Defining terms, exploring issues

reporter notebookTucked away in The Washington Post's metro section Saturday was a quiet story about a pastor and his mission that "lasted 50 years." In reading this story, imagine what the article would look like if it were about a successful businessman who grew a local Washington, D.C.-area company from 27 employees "to more than 3,300." Would key terms go undefined and controversial issues be left unexplored? See here the description of Smith's rather incredible life story serving his community:

More than 50 years later, Smith is celebrating his vocation -- not as a doctor, but as pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood for the past half century.

During that time, Smith has grown the church from 27 members to more than 3,300, served as a local leader in the civil rights movement, worked to eliminate segregation in Prince George's County and, most recently, oversaw the construction of an $8 million sanctuary.

"It was a calling," said Smith, 74, who has used his pulpit to preach liberation theology -- identifying God and His promise of salvation with the plight of black people throughout history -- along with a politically active social gospel.

Oh how daring it is to attempt to define liberation theology in fifteen words or less. I really do not even know where to start with regards to this definition of liberation theology, but the reporter should have at least cited where he found that definition. Since defining liberation theology is difficult to do in a news story, a better option would be simply defining what liberation theology meant to Smith and his church.

The definition of liberation theology aside, the article does an excellent job of showing the significance of Smith in the community and how his theology influenced his involvement in improving the community around him and fighting racism in Maryland.

Unfortunately, the tone of the final paragraphs of the article slip into a bit of advocacy journalism:

In the same way he broke away from the National Baptist Convention to be part of King's movement, Smith has broken the mold as a traditional pastor -- whether it is moving his main service from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Sundays so that people can do other things or ordaining women.

"Rev. Smith is not threatened by women," said Janet Caldwell, one of three female ministers on the church's seven-member pastoral staff. "He really supports us, not only in the traditional roles of the church but as preachers of the gospel as well."

"I have tried to keep a family atmosphere here," Smith said. "When people feel ownership, they support something. I firmly believe in an equal opportunity church."

Pastors in the traditional mold only have services at 9 a.m. and refuse to ordain women? All pastors that refuse to ordain women are threatened by women? Obviously, Smith has taken a strong position in a significant theological debate over the ordination of women. Was this position taken merely to "keep a family atmosphere" or to promote "an equal opportunity church" or was there more significant theological reasons? Perhaps the reporter could have asked about Smith's stance on gay ordinations?

Between the lines of these paragraphs one gets the sense that Smith's decisions to be less traditional was met with some resistance. Who was opposing him in these decisions and how do they feel about Smith's ministry? There is an obvious challenge in getting deeper into these issues in a relatively short news story, but that does not mean they should not be addressed.

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