I’m coming down off a wild and blessed DiscipleNow weekend from a Nashville area Southern Baptist Church. The theme was “Focus: focusing on God in the busyness of life.” I got the opportunity to lead three large group sessions, and my main objective was having the students focus on the person of Jesus Christ, specifically his role as our final Prophet, Great High Priest, and sovereign King. The material from those sermons may be forthcoming on here, but it’s safe to say I probably received more edification out of the preparation and prayer time leading up to the weekend than the students did (which is usually the case).
When services concluded on Sunday morning, Johnny gave a brief tour of downtown Nashville (never been there before). We saw the Titans home stadium, the music city’s honky-tonk strip, Vanderbilt University and plenty of other interesting sites. But one stood out above the rest. It was one of the most impressive structures among the entire Nashville skyline. It was the Southern Baptist Mecca, the crowning gem of Sunday School Superintendent’s everywhere. No, I’m not talking about the Southern Baptist Convention building, that was a midget in the shadow of this great beast. I am talking about the LifeWay building. I was shocked, genuinely shocked, at the sheer magnitude of its immaculate presence. It took up a majority of two city blocks.
Apparently, church literature and research is a massive business. And let me tell you brethren, business must be a boomin’. I knew LifeWay had a corner on the Church resource market amongst Baptist churches, but I never imagined the monopoly could have reached this level; Walmart only wishes it had the same grip on its consumers as LifeWay has on its churches. I knew Lifeway had some Christian bookstores, its own publications, and a church statistics research team that would make NASA look like a middle school kid doing a volcano science project. But I never knew this.
If not for the massive cross on the side of the building, you would have thought LifeWay was some international corporation cluttering the Nashville airspace along with its skyscraper neighbor, AT & T. Much to my dismay I thought, “This was the Lifeway I commonly poked fun at for its sometimes watered down study material and its powerful molding of cultural Christianity?”
Looks like I have been ignorantly biting off way more than I could chew all this time. Turns out I was like an ant bashing its head up against the Statue of Liberty, and Lady Lifeway never felt the slightest reverberation from my murmurings.
Now, before the Lifeway apologists flood my inbox with hate mail and cliche’d arguments like: “Lifeway does a lot of good for a lot of people, what exactly are you doing for the kingdom in comparison?” Hear this:
Lifeway has influenced many church members in a positive godly direction, and has streamlined a way for churches to get all their relevant ministry resources in a timely convenient fashion. You can be assured that a Lifeway study will not fracture off into a cultish heretical sectarian group bent on changing the nature of Jesus. By all accounts, Lifeway leaders like Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer are solid, theologically robust men with a real heart for biblical discipleship and evangelism. I would be remiss to fail to mention I also purchased an excellent book from a LifeWay store this weekend, Timothy Keller’s “Reason for God.” (as I sifted through the Creflo Dollar and TD Jakes selections)
The rub probably is not with Lifeway itself, but rather the authoritative position many church members (or more accurately, church leaders) have given to LifeWay. So I concede that LifeWay does do much good for the cause of discipleship and “biblical solutions.” I am not saying we should never use Lifeway materials, I am saying we should not feel coerced to always use Lifeway materials.
But some Southern Baptist leaders take it illogically personal when the validity of a Lifeway study is discussed. To express reservations about Lifeway material is akin to denouncing the faith (anathema!) or calling a person’s mother fat. For some leaders, vocational or lay, trying to pry the Lifeway grip off of a church education department is the kiss of death. But what’s really lethal is this: If we are not careful it will turn into the Evangelical Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. Or possibly worse, the JW’s Watchtower.
At many a SBC church, after lobbying for certain God honoring Bible saturating Christ centered studies that happen to not be Lifeway, I have found one will certainly come against varying degrees of opposition. Some good-humored godly friends of mine have confidentially shared my concerns (their names will remain anonymous to protect their identity and families). We thought it would be a relevant Baptist fashion statement to display local church T-Shirt campaigns with this slogan: “________ Baptist Church: The Way, The Truth, and the LifeWay.” It may be funny if there wasn’t some truth to it.
Some SBC leaders may be receptive to supplemental material to LifeWay, but then again some may crack you upside the head with a Holmon Christian Standard Bible.
So with fear and trembling, and much to lose regarding life and religious freedom, I testify these truths to be self evident: Lifeway is not Scripture. LifeWay is not the sole possessor of solid biblical resources. Lifeway, in some cases, maybe insufficient in its treatment of Scripture. As a result, churches, even of the Southern Baptist persuasion, should sometimes deviate from the Lifeway line, and provide resources that will profit its flock and not necessarily its reputation.
There. Now I would like to bid farewell to my friends and family. I don’t know where the relocation will be but I am sure it will be somewhere outside of the jurisdiction of the Bible Belt. If I ever contact you again it will be through a phone call from an undisclosed phone booth location….or maybe Facebook. : )