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FIRST-PERSON: One thing worse than being lost

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–When I saw that last year’s Kennedy Center Honors went to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (along with Elton John, John Williams, Joan Sutherland, and Warren Beatty), I was reminded of meeting them in the green room of the old Bertice Berry Show in December of 1993. Bertice had come to Chicago’s WTTW from teaching sociology at Kent State, where her classes were wildly popular. Drafted to host a national talk show, she was eager to book conflicting guests for controversial topics. And that’s where I came in.

That fall, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) sent an estimate of the concentration of lost Americans to the various state convention evangelism departments. Besides county-by-county stats, the report featured a colored map of the U.S., with the most evangelistically needy counties in red, and with shadings down through orange and yellow to white as the need lessened. It was a dramatic sight.

An Alabama convention communications staffer thought it would make for a good news release, so he extracted his state’s stats for publication. Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News picked up on the story, spinning it as an example of Southern Baptist arrogance and judgmentalism rather than as an illustration of their desire to concentrate evangelistic efforts on the most spiritually distressed areas. The Associated Press ran with the story, and newspapers all over the nation had a field day.

At the time, I was with the SBC Executive Committee, and we were using a clipping service out of Chicago. Each day, we received a dozen or two newspaper and magazine clippings which mentioned the denomination in one way or another. We watched in amazement as the Alabama story raced across the country, giving headline writers the time of their life.

For instance:

— “Heavens! Baptists say 46% doomed” (Tampa Tribune)

— “Hellacious prediction” (Cincinnati Enquirer)

— “Styx and stones” (Louisville’s Courier-Journal)

— “Baptists tote up friends of the devil” (San Jose Mercury News)

— “Alabama Baptists catch heck over census of doomed souls” (Fort-Worth Star Telegram)

Bertice noticed the furor and decided to build a show around it. One of her production assistants called our office to ask if we could send someone up to defend the study. I checked around, and there wasn’t much eagerness to go -– but there was some eagerness that I go. So, praying furiously, I headed to the Windy City.

They were taping two shows a day back then, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were in for the Christmas show. For awhile, both the SBC-show and the Christmas-show guests shared the green room, and I had the chance to talk a little with Ossie. I was impressed with the fact that, though he was a well-know star of stage and screen, he was amiable and humble. But our visit was cut short when a production assistant hustled another guest and me to a waiting room of our own. This other guest was also a minister, and they wanted to be sure we were quarantined. It seems that we were having friendly conversations with the other participants in the SBC show, and the producers were losing hope for serious conflict on camera.

Bertice feared that this show could be deadly dull, with ministers plodding on and on about doctrine, so when she brought us all together just before we went on, she urged us to interrupt each other and even to interrupt her. She wanted us to scrap. (Ah, television.)

It was obvious that the SBC rep was supposed to be the turkey that day. After all, we were the ones who were saying a lot of folks were going to hell. But they made an interesting booking blunder, if you will. One of the show’s staff members urged that her pastor (a black Pentecostal on Chicago’s West Side) be included in the mix. He was unusual for his strong opinions on the connection between fashion and damnation. For instance, he said that women who wore slacks were going to hell. Next to him, I looked gracious.

The other guests on our show were notorious atheist Rob Sherman, a Loyola theologian whose name I forget, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The latter two were supposed to be the easy-going, likable fellows, but I think they came off more mushy than thoughtful. As for Sherman, he was just nutty, and folks knew it. So I’m persuaded that God put me in the moderate middle of that particular gathering.

I have to say things started pretty raw. A close up of my face was the first thing you saw, as the voiceover intoned, “This man says most of you are going to hell.” But as the discussion went on, a funny thing happened. Something Chuck Kelley of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary had said came to mind. We had been together in Resolutions Committee meetings at the June convention in Houston, and in some connection, Chuck had said, “There is one thing worse than being lost; it’s being lost and no one is looking for you.” I repeated that statement and then added, “Southern Baptists are looking for the lost.”

Things grew quiet. I think you could say there was a sea change in the audience. Where once they were raucous, some even laughingly raising their hands when Bertice asked if any were going to hell, they became more respectful and listened more closely.

I think I experienced the truth of Jesus’ promise to the disciples in Mark 13:11: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

Some Southern Baptists were mortified by the national ridicule we’d suffered over the AP story. In their understanding, we’d committed a fox paw (faux pas for the French among us). I, for one, was proud that plain speaking about heaven and hell and about man’s need for Christ were hallmarks of ours. I hope it will be so always. And when we catch heat for saying these things, the same Holy Spirit who emboldened and equipped Peter and Paul is at work in the minds and hearts of believers today. So let’s not shrink back from evangelism. Otherwise, our lost neighbors may have nobody looking for them.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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  • Mark Coppenger