Can the outlooks of two generations coexist in one church? James Merritt, 59, serves as senior pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia. His son, Jonathan Merritt, 29, joined the church staff in 2008.
In many respects, they couldn't be more different. James represents the Boomer generation's approach to faith in Christ. Jonathan's Christian faith was forged in a postmodern context. When they start talking about theological or political issues, the sparks fly—so much so that James's wife (Jonathan's mother) has to leave the room and let them go at it.
But underneath their intense differences, there's a profound respect for each other. Each has a passionate drive to share the gospel and influence the world for Christ.
Leadership Journal's Matt Woodley met them in James's famous "Georgia Bull 'Dawgs' room," where he asked them about outreach, compassion, justice, and evangelism.
Jonathan, you recently wrote that Fred Rogers is a model Christian communicator for your generation. In your words, Mr. Rogers "was a devout Christian who almost never explicitly talked about his faith on the air, but the way his show infused society with beauty and grace was near biblical." James, how would you evaluate Mr. Rogers's ability to reach people for Christ?
James: On the one hand, I love Jonathan's spirit in that article, and I agree that our world is better because we've had positive cultural influences like Mr. Rogers. Television certainly needs more people like Fred Rogers. I also understand that the show wasn't supposed to be explicitly about Jesus.
On the other hand—and this is just an observation, not a criticism—much of what Mr. Rogers communicated in his program could have been communicated by an unbeliever who wanted to have a positive, moralistic, ethical impact on kids and on society in general.
This isn't a criticism of Fred Rogers because I have no idea how he talked about his faith in Christ. However, I will say this: every believer and every church has a sphere of influence. It's incumbent upon us to use whatever platform we have as a God-given opportunity to share Christ with other people.
Jonathan: I think the way we view the gospel will impact the way we see Mr. Rogers's influence. My generation tends to emphasize that the Bible isn't just a set of theological propositions. It's also a larger story about what God is doing in our world to bring the restoration of all things in Christ. Based on that story there's a cultural mandate to influence the world with a kingdom mindset.
By preventing a generation of children from growing up emotionally numb, Fred Rogers definitely lived out a kingdom mindset. So I would say that Mr. Rogers's show was a legitimate expression of his faith in Christ.
But I don't agree with the famous quote that says, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." You can't preach the gospel without using words. Some people like my dad are reapers, but people like Mr. Rogers tended the soil. Many people in my generation may have been influenced to accept Christ because their emotional and psychological soil was softened and watered by the ministry of Fred Rogers.
Are you saying that a ministry like Fred Rogers's (not explicitly evangelistic but focused on restoring God's goodness in the world) can become part of the wooing process to bring people to Christ?
Jonathan: Yes. Let me explain it this way: I ask a lot of Christians from my generation about when they came to know Christ. Most of them say something like, "I can't name the day; I just know that for a long time God was pursuing me until I consciously allowed Christ to start transforming my heart." Don Miller said something to this effect in Blue Like Jazz. For many people in my generation, Miller said that following Jesus is less like making a decision and more like falling in love—it happens to you and then you recognize it. Yet they definitely have a legitimate salvation experience. This seems to be a normal process for my generation.