I asked a question on Alan Cross’ excellent post of a couple of days ago – whether the current statistical malaise of the SBC was unique to us, or whether it more of a general problem in evangelicalism as a whole. I got my answer today from an expert on such issues, and it was one that I didn’t like.
The SBC has a real problem. Evangelicalism as a whole in America is fairly stable, even growing (though defining that term is pretty difficult). Other evangelical denominations are seeing growth. The SBC is at the beginning of a real, significant and scary statistical decline. If this trend is not reversed, and reversed soon, the SBC in 25 years will be nothing like it is today.
I have some perspectives on this, but I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. Leaders far more knowledgeable and insightful than I have weighed in on this and will continue to do so, but I would like to share my thoughts.
If the SBC is going to thrive in the next generation, here are some things that I think must take place.
1) We must sharpen and hold on to a robust Baptist theology.
When a store wants to increase its customer based, it has a sale and lowers the price on its goods. We can never put the gospel on sale, nor can we sacrifice our Baptist theology in a foolish attempt to appeal to a broader base.
Statistics clearly bear this out. Once, nearly 1/4 of Americans identified with a mainline denomination. Now, that percentage is well under 10 percent. They compromised on the gospel and the hard teachings of the Word of God in an effort not to offend. But by doing so, they cut the heart and soul out of Christianity and tried to market and empty and meaningless faith.
Baptists do not want to go down that road. We must maintain an unwavering trust in the absolute truthfulness of God’s Word, must proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only hope for lost and hell-deserving sinners, and hold on to the precious, eternal truths that comprise the core of Baptist theology.
2) We must unite.
I know, join hands and sing a chorus of kumbaya, right? But I am convinced that one of two things must happen in the SBC. Either we must unite around a core of doctrine (primarily the BF&M) and agree to partner together for missions and ministry in spite of our differences, or we must divide into splinter groups and form several smaller denominations.
Since I’ve been involved in blogging, we have been through several significant wars – some bloodier than others. The first war was the Reform battle. That had nothing to do with Calvinist theology, but a lot of bloggers who thought that the powers-that-be in the convention had too much top-down power. The trigger for this was the IMB policies over which so much internet ink has been spilled. The blogging movement was the quintessential grassroots movement that radically changed the way we did business in the SBC. Then there was the “Big Tent Battle” – how much were we going to widen or narrow the (here was the famous term) the “parameters of fellowship.” The Baptist Identity movement tried to draw a tighter line around Baptist theology and practice than many others were willing to accept. Then, as a by-product of that battle, we had the Baptist Culture wars. How much of traditional Baptist culture should we maintain today and how much should change.
Then, of course, came the granddaddy of them all, the big Kahuna of blogging battles – the Calvinism Wars. This is the most serious of them all because it is rooted in theology and involves key issues such as the nature and character of God. It is a significant issue, but it ought not be a divisive issue. I will say it again – what I have said before to the offense of some:
Those who divide over Calvinism have either a problem with theological priorities or with attitude.
The most passionate Calvinist and Traditionalist have a firm basis for both fellowship and ministry partnership, as long as they keep the spiritual needs of the world, the glory of God and the power of the gospel central in their work together.
Nothing destroys the work of God like division and strife – they are works of the flesh, not of the Spirit.
3) Abandon the Blame Game
Whose fault is this current situation? Several who opposed the CR take great delight in laying all of our current troubles at the foot of conservatives. If only we had not fought the Battle for the Bible, we would be prospering as we once did. More than one person has charged the Calvinists with guilt in these troubles. A few of the more strident and angry Calvinists blame the Traditionalists and the general non-Reformed and compromised state of Southern Baptists.
What do all of these have in common? My side is innocent and the problem is caused by “them.” It’s their fault. It is easy to look at the problems of the SBC and blame the people that we oppose in our blogging battles.
It is also petty and small; it accomplishes nothing. It is much more important that we seek solutions rather than to assign blame. Politicians do that, men of God do not.
4) Distinguish the Cultural from the Biblical
The SBC thrived in the 50s and 60s at least partially because it was perfectly contextualized for contemporary Southern culture. We dressed like people dressed, worshiped in a way that was comfortably appropriate and fit it well. There was a specific Southern Baptist culture that we all knew and understood.
Then the world changed. Dramatically. Radically. What we believed marked “the American Way” in my youth has been turned on its head in this new millennium. Perversion has been normalized. Tolerance of sin is now seen as a high moral value. Believing that Jesus’ shed blood is the only path to heaven is now seen as arrogance and intolerance. This is not my father’s America. It’s really not even my America any more.
And the Southern Baptist culture of the 50s an 60s may not work well everywhere in this new world. What we need to do is dig through all the cultural trappings of Baptist Christianity and figure out exactly what is eternal, what is the unchanging message and work of the church. We must be willing, where it is necessary, to change our cultural packaging to bring the eternal truths of Christ to a generation that does not speak the same language that the America I grew up in did.
We may not have Training Union any more, but we can still disciple believers. We can do evangelism even if we do not hold two-week evangelistic crusades as we did in the sixties. We can preach the gospel and solid biblical truth even if the preacher is not dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and a narrow tie. The organization and culture of the church can change without the nature and purpose of the church changing! That is our need. We must find a way to connect the same eternal truths with a new world, a new culture, a new language.
5) We must walk daily in the fullness of the Spirit.
The disciples of Christ were the ecclesiological Keystone Cops, even after three years walking and talking with Jesus. They never understood even the simplest teachings of Jesus. At Jesus’ moment of great need, they cut and ran. But then one day, everything changed. They did not get a theological education or a new strategy or program. It was simple – they were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who empowered them to powerful ministry dwells in us. We need not seek his coming, but we must obey the command to be constantly filled with the Spirit.
A car cannot run long without gasoline. A Christian cannot do significant ministry without the power of the Holy Spirit within. I am afraid we have attempted too much in the flesh what can only be done in the power of the Holy Spirit.
6) Non-Sacrificial Christianity has not worked and will not work.
Ed Stetzer just preached at the Pastors Conference and gave some discouraging statistics about the SBC. But, he also held out the hope that if we will be the salt and light we are alled to be, we can reverse the 50 year trend of decline that he showed us. God is not dead.
One thing Ed said stuck with me. He said that we have tried, in modern American Christianity, the non-sacrificial brand of Christianity. It has not worked. It will never work.
We are called not to a life of success, but a life of death – buried with Christ then raised to walk a new life in him! We cannot continue to keep 97.5% of our money for ourselves, keep 94% of the church’s money for church expenses, only giving what we don’t need, and expect to dent the darkness. It will take sacrificing our time, our money, our efforts even our lives.
Anything short of that is an imitation of Christianity.
There are some real disturbing trends in Baptist life. We must face them head on and deal with them. But we must also not despair. God is alive and powerful. The Word is still true. Jesus still saves. The Spirit still empowers and the church is still the Bride of Christ. There is hope, even in this present darkness.