It was a typical church service. When time came for the sermon, I suggested that everyone turn in their Bibles to the text we would be considering.
That was all.
You will not believe the two completely opposite responses I received.
First, that week I received a letter from a Rosemary Warner, someone I did not know. Here is the letter in its entirety, unedited…
Yesterday I had the occasion to visit in your church. I didn’t know why I chose to do that. It just seemed like it was the thing for me to do, but now I know it was the will of someone much higher. He sent me there for a reason. I will not be back.
When I left the First Baptist Church yesterday, I was very angry. I don’t carry a Bible to church. That is my choice. When a minister says “open your Bible to book____” he generally reads it to you and then explains it. I don’t have to explain my reasons to anybody. I don’t have to tell you that when I read my Bible, I read books at a time, not a couple of verses.
Yesterday when you told the congregation to turn to a certain place in their bibles, the heads went down. I noticed it. Obviously you noticed that mine did not. The visitor who had raised her hand to receive a packet of information. Then you said, “And for those who do not read the Bible, I have a couple of other denominations to send you to” and looked straight at me. What ever possessed you to say such a thing?
That church does not belong to you. It belongs to the people. You say ‘welcome’ to the stranger, then because they don’t bring a Bible, you tell them to go someplace else? It’s bad enough in this day we live in that church doors have to be locked when not conducting services, but to tell someone they are not welcome? What would you do if someone came in blue jeans? Jesus came as a beggar.
There are many people searching for some meaning in this life, one kind word could change or even save a life. Why am I telling you this? You are the one that is supposed to be telling us this! I think you are the one who needs to read the Bible and renew your spirit! You have obviously lost sight as to what it is all about. You are supposed to teach them, convert them, save them. May God help you.
I wrote her back….
Dear Ms. Warner–
Please forgive me. Hurting or offending you would be the last thing I would ever want to know. God knows my heart, that all I want to do is bless and encourage people and never discourage one of His little ones (Matthew 18:6).
I did not see you when I chided our people about using their Bibles. I glanced across the church and saw a lot of people sitting there with their Bibles in their laps, yet not opening them. I have said to them repeatedly that they must never take for granted what any preacher tells them the Bible says. They should always check up on him (see Acts 17:11). So, all I was doing was teasing them a little. It was meant to be in fun, humorous even, and surely not meant as a hurtful remark. Please forgive me.
Again and again, I pray the words of Psalm 141:3 because I know my words can indeed hurt people if they are not chosen carefully.
The Lord bless you, Ms. Warner. Thanks for sharing your feelings. Cordially.”
I never heard from her again.
(I have two thoughts. One, I’ve known people who enjoyed their fault-finding. She may be such a person. Even with an explanation and an apology, they will not give up their grievance. Two, Chuck Swindoll has a word here. After a church service, even if he received a dozen wonderful notes, one negative one would hound him for days. He finally realized that the critical note usually contains a kernel of truth. “But I must not let it be the whole cob,” he said! Good point.)
The second response to my saying “Please open your Bibles”….
I had taken our church staff to the state denominational conference center for an all-day session with the pastor and ministerial staff of Houston’s great Second Baptist Church. Dr. Ed Young has led that amazing church for some forty years, I suppose. And in the session, with perhaps thirty pastors sitting in a circle, he looked in my direction and said,
“Joe, let me tell you what I learned from you years ago.”
That was an attention-getter, believe me.
I said, “Why do I never have a tape recorder when I need one?”
“It may have been 20 years ago. I slipped into a pew at First Baptist Columbus. You didn’t know I was there. You said, ‘Let’s all turn in our Bibles,’ and it was like the rustling of angels’ wings. I went home and started emphasizing to our people that they use their Bibles in worship.”
I said, “I wish I’d said something profound.” He said, “That was profound!”
The notes from my journal–this occurred 20 years ago–say, “Theirs is a church running 6600 in Sunday School and over 9,000 in worship.”
Imagine influencing the pastor of such a congregation, even in a tiny way.
Imagine saying something so simple as “Let’s open our Bibles” and getting such interesting results.
When they heard our Lord preach, some responded gladly, some grew angry and went away plotting his death, and a few said, “We will hear you again on this matter.”
The pastor who expects perfection–one hundred percent approval–is asking for something even the Lord Jesus did not get.