suggests the kind of Church whose lampstand might be taken away.

    So self-identification does not a Christian make, but life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, whose influence is supposed to be evident.”

    In other words he implies it is all about works, and nothing to do with our need for repentance and forgiveness. Yes, a change of heart and life should be the outworking of the Holy Spirit’s presence in one’s life, but the evidence is not what makes one a Christian.

    Hopefully today (being Ash Wednesday) will remind us all (including Fr. Rob) of our brokenness and sinfulness and ultimate need for Jesus Christ to save and redeem each and every last and lost one of us because we cannot do it on our own.

    • Elder Oyster
      17 February 2010 at 10:36 PM

      RE: “In other words he implies it is all about works, and nothing to do with our need for repentance and forgiveness. Yes, a change of heart and life should be the outworking of the Holy Spirit’s presence in one’s life, but the evidence is not what makes one a Christian. ”

      I was trying to confirm that this was his meaning before he changed the definition of the word, “conversation,” on me, so I am not 100% certain of that. But I admit that it sure sounds that way.

      And if that is the case, the irony would be so thick we could cut it with a knife, couldn’t we? The church trying so hard to make people “feel better going out than they did going in,” becomes the church where we’re all stressed because if that doesn’t happen, then we’re apt to get our lampstand taken away from us: Hardly a venue to show off the wacky Grace of Jesus Christ, imho, since it puts us back at Square One.

      Poor fellow.

  14. Elder Oyster
    19 February 2010 at 9:33 AM

    On second thought, Pearls, you might want to check out another one of Fr. Rob’s youtube videos that I looked at quite recently.

    In spite of all the mumbling, it becomes fairly obvious what they don’t believe. That being the case, it is apparent that the debate over works righteousness doesn’t even enter the fray; the worldviews are simply THAT much different.

    This deserves a fisk too, but that’ll probably wait until after Lent.

  15. Pearls Before Swine
    19 February 2010 at 6:23 PM

    Alright, I listened. You’re right, works vs. grace does not even enter into the equation. At least they didn’t use the “yes there is a hell, but it’s only for fundamentalist Christians” line that I have heard from people in TEC before.

    I did find it rather “interesting” that the following were the first three “Related” videos listed:
    – Marilyn Manson & The Spooky Kids Thrift
    – Marilyn Manson – Antichrist Superstar
    – ‘Hell’ as an invention of the church (Spong)

    You know, at least Spong doesn’t even try to pretend anymore. But then again, even with no longer pretending, he’s still a “bishop” in a supposedly “Christian church” somehow.

  16. Elder Oyster
    20 February 2010 at 12:18 AM

    RE: “At least they didn’t use the “yes there is a hell, but it’s only for fundamentalist Christians” line that I have heard from people in TEC before. ”

    I admit I haven’t heard that one (yet??).

    It does crack me up (in a sick twisted way, no doubt) when I hear someone from TEO give their version of a personal testimony:

    “I was raised by fundamentalists, and then stopped going to church in college just after I shacked up with someone, then later I became an Episcopalian, when I was told that I didn’t have to believe in the other stuff. Now, when I go to church, I don’t have to check my brain at the door. Hallelujah!”

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