By Diana Chandler
SOUTHAVEN, Miss. — Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Bartholomew Orr’s object lesson, flying to the pulpit on a zip line to signify Jesus’ return, caused a viral sensation on social media and major network talk shows.
Despite both negative and comical comments from an estimated 200 million hits a week after a brief video clip of his entrance was posted, Orr told Baptist Press it was a “win-win.”
“God took the negativity and turned it into an opportunity,” said Orr, pastor of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven, Miss. “Because the unique thing was, that little clip alone, just a minute, the message was real clear:
“He’s coming. He’s on His way back. Jesus Christ is returning. Here’s the question, ‘Are you ready for His return?'”
Social media, The View, Steve Harvey, comedian D. L. Hughely and social commentator Roland Martin were among those weighing in after the daughter of a Brown Missionary Baptist member posted the zip line clip from the Nov. 25 message on Facebook.
“Within a couple of hours it was up to 250,000. And before that night was over with, it was getting up close to a million, if it hadn’t hit a million,” Orr told BP…. “By the end of the week our media team said that, from what they had gathered, it probably had hit 200 million views.”
Orr is active in Southern Baptist life. His church in northern Mississippi is suburban to Memphis, Tenn., and a member of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. He served on the 2017 Evangelism Task Force named by then SBC President Steve Gaines.
Orr describes himself as a “prop preacher.” He began delivering his Nov. 25 sermon while flying from a corner of the sanctuary ceiling on a zip line, stopping just above the pulpit as the contraption lowered him in place, assisted by two staff members.
The zip line, funded by sponsors and used after training from installers, was in place for the church’s annual Christmas production ending tonight (Dec. 7). The past four years, the church has used a zip line at Christmas to fly in angels, drummers and other characters, including people portraying Jesus.
Orr originally had no intention of using the zip line for his sermon, he told BP Dec. 6. But he later realized the appropriateness during sermon preparation.
BP talked with Orr as he was preparing to depart Johannesburg, South Africa, where he joined two other Southern Baptist pastors as speakers at an annual Revival, Evangelism and Prayer Conference just south of the nation’s capital.
The social media saga began when Orr decided to test the zip line Nov. 24 while workers were installing the machinery. He posted a brief video of his test flight on Instagram and asked viewers to come see the “flying preacher,” he told BP, but had no intention of actually using the zip line during the service.
“My little video, I put it out on Instagram, and at the end of it (I said), ‘This is no flying joke. I need you to sign up and be a part of Vision 2025,'” Orr said on Instagram, referring to a church initiative to effectively use social media in discipleship. The Instagram post “actually started getting some traction, and I told my wife I might have to fly in on Sunday, because folks are like, ‘Oh I can’t wait for Sunday.'”
Brown Missionary Baptist members are accustomed to Orr using props in sermons, he said, referencing wigs, life vests, Barbie dolls, Sure deodorant and other items.
“Well, when I started my sermon preparation, sure enough, the passage of Scripture (James 5:7-12) was speaking about the second coming of Christ and His entrance,” Orr explained. “And I was like, oh wow, well this is perfect.”
Negativity drove much of the social media buzz. The zip line was described as a waste of money, a flaw of African American congregations and a joke, Orr said. But in a video posted on the church website hours after the sermon, Orr thanked the student who posted the sermon video clip.
“Even though all of the talk about my sermon this morning hasn’t been complimentary, I’m thankful that the Word of God is being discussed in cars, in homes, on social media,” Orr said Nov. 25. “There is a bigger picture, and that is Christ is returning soon. Just as Christ is going to be unexpected, my flying in this morning was unexpected. But we must be ready.”
Orr cited Philippians 1:12-18 as the basis for his gratefulness.
“Paul said what has happened to me, some of it has been out of envy or whatever,” Orr said. “He says but, if the Gospel is going forth … that’s perfectly fine. I’m glad that the message is going forth. So I looked at it as a win-win situation.”
Orr encourages the public to view the entire sermon at BrownBaptist.org, which shows him zip lining from the pulpit at sermon’s end, singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Brown baptized 226 members and averaged 4,850 in Sunday worship attendance in 2017, according to self-reported Southern Baptist Convention church profile data, with 11,101 resident members. Already in 2018, Brown has recorded 200 salvations and baptized 112 of them, with plans to baptize the others, he told BP.
“We live in a very digital world. I think what has happened to business has happened to churches as well, and that is attendance overall is being affected,” Orr said. “But … was this a gimmick or out-of-the-ordinary stunt to boost attendance? No. Was it a part of our regular, creative preaching and teaching, spreading the Gospel? Yes.
“Jesus was an object preacher,” Orr said. “If the message is going forth and you’re trying to be sound to the biblical text, I believe you ought to use everything at your disposal.”