Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's God Got to Do with It?

This post ultimately concerns the Southern Baptist Convention, but, first, a little history:

When the great American Puritan Jonathon Edwards wrote about what came to be known as the First Great Awakening, he described the colonial era revival as "the surprising work of God." Later, writing in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, prominent evangelist Charles Finney referred to the happenings as "entirely the result of the right use of means."

Clearly, a change of Copernican proportions had taken place between those two eras. One might suggest that in this instance change was not the same thing as progress.

Nonetheless, as Southern Baptists gathering in Indianapolis this week talk about what they intend to do about a decline in membership and baptismal numbers, it is clear that they are Finneyites, not Edwardsians. That might not seem as much of a surprise, given that Puritan theology has gone largely by the wayside over the course of the last three centuries (though a signficant resurgence is taking place). However, it is truly shocking to see the extent to which those who accuse others of humanism persist in describing human beings as being in control of the divine act of saving sinners.

When Baptists lament the falling number of baptisms, they presumably aren't regretting the mere fact that fewer people are getting dunked under water. Baptists believe solely in believer's baptism. Thus, to discuss a decline in baptisms essentially amounts to an expression of concern over the number of converts. However, conversion is the activity of God. Perhaps the entire Christian message could be expanded out from a simple three word statement: "God saves sinners." Given that God is the subject to that verb, one might expect that Baptists would respond to reports of fewer baptisms by imploring God to convert more people. Instead, they announce a new emphasis on evangelism.

Baptists seem to have short memories. If one were to look at press reports from Southern Baptist Conventions over the last quarter of a century, one suspects that at nearly every one of them Convention leadership spoke of emphasizing evangelism. Sharing the Gospel is a New Testament value that is a Southern Baptist obsession. That the constant emphasis on evangelism co-exists with a decline in baptisms and church membership might give more thoughtful leaders a reason to implore God to do something instead of focusing on themselves.

Of course, there are matters that Baptists should be addressing if their intention is to faithfully and meaningfully spread the Gospel in today's world. A large number of Baptist churches are moribund social institutions wed to a culture and social mores that are falling out of existence. Many of them lack leadership that is capable of providing guidance in applying biblical truths to modernity. Many of them prospered in a cultural environment that was friendly toward their existence and ministry, and they do not know how to function in a world that is either indifferent or hostile to their message. Far too many have been depleted by decades of infighting. Indeed, too many churches do not look at all like the Kingdom of God, but like banana republics, ruled alternately by illegitimate dictators and unruly mobs, and they cannot prosper.

On the other hand, a new style of church has emerged that appears more vibrant, but these churches have frequently replaced the values of the Sermon on the Mount with those of America's entertainment and marketing culture. They frequently fail to recognize the incompatibility of many of those values, at least as applied to doing church.

Thus, as the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention, like many of those who held the position before him, once again tells the churches that they should get back to evangelism, one might wish to ask him: what does God have to do with it?

1 Comments:

Blogger Lanette said...

Excellent post! To bad the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention will not be reading it or with comprehension of the Bible, for that matter.

11:36 AM  

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