Few would argue that the American Evangelical church (or our convention) is in a golden period of health and vibrancy. There are healthy churches, of course, but overall, things are not good.
- The church is badly divided. Christ prayed that we would be one. Of course, we should not unite with false teachers, but church of Jesus Christ, those faithful to the gospel, is fractured contrary to Christ’s prayer. My dad traveled to well over 100 churches in a couple of years when he was doing Bible conferences and said that he could count on one hand those that were not badly divided.
- When we were working with the Caskey Center during the Pastor’s Conference, Dr. Tolbert told us of a study on the state of evangelism in our churches. It showed a simple reason for our low baptism numbers. A scary percentage of churches have abandoned doing evangelism. Evangelism Explosion used to say that 95% of professed believers never lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t good.
- Churches were devastated by COVID. Read the job listings on the sbc.net site, listing a pre-COVID and post-COVID attendance. The numbers are discouraging – often about 50%, maybe a little bit more.
There is so much more evidence, but is anyone arguing that all is well in the American church?
Our Unhealthy Response
We all accept that what is is not what should be. That’s when the unhealthy response starts. We over to point the finger.
We used to point our fingers at Calvinism. We have seen the finger pointed at moderates and liberals, though those terms have often been ill-defined. Social Justice Warriors were the target of finger-pointing for some time until recently, our ire has fallen on “the woke.”
We must always be on guard against those who challenge the truth of God’s word. This has been a problem since the Serpent asked Adam and Eve “did God really say,” and it will continue to be until he and his lies are cast into the Lake of Fire. Still, it is scapegoating to blame all our problems on outsiders, on liberals or the woke.
It is lazy to find an outside enemy on whom to pin our problems. We can point fingers until the American church crumbles to oblivion or we can make hard choices and fix things. The sad state of evangelicalism is an us problem, not a them problem. It roots in our own spiritual, moral, and evangelistic compromise.
As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
Solutions will come when we stop pointing the finger and start examining ourselves.
Root Problems in American Evangelicalism
During my recent time of self-examination, I’ve wondered what the future holds for this old codger. I’ve talked to other pastors and realized the problems I faced in Sioux City were anything but unique. I’ve formed some opinions, based on my experience, on my conversations, and on biblical convictions learned in more than 4 decades in ministry.
Here is what I believe are the roots of our problems in American Evangelicalism generally and Southern Baptist work specifically. I realize this is something of a negative take. Feel free to argue.
1. We have discounted Christianity, offering one absent of dying to self or denying self.
Our culture has become self-driven. People cannot conceive of a God who would deny them anything they want. “God wants me happy, right?” They reject a religion that demands sacrifice and does not offer them their best life now. We find ourselves trying to give them what they want. Jesus demanded that people deny themselves and take up their cross. The essence of Christianity is being crucified with Christ – the life I had without him is dead and gone – and being raised to walk a new life in which Christ is Lord.
This new gospel of self-fulfillment is attractive but false. By adopting this discounted faith, we leave people thinking they are “good Christians” because they go to church (or watch online), do some volunteer work, and drop a few mites in offering plate. Jesus demanded we die to self and live for him.
He does not put his demands on sale.
2. We have lost or abandoned the biblical call to holiness.
I grew up in an evangelicalism that teetered on the brink of legalism. Our mantra was “I don’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, and I don’t go with girls who do.” The pendulum has certainly swung, with theologies trumpeting grace. Thank God – legalism is spiritual poison. We do not earn our way into the favor of God with rules.
There is always a danger, though, that when the pendulum swings, it goes too far. This one has. According to Ephesians 2:10, we were saved by grace through faith “to do good works.” When we are saved, we become obligated to a life of holiness. “Be holy, because I am holy.” Paul told the immoral Corinthians “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.”
We are set apart for God and must not live for this world. Balancing our freedom in Christ with the call to holiness is tricky, but we must do it.
The grace of Christ calls us to a life of holiness and there is little difference in the way many Christians live from their lost neighbors. Many have rejected even the concept of holiness.
3. We have quenched the Holy Spirit.
We find charismatic doctrine unbiblical and their practices excessive. Some (many?) overreact with an oppressive cessationism that treats spiritual enthusiasm, passion, and the inner ministry of the Spirit with suspicion. There is a danger not just guarding against the errors of the charismatic movement, but quenching the Holy Spirit. We must be filled with the Spirit, develop the fruit of the Spirit, walk daily in his power, and seek his wisdom and direction.
A (perhaps the) great need of our convention is a healthy pneumatology and a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit. We need to be “Baptist in the Holy Spirit.”
4. We practice evangelism substitutes.
Evangelism is unpleasant, unpopular, and confrontational. Paul told us that the gospel is offensive to those who do not believe it. For many, the answer has been to replace the hard truths of the gospel with a softer, gentler version, removing the offense.
My church did Upward Basketball for many years. At the end of the year, we’d have a celebration – hundreds of kids with their parents and grandparents in the local high school gym. We’d have a celebrity (my favorite was the KC Wolf – go Chiefs) perform and share the gospel. A few “shared the gospel” without mentioning sin or repentance. “Trust Jesus so you can be a champion.” One lady in our church took her kids to another local church’s VBS and got a letter congratulating her that her daughter had “made the Big JC her best friend.”
When we remove the offense of the gospel we nullify the power of the gospel.
Churches have replaced the gospel with substitutes. We do “outreaches” or events that make a splash and get people into our churches but often do not proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ or call sinners to repent. In many churches and among many Christians, fighting the culture war is a greater passion than proclaiming Christ. Social media posts about our social ills and evils and about “those people” in the other party replace the gospel call.
5. We are so earthly minded we are of no heavenly good.
In my liberal Southern Baptist college, the school paper used to take potshots at conservatives like me. They said we were “so heavenly-minded we were of no earthly good.” My fear is that the opposite is true of many of us. The Bible says we cannot love the world or the things in the world, but we try to prove God’s word wrong.
In a time of discouragement, I found myself longing more for heaven than ever before. I was not suicidal, but the sweetness of this world was gone. Normally, my life is so good, I have trouble not loving it too much.
Materialism and the love of the things of this world has captured our souls.
6. We measure by earthly means, not biblical.
What makes a church healthy? What is the measure of a mature Christian? We tend to use measures that are not biblical.
I was talking with a man about what happened at my church, and he started throwing out many “truths” that he had gained from his leadership courses. After our lunch, I thought about them. Most of what he said had no biblical support and some of it was contrary to Scripture. He was dogmatic about his leadership principles – he’d read them in a book – but they were not drawn from God’s word (in my humble but correct opinion).
We think bigger is better. We bow to celebrity pastors and accept their word. While we say we believe the Bible, we are often more driven by experts, by human opinions, and by tradition than by God’s word.
7. We, pastors, are often part of the problem.
It is a common sport for us as pastors to blame all the problems of the church on our people. As I have processed what happened at Southern Hills, God has shown me where I made mistakes. I promise you, pastor friend, it is rare for things to go south and it is all their fault. I realized how angry I’d become at some people, how deep my hurt was, how poorly I’d responded to some of that, how I’d failed to forgive, how I’d relied on myself, my lack of spiritual passion – many of these things that contributed to my problems. When we analyze the problems, we have to look at ourselves, not just at our people.
Sometimes, we are the problem – we’ve all seen it. Sometimes, pastors are arrogant and operate on their ego, instead of being servants of God and his sheep. Sometimes, the shepherds prey on their sheep. Sometimes, we become angry and bitter against our sheep and we cannot care for them properly until we forgive. Sometimes, we put our own agenda and platform above the need of the church and its people.
Our deepest problems are not out there they are within. Finger-pointing won’t solve things in evangelicalism or in the SBC. There are enemies outside, and we must be wary, but our greatest enemies are our own hearts, our own failings, and we must deal with these or we will continue to fail. The time for finger-pointing is at an end. The time for self-examination and repentance is at hand.
What we need more than anything is a New Biblical Resurgence, not of believing the Bible – we claim to do that, but of doing what it says. We must be doers of God’s word, not hearers only.