Something about this being a semi-let’s not talk about it topic has me wanting to actually talk about it. Sorry Dave.
I pastor a small church that uses books from 3 of Lifeway’s curriculum lines, and I have one class swapping “MasterWork” for The Gospel Project. I also have a long-standing rule that I will never be the junior member of a conspiracy, and as such, front man Dave and behind-the-scenes godfathers Don Trevin and Don Stetzer have not approached me to blindly back the TGP materials. My opinions and predictions here are my own, and are meant to illustrate the problem in the SBC as it is reflected in our reactions to this material.
Observation 1: This is the first material that I have seen Lifeway put out that is marketing in the post-Great Name Change Committee era. While the name changes started back in the 1990s, we just capped that off with initiating the rebranding of the whole group of us. Is it any wonder, then, that there are no “Southern Baptist Voices” in the quotes? Even the historical constituency of Lifeway is not entirely “Southern Baptist” anymore. Add to this that a portion of the reason that group is no longer the “Baptist Sunday School Board” was to be more able to market outside of the denomination, and we should not be surprised by this.
Observation 1a: The side benefit is that such great men as Adrian Rogers are not going to be pigeonholed as merely “Southern Baptist Voices” but instead acclaimed as “Voices from Church History” alongside wider-known men such as C.S. Lewis or Martin Luther. That’s kind of a good thing, is it not?
Observation 2: The “Voices” sections are not going to reflect anyone’s personal experience of the balance between Reformed Theology and Traditionalist Theology. Why? First, there has only been a “Traditionalist” Statement for a few months–and you can only attach it to those who signed it. You might think the aforementioned Dr. Rogers would have signed it, but you cannot know. So, how do you count him? He’s not Calvinist, but he’s not a Traditionalist, either. Many theological voices from the past are not going to fit that category, even when they do not fit the Reformed category. Second, none of us really have any idea what the “balance” really is. A greater percentage of pastors self-identify with either category than church members do. Then there’s the question of the missing 10 Million Great Commission Baptists: who speaks for them?
Instead, we are going to see a balance between people who are known and at least semi-famous quoted. Given the visibility of Reformed theology both in the present time and historically, that view is going to be over-represented. It is possible that half of all theologically conservative books come from Reformed people, even if that subset is a lesser portion of the Body. Likewise, we can name Reformed movement in history that connect to Baptists, but it’s hard to name a lasting, conservative non-Reformed theology. One could highlight the Wesleyan stream, but a quick note would be made that few current Methodists would be acceptable in any context of Southern Baptist life. So, there will be no good balance between quotes. The quotes are not being picked so that you go buy all of that person’s books anyway: these are cherry-picked statements intended to ground the author’s own statements in wider context. That is the typical use of quotes in Sunday School literature: we’d quote John Wilkes Booth if he helped us make our point.
Prediction 1: In the end, after the three-year cycle is fully published, there will be at least an apparent 50-50 balance between Reformed and non-Reformed “Voices” in the material. Some will hail this as the success of blogging about the imbalance in the first month. Some will state that the effort still tries to over-represent the Reformed side and mainstream what should be considered fringe. Meanwhile, Lifeway will claim that no change was made and that this was the plan all along. They will then be accused of either lying about changing or being deaf to their constituency. Either way, the editorial team will be criticized.
Prediction 2: There will be no addition of another category of “Voices.” Unless “Voices in My Head” is added, but that’s another post. The material will continue to be marketed beyond just the Southern Convention of Great Commission Baptists and so will stick with the living/passed on dichotomy. This will continue to show that the goal is produce material that will be bought and used not only by the Baptist set but by the evangelical community at large. Whether or not you like that will determine your response to it.
Prediction 3: This is becoming an illuminating moment for the divide. Formerly, the question was “Are you a member of Founders?” or “Did you go to SBTS/SEBTS?” to test for Calvinism. Now, “What did you think of TGP?” will be the new question. In the effort to ensure no over-Calvinization of church plants, we will see some insist that NAMB not allow this material used in church plants, no matter if it proves to be an effective evangelism and discipleship tool all at once. After all, we can’t risk accidentally planting a Reformed church with Traditionalist money.
Observation 3: The argument about the quotes seems odd to me. Another website listed the Reformed voices quoted in the material, and the implication seemed to me that we should fear TGP materials turning the next crop of Baptists into folks like those quoted. Are we really worried that a horde of Carl F.H. Henrys or Francis Schaeffers will be coming from our churches? That sounds like being concerned that an influx of Calvinism will result in a horde of John Newtons coming out of our church music programs. Or fearing that the next generation of missionaries will all be William Carey. I cannot bring myself to lose sleep over the idea that future Baptists might have the passion for truth that John Owen did, even if I don’t plant the same flowers.
Observation 4: I cannot make sense of the marketing on the whole thing. I have seen “300k users.” Does that mean 300 kilobytes? Or 300,000 people? 300,000 churches ordering it? Just where does that fall? And is that really how we should ever advertiseanything related to teaching Scripture? Big crowds do not faithfulness make. I would venture that you could sell 300,000 copies of a study guide for the most anemic pseudo-spiritual drivel known to man, too. That number impresses me not, and it should impress you not. Impress me with results of church revitalization and evangelism in six months.
Prediction 4: This material will keep selling. It may even bring back to Lifeway some of the Baptist churches that have left to purchase from Group or other organizations. I know we have made the switch back to TGP for children and youth because the material is better than the other material we had in hand. There’s less fluff and more stuff.
Observation/Prediction 5: The claim of “code-words” and “hidden meanings” will not go away, because it is an irrefutable claim. Certainly there are words present that are understood differently by Calvinists, Reformed Baptists, Traditionalists, Arminians, Semi-Pelagians, Wovenists, and Amyladrians. That is always going to be the case. This is where that old thing of teacher training (and that beast “nominating committee”) comes into play: prepared teachers that are teaching with the consent of the whole church in line with the beliefs of the whole church based on theWhole Bible. Let the material drive the teacher to the Scriptures first, then drive the students there as well. Of course, if too many people then go to the text and come back more Reformed-leaning than they started, it will be proof of something, right? Proof that will be taken by both sides to show they were right all along.
What, then, shall we do? How about this: exercise your local church autonomy to use or not use the material. Nothing in it is egregiously dangerous or anti-biblical like we were concerned with in The Message of Genesis or other works like that. Nothing is even as questionable as the NIV2011 or The Blind Side. It’s not as loony as the cheap, trinket stuff that fills half of a Lifeway Store or as fluffy as the semi-Christian fiction that takes up a third of the book section. It is not going to send a user to an eternity in the wrath of God–so use it, don’t use it, but taking the material as a whole it does not lead anyone away from Scripture, and so fits with what we voted Lifeway should do, way back when. There is no reason to label it as “from the Reformed Division” especially since there is no such thing in the organization.