How Close do we Even Want to Be? (Sep-Oct 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

by Danny Sims
September – October 1999

Wedgwood Baptist. How tragic when once unfamiliar words have horrible and heartbreaking images identified with them. Not too many knew of Wedgwood Baptist until this past week. But the church that was our quiet, friendly neighbor is now another place for flower memorials heaped along the roadside. Police and paramedics, red lights bouncing off the houses of our neighborhood, bright lights and cameras penetrating a dark Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, teenagers in shock, weeping and holding each othe, frantic adults racing across the lawn …. These are the pictures we all have seen of Wedgwood Baptist.

The Altamesa Church of Christ, where I preach in southwest Fort Worth, is a growing “Wedgwood neighborhood” church of 1200. We’re just blocks from the other growing “Wedgwood neighborhood” church of 1200, Wedgwood Baptist. Much of our membership lives in the Wedgwood section of Fort Worth. My home is in Wedgwood.

How close are we? Our teenagers were invited, but decided not to go to last Wednesday’s “See You At The Pole” youth rally where Larry Gene Ashbrook killed seven, critically wounded two more, and victimized a community. My schedule this week could easily have been filled with funerals.

How close are we? Ashbrook might just as easily have driven another dozen blocks to our sanctuary. The night the rampage took place, our own Praise Assembly had just begun. Not knowing all that had transpired, we dismissed “quickly yet calmly” when news of the shooting was phoned in by police. Just minutes later, news and police helicopters droned overhead.

How close are we? We hosted a community-wide prayer service just 24 hours after the shooting. Eight hundred people came, including two members of the House of Representatives and many families of Wedgwood Baptist, who wept in our pews. A deacon from Wedgwood Baptist spoke. Media from all the local Fort Worth-Dallas outlets were here. A church from Littleton, Colorado sent flowers, as did the Jewish Community Center of Los Angeles, both of whom have also been targets of recent violent crimes. I remarked Thursday night that our community is larger than this corner of Fort Worth. We flashed across Nightline and 48 Hours on prime time network television. Reporters called me to get a viewpoint from a nearby preacher.

How close are we? Our Youth Ministers, Raymond Schultz and Hai Cao, spent much of Thursday at a local high school where one of the victimes had been a student, consoling teens. Our Counselor, Russ Bartee, was on the radio and coordinated with the Red Cross. Small Groups Minister Scott Strother was at the hospital. Outreach Minister Wade Weaver was talking to local media. College and Singles Minister Mark Aldriedge was on the phone with area churches. Our team was on call.

How close are we? At the prayer service, our Children’s Education Minister, Patty Weaver, sang Amazing Grace, dedicating it to Sydney Browning, Wedgwood’s slain Children’s Choir Director. Sydney was the first one Ashbrook murdered. One of their little girls was described on television as lamenting out loud, “They killed my choir teacher! They killed my choir teacher!” I was overcome with emotion, realizing it could just as easily have been Patty. What would our little boys and girls have said?

How close are we? My son, a first grader, came home Thursday telling us one of his tiny classmates was “at that church.” Our children go to school together. Members of Altamesa are neighbors of members of Wedgwood.

How close are we? In another twist, some of ur members know and long ago attended church with the Ashbrook family. In his childhood, one of our deacons knew the man who unloaded his two handguns into the crowd.

How close are we? That may be the most important question asked in the aftermath. How close are we to one another? How close are we to tragedy? How close are we to our community? How close are we to ourfriends and fellow believers in other churches? How close are we to God? How close are we to the end?

How close are we to reaching those, like Ashbrook, who reportedly grew up in the church but regrettably not in the Lord?

How close do we even want to be?

At our Thursday evening community wide prayer service we offered folks the opportunity to write a note to the families of the martyred, the injured, or write whatever was on their heart. Scores of pages were left behind for those who grieved, poems for the inured, prayers for the families devastated by that senseless deed.

Saturday I delivered the book of original copies to Associate Pastor of Wedgwood Baptist, Mike Holton. Mike was deeply moved. In appreciation he tearfully said, “Thank you. All of us here love you over at the Altamesa Church of Christ. Thanks for what you did.” As we visited, a young man came in. He immediately thanked me for our prayer service, saynig his parents had attended. Apologizing to Mike for his unavailability at 2:0 that afternoon, he explained his plan to attend the funerals (three were held that day for vicitims of the shooting). Mike assured him, “It will all be fine. Somehow God will provide.” When I asked what was happening at 2:00, Mike explained that chairs needed to be arranged for Sunday’s service, and since most of their church was involved with the funerals he had no one to help.

Thirty members of the Altamesa Church showered Mike with supportive hearts and willing hands at two o’clock. We carried flowers and set up chairs. We quietly stepped inside the sanctuary. We prayed and sang a song. O God, You are my God, and I will ever praise You …. I believe God did provide, as much for us as for Wedgwood Baptist.

Then Mike asked us to help carry out several of their pews. Pews to be repaired by the manufacturer, who had traveled to be on site. Pews wit cushions and fabric removed. Pews riddled with bullets. Pews heavy with sorrow. Pews where, as one of my church elders said, “soldiers died.” Thursday night the Wedgwood Baptist Church had come to cry in the pews of the Altamesa Church of Christ. Saturday afternoon the Altamesa Church carried out the pews at Wedgwood Baptist. Tears and service, service and tears.

We are close enough to do for a church that’s experienced loss exactly what we do for our friends who experience loss. We’re “just there.” How often have we heard it said, “Just be there for someone grieving, someone in shock. Don’t say anything. Just be there.”

How close are we? Close enough to bear one another’s burdens and practice the love commands of Christ: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” Close enough to emphasize for a rare moment all that we have in common, rather than practice the pattern of highlighting our differences.

How close are we? Close enough to love. Close enough to care, to “be there.” Close enough to do something instead of talk. Close enough to don, we’re convinced, the very thing Jesus would do, and died for his church to do. Close enough to do what Jesus lives through us – his body – to do.

That’s how close we are.

I do not wish to ever imply there are no differences between us and our Baptist friends or others in the churches all around us. Nor would I wish to ever ignore what we hold in common. I also do not wish to make us into a Baptist church, or any denomination (in fact, a denominational, institutionalized mindset is exactly what I want to see us move away from). Yet the question will inevitably arise, and has undoubtedly already been asked by someone, “Are we saying, ‘Those Baptists are Christians?'” In an age when many of our friends have said they were surprised a “Church of Christ” had a prayer service for a “Baptist Church” perhaps it’s time to recall a few things.

The early fathers of the restoration movement believed strongly that wherever people of good heart and mind openly and honestly approached Scripture they could for themselves learn what God wanted them to do to become Christians. Consider the words of F.D. Srygley. He was an early preacher in our movement who frequently wrote for the Gospel Advocate. One article written prior to 1910 was called “Are Christians In All Denominations?”

Are there Christians in the denominations? It seems to be a weakness in Christians of all ages to get into things they ought to get out of. If there are no Christians in any denominations, it is the only place except hell that they have all kept out of … Let me say this clearly, a Christian is determined by his affiliation with Christ, not with any particular group …. When I accept someone who has believed and repented and been born again of water and the Spirit that does not necessarily mean that I endorse everything he says or does.

Reuel Lemmons, a few years before his death in 1989, wrote in IMAGE magazine,

I am hearing a lot today about people being baptized into the church. No one is baptized into the church. We are baptized into Jesus Christ, and then Christ adds us to his church. The only way we get into his church is by being added by him to it. When he buys one with his blood, he adds the one he has purchased to the host he has previously purchased and they become one fold.

Only the Lord knows who all his sheep are. Our trying to identify and brand them all puts us in a dangerous position. Really it is a little ridiculous for us humans to try to set the bounds of the Lord’s sheepfold. That is His prerogative.

The center of the target of our faith is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. We must not move over and center on church, church, church. He, not the church, is the author and finisher of our faith. He, not the church, determines what the truth is. If somebody finds it without our help, I do not doubt that the Lord will accept him. I surely would not want to object.

We need more Christism and less Church of Christism. That would be the plea of a truly un-denominational and non-sectarian church. We may not be able to maintain that plea. No other group in all of history has succeeded in doing it, and within 150 years after the noble effort of restoration we seem to be slipping in the same direction as all the rest.

N.B. Hardeman said (circa 1922),

I have never been so egotistical as to say that my brethren, with which I commune one the first day of the week, were the only Christians on earth. I have never said that in my life. I do make the claim that we are Christians only. But there is a vast difference between that expression and the one formerly made.

As my friend Randy Moody says, if you’d look at a picture of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville during those famous sermons, you would see a banner hanging over Hardeman’s head that read, Christians only, but not the only Christians. That was our plea. It was a good plea. It is a plea that we must make today. It is the plea I am making.

Let’s go further back to 1837 and Alexander Campbell who was asked if he believed there were Christians in “the sects.” In response, he wrote in the Millennial Harbinger,

If I observed that there be no Christians in the protestant sects, (then) there are certainly none among the Romans, none among the Jews, Turks, Pagans, therefore no Christians in the world except for ourselves. Now therefore, for many centuries there has been no church of Christ, no Christians in the world and the promises concerning the ever lasting Kingdom of the Messiah have failed and the gates of hell have prevailed against His church. This cannot be, therefore there are Christians among the sects.

Let’s return to the old paths and preach what we used to preach. We want to be Christians only, but we should never make the claim or leave the impression that we are the only Christians.

I recommend that those interested in further study read Reviving the Ancient Faith, Richard Hughes, Eerdmans 1996; Hearing God’s Voice, Tom Olbricht, ACU Press 1996; Distant Voices, Leonard Allen, ACU Press, 1993.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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