Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Response to a Former Student

I recently received an email from a former student of mine asking about my undergraduate experience at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. The student had been attending there for the past year and was starting to question aspects of the church. Knowing that I had gone there this student asked for my thoughts. The following is my response with all names removed.

I started going to Highland Baptist my freshman year at Baylor (Antioch split off of Highland in 1999). Highland's college group was led by the current pastor of Antioch and was essentially like what Antioch became. I started leading lifegroups at the end of my freshman year. At the end of my junior year I became a section leader. In the Summer after my junior year the Antioch was started. I went to Juarez all four years, once as a participant, twice as a small team leader, and once as a big team leader. I was well on my way up the Antioch ladder and was planning on going to Antioch Training School (ATS, now called elevate).

So, why did I leave. Well, I started to get a little bit disillusioned my senior year. The excitement I had felt my freshman year was gone and I had been trying to get it back for four years. I hardly spent time with all of my best friends from freshman year because we were all in lifegroup leadership and were too busy to hang out. I had heard all of [the Pastor's] sermons and was hearing nothing new week in and week out. All of the pep talks about taking the world for Christ seemed to fizzle out in the face of reality and what had happened over four years. I was also burnt out from leadership. All of the previous things were contributing factors to my leaving, but none were the real reason.

The real reason was that Antioch had no use for me anymore. I had always been academically minded, but I started getting much more academic about my faith and my Bible study mid senior year. I started to want to pursue Seminary instead of ATS. Whenever I mentioned this to other members or church leaders, I got a puzzled look and sometimes they would answer like this: "Why would you spend three years in Seminary when you could be on the mission field in 9 months after ATS?" In general, the path that I saw God leading me in did not have a place at Antioch, or at least not a serious place. When I returned to Baylor after Seminary it was clear to me that Antioch was not the place for me.

Now, that is my background so you can see where I am coming from. It has been ten years since I graduated and left Antioch, and some things might have changed, but I still have a lot of friends who currently go to Antioch and I think the basic ethos of the church is the same as when I was there.

So, as to your specific question. I think that there is a great temptation for Antioch members to put on a show. I don't even think this is necessarily a conscious decision or action, but there is a lot of excitement and spiritual competition at Antioch, like, I want to be the greatest evangelist, I want to be the best worship leader, I want to be the best worshiper, I want to be the most free in my worship (like jumping, yelling, raising my hands, etc.), I want to be the best __________. I also think that the worship experience itself can take center stage and push a true pursuit of God off to the side. This was nowhere more clear to me than in the worship songs at Antioch. The playlist at Antioch mirrors pop radio. A song comes along and gets very popular. People cheer when the opening chords are played. The song is often called "anointed." Inevitably the song will get overplayed. Then, when the opening chords are played, there is a sort of collective groan in the audience. They have already moved on to their next anointed song. This seems to prove to me that worship at Antioch is more like a concert with the audience all hoping that the band will play their favorite song.

I try very hard not to question the motives of anyone at Antioch, whether a member or leader. I think everyone there is completely sincere in their beliefs and actions. Most of the people that I knew there were and are great people.

But, if I were to list my biggest concerns about the church, they would be as follows.

1. There is no serious attempt to understand scripture in context. Sermons that are "based" on a scripture passage, which is rare, are often used to promote previously formed agenda of the speaker rather than to attempt to understand that scripture in its biblical and historical context.
2. The church is based on absolute authority of the leadership above you. (you may not see this if you have not been a lifegroup leader). Essentially, the leader above you has the authority to guide your decisions and actions based upon his or her greater spirituality and ability to hear the voice of God. This is usually not done overtly, but more something like: I really don't have a peace about what you are wanting to do. I think you should rethink what you are about to do. God gave me this scripture (usually out of context, see number 1) that seems to contradict what you want to do, etc.
3. This type of authority is put in the hands of colleges students, some of whom can handle this type of authority, some of whom abuse it.
4. There are essentially three groups of people at Antioch: A) Superhumans (i.e., missionaries), B) Middle class (i.e., people who make a lot of money who can support missionaries), and C) everyone else (i.e., those who cannot do A or B, like a poor graduate student like myself).

Well, that might be more info than you asked for. I would be happy to chat in person with you sometime if you are in Waco, or if I am still in Waco this Fall.

Blessings in Christ,
Keith Reich

5 comments:

  1. Bold, sweetheart. I love that you stated this so plainly and fairly, and that you were willing to share it all in such a public way.

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  2. I'd love to speak with you sometime, Keith. Can you email me at garyH@cjfm.org if you're still in Waco? We're headed up there this weekend. Our daughter is in Elevate and we have concerns about it. Thanks!

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  3. Beautifully put - not a putdown but a biblically literate, honest appraisal.

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  4. Our family has attended Antioch for 8 years and for the first 5 or 6 years of our time there I could not agree more with your assessment. For the first few years we would grow anxious and church shop every 6 months. That apparent discontent was rooted in exactly the same emotive facade you detail above. In year 4 I transitioned out of a position at Baylor and into work outside the "bubble". I decided then that I'd rather be at Antioch and work/pray for subtle change than abandon what I felt to be a dynamic, engaged, and theologically sound church body. I don't know that I've been a catalyst for change but I can state that change is apparent. We stuck with life group and I asked my uncomfortable "intellectual" questions, disagreed with interpretations, and voiced my frustration with an over-emphasis on missions (this was a particular hot-button issue for me as I'd seen more than one of my students at Baylor give up a scholarship to rush in to mission work). Antioch continued to grow and as it did I began to see overt efforts by the leadership to engage and empower church-goers right where they sat. I remember Jimmy saying something to the effect of 'sometimes the more difficult calling to accept is that your current job or schooling is both your current ministry field and God's way of equipping you and shaping you..." I remember shouting AMEN in response. Thankfully it hasn't been a one-time deal. Antioch's partnerships with the local business community, other local churches, and Waco-area schools (public and private) are a testament to a fundamental shift that has occurred away from the fervent, emotionally exhausting, and blindly-trusting, church body, to a more discerning and diverse group of believers. I come from a evangelical "spirit-filled" tradition that bordered on manipulative and abusive so I will always be sensitive, maybe overly sensitive, to the ways a church engages and motivates her membership. That being said, while I'm not disagreeing with ANYTHING you've written, I want to say Antioch in 2015 is a LOT different than Antioch in 2010. Jonathan jstoops@outlook.com

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  5. Thanks for the comment. I am glad that Antioch is working out well for you as it continues to do for many of my friends. I am sure that the church has grown in many ways since I left in 2000.

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