In 2010, Ed Stetzer and I served as on the interim pastoral team for Two Rivers Church. It is a church I love and I now serve bivocationally in a more permanent capacity as a teaching pastor. I was thinking about our 2010 experience recently as the Westboro Baptist Church group made an appearance to protest at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. For the record, I do not think that they are Baptist or a church. From my limited vantage point, they seem to be a group of people who simply like to shock others with outlandish rhetoric. They may claim to work in the name of Christianity but I see nothing of Christ in their efforts.
During 2010, the group came to Nashville and we knew they would be at our church. The following is my retelling of how our church responded. I post this for a particular reason and it is not to prepare you for this particular group’s protest of your church. Instead, it is to provoke you to think about how you will lead in the midst of provocations and protesting from dissonant voices.
The following post is not a pure apples-to-apples comparison as to how you can deal with dissenters to the mission of your church. However, I think it will help you to take a deep breath and think through how you do deal with those who vehemently disagree with you. It is one of the great challenges of leadership: How do we lead those who wish to go a different direction?
originally posted at EdStetzer.com
In January, Ed asked me (and a few other friends) to do some volunteer ministry leadership at Two Rivers Church where he serves as the interim pastor. It has been fun to help a great church regain her footing. Essentially, I preach on Sundays when Ed’s schedule has him out of town and give guidance to the full-time ministry staff.
Yesterday, the church had an unusual opportunity to show who we are and who we hope to become due to some – ahem – unusual guests. It is the standard operating procedure of the Westboro Baptist Church to alert the media as to all of their shenanigans – I mean protests. So, about six weeks ago, a press release was sent out from Fred Phelps’ group that they would be protesting at three churches in Nashville: Christ Church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and Two Rivers. In fact, we knew the exact time frame they would picket the church.
So, what were we to do? We did what any good Southern church would do: served food!
No – really – we did. Here’s how we handled the protestors, counter-protestors, church members, and media.
First, we prepared an answer. As leaders of the church, the members are trusting that we are aware and active. So, putting together a plan was just a matter of deciding a direction. Our answer to offensive signs was to show and share the love of Christ with anyone in need. Whether speaking to the protestors, counter protestors, or the media, we were prepared to speak about what God is doing in our community.
Second, we told the congregation. One week earlier, Ed told the church we would be picketed and to expect the counter protestors and media to be present as well. But we also made it clear that church members should not engage either side. Protestors just want media attention and engaging in an argument is a great way to make the 10 PM newscast.
Third, we appointed one spokesman for the church. For Sunday, I was the one. If the media wanted to do an interview or get answers to questions, they could talk to the representative from the church. This is normal for how we do things at Two Rivers.
Fourth, show hospitality. One of our staff members recruited several deacons to serve at a Baptist breakfast table: coffee and donuts. It was positioned near the protesters, counter protesters, and media. Anyone was welcome to come to the breakfast table.
Finally, we went on as usual. We gather to worship God in such as way that it bring Him honor and is comprehensible to those who are yet to place their faith in Christ. Two Rivers has become one of the hubs for relief efforts in the wake of the Nashville flood. We have been a command center for Samaritan’s Purse and housed a Christian school while their building is being repaired. Every week, we meet new people by clearing debris and offering grace. The last thing we have time to do is shut down because five people show up with offensive signs.
The reason we were targeted for the ire of Westboro is because we dare to say that God loves everyone. As we wrote in Compelled by Love:
Allow the Father to teach you of His heart for you, your family, your neighborhood, your culture. The missional outworking of His heart in our lives refuses to allow us to sit still. He drives us out into the rocky places of people’s lives. Allying yourself with the Father’s work is to travel with Him as He seeks those who are wayward.
Guilty as charged. Two Rivers is glad to be known as a place where God’s love is shown through its actions and explained in its message. I hope that you and your church will be known for the same.