by Tim Patterson
PLYMOUTH, MI – Several years ago, Sabrina and I made a trek out West to Colorado in order for me to preach at a Bible conference, and also to spend a little time with some dear friends. The community in which we ministered was located on the Eastern side of the Rockies in the plains area. The vast expanse of this ranch and farm area reminded me of the seemingly never-ending flats of West Texas.
Mile after mile of this slightly undulating land was covered with the infancy of new, fresh green sprouts of spring’s first crop of wheat. That which was not cultivated for wheat was planted in hay, or was in the process of being prepared for some type of feed grain. This was ranch and farm country at its best. Trees were almost nonexistent and the old saying that “you could see for a country mile” took on a whole new perspective. In fact, on a clear day, there was a line of sight of more than one hundred miles. Looking back West at the snow-capped Rockies was a beautiful sight indeed.
This was also big beef and buffalo country. It was strange for these eyes to see hundreds of buffalo grazing the grasses of the plains by the thousands, like they did more than a century ago. Though the herds are a fraction of the size they were in the pioneer days, the old settlers and Native Americans would be proud to know that some of the old ways have not been forgotten and have in this case been revived.
The pastor with whom I was working had the wonderful privilege of tending his flock of sheep in a rural setting. His church was in one of those small farm/ranch communities that dotted the landscape, and gave people a place to huddle together for comfort and community. As you may or may not know, the rural pastor, no matter how large or small his flock, is called upon to do a myriad of tasks the city parson would never dream of doing.
When harvest time comes the preacher is there to lend a hand with the harvest and pray for a good crop. When the calves need tending, then he is called to saddle up and throw a loop or two. If “granny” needs a lift to the doctor, then the pastor is asked to function as the local taxi. The list could go on and on, but for the rural pastor it is all in a day’s work, and these responsibilities bring a great sense of joy and fulfillment to his life.
My pastor friend, Jim Sheets, is more affectionately known in the larger circles of the Southern Baptist Convention as “Cowboy Bob”. While we were there, he was called upon to do a funeral. It was the same day he had promised to help a lady member take her prized Brahma bull and cow to the auction. Her husband was out of town and because of a medical condition it was ill advised for her to drive any distance on her own. So Jim asked Sabrina and I to take the cows to the auction. As the dutiful guest preacher at this conference, I was at his beck and call for any ministry that he deemed necessary, and this was a necessity.
Early one morning we were dropped off at the farm, introduced to Reese, the owner, and loaded up for the trip to Brush where the auction would take place. It was an hour and a half trip across the plains before we pulled into the parking lot of the auction house. My mind went back to the auction barns and stables that I had frequented more than 40 years prior with my uncles, and from all appearances, things hadn’t changed in the least.
When we sauntered into the restaurant all eyes were fixed on us. Now saunter is what cowboys do when they walk, and I wanted to look the part. Besides, I had watched enough John Wayne movies to have the swagger down pat, and this was my grand opportunity to practice.
We were strangers and immediately considered an item of discussion and question. I saw the same old men, doing the same thing, wearing the same clothes, smoking the same cigarettes, drinking from the same coffee mugs, being served by the same waitresses, with the same hairdos as I saw forty years ago. Absolutely nothing was different. It even smelled the same, which immediately triggered some long-forgotten memories of decades past.
It was as though I had stepped into some time warp out of an old Star Trek television show. These folks were frozen in time and liked it. One could tell they were comfortable with their surroundings, and for sure didn’t want anyone messin’ with them. It was good enough for their great, great grandfathers, and it is good enough for them. They were satisfied and secure in their surroundings. It was as comfortable as a well-worn boot.
That all may be well and good for cattle auctions and cowboy cafés, but when it comes to impacting the world with the Gospel, we as His local and corporate Church must be willing to change with the culture and conditions that we encounter. To refuse to do so will be devastating. Before some of you go ballistic on me, I am not saying we change the Gospel message or compromise the Word of God in the least.
The message must never change, but the means and manner in which we convey the message must. If we do not, our churches will soon resemble the congregants of a cattle auction café. The same people, doing the same thing, and getting the same results while expecting something different. When someone new saunters in they will be looked upon with question and contempt. “Who do they think they are coming into our neat little place like that? They don’t look like us or act like us. We don’t want them here.” The results will be a nice, comfortable, and secure Church Café that will never impact its world for the Kingdom.
Please don’t take this as a negative reflection on the Brush Cattle Auction Café. It was a great place, with great food (especially the cinnamon rolls), and some really good people, but it doesn’t translate well to the church. The Church should be the church and the Cattle Auction Cafes should be cafes, and the two should never be confused. As Paul said, “We must become all things, to all men that we might win some.”
Yes, change is difficult. I have heard it said that the only people in a Baptist church that want to be changed are in the nursery, and they usually fuss and cry about it. Oh, by the way, we did sell the bull and cow. The bull was sterile and thus only got half of what he would have been worth.
Hey! That reminds me of another analogy concerning the church, but I’ll save it for later.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Patterson is Executive Director/Treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Elected unanimously in May of 2015, Patterson formerly served for 9 years as pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. He also served as trustee chair and national mobilizer for the North American Mission Board.