Preaching to the choir: Local church shepherds religion professors – The Baylor Lariat

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Seventh & James Baptist Church is home to numerous Baylor religion professors. Mia Crawford | Photographer

By Jackson Posey | Reporter

Baylor’s status as the largest Baptist university in the world raises the stakes for local Baptist ministers. Crafting weekly 30- to 40-minute sermons on ancient texts is already difficult, but doing so for an audience of biblical scholars and Koine Greek instructors is even more demanding.

Erin Conaway, who has pastored Seventh & James Baptist Church for over 12 years, said preaching to religion professors makes his job better.

“I think for one thing, it eliminates the myth of ‘pastor as expert’ and the pastor as the kind of ultimate authority on things religious and spiritual, because they know, which I find really helpful,” Conaway said. “To have really smart sermon listeners, I think makes your sermon better. And there’s an economy of words that I get to enjoy that a lot of places don’t have because our biblical literacy is really high.”

On an average weekend, Seventh & James sits around 150 people. Conaway estimated that around half of those are professors, administrators and school teachers from Baylor, McLennan Community College and other Waco-area schools. In his early days pastoring the church, he said the congregation’s collective biblical IQ felt daunting.

“I remember my first several months here, every passage that I would preach, I would [study] articles and books, but I also had a church directory because I was terrified that somebody will have written an article about this passage,” Conaway said. “But the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized they certainly expect that I’m going to do my homework, and every pastor should, right? But they don’t expect that I’m going to be at a scholar’s level with this text because I’ve had a week with it.”

Sitting just a stone’s throw from Tidwell Bible Building, the church is home to a number of religion faculty — including Dr. Joe Coker, a senior religion lecturer who serves as the faculty-in-residence at North Russell Hall. Coker said he loves the feeling of a tight-knit community.

“It gives you kind of a small town feeling — work together, go to church together, socialize outside of work and church together, kids go to school together, that sort of thing,” Coker said. “The fact that it’s across the street also lends to that neat kind of community feeling. But it was also neat when we [first visited Seventh & James], we were automatically just like, ‘Oh yeah, I know people all around me.’ So there’s that easy sense of community and connectedness.”

Senior religion lecturer and associate dean for undergraduate studies Dr. Blake Burleson has attended Seventh & James since his time as a graduate student in the 1980s. He said he appreciates the depth offered by the variety of voices present.

“I’ve been challenged to think [more deeply],” Burleson said via email. “The church has a wealth of resources for exploring the Bible, ethics, church history and social issues. We are a community that values social justice and the arts. That’s what makes us unique.”

Seventh & James is considered a “theologically liberal” Baptist church — a term which is historically associated with doctrines such as supporting women at all levels of ministry and rejecting biblical inerrancy, among others. Given that those two are the official positions of the Baylor religion department, it’s no wonder many of its professors choose to attend theologically liberal congregations, even as many students continue to affirm conservative positions on those issues.

“A lot of [Baylor] students are theologically more conservative or go to churches that are more theologically conservative,” Coker said. “Especially as someone who teaches the Intro [to] Scriptures course, you get into these issues of inerrancy. And so it is always interesting to be talking to students about how we approach the Scripture and how we might be more thoughtful about dealing with these issues.”

Coker, who grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church, said he was initially “appalled” when he went to college and heard liberal interpretations of reading Scripture. But over time, he began to embrace more liberal interpretations of reading the Bible.

“For me, it’s always kind of neat to be there and be on the opposite side of the room, but seeing students on that same journey and wrestling with the text,” Coker said. “One of the main things I ask for students when I’m teaching Christian Scriptures is just to take it seriously and wrestle with it and engage new ideas, and not have to fall in line lockstep behind me, but at least think through different approaches and weigh them and think about your own point of view, and not live a kind of uncritical faith or uncritical life.”

While women in ministry and the inerrancy of Scripture were the primary theological controversies of liberal Christianity in the 20th century, today’s lightning rod issue has become LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance. Seventh & James officially announced that it was affirming after the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has since made headlines for its presence at pride events such as Out on the Brazos.

“We only had three ‘no’ votes [on officially becoming affirming] when we voted in our church conference,” Conaway said. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is already who we are, so why don’t we say it out loud?’”

In Conaway’s 12-plus years pastoring at Seventh & James, he has experienced all the highs and lows of 21st-century ministry life, punctuated by a particularly knowledgable congregation. Throughout it all though, the overwhelming response has been gratitude.

“It really has been an incredible gift,” Conaway said. “I’m grateful to be here.”

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