Julie's Introductory Narrative (November 2015)
Dear Brothers and Sisters of First Baptist Church:
I’m one of those fortunate people who grew up in a family marked by love; a family that made me feel cherished and safe. My mother was (and is) a fundamentalist Christian who is deeply devoted to God. My father, who died in 1999, was thoroughly unchurched. His good-natured agnosticism and her earnest evangelical zeal cupped my childhood in good and helpful ways. In our house, religion was serious business yet never severe, holy but not holier-than-thou.
Growing up with that spiritual duality left a lasting impression on me. For one thing, my mother, who made a profession of faith at the age of 21 after being apprehended by two Southern Baptist door-to-door evangelists, taught me by example that following Jesus means plunging all the way in, not dabbling ones toes at the edge of the water. At the same time, my father, who had a fondness for just about every vice on the Baptist “Thou Shalt Not” list, was also the kindest, humblest, most generous person I knew. This was a signal to me early on that the lines we often draw, the labels we assign—good/bad, saint/reprobate, saved/unsaved—never tell the whole story about any person. And so, my family-of-origin experience gave me the gift of feeling equally at home with people of significant faith and people of little or no faith. I relate to both, love being with both, and love offering the gospel to both.
Passions and Motivations
My heart beats for the Church. In particular, I love those moments in congregational life when the movement of the Spirit is unmistakable, causing the church to take some new risk or step for love’s sake.
I love encouraging spiritual skeptics to take fresh, even tentative, steps of faith.
I love joyful, Spirit-filled worship.
I love the honor of coming alongside people in the congregation in all seasons of life—birth, death and everything in between.
I’m passionate about intentional leadership in every area of church life. I especially love engaging in leadership development with the staff and within the congregation.
I love seeing the relief and joy in people’s faces (long-timers and newcomers) when their church shifts from a priority of institutional survival to a vision of transformational, kingdom-of-God embodiment.
I’m passionate about the spiritual nurture of children, youth and young adults. In a day in which 6 in 10 young people will leave the church permanently or for an extended period of time starting at age 15, the stakes have never been higher.
I’m passionate about developing small group communities in which the masks can come down and people can know each other and be known.
I’m passionate about leading churches to be intentional and creative in taking faith beyond the church walls. I love watching God plant deep within the DNA of a congregation the conviction that God loves every single human being and that 99% of them are out there—not in here.
I’m passionate about encouraging diversity in a congregation. When I came to First Baptist Decatur, the congregation was extremely homogeneous. We covenanted together to be intentional about reflecting the diversity of our city (Decatur is commonly described as “Mayberry meets Berkeley”). By the time I left, it wasn’t unusual to see an elderly African American woman in a pillbox hat reading the morning Scripture lesson alongside a young gay father; or a magistrate judge receiving communion from a former heroin dealer; or a group of women from an addiction recovery program hurrying out after the benediction to their A.A. meeting downstairs in our gym. All of these, to me, were signs of Divine presence.
What motivates me in ministry is the assurance of God’s initiating and sustaining presence. Long before the notion to “do love” ever dawned on the church, it was already deep in the heart of God. We have the privilege of being partners with God in what God is already doing—it does not originate with us. God’s dreams and intentions will prevail in the world—sometimes through us and sometimes in spite of us.
First Baptist Church
First Baptist Washington DC is looking at enormous opportunities and significant challenges. Some of your challenges are the same dilemmas almost every church in America is facing as the religious tectonic plates shift. Some of your challenges relate to the reality that your history (especially your recent history) has negatively affected people’s perceptions of First Baptist, in Washington DC and beyond. Some of your challenge relates to the baggage that every old “First” church must deal with. I thought of First Baptist DC this week (and several other “First” churches I know) when I read these words by Franciscan friar Richard Rohr:
“Once you are at the visible center of any group, or once you are at the top of anything, you have too much to prove and too much to protect. Growth or real change is unlikely. You will be a defender of the status quo—which appears to be working for you. Every great spiritual teacher has warned against this complacency. The only free positions in this world are at the bottom and at the edges of things. Everywhere else, there is too much to maintain—an image to promote and a fear of losing it all—which ends up controlling your whole life.”
None of these challenges is insurmountable. In short, your future hinges—as does the future of every church—on the congregation’s ability and eagerness to surrender to the presence and movement of God in this time and place.
To be sure, your strengths and opportunities are also significant, and I very much look forward to hearing your own stories and reflections this weekend. Observing FBCDC from the outside, here is some of what I see:
- Washington DC is one of the most unique and vibrant cities in the U.S. What’s more, I’ve been told by more than a few people with whom I’ve spoken that First Baptist is full of some of the brightest, most faithful, God-connected people any church could hope to include. And so, I believe you have the opportunity to lean into this question, among others: What kind of kingdom impact might occur if a unique, courageous, passionate, gospel-driven congregation were to open its heart and doors to Washington in all of its complexity?
- It seems to me, given First Baptist’s history and present makeup, that you have the opportunity to be a Christ-centered, biblically grounded, intellectually robust, culturally responsive, adventurously entrepreneurial, profoundly welcoming body in a city that desperately needs this kind of spiritual presence.
What excites me about the Church today?
Personally, I can’t imagine a more exhilarating time to be the Church. Perhaps Diana Butler Bass put it best as she described the epochal shift happening on the religious landscape:
“Americans are searching for churches—and temples, synagogues, and mosques—that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world… Will there still be Christianity after the end of institutional religion? Yes, there will be. But it is going to be different than what Americans have known, a faith responsive to the longings of those who are expecting more spiritual depth and greater ethical integrity rather than more conventional church. Indeed, I suspect that the end of church is only the beginning of a new Great Awakening.”
I’m praying for new beginnings of all kinds at First Baptist Washington DC!
Grace and peace,
 Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press), 2014.
 Diana Butler Bass, “The End of Church”, Huffington Post, February 18, 2012.