I’ve been thinking about my dad, who passed away in 2012. He preached for 60 years.
He was my primary mentor in my own ministry, and also my partner, when for several years we co-pastored the congregation I now lead.
It’s not unusual for me to think about Dad, of course — he was my father. But in the last few days I’ve been thinking about him more than usual.
What prompted these ruminations was the truckload of emails I received after two of my columns in a row were picked up by an internet news service. In those columns I had speculated about a decline in U.S. church membership, as reported by Gallup.
The emails poured in. They came from sea to shining sea, and from pretty much every religious, non-religious and anti-religious orientation imaginable.
Some responses were respectful, even if the writers disagreed with my hypotheses about what’s causing membership to decline. But many, if not most, were neither respectful nor kind. I was struck by two prevailing sentiments: anger and arrogance.
As I read those emails, I kept thinking, “If this is what the discussion of faith looks like, no wonder people are leaving houses of worship.”
A friend pointed out that people keyed up enough to write a stranger living halfway across the country probably don’t represent the majority of us; they’re exceptions.
True. But still, as I read on—and on—I became progressively dejected.
There was the megachurch pastor who lambasted me as an enemy of the Christian faith for even touching this topic. Church membership means nothing, he claimed; it’s all about attendance. His church has recently grown from 2,000 attendees to 8,000, and if everyone, especially me, were more like him, Gallup wouldn’t have negative church news to report.
Shortly after I read that, I got another email from a guy insisting just as vigorously that the reason people are leaving churches is: megachurches. They’re turned off by giant congregations, he said. Christianity must return to small gatherings in people’s homes, as was common in New Testament days.
One guy assured me church membership was waning because Christians, even his fellow Latter-Day Saints, have abandoned the godly doctrine of polygamy. Some people thought churches were damned because they hadn’t fought abortion hard enough.
Liberals were convinced the decline was conservatives’ fault. Conservatives said it was liberals’ fault.
There was the atheist who, more than once, called me a “nut case” for believing in God, and others who agreed but used different terminology.
As I read, I kept thinking, “Dad, where are you?”
I don’t think anybody believed in God more radically than my father did.
He was a former Southern Baptist turned Holy Roller. He spoke in tongues, laid hands on the sick and prophesied whenever the Spirit moved him. He’d stop to get gas and, while he was there, lead the station’s attendant in the sinner’s prayer.
Spiritually speaking, he was a wild man, and sometimes he embarrassed me.
But he was defined by two virtues: humility and love.
He thought that no matter how strongly he believed something, he was just a flawed human being, rescued by God’s grace, and thus subject to being wrong-headed. He taught me to keep that in mind about myself, too, which I try to do.
His humility manifested itself as tolerance. And curiosity.
In our small town, he was a leader in the local ecumenical movement. For years, his best clergy friend was the town’s Episcopal priest. Dad preached in black churches and had black ministers preach in ours.
He led a monthly Bible study for a convent of Catholic nuns. He accepted gay people before there was even a gay rights movement, in the mid-1960s. When he saw Mormon missionaries out trudging down the street on a rainy day, he’d stop, tell them to hop in his car and drive them on their rounds.
He believed what he believed, but he also wanted to know what everybody else believed and why they believed it.
“Mmm, that’s interesting,” he’d say—and meant it.
He treated people humanely because he genuinely cared. Whether or not he agreed with them. Whether or not they looked like him. Whether or not they cared for him.
Every Christmas he’d give away 100 shiny bicycles to parents who might not otherwise have presents for their children. He rarely met a transient he didn’t slip a few dollars or help find a place to sleep. He visited the sick in hospitals. He visited prisoners in jails. The immigrants who worked in the Chinese restaurant called him “Papa” and considered him family. When strangers died without clergy, he preached their funerals regardless of their faith or creed.
He delivered his last sermon when he was 80, and titled it something along the lines of, “What I’ve Learned in 60 Years of Ministry.”
It was short and sweet.
“The whole gospel can be summed up in one word,” I recall Dad telling us that Sunday. “It’s about love. That’s it.”
He didn’t just talk that talk. He walked that walk.
Gee, I miss him. His being here wouldn’t reverse the downward trend in U.S. church membership. But it might serve as an antidote to some of the grandiosity and bile circulating these days.
He drew folks to God instead of running them off. The face of his Christ bore a smile for everyone. Dad taught me it’s hard for people to resist the power of love, and Christians’ job is to help them see God’s love at work.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.