“Praying that the power of forgiveness expressed by the families of the victims in Charleston will ignite revival.. God, do it we pray…” @crawfordlorrits
“I want to be clear about yesterday: it was my family that was attacked at the church in Charleston. These were my brothers & sisters!” @dannyakin
Last week thousands of Southern Baptists descended on Columbus, Ohio, for our annual meeting. I joined the crowd, a larger and healthier crowd generationally and ethnically than we’ve seen for a few years. My first convention came 30 years earlier in Dallas where 45,000 were embroiled in the heart of the conservative resurgence. No such controversy prevailed this week.
In fact, this was the most unified, focused, and generally sweet convention I’ve ever attended. President Ronnie Floyd called to the convention to focus on revival and spiritual awakening, evoking terms from Jonathan Edwards in the First Great Awakening. In particular, visible union became evident early. I loved seeing all our seminary presidents reporting together, including a stirring video report by each president. How I loved seeing David Platt and Kevin Ezell of the IMB and NAMB respectively come together as well. This has been far too long in coming.
But for all these good things, the best was Tuesday night. A 2 ½ hour prayer vigil for revival at a national business meeting—who would’ve thought? The crowd was strong and the Spirit’s presence was evident. Intimacy is hard to attain in massive halls like where we met, but with those around me, intimacy in prayer was in fact experienced. I heard pastors after say they had never spent that much time praying with a group.
President Floyd had a litany of pastors lead in various emphases followed by times of prayer. What in my mind overshadowed it all was the beautiful multi-ethnicity represented by all the pastors involved. The most powerful moment for me – one I will long remember — came when Ted Traylor, long time SBC leader and pastor of the Olive Baptist Church in Florida, shared about his own journey to love brethren regardless of color. We need to be real, and it was a real moment. The embracing, praying, and rejoicing across ethnic lines proved to be the most powerful feature of the night, particularly given events of the past year or two. Maybe it’s because I attended the dinner for the African-American fellowship led by my friend K. Marshall Williams, whom I respect so dearly. Maybe it’s because of the focus on diversity at Southeastern. Perhaps it’s somewhat because of my own past, witnessing the sin of racism in my home state of Alabama when younger. Regardless, the unity of pastors in prayer stirred something deep within.
I flew home Wednesday evening after a great seminary luncheon. I crawled in bed close to 1 AM, and very uncharacteristic of me, I slept until 830 AM. I got up, and before long checked my phone. There I saw the news about Charleston. Nine innocent people killed. That was tragic enough, evoking memories in my mind of Wedgwood Baptist Church back in 1999, a church I knew well. But this was even worse: a white gunman with obvious racist views, after sitting in a Bible study, killed the pastor and eight others.
Gut wrenching. How much more of this can we take? What will happen next? Will more riots break out across America?
Then we saw something amazing. But not that surprising. We saw the gospel lived out in the lives of broken and hurting people.
Peggy Noonan wrote of how the response of the families and friends of the victims moved her. She wrote in part in the Wall Street Journal:
I have never seen anything like what I saw on television this afternoon. Did you hear the statements made at the court hearing of the alleged Charleston, S.C., shooter?
Nine beautiful people slaughtered Wednesday night during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their relatives were invited to make a statement today in court. Did you hear what they said?
They spoke of mercy. They offered forgiveness. They invited the suspect, who was linked in by video from jail, to please look for God.
There was no rage, no accusation—just broken hearts undefended and presented for the world to see. They sobbed as they spoke.
“I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lance, killed in the shooting. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” She asked that God have mercy on the shooter’s soul. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you. And I forgive you.”
A family member of Anthony Thompson said he forgave the shooter. “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent . . . confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it—can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”
The mother of Tywanza Sanders, also killed, told the shooter: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. . . . Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”
. . . As I watched I felt I was witnessing something miraculous. I think I did. It was people looking into the eyes of evil, into the eyes of the sick and ignorant shooter who’d blasted a hole in their families, and explaining to him with the utmost forbearance that there is a better way.
What impact did this response have? This past Sunday, the eyes of the nation were on a worship service at a formerly obscure African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Not on a celebrity athlete embracing transgenderism. And, not at a megachurch. Not at a new, media-beloved multisite church. No superstar celebrity preacher. None of these.
What I observed was the people of God worshiping the Son of God to the glory of God. I saw hope in hurt. I watched joy in sorrow. I saw something we see too rarely: less rhetoric, more reality—the gospel come alive in a community.
“The doors of the church are open,” the Rev. Norvel Goff declared in the service. “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth can close the doors of God’s church.”
Noonan added her thoughts in the WSJ: “Charleston deserves something, a bow. So too do the beautiful people who go to Wednesday night Bible study in America in 2015. They are the people who are saving America every day, completely unheralded, and we can hardly afford to lose them.”
Lately the church, or a lot of us in it, have been wringing our hands over gay marriage, transgenderism, and essentially our loss of the home field advantage we once enjoyed in America. Maybe James Davidson Hunter is on to something in his book To Change the World. Maybe the way the church can change the world has less to do with seeking to change it and more about our faithfully living out the gospel in the culture.
Tuesday night last week we prayed for revival. Wednesday night a church’s heart was broken. In both places and in both cases the gospel offers us hope.
I can’t help but notice how the story of historical revival movements is often the story of the disenfranchised:
–The Wesleys, Whitefield, and others being forced out of the established church to reach the unwanted, like the coal miners. “Why go to America to reach the heathen?” An opponent asked rhetorically. “Go to Kingwood and the colliers [coal miners].” They did, and an awakening came.
–Zinzendorf inherited an estate, welcoming the disenfranchised Hussites and others for refuge there. And there, the 100 Year Moravian Prayer Revival was birthed.
–The Jesus Movement saw a host of hippies and other unchurched youth come to Christ in the early 1970s.
I agree with Edwards who said we should judge movements of the Spirit a posteriori, not a priori; that is, we judge them by their fruits. It’s too early to say what the long-term impact of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston will have. But if we look back in a few years and talk about the movement of God in our time, it would be like our God to start with a group of believers like those we see just now, who have nothing but Jesus and whose hope rests only in God.