An interview with John Pierce, the executive editor of Baptists Today, an autonomous national journal for Baptist church members and institutions published each month in Macon.
QUESTION: You grew up in Ringgold. Does anyone still annoy you with that classic country song, “Who Do You Know in Ringgold, Georgia?” And, better yet, doesn’t everybody know everybody in Ringgold anyway?
ANSWER: That song came out in the late ’70s while I was at college. But it was a hit back home in Catoosa County. Ringgold is still a quaint, little town, but looks a bit different due to the severe damage from tornados in April 2011. I graduated from the high school there and would go to the county courthouse to get a driver’s license or to the Chow Time (which was blown down in the storm) to get a burger and tater tots. But my home community, Boynton, was the center of my life. It is just east of Chickamauga National Military Park, which means I thought all kids grew up playing on cannons and granite monuments. I attended grades one through eight at the Boynton School. Fort Oglethorpe, where I was born, is nearby as well. And we were only 10 miles from downtown Chattanooga. So that whole area is home to me.
QUESTION: Tell us about your early church life. Who were a few of your spiritual role models when you were young?
ANSWER: Religious diversity in the Boynton community was rather limited in the ’60s. There were three identifiable groups: those who went to the Baptist church; those who went to the Methodist church; and those who attended neither but felt guilty about it. My family was fully immersed (literally and figuratively) in Boynton Baptist Church, where I attended Sunday and Wednesday gatherings faithfully, as well as two-week Vacation Bible Schools, revivals, covered-dish suppers and anything else offered. My gratitude is strong for the many teachers and ministers who invested in me. That congregation also licensed and ordained me to ministry. We had a particularly close group of teens there in the early ’70s. I regard those friends like family. And our pastor at the time, Jimmy Hutto, and his wife, Maudie, invested so much time with us. That whole experience allowed me to see faith as something positive and hopeful.
QUESTION: You graduated from Berry College in Rome which, with 27,000 acres, claims to be the largest college campus in the world. Do you think most folks know that? Also, did you keep up with the college’s recent “Eagle Cam”?
ANSWER: Yes, I look at the Eagle Cam most days, especially now that the eaglet has hatched and is growing. It is truly amazing that they’ve come there. A second eagle nest, seven miles from the first one, has been found on campus as well. It would be hard to overstate the positive impact from my time on the big, beautiful Berry campus. It was a maturation process as well as the chance to meet lifelong friends. Most of all, it was the education I needed. The religion and philosophy department, where I was a major, was small but with great students and brilliant, caring professors. Jorge Gonzalez and Bill Hoyt taught me to love God with my mind and to never fear the discovery of truth from any source. I’m deeply indebted to them for expanding my mind -- while showing Christian concern.
QUESTION: You attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. Did you aspire to become a preacher man?
ANSWER: I finished college with a sense of ministry, but not a specific direction. That summer I worked at the First Baptist Church of Roswell, and had a great time. The late Eugene Briscoe from the Georgia Baptist Convention asked to take me to lunch. I was honored and surprised when he said he wanted “a homegrown campus minister” out of me. That was affirming and felt right. It focused my direction on that area of ministry while in seminary in North Carolina. Then I returned to Georgia at the end of my seminary days to do an internship in campus ministry.
QUESTION: You served as a campus minister at Georgia Tech, Southern Tech and Kennesaw State. What was that experience like?
ANSWER: After seminary graduation, I became Baptist campus minister for what are now called Kennesaw State University and Southern Polytechnic State University. I did that for 11 years, during which time I did doctoral work at Columbia, the Presbyterian seminary in Decatur. Then I went to serve at Georgia Tech in 1992. It was a wonderful, diverse, stimulating setting as well. Some days I still miss daily campus life. Campus ministry brings delayed gratification. But it’s wonderful to see how well so many of those former students are doing now.
QUESTION: Prior to becoming executive editor of Baptists Today, which is headquartered in Macon, you were managing editor of The Christian Index, the official newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Convention and the nation’s oldest (founded in 1822) religious newspaper still in publication. How did that prepare you for the challenges ahead at Baptists Today?
ANSWER: I never aspired to a career in journalism. My friend William Neal had become editor of The Christian Index and created a position to reshape the publication in various areas. He asked me to take on that role. For good reasons, I gratefully dismissed his offer: Tech was abuzz (pun intended) with plans for the Olympics, and I was enjoying my work there. Also, I had no training and very limited experience in the field. I read the news critically and enjoyed writing as a creative outlet. Being an editor or even a regular writer never entered my mind, although I’d written a few features stories when asked. Finally, Bill convinced me of the possibilities and it was a great experience. The wide-ranging work of writing, editing and promotion, as well as management responsibilities, unknowingly provided a five-year apprenticeship for my current job. When the Georgia Baptist Convention turned toward rigid fundamentalism, which isn’t my understanding of faith, I made plans to leave. The offer to become editor of Baptists Today surprised me. I expected to be working in a completely different field somewhere. But I saw an opportunity for creativity and expansion, while working with an independent board of directors that appreciates and defends editorial freedom. And I’m grateful for the many donors who share those values and support our work. Another attraction was to raise our daughters in a place free of long, daily commutes. Macon has been good for that, yet it is close enough to Atlanta when needed.
QUESTION: Baptists Today was founded in 1983, so last year marked its 30th year. Tell us about its readership, demographics and target audience? What is the publication’s mission statement?
ANSWER: It is an autonomous, national news journal, published monthly, with a daily updated web presence. We also publish books and other church resources under the Nurturing Faith imprint. Our mission is to provide a reliable source of unrestricted news coverage, thoughtful analysis, helpful resources and inspiring features focusing on issues of importance to Baptist Christians. We have about 12,000 subscribers, nationally and internationally, with the heaviest concentration of readers in North Carolina.
QUESTION: When you came to Macon, did you realize Pierce was such a sacred name for the Methodists? George Foster Pierce was a Methodist bishop and the first president of Wesleyan College. Is George anywhere on your family tree?
ANSWER: Pierce was once a very popular name in America. I don’t know of any personal connections to the famous ones of Macon, but was pleased to see the name so prominent around here. Due to rural roots, I can trace my linage back only to my great-great-grandparents, John Calvin and Lydia Harvey Pierce, who lived during the Civil War and are buried among several Confederate veterans behind Cove Methodist Church south of Chickamauga. I do, however, have a brother who is a United Methodist pastor in the North Georgia Conference.
QUESTION: What is your favorite scripture and why?
ANSWER: 1 John 3:1 -- “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” Everything we are and do should begin with the incredible, unconditional love of God that embraces us and urges us to love likewise.
QUESTION: What is your favorite hymn and why?
ANSWER: There are many. But on a recent Sunday at Vineville Baptist, where I am interim pastor, we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory.” It was particularly moving.
QUESTION: What Bible character best describes you and why?
ANSWER: I can relate to the disciple Thomas who too often is overly defined by his doubt. His doubt and faith were obvious. I experience both as well.
QUESTION: It has been said Macon has more churches per capita than any city in the South. Do you believe that?
ANSWER: It’s possible, though Birmingham and a few other Bible Belt cities might compete. I spend a lot of mornings in Panera Bread, both here and on the road. It is interesting to see all the Bibles among the bagels in certain places, including Macon.
QUESTION: Of the gazillion Baptist churches you could have chosen to attend, why are you and your family members of Highland Hills Baptist?
ANSWER: My family moved to Macon the day before Y2K was to occur. I was so tired from unpacking that I didn’t care if the world ended. Soon after, I went on a long trip to wrap up my previous work. Ruth DuCharme, the children’s minister, and Carol Brown, the preschool director, came to our house to help my wife, Teresa, settle in. Our daughters were 6 and 1 at the time. When I returned from my trip, Teresa said: “You can go check out churches if you want to, but the girls and I are just going to Highland Hills.” That was fine with me. Jim Dant, the pastor at Highland Hills then, and I had been friends since we both lived in Marietta years ago. So the church got some good members and one lousy one: me. I spend many more Sundays in other churches than my own. Also, I have been interim pastor twice at Mount Zion Baptist in Bolingbroke -- and am currently in my second interim at Vineville Baptist Church. And in 2010 I served for six months as interim pastor of First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, driving up and back each weekend. Being involved with these and other congregations keeps me close to the issues that I address as editor of Baptists Today.
QUESTION: Some folks have fallen out of favor with organized religion. What can churches do to win them back?
ANSWER: Within my own faith tradition, I am a loyal critic. My concern is not about protecting organized religion but seeking to be faithful to the ways of Jesus. There are many sociological factors impacting congregational life today. Some of these are quite challenging for church leaders. Our publication addresses these matters regularly -- although there are no easy answers. It is not surprising, however, that many good, thinking people are moving away from church. Today, many evangelical Christians have simply baptized a narrow political ideology that they advance as being a “biblical world view” -- although it misses much of the larger biblical message. Too often, the conveyed message is arrogant, selectively and harshly judgmental, and disrespectful. It is rooted, I believe, in a fear of losing cultural dominance. And most of us don’t think and act our best out of fear. So I keep reminding others and myself how often the Christian gospel says, “Fear not!” -- and how much of the biblical emphasis is on loving and caring for others rather than getting one’s own way.
QUESTION: What is heaven on earth? An afternoon at Turner Field?
ANSWER: Well, it starts in the late afternoon with batting practice -- and then goes into the evening where I soak it all in from the first row of section 222. Those of us who write and/or speak frequently, and are expected to have something fresh and creative to offer, suffer from what one friend calls “perpetual preparation.” Its persistence strains the mind. Watching baseball is my best escape -- with walking in the woods or working in the yard as secondary options, especially during the off-season.
QUESTION: Your love of baseball is legendary. You are headed to Florida for the final week of spring training. Is it true John Pierce’s translation of Genesis 1:1 is “In the big inning ...”?
ANSWER: Yes, I will catch the last few games before the Braves break camp at Disney. However, I’ve stopped trying to explain baseball to those who say it’s boring. Part of the charm is that there is no clock -- and the best aspects of the game are the subtle ones that only the most aware and observant fans will notice. And the very purpose of baseball is to get home safely. That is biblical enough for me.
Reach Ed Grisamore at 478-744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.