According to the Southern Baptist confession of faith, “repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”
Over the past few years, grace has seemed to be in short supply at Germantown Baptist Church.
“Since 2006, there have been several heartbreaking situations that have occurred in our church family that resulted in broken relationships, broken trust, divisions within our church family and a damaged witness in our community,” Dr. Charles Fowler, the church’s senior pastor, wrote to the congregation last month.
Fowler became senior pastor of the church in summer 2010 after spending 16 years teaching at Union University. He knew he was being called to serve a wounded congregation. At first, he had hoped the wounds would heal with time, but he had no idea how deep they were.
Church leaders and members had been battling each other for control for years. One pastor resigned in 2006, citing “the protection of my wife and children” after a long and bitter dispute over church governance. Three years later, another pastor resigned after an angry dispute over worship styles and other issues.
“Since coming to serve as pastor, I have fasted and prayed that God would heal the many wounds. I have shed many tears over these heartbreaks in our church family. At times I have even asked God to allow me to bear the burden of these situations on behalf of my church family, hoping that they could experience freedom from this bondage.”
Fowler had served troubled congregations before as an interim pastor, but he’d never been a senior pastor, and he had never experienced a church fight as long and lasting as this one.
Hurtful things were said and done during those years, not only behind closed doors but also in the worship center during Sunday evening business sessions. Hundreds of members left, but the pain remained.
The feuds not only split the congregation several times, but also divided families and longtime friends and discouraged those who stayed behind.
“How can a church proclaim the glories of the love of God to those who are lost when their reputation is such that they cannot get along with each other?” Fowler wrote last month.
“I could simply turn a blind eye to the implications of our painful past (but) that would be spiritually irresponsible. … In December, God impressed with great conviction that the way forward was to confront the past by seeking and applying grace.”
Last June, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix adopted a resolution “beseeching all pastors, congregations, ministry leaders, and denominational workers … to repent corporately in their various churches of all sins which God’s Spirit reveals.”
On Sunday evening, Jan. 29, in Germantown, Fowler called his flock together to confess, forgive and repent corporately in a special service he called “Grace Applied.”
“We have prayed so long for this service,” Fowler began as hundreds of past, present and future church members and leaders filled the seats of the worship center. “Your Holy Spirit has prepared the hearts of many, many people who have a desire to be here tonight.”
Fowler had prepared for the service by writing a declaration of confession and forgiveness for the congregation to read aloud together. He also set the stage with three chairs, three basins of water and three white towels.
Fowler introduced three special guests and asked them to join him on stage.
Dr. Ken Story, who led the congregation as its Sunday worship attendance grew from about 200 in 1964 to 2,500 in 1997.
Dr. Sam Shaw, who resigned in 2006 after eight years as senior pastor.
Dr. Hal Kitchings, who resigned in 2009 after two years as senior pastor.
“I would like to begin this service the way Jesus began the Last Supper in the Upper Room,” Fowler told the three men. “On behalf of our church family, I’d like to wash your feet.”
Some “foot-washing” Baptists consider the practice to be a third ordinance, after baptism and communion. Southern Baptists don’t, but as with many other Christians, foot-washing ceremonies are symbolic expressions of service and humility.
Fowler removed his jacket as the three former pastors took their seats on stage. He knelt in front of Story, then Shaw and Kitchings, removing their shoes and socks, pouring water over one foot, then another, drying each with a towel.
“It was a tremendous display of servanthood on his part,” Kitchings said. “Jesus said to be great, you must be a servant. My only regret of the evening is that I did not think about washing his feet, in response.”
Afterward, Fowler gave each man a hug as the teary-eyed congregation stood and applauded.
“I knew that if I was going to ask all of these people to humble themselves before God, I had to model it,” Fowler said later.
Fowler knows a penitent heart is a humble heart.
After Fowler preached from the Gospel of John, he asked the congregation to confess and forgive — first personally, then collectively.
“If there is someone in this room you have gossiped about, or hurt or offended in some way, I ask you tonight — so that we can come to the Lord’s Table with clean hands and pure hearts, and in unity as the Body of Christ, that you go to them and ask them to forgive you,” Fowler said.
For the next 10 minutes, hundreds of people, crying and then smiling, got up and hugged and prayed with each other, many of them with Shaw or Kitchings.
“I was more skeptical than apprehensive about the service,” Story said later. “It was heart-warming to see all the smiling and hugging people and to experience the uplifting spirit of the service.”
Next, the congregation reassembled, stood and read aloud Fowler’s “Declaration of Grace Applied.”
“We confess that in the past we have been unloving and repent of this sin,” they said.
“We confess that we have not, at times in the past, preserved the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and have allowed the unity of this body to be broken. We repent of this sin.”
Fowler asked a series of questions.
“Do you genuinely grant unconditional forgiveness and total release from all responsibility to those whom you feel have hurt and/or offended you?”
“Do you seek, without exception of excuses, forgiveness from all who may have been offended and/or hurt through your words, actions, or even lack of action?”
“This Worship Center is filled with believers who both need forgiveness and are willing to grant forgiveness. What is your response?”
“We do. Grace applied,” they responded to each.
“We have repented and requested forgiveness for corporate sins. The Scriptures teach that God’s response is?” Fowler asked.
“Grace applied,” the congregation responded.
“Now our hearts are ready to gather together as a family of God around the Lord’s table,” Fowler said.
For the next 20 minutes, people who hadn’t spoken with or seen each other or forgiven each other in years shared the Lord’s Supper.
“I was nervous about the service, how the pastor would handle it, how people would react,” said Calvin Hudson, a member since 1990.
“But it was a powerful example of the Christian principle of love.”
Marie Strain, a Sunday school teacher and member for nearly 20 years, agreed.
“The next Sunday morning, the spirit at the church was so sweet,” she said.