Book Review: Faith of My Fathers, by Chris Seay
At first sight Chris Seay’s book entitled Faith of My Fathers: Conversations with Three Generations of Pastors about Church, Ministry, and Culture appears to be another of Zondervan’s edgy emergent publications. On the surface it is edgy. Underneath, it is somber. In each chapter of this family dialogue, the reader meets the hip young Seay brothers, but also encounters their more subdued father and the shadow of their grandfather’s lost ministry methods.
Multi-generational family conversations comprise the book and reveal that one of the “emerging” church folks has emerged out of a traditional Baptist past. This book documents the family of Chris Seay, founder of University Baptist Church in Waco, TX and the pastor of Ecclesia, a “holistic”, “missional” Christian community in Houston, TX. Chris shows that his ministry methodologies, while different from his father’s and grandfather’s, come from their same ministry gene pool of revivalist Baptist pragmatism. Read this book if you would be helped to see a textured portrait of an “emerging leader”, his family, and their faith in a “do what works” theology of ministry.
Chris Seay leads discussions on various topics between three generations of his family who have been or are presently pastors and church leaders. In a style reminiscent of a Socratic dialogue, wisdom is pursued through questioning. The questions range from the trivial to the somewhat significant. For this family of ministers, faith (the first word in the title of the book) and wisdom are what works in very specific situations that arise in a minister’s life. Issues of “faith” and “wisdom” are really how to manage your family life, money, relationships, personal sanity, politics and more while pastoring. All these topics are discussed in only 175 pages. Chris leads the variety of conversations by asking his grandfather and father, for example, how they managed the demands of family life and ministry; Chris and his brothers then reflect on their present circumstances. If you are contemplating ministry or are new to ministry, the family reflections on many practical aspects of life in ministry would be informative and potentially helpful. Do not read this book and expect to find lengthy moral reflections followed by ethical statements of what one ought to do in ministry. These are limited discussions and the “wisdom” imparted is therefore limited, but a kind of wisdom can be found nonetheless.
Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) writes in the forward that the “beauty” of the book lies in its “subtlety”. I disagree. Faith of My Fathers is subtle like a Texas rodeo is subtle. Sure, you could “read” into a rodeo the quest for human dominance over nature, but it’s really just a sporting event. So too, you could “read” into these conversations layers of meaning all throughout, but it’s really just a conversation with some nuggets of meaning that emerge here and there. Miller and Chris Seay seem to want these conversations to contain layers of meaning that go beyond apparent “practical” discussions; I don’t think these supposed textures are really there. Miller also states in the forward that the book is really a documentary. Now this is accurate. This is a documentary about the end of “Revivalist Baptist” methodologies and about how ministry must be done today. (By “Revivalist Baptist” Seay means the church culture defined by “fiery sermons” calling for repentance, culminating in an invitation and followed by large numbers of baptisms to the end of growing the church.) This documentary presents two ministry methodologies – old and new; the comparison and contrast (and underlying similarities) of the two is one of the key reasons to pick up this book.
THE CRISIS IN THE CHURCH
In the first chapter Chris makes his views of the current church situation in North America clear, and in doing so reveals his framework for ministry. He states, “The church in North America is in danger of self-destruction” (19). He makes this statement with the acknowledgment that there has been a growing crisis for the past 50 years. But the crisis has now reached its pinnacle in his mind, and it is no better illustrated than in the church his grandfather pastored for 28 years. Chris’s whole family gave their lives to Magnum Oaks Baptist Church. It was a classic “Revivalistic” Baptist church near Houston. Magnum Oaks’ shadow hangs over Chris and his family, and from it Chris sees the “crisis” in the North American church.
There wasn’t always a crisis at Magnum Oaks. Chris’s grandfather began his ministry using the prevailing methods of Baptist church life that grew out of the revivalist culture of the early 19th century and that were perfected and refined by denominational programs and structures. To use the Southern Baptist formula for saving souls and building a church was as natural as sipping sweet tea for a southerner. Magnum Oaks gave people what they wanted at the time. In the 1950’s and 60’s churches like Magnum Oaks “were a little taste of what heaven must be like. No doubt about it—these were the good old days. Baptismal waters were stirring, church softball leagues were hitting, and these royal ambassadors for Christ were at the top of the cultural heap” (52).
But it’s all gone now. Magnum Oaks held its last service in 2002, soon after Chris’s grandfather retired. The closing of that church has provoked a crisis for their family—did the church even exist?—and this closing has made Chris and his brothers realize that the old ways of doing church didn’t work so well and won’t again.
One could debate the finer points of Chris’s analysis of the state of the church in North America. After all, Chris is thirty-two and has lived only in Houston and Waco, Texas, according to his biography. Had he lived elsewhere in the USA for any length of time, his view of the state of the church might be different. What has come to a rushing climax in Texas has been happening elsewhere in the country for longer than the last 50 years.
While one may want to quibble with his assessment of the degree of the crisis, his analysis of the viability of “Revivalistic Baptist” church life is accurate. Along with the potential demise of the North American church itself, Seay specifically asserts the extinction of the revivalist church culture. He considers himself to be “post-revivalist”; though Chris and his brothers are at times nostalgic for the revivalist church life they knew as kids, they conclude that a replacement methodology is needed for the church to survive. But does he succeed?
Chris’s presumption about the radical degree of the present crisis has led him and his brothers to adopt very different ministry styles from their father and grandfather. Oddly enough though, it appears that the underlying methodology may not be all that different.
SHARED OMISSION OF SANCTIFICATION
Like his grandfather, Chris would agree that the Bible is important and that it points needy people to God. Substantive Biblical teaching was not part of Chris’s grandfather’s approach to sanctification for his church members (just get folks saved and baptized), and it is not for Chris either. Chris thinks people need to be loved, to experience art, and to pursue God without a judgmental authority figure in their lives questioning how they are seeking to know God. In short, the church needs to be missional and affirming. Get folks in the church however you can (softball teams in the 1960’s and free beer today) and affirm them so they want to stay. Both generations do not want to be too fussy about discipleship or personal holiness; just make people feel welcome and affirmed. The pragmatism that was flowering during his grandfather’s ministry has gone to seed, and Chris is tending the new plant.
SHARED AVERSION TO BOUNDARIES
Chris is averse to boundaries. They serve no immediate benefit. He wants to affirm the Apostle’s Creed, which is laudable, and maybe the other ecumenical creeds, but he doesn’t want any other limitations on what people believe in his church. Chris’s father and grandfather may want slightly more doctrinal definition, but they also are not interested in fussing over doctrine – just affirm the Bible and work to see conversions. The boundaries of membership are also very loose – maybe non-existent – for Ecclesia. For the Seay’s, loving people only seems to be accomplished through minimal boundaries. Aesop’s Fables includes the story of another young man who had little use for boundaries. He inherited a great vineyard that had been planted with a hedge around it. Because the hedge did not bear fruit, the young man ordered it cut down and burned. In very short order man and animal alike trampled his vines. The truth of the fable that Chris Seay does not grasp is that strong boundaries can be fundamental even if seemingly unproductive.
An example of the Seay’s shared aversion to boundaries can be seen in the discussion about active homosexuals who want to join the church. Predictably, the older generations see the need for a boundary, at least in this case. (Now, it’s probable that this commitment to supposed loving exclusion would only extend so far. For example, would the older Seay’s exclude someone for non-attendance? Questions like these would likely expose their limited commitment to meaningful boundaries). Also predictable is the younger Seays’ reluctance to “exclude” anyone from their “community”. They want everyone to be welcome (though they seem deliberately unclear whether they want everyone to be welcome to attend services only or to be welcome as a full fledged church member). While it may seem loving not to exclude people from membership (or whatever label one wants to use for the concept of membership), they fail to see that the enforcement of a boundary can be loving if it helps an individual come to terms with unrepentant sin.
SHARED INCLINATION TO MARKET AN IMAGE
As the Seay brothers have reflected on their experiences as Baptists in Texas, they have concluded that the church has been “sanitized” and has lacked authenticity. To some extent this is a good realization. The church for example may have marketed a public face to prospective members that portrayed an idealized picture of the lives they wish they had. (Recall the pictures of perfectly dressed children and families in Sunday School literature in the 1950’s and 1960’s.) In their quest for authenticity though, the Seay brothers at times sound like adolescents with unqualified and marginally informed opinions. They also espouse a more compassionate and progressive stance on social issues (such as sexual orientation, race, and economic justice) than the older members of their family and traditional southern church norms may hold. Because the discussion does not summarize how they arrived at these conclusions, their progressivism appears shallow and contrived. If these social issues are as important as they say, and if they care as much as they say, why would they not have taken care to demonstrate the reasons and arguments they used to arrive at these positions? One hopes that their compassion is motivated by deep Biblical conviction and not an inclination to again use an “image” for marketing purposes.
Notwithstanding all that I have said, I still encourage reading the book if you would be helped by a glimpse of the changing face of the Baptist/evangelical religious landscape. Pastors and leaders presently serving would do well to view this candid portrait of ministry in one family in Texas past, present, and possibly future. In processing the death of Magnum Oaks and the revivalistic Baptist methodologies, this family has faced a reality that many others in ministry will soon face. They have done this with a level of candor and “authenticity” about their church and family that does at times come through the text.
Another reason to read this book is to expose the sad multigenerational commitment to “whatever produces results at the moment”; for the Seay family, “faith” seems far too intertwined with what works in a particular time and place. While they do possess a commitment to faith in Jesus, the authority of the Bible and the golden rule, they seem unable to examine deeper commitments and motivations in what they do or have done in ministry. They are either unwilling or unable to engage in substantive reflection about doctrine, historic church practices, ethics, evangelism and true piety. Their shallow assessments leave them unable to see the similarity in the “new” and “old” methodologies and could therefore leave Chris with the same unexpected outcome as his grandfather. Magnum Oaks should serve as a caution not only to Chris but also to all pastors who feel they do not have the time to examine the methodologies they deploy in their churches.