Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seeking - and Giving - Refuge: University Hills Baptist Church of Denver

The Denver Post reports that the doors have been slammed shut on a Denver church that has a long history of faithful ministry to a southeast Denver community. In fact, they were slammed shut on the church's own members. In the business world, this would be called a hostile takeover.

Now, I have to admit to some bias here. My wife and I spent several years, early in our marriage, as part of the fellowship of University Hills Baptist Church. In fact, Joanna was baptized there in 1981, while she was carrying our first child; the pastor then, Davis Cooper, joked that it was the first "infant baptism" that he had ever performed. We left in 1985 but returned for the 1987 dedication of the church's new sanctuary.

When Joanna and I were there, from 1979-1985, University Hills was one of the leading churches in Denver - a vibrant faith community, a loving fellowship of believers. So I was stunned to read the Denver Post account. It tells of an ambitious young pastor who - impatient over the prospect of growing a church in a community that had grown old - led the church to "merge" with one in a younger community, 15 miles away in the suburbs. Then, according to the article, he abruptly abandoned those faithful University Hills members.

If you read the Denver Post article, you will likely be stunned by the depth and ramifications of this betrayal: broken promises; a merger vote riddled with irregularities; the new congregation's seizure of church property from those whose money had paid for it; and the new congregation's eviction of the University Hills fellowship from its longtime home, apparently for the purpose of selling the property to help pay off its own considerable debt.

Now the University Hills "remnant" is suing its former pastor and his new congregation, alleging fraud and seeking compensation for what has been taken from them.

So there are a lot of issues here. Some might cite the Apostle Paul's admonition, in 1 Corinthians 6, against Christians suing fellow Christians. But ethics - even Christian ethics - are rarely tied in one neat little bundle. Christian ethics often deal with competing principles and priorities. After all, Christ urged us to stand for justice against the oppressor, and to call to account those who exercise power over others. So, to sue or not to sue? That is just one of the questions here.

But what does this have to do with you and me? Well, I don't think any Christian can afford to ignore a situation like this. Hurting, dysfunctional churches are becoming the rule rather than the exception these days. As Christians, we need to stand up for what is right and seek healing and restoration for all concerned - and repentance, too, where it's needed.

God is healing these folks. Their story isn't over. As the article relates, having moved to rented space in a recreation center, the University Hills congregation has found a new mission field and a new ministry to dozens of refugees and immigrants whom they have welcomed into their fellowship. Funny how that works . . . the University Hills congregation is ministering to kindred spirits, for they themselves are displaced refugees and immigrants. Blessed be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love. And thanks be to our God, who blesses our brokenness beyond anything we can imagine.

So what are your thoughts on this situation? For that matter, have you experienced something similar, and how was it handled? What do Christian ethics have to say about what was done here? Is it acceptable for Christians to sue fellow Christians who have wronged them?

While you're thinking about all of that, be sure to pray for these folks in Denver as they celebrate Christmas in a new place and as they minister faithfully to a new community of believers. Giving refuge . . . even as they seek it for themselves.


  1. There is a scholarly debate over whether 1 Cor 6:7 is prescriptive or hyperbole. There are obvious differences between the Pauline churches of the first century compared to our churches, as well as first-century Greco-Roman culture and our own American culture. The point Paul is making to the Corinthians is what is important - the civil courts of the day were being used by the wealthy of the church to enhance their own power in the church, exactly opposite to the spirit that Paul says should reign in the Body of Christ. It is the principle, more than the prescriptive (or hyperbole), that is instructive to our own setting. And the principle is not being observed / followed by University Hills' former pastor and his new congregants.

  2. That's a great point, Craig.

    It's tempting to isolate a Scripture (prooftexting). But the serious Christian needs to take and apply Scripture in context - whether that context be other Scriptures; the circumstances to which it is speaking; the language, culture, or even political setting in which it was written, etc.

    As you said, we need to seek the principle . . . the deeper meaning, and that requires context.

  3. Bill -- I missed the story when it came out in the Post, so when I went to a rummage sale of choral music from what was apparently a large church music library, I was stunned to see that all of the music stamped with the name "University Park Baptist Church." The party hosting the sale had apparently purchased the entire library for next to nothing.

    U Park sponsored choir festivals in the 1990s, and had a flourishing music program. I purchased about 50 boxes of music at this sale out of a collection that numbered over 500 titles. Orchestral, handbell and choral music from decades of worship services. Most boxes contained 70 copies or more, one for each singer.

    I was deeply saddened to think about all that was represented in these boxes of music. Some nurtured children, some youth or adults. Some are stamped with the names of the families who gave them. Texts on being called to serve, words of thanksgiving, songs of praise. All pointing to the spiritual life of a community.

    While I don't know the story beyond the report in the Post, something seems incredibly wrong here. I realize that the process probably took years, not minutes, and that there must have been some good intentions behind it. I cannot imagine that the members University Park or Cornerstone saw this coming, however, and I find it hard to see that the pastor had the people's best interests at heart.

    Maybe he thought he was being called to grow a significant church? Raises the question of what is more important -- evangelism or compassion. Maybe I'm not much of a Christian, but it seems to me the young pastor's ambition to grow did much more damage than good. A devastating blow to the life of a good church.

    For what it's worth -- thanks for the post,

  4. Thanks, Dave. You wrote University Park, but I'm assuming you meant University Hills. Yes, I sang in the Sanctuary Choir there for several years (about 1979-1985), and also - for 1 or 2 of those years - helped out in the children's choirs. Bill Rhoads was the music minister then, and it was an outstanding music ministry.

    I agree with you that the young pastor's ambition to grow a "great" church actually destroyed what had been a great church and undermined his own integrity. Thanks for sharing.