Michael Kirby - Pastor Of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church

Monday, December 9, 2013 - by Phil Wade

Michael Kirby says one of the good things about living in a small town, like Ringgold, Georgia, is the healthy community. “People feel like they’re in it together,” he says. They know their neighbors, the names of their bankers and grocery clerks. They are willing to pitch in to help each other. Such a community perspective may help sustain the greatest weakness in this area: cultural Christianity.

“Growing up in a Southern Baptist church,” he remembers, “what I heard was (and I don’t think this was intentional) that Jesus gets you in, but what keeps you in is what you do. For me, I just skipped the first part and focused on what I did. So I was a people pleaser. I learned quickly that if I could bring my Bible to church, say my memory verse, and give my offering in Sunday School, people would say, ‘You’re a good boy, a good Christian.’”

“That’s one of the things I battle against,” Mr. Kirby says. He is the pastor of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Ringgold, so he meets many people who have some connection to his church or another. “Everybody thinks they are a Christian.”

He meets many people who are like he was as a young man, growing up in Lebanon, Tennessee. They claim to be Christians but are ignorant of Jesus’ work for everyday life. “I gauged my relationship with God by how I was performing in the church, but one of the things that troubled me was the idea that Christians were supposed to have love, joy, peace, patience, etc. I had none of those.” Though he professed a genuine faith at age 18, “everything I did, before and after that, was a constant effort to make myself worthy.”

The light shown through after a few semesters at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, when his study of the Bible finally revealed that the essence of the Christian life was Christ’s work, not his. The verse that opened his eyes was 2 Corinthians 5:21. “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Now, he wants to help others like him “see that a relationship to Jesus is more than church membership or family connection or a set of beliefs, that there is something deeper to it.”

Mr. Kirby goes deeper every time he teaches. On Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., he leads a class, currently on the Gospel of John, taking it chapter by chapter and leaving plenty of time for questions, even really hard questions. For example, is the Bible trustworthy? Was Judas fated to fail? As people respond with their opinions or questions, Kirby listens and gives them what answers he can, occasionally using a statement he found powerful in seminary: “I don’t know.”

The goal is to help people own what they believe. The results, he says, are encouraging. After discussing how the Bible came into being and whether we can trust it, he heard many people say, “‘I’ve been in church all my life and I’ve never heard that.’ One lady came to me and said, ‘Thank you for believing that we were smart enough to understand this.’”

In his preaching and teaching, Mr. Kirby tries to promote biblical thinking. “I want them digging into Scripture,” he says with a smile. “This is my Southern Baptist roots showing, but I believe very clearly in the priesthood of the believer, that all believers, through the Holy Spirit, have the right to interpret Scripture for themselves.”

Because of that, he also believes in the power of questions for learning. He remembers a story from another church when he held “Stump the Pastor” evenings, a type of open mic meeting where anyone can ask him questions about the Bible. One time, a man who had attended several meetings stood up to say, “I don’t have a question. I have a statement. I don’t believe God knows the future, because it hasn’t happened yet.”

“We interacted on that,” Mr. Kirby says. “I encouraged him to read some Scripture. He was very cordial, never argumentative.”

Several months later, after Mr. Kirby left that church for seminary, he received a letter from the man, thanking him for his service. “And then, he said, ‘I really want to thank you for leading me back to Scripture, because I now do believe that God knows the future and not only does he know it, he controls it. I’ve asked that question to several other pastors before you, and they just dismissed me.”

“Jesus never turned people away in their unbelief. He always did what needed to happen in order to increase it. Doubt is natural. If you don’t ever doubt, you can’t grow.”

Phil Wade is a local writer and native Chattanoogan. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or on LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net

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