So I read this story yesterday over at americanpreachers.com:
Pastor Rodney Wills was just about to reach 4 years at Mt. Salem Baptist Church.
He is the youngest pastor to be installed at 26 years old and is now the shortest term pastor in Mt. Salem’s 109 year history. On Saturday, Mt. Salem voted him out for attending a local Rick Ross concert. With a vote of 11 to 3, the 14 deacons met at 11pm Saturday night to discuss and come to a conclusion that they did not need his services anymore. Rev. Wills arrived to the church the next day for Sunday morning worship service and notice[d] his parking sign taken down and his name removed from the office door.
The deacons even asked another minister from the community to officiate the service that morning. “We cannot have our leader supporting people of this world who are tearing down the kingdom of God.” said Deacon Miles Langley. According to Deacon Langley, this is not the first time Rev. Wills has attended a concert while pastoring Mt. Salem. 9 months ago the diaconate board met with Rev. Wills when word was given to them that many youth and young adults spotted the pastor at a Lil Wayne concert.
“We know that many saints will have mixed opinions from our actions, but this is not how we do things here at Mt. Salem. We cannot have a pastor praising the world one minute then praising the Lord the next. Period.” said Deacon Langley.
Would I Be Hired?
As I read this story, my mind went back to a late October night in Hollywood, California four years ago. My wife and I made our way down to the Hollywood Bowl to attend a Maxwell concert. Both seminary students, we lived lives dedicated to the Lord. My wife was on ordination track with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. But what if I was this pastor? What if the concert was in Mount Salem territory? What if one of the deacons saw me there (though I’d wonder what he was doing there)? Are there levels of worldliness?
Let me be transparent here for a minute. My wife and I both love R&B music. We listen to it when we spend time together. The lyrics often articulate how we feel about one another in ways, dare I say, Gospel music or contemporary Christian music can’t. Let me make it plain. I love Fred Hammond. I love Chris Tomlin. But you best believe they don’t get any play during date nights with my boo. “No Weapon” doesn’t exactly scream romance. So that’s why we found ourselves at the Maxwell concert on that brisk October evening. We cuddled, stole a few kisses, and sat under the beautiful Southern California night sky together, as Maxwell belted the lyrics to “Pretty Wings”. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Does that make us worldly? With a rich 109 year tradition, I can understand the church’s effort to protect that tradition and heritage. But you have to wonder if any member of the deacon board has any Bobby Womack, Luther Vandross, or Al Green in their collection. What if I went through their 8-track collection (okay, okay, maybe record collection)? What makes those artists less worldly on the scale of worldliness.
Here’s the crazy thing. Thomas Dorsey (the progenitor of Gospel music) was considered worldly when he began to change the sound of music in the African American Church. He combined the sound of Christian praise with jazz and blues to create a genre that the African American Church loves today—Gospel music. And the church fought it. So I have to wonder when I pull into the church parking lot on Sunday morning bumping some Lecrae or Andy Mineo, will they render the same judgment based on what they perceive they hear? Would they feel I was playing music that’s tearing down the kingdom? If we’re really being real, some of the lyrics from Christian hip-hop artists are more theologically sound than what folks hear from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
Secular vs. Holy
Here’s the thing. I’m not saying the pastor should have been at that concert. Though the secular/holy divide isn’t always so clear, I’m pretty sure there’s no redemptive value in Rick Ross’ lyrics. So I’d say he shouldn’t have been there…period. I don’t care if you’re passing out tracts, have a megaphone preaching the Gospel, or set up a booth selling church merchandise. The obvious perception of the young church member who spotted him was something different. Sure the pastor is 26 and part of the younger generation, but this isn’t about having the right to go to the concert. I think Paul had something to say about this: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive (1 Corinthians 6:12, NIV). I’d ask this pastor: “Was it beneficial for you to be there?” “Was it constructive?” “What kind of impact could this potentially have on a young, impressionable member of your congregation?” Paul also warns us not to do anything to cause our brothers and sisters to stumble (see Romans 14:21, NIV). The pastor here had a previous conversation with the deacon board about their expectations. So I don’t think the decision was wrong, per se. Sir, the church is 109 years old. You knew exactly what you were getting yourself into. As a pastor, whether he likes it or not, he’s held to a higher standard than are other members of the community of faith. Honestly though, the standard should be no different for any Christian—in the pulpit or pews.
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How Do You Get Fired…On Your Day Off
Here’s the heart-wrenching part of this story though. The deacon board met with the pastor previously about his attendance at a Lil’ Wayne concert. Knowing their thoughts on this, he still decided to attend another concert. A concert that featured a man who unashamedly objectifies women, raps about date rape (at least implicitly in his lyrics), and represents every that’s wrong about rap culture. So what did the deacon board do? They fired him. On his day off. How do you get fired…on your day off?
I’ll tell you how. You get your sign removed from the parking lot. You get the placard removed from your door. Your office is cleaned out. Without even saying a word, you pull up in the parking lot and see signs that you’ve been removed without actually being told you have been relieved of your duties as pastor. You walk in the building and another minister is preparing to deliver a sermon from the pulpit you stood in just days ago. What kind of message does that communicate? If the church can’t handle situations like through direct communication and with grace, then how should we expect the world to? The unfortunate reality is that this is how many black churches have operated for decades. Meet. Vote. Act. We have to be careful that we don’t work so hard to protect our traditions that the Word of God is supplanted (and made void) through our tradition. I have not doubt that a church with 109 years of history may fall prey to this subtle, yet devastating, vice.
Trust me, the church isn’t coming up with a new standard. Holiness is God’s standard. But God also has expectations and important things to say about how we treat fellow believers. So my heart hurts. My heart hurts for this pastor. My heart hurts for this church. My heart hurts for churches who fail to communicate properly. Bad news is not always the best news to deliver. But sometimes it’s more about how you delivered it, rather than why you delivered it.
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Question: What do y’all think? Was the church wrong or were the actions of the deacon board justified?