When the good news is news

It's been a rough month or two in religion coverage when it comes to national political topics. Though many reporters continue to do a great job, the overall problems with framing and accuracy have been horrible and well documented here. One of the requirements for contributing to GetReligion is that you must be supportive of the mainstream media model. As I watched the deluge of inaccuracies and unabashed campaigning by media members of the Church of Planned Parenthood a month back or so, I wasn't sure I could stay on. But I received many nice notes (and tips) from reporters who were just as horrified as others were and it kept me going.

While there are many bad stories we should have critiqued that have just fallen through the cracks, there have also been some good ones.

A reader sent in the note:

We have been feasting on religion at the Commercial Appeal here in Memphis. It occurred to me that I should have sent y'all this nice article that appeared last Saturday. He describes a unique foot-washing, with some really good quotes.

The he, it will not surprise you, is David Waters. This column, which reads like brief reported feature, is full of great quotes and a simple story about congregational life.

I think all the time about how the daily life in a congregation just isn't going to be terribly newsworthy. Or, if it is, it's because the daily life has all of a sudden gotten quite salacious (that other Memphis story about excommunication comes to mind).

There are a thousand daily dramas in the life of any congregation, but almost none of them are ever noteworthy enough for general news coverage. What that means, though, is that when these thousands of stories are ignored, the general public might not understand how congregational life works.

My husband just got home from a 2-hour meeting of our congregation's building committee. It was not a dramatic meeting and the committee was simply working hard to achieve the goal we have. But that goal -- to expand and reform our physical plant to help our growing church and school -- is a story with hundreds of years of history, dreams for the future, minor congregational squabbles, and lessons about how our doctrine guides us in all we do. Being part of a congregation means that individual members have to forbear each other and forgive grievances and constantly learn how to work together. These are stories that just don't get told much, even though much of America lives out this drama every week.

So let's look at this story by Waters. It begins:

According to the Southern Baptist confession of faith, "repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace."

Over the past few years, grace has seemed to be in short supply at Germantown Baptist Church.

"Since 2006, there have been several heartbreaking situations that have occurred in our church family that resulted in broken relationships, broken trust, divisions within our church family and a damaged witness in our community," Dr. Charles Fowler, the church's senior pastor, wrote to the congregation last month.

Fowler became senior pastor of the church in summer 2010 after spending 16 years teaching at Union University. He knew he was being called to serve a wounded congregation. At first, he had hoped the wounds would heal with time, but he had no idea how deep they were.

Church leaders and members had been battling each other for control for years. One pastor resigned in 2006, citing "the protection of my wife and children" after a long and bitter dispute over church governance. Three years later, another pastor resigned after an angry dispute over worship styles and other issues.

"Since coming to serve as pastor, I have fasted and prayed that God would heal the many wounds. I have shed many tears over these heartbreaks in our church family. At times I have even asked God to allow me to bear the burden of these situations on behalf of my church family, hoping that they could experience freedom from this bondage."

Now, I seem to recall reading something about this church's struggles before, but no specifics are offered in this piece. Which is kind of weird, but doesn't really take away from the overall goodness of the piece. We learn that Fowler had served troubled groups before but that he'd never experienced a fight as brutal as this one. Mean things were said, both publicly and privately. Hundreds of members left. Feuds split the congregation, its families and friends.

And so:

"How can a church proclaim the glories of the love of God to those who are lost when their reputation is such that they cannot get along with each other?" Fowler wrote last month...

Last June, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Phoenix adopted a resolution "beseeching all pastors, congregations, ministry leaders, and denominational workers ... to repent corporately in their various churches of all sins which God's Spirit reveals."

On Sunday evening, Jan. 29, in Germantown, Fowler called his flock together to confess, forgive and repent corporately in a special service he called "Grace Applied."

"We have prayed so long for this service," Fowler began as hundreds of past, present and future church members and leaders filled the seats of the worship center. "Your Holy Spirit has prepared the hearts of many, many people who have a desire to be here tonight."

Fowler had prepared for the service by writing a declaration of confession and forgiveness for the congregation to read aloud together. He also set the stage with three chairs, three basins of water and three white towels.

This piece is so good that it gives me chills upon rereading it. We learn that Fowler invited three guests on stage. Those three guests were the three previous senior pastors:

"I would like to begin this service the way Jesus began the Last Supper in the Upper Room," Fowler told the three men. "On behalf of our church family, I'd like to wash your feet."

Some "foot-washing" Baptists consider the practice to be a third ordinance, after baptism and communion. Southern Baptists don't, but as with many other Christians, foot-washing ceremonies are symbolic expressions of service and humility.

Fowler removed his jacket as the three former pastors took their seats on stage. He knelt in front of Story, then Shaw and Kitchings, removing their shoes and socks, pouring water over one foot, then another, drying each with a towel.

"It was a tremendous display of servanthood on his part," Kitchings said. "Jesus said to be great, you must be a servant. My only regret of the evening is that I did not think about washing his feet, in response."

Afterward, Fowler gave each man a hug as the teary-eyed congregation stood and applauded.

Believe it or not, there are other fantastic quotes that aren't in these excerpts. This call to repentance is then extended to the rest of the congregation, with descriptions of how it plays out among the gathered.

The Baptist approach to confession and absolution -- which is different from the Catholic or Lutheran approaches I'm more familiar with -- is not so much explained as shown through the quotes from those gathered.

It ends with everyone sharing in "the Lord's Supper" and with another healthy dollop of powerful quotes about Christian love.

I encourage you to read it. I realize that sometimes stories about the daily drama of congregational life aren't left untold because they're not newsworthy but more because we could improve in how we tell stories and what we find important and worth being told.

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