Here’s a bit of PCA trivia for you. In the last two years, three of the denomination’s most influential pastors have gone home to be with the Lord. They are Frank Barker, Harry Reeder, and Tim Keller.
Of the three, which one sometimes included dance as an element in public worship at their church?
Answer: Frank Barker
Though it’s easily forgotten now since Rev. Barker retired in the late 90s, his wife Barbara, who also passed away last year, founded the Briarwood Ballet as a ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. It has become one of the best ballet schools in Alabama and while Rev. Barker was minister sometimes Mrs. Barker’s dancers would dance as part of public worship.
I know this because my wife was one of those dancers. Joie grew up dancing at the ballet at Briarwood and Mrs. Barker is one of her heroes and one of the chief influences in her life. When she died last year, Joie actually rented a car and drove the 14ish hours from Lincoln to Birmingham so she could attend the funeral. “I don’t think I realized till now how much she is in me,” is what she said to me once around that time. You can see the funeral here.
My point in sharing this is not to score denominational points for one “team” or another. (If you’re wondering about that video that made the rounds awhile back of dancers during a Redeemer service, that service took place after Tim’s retirement.) Rather, it is to make a more basic point about the nature of our relationship to one another within the PCA and our relationship to one another more generally as Christian believers.
Because the online world is now the primary format through which presbyteers converse and debate with one another, we have come to see one another as what we are while online: as decontextualized avatars that stand in for one point of view or another. Because of these dynamics, many figures within our communion (and within the American church more generally) have acquired an unreal, fabricated sort of identity premised on snatching them out of their context as persons and imputing to them all kinds of ideas, beliefs, and postures without any knowledge of whether any of it is actually accurate. People become avatars and avatars become a kind of synecdoche for All the Good Things or All the Bad Things.
There are lots of problems with this. But the most basic is that people aren’t avatars. People are actually interesting. They can surprise you, if you’ll let them. But you’ll only get the chance to be surprised if you are humble and patient with them. That can be hard to do under the best of circumstances and can be nearly impossible in digitally mediated relationships. (This, incidentally, is one of the background points I was trying to make in this piece.)
One of the things that I think Tim’s generation of the PCA got more right than wrong is that they found ways of seeing each other’s humanity and relating to one another as person’s. Tim, of course, would sometimes have public dialogues at GA with Dr. Ligon Duncan with Tim being a stand-in for the northern, more evangelical wing of the PCA and Dr. Duncan for the more southern, traditional wing.
I once remember a conversation I had with Tim in which I said an unkind word about someone from the PCA’s southern conservative wing. Tim scolded me, gently, and told me I shouldn’t make assumptions. “Some of those folks will surprise you,” he told me. He then also told me that one of the more prominent southerners in the communion had become a good friend of his and that they prayed for one another as they faced chronic pain and illness.
But it wasn’t just Tim and Dr. Duncan that did this. Dr. Brian Chappell has modeled what this can look like as well, as did Rev. Reeder. And what worries me in this moment for our communion is that with the passing of Tim and Rev. Reeder and also of Steve Smallman, we have lost an enormous amount of accumulated relational knowledge and trust in just a single week. What we have left is often a too-online contingent of younger leaders who snipe at each other or gripe about each other across Twitter or private Facebook groups. And what I hope and pray we can do is the same thing that these fathers have done before us: Give one another space to encounter each other not as avatars for tribal groups within the communion, but as actual human persons.
Probably this will require being far less active online. We’ll have a piece coming soon from a friend of mine arguing that social media-obsessed pastors are actually practicing a modern version of the old medieval sin of clerical absenteeism. It will also require making a point of communicating via private backchannels when possible and, better still, in-person as frequently as possible.
Personal encounter supplies us with a context in which to place another person. If you were to meet me in my home study, you’d see a photo of my Swedish Lutheran great grandfather, a layman with a keen interest in theological study and a desire to be engaged in his local church. You’d see a Detroit Red Wings hockey puck I got probably 25 years ago. There’s a shotgun shell casing that one of Joie’s family members handed me after we got engaged. (I think he was joking?) There’s an old wooden globe that lifts up around the equator with bar storage inside it as well as shelving for glassware beneath the globe. And if you were in my study with me you would see all of those things and whatever caught your eye might spark a conversation between us.
If I met you in your back garden or your study or in your living room by the fire, I would see similar things from your life and we might speak about those.
Even meeting in coffee shops can offer some of this, of course. Last week I met a friend for lunch and as we arrived I saw he was on crutches—which is how I learned that he’d hurt his hip in a bike accident.
When you encounter people online, all of that personal context disappears into the ether—which is a very good reason to stop trying to meet people online. That teaching elder you really hate? He might have a kid struggling with a major disability. Or maybe his older sister is dealing with dementia and is having to move into a nursing home. Or perhaps he has lost 20% of the people in his church in the past year for reasons that aren’t really his fault and now he’s feeling scared and more than a little sad as he contemplates the future.
It is hard to hate someone when you just finished praying that he would have the strength he needs to care for his dying father with advanced Parkinson’s.
But you only know about the disabled child or the sick family member or the struggling church if you’re talking to people in non-argumentative contexts where you goal isn’t winning a debate, but simply getting to know who they are and how you can pray for them. It is only through those encounters that you meet the whole person and have the pleasure of being surprised at something they say or do, like when you find out the founding father of the PCA and a long-standing TE in Evangel presbytery sometimes included dance as part of public worship.
People are interesting. Do your media, communication, and online habits and postures toward others help you remember that? Or do they make you forget it?
For the sake of our own communion and for the sake of the American church more generally, we better start remembering soon.