Voices only: Polishing the Pulpit 2018
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SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — “Bring a Friend Night” at the Polishing the Pulpit conference gave the thousands of attendees an opportunity to introduce people to “the church that belongs to Christ.”
“Meet a friend in town — hotel worker, waitress, someone at Walmart — and bring them to hear the gospel,” the event program urged.
Minister Dan Winkler began his sermon by explaining why he’d never be a member of the Baptist church, even though he believes in baptism “with all my heart.” And why he’d never be a member of the Methodist church, even though he believes in proper methodology. And why he’d never be a member of the Assemblies of God, even though he believes in assembling on the first day of the week.
Then he added: “I am not, nor do I ever want to be, a member of the Church of Christ, if by that terminology we mean a denomination among denominations in competition for memberships from all denominations.”
Winkler proceeded to open his Bible and explain why he wants to “belong to the church that belongs to Christ.”
The message found a receptive audience among the crowd that gathered recently at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains — in the hometown of Dolly Parton — for the 24th annual Polishing the Pulpit.
“I think he laid it out,” said Chris Butler, minister for the 60-member Philadelphia Church of Christ in Mississippi. “It was true to Scripture. If you want to follow Jesus, that’s what you have to teach and believe.
“Obviously, I don’t think you should ever be ugly in the way you say it or the way you present it,” said Butler, a Memphis School of Preaching graduate. “But I think you have to be faithful to it, and I just don’t know how you could preach another version.”
Butler came to Polishing the Pulpit with his wife, Amber, and their children, Jack, 11, and Analynn, 7.
The family stayed in a mountain cabin and, like many attendees, mixed spiritual endeavors with tourist activities such as the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud.
The week-long conference at the Sevierville Convention Center grew out of three preachers — Allen Webster, Mark Howell and Floyd Bailey — getting together to brainstorm sermons a quarter-century ago.
This year, Polishing the Pulpit hit a record attendance of more than 5,000 men, women and children from 40 states and 13 other countries, according to organizers.
“The mantra is ‘Renew, Recharge, Refresh,’ and that really sums up our goal,” said Webster, minister for the Jacksonville Church of Christ in Alabama and one of the conference’s four directors. “We want to encourage the leaders of the church and members of the church to continue to serve faithfully, worship faithfully and evangelize the world.
“So it’s a combination of encouragement, motivation and instruction,” he added.
Kelvin Pugh, minister for the Collinsville Church of Christ in Illinois, said he looks forward to the fellowship and variety of classes at Polishing the Pulpit.
“I think people are mostly looking for the truth, and it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Pugh, noting the racial diversity of attendees.
“You know you can hear sound, biblical preaching and get great information from the Bible from your classes,” he added. “Whether it’s a white brother teaching or black or Hispanic, it doesn’t matter as long as the truth is being taught.”
Tanesha Nelson, whose husband, Curtis, preaches for the Henderson Church of Christ in North Carolina, said she likes “the classes, the lessons, the fellowship — getting to know new people in all walks of life, all races.”
With 175 speakers and 600 class sessions, Polishing the Pulpit features special tracks for preachers, elders/deacons, women, children/teens and topical areas such as evangelism and technology.
In putting together the program, the main focus “is that each speaker is known for teaching and practicing sound doctrine,” Webster said.
Polishing the Pulpit is not a polemic event, he said, but it doesn’t shy away from controversial issues.
“We just try to teach what the Scriptures say and look at the issues,” Webster said. “This year, we dealt with everything from transgenderism to gay rights to racial tensions to things that our people are dealing with just as part of their communities.
“We just try to teach what the Scriptures say.”
“But we also dealt with instrumental music and women’s roles and elders’ roles and things like that,” he added. “I think it’s helping churches sort through some things in a non-judgmental environment where they just come in and say, ‘What does the Bible say about these issues? How are other churches or elderships dealing with the change issues that they’re facing?’”
The water park at a main hotel is closed during Polishing the Pulpit because “all the directors and overseeing elders oppose mixed swimming because of the Bible’s teaching on modesty (1 Timothy 2:9), our responsibility to avoid being a stumbling block to others (Romans 14:3), and our need to avoid putting ourselves into the path of temptation (Matthew 5:28; 6:13).”
The conference program also points out that “suits and dresses are usual for worship services.”
“PTP would probably be a totally different group than who would attend a Pepperdine or an Abilene lectureship,” Webster said. “It’s more of a self-sorting situation where people at churches that are supportive of Pepperdine probably wouldn’t be supportive of PTP and vice versa. There just wouldn’t be much fellowship because there’s not much agreement. There’s significant disagreement on significant issues.”
Mike Cope, director of Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures, which each spring draws 2,400 members of Churches of Christ to Malibu, Calif., offered a similar take.
“It’s a long way from East Tennessee to Malibu.”
“When I look at the speakers at Polishing the Pulpit, I realize that I know very few of the names,” Cope said. “For me, it’s like showing up at a family reunion and realizing you don’t recognize anyone.
“I’m sure that’s how they feel if they look at the Harbor booklet,” he added. “Perhaps some of that is geographical. It’s a long way from East Tennessee to Malibu. But more than that, it reflects a diversity within Churches of Christ, including different visions of what it means to be a Restoration movement.”
Four teenage friends from Texas — Megan Cain, Peyton Cain, Caleb Hahn and Emily Sisco — were among the thousands who came to Polishing the Pulpit.
The friends, all of whom plan to attend Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., said they appreciate the deep Bible study as well as the late-night youth events such as movies and putt-putt golf.
“We get more classes that are actual instruction rather than feel-good lessons,” said Peyton Cain, 18, a member of the Houston-area Katy Church of Christ. “It really does refresh you … to know that this is what you need to do as a Christian. And then you go and try to live the best Christian life you can.”
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