It’s not hard to see what Catholics can learn from Baptists if , like me, you have the opportunity to visit Baptist services frequently as a guest. As an observer with no vested interest in what is taking place on any particular Sunday morning in a Mid-western Baptist church it can be fascinating to imagine how different life would be in a Catholic Church because there seems to be so much that Catholics can learn from Baptists.
The first and most obvious area of difference between Catholics and Baptists for me is their distinctive styles of worship. I was amazed at the enthusiasm, the power and directness of the music that filled the sanctuary of the church that I visited. The space was filled alternately with joy, supplication, repentance and reverence. No matter the lyrics or the music, worshipers sung as if praying to a very much present Deity.
For Catholics, too often the music seems hardly to be an essential part of the worship. Too often and in too many Catholic churches the music is tired, worn out and sung as if by direction rather than by inspiration. The music does not act as part of worship but only rather as a break in the worship. There is a very big distinction. What Catholics can learn from Baptists in this regard is that music can add power to prayer and get help us to step beyond ourselves and feel more deeply our need for and connection to God. Catholic liturgies could be greatly improved by upgrading the music used and by encouraging the full participation of the worshiping community.
When I visit Baptist churches I can’t help but notice the length of the sermon. As a practicing Catholic I at first found myself squirming a lot. 40 minutes is no overestimate of how long one can expect to sit through a sermon. Still I found something that Catholics can learn from Baptists with regard to preaching. Baptists stick to the “Book” literally. Throughout the sermon they continually refer to citations in scripture, both Old and New Testaments. These are not just casual references that folks take in one ear and let out the other. Each passage noted sends worshipers directly into their own personal copy of scripture where they follow along or mark what is being discussed for later reflection.
The preaching I have heard in Baptist churches may be long but it is generally well prepared and researched. It is not peppered with lots of folksy memories of bygone days as is often the case in Catholic Churches. What Catholics can learn from Baptists is that preaching is a time for breaking open the word of God and examining its importance in our lives. Catholics need not hold themselves to long sermons as Baptists seem to do, but wouldn’t it be more to the point if they stuck specifically to scripture and spared everyone from listening to their personal memories and stories?
Like Catholics, Baptists pass a receptacle to collect up donations during the liturgy. What Catholics can learn from Baptists is that a $1 offering just isn’t going to get the job done. If Catholic parishes want to offer services, reach out to meet the needs of the community and assist with the worldwide missionary effort to the Catholic Church then people have to commit themselves and make good on their commitment. Tithing is tough stuff and I have no way of knowing how many Baptists make good on their pledges but what Catholics can learn from Baptists is the importance of financial commitment. It is exactly this willingness to make substantial sacrifice on behalf of the church that allows even small Baptist communities to do truly amazing things within the community and beyond.
What I truly marvel at when I visit my favorite Baptist Church is the post service activity that goes on. They aren’t just holding coffee hours or meet and greets. Baptists go from breaking open the word of God with their pastor in community worship to full fledged Sunday School sessions in which not just children but also adults participate in discussing and reflecting further on the passages noted during the sermon. What Catholics could learn from Baptists is that the end of th worship service need not, indeed should not, be the end of thinking about the word of God. The word that has been opened should become the word now explored but for most Catholics, 45 minutes seems enough time to devote to the faith. Somewhere during the closing hymn most Catholics are ready to bolt for the door.
Catholics often pat themselves on the back for their efforts at developing a more ecumenical approach towards other faiths in the Christian tradition. One of the greatest signs of true willingness to work together would be for Catholics to investigate fully the positive aspects of other faith communities. A good place to begin might be to give serious consideration to what Catholics can learn from Baptists