On The GCR Declaration, Part 6

This is the final article in a series on the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. As you read, please remember that while Between the Times is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article IX: A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure

Judging by the reactions on all sides, you would think this is the only thing in the GCR statement. There are people who have been energized by this article. There are people who have been horrified by this article. There are some who think this is the most important section of the GCR Declaration. There are others who think this section needs to be cut. I have saved my engagement with this article for last, for two reasons. First, it is the article that has generated the most buzz. Second, I want to be absolutely clear about my convictions–and one major concern–related to this section of the GCR Declaration.

Let me begin by saying I think the SBC needs to be reevaluated and possibly restructured. I am not sure that Covenant for a New Century went far enough, though I think it began moving us in the right direction. I also believe that the various autonomous layers of our denomination that cooperate with the SBC (like state conventions) also need to be reevaluated and in some cases possibly restructured. I agree with the GCR Declaration when it says, “Some of our convention structures at all levels need to be streamlined for more faithful stewardship of the funds entrusted to them. We must address with courage and action where there is overlap and duplication of ministries, and where poor stewardship is present”.

Second, I realize that every layer of our denomination is autonomous and that the SBC can only make decisions about the SBC. If President Hunt’s taskforce is approved and if that taskforce recommends a restructuring, such recommendations, if implemented, will only affect the SBC. State conventions and local associations may or may not follow suit. Only a majority vote of the messengers to multiple annual meetings in each layer can bring change to that layer. But that didn’t stop us from pursuing a Conservative Resurgence, did it? I think a Great Commission Resurgence is worth the same effort. If enough churches want to see changes, you can bet that every layer of the denomination will start changing. It’s that simple.

Third, contrary to some of the rhetoric you may have heard, any restructuring would most certainly be about the Great Commission if it was done well and for the right reasons. While the Great Commission was given to the churches, in our polity the local churches have entrusted some of their “Great Commission responsibilities” to different denominational layers on the assumption that those layers would help the churches pursue the task more effectively. To the degree that any of our denominational parachurch ministries are not helping our churches in these responsibilities, they are a Great Commission liability. We have an obligation–for the sake of effective gospel proclamation–to examine everything we do and see if we can do it better.

Fourth, I have no specific recommendations about what any potential restructuring should look like. I leave such decisions to wiser people. But I know there are weak spots. To cite just one example, in our North American church planting in particular there is way too much overlap, as numerous others have already alluded (including President Hunt and Dr. Akin). We have to rethink how we presently do church planting because we don’t do it very well. As one particularly bright (and well-known) younger Southern Baptist said in a recent meeting I attended, “Most of the guys I know believe that ACTS 29 is a resource and NAMB is just a hoop you have to jump through”. I know naming ACTS 29 just sent some readers into cardiac arrest, but rest assured that this young man wasn’t thinking about Calvinism, alcohol, wearing jeans and flip-flops to corporate worship, or cussing in the pulpit when he made that comment. He was thinking about how ineffective our denominational parachurch ministries are when it comes to planting churches. He could have compared NAMB (and many state conventions) to a dozen other church planting agencies and the verdict would have been the same.

Fifth, I think that whatever reevaluation and restructuring may take place applies just as much to me and my institution as it does to you and yours. Let me say loud and clear that if a restructured SBC means I don’t get to be a professor, I will gladly find a local church to serve or will apply for the mission field. God called me to the gospel ministry before he led me to become a professor. And since I hope and pray it is God’s will for us to embrace a more “simple” denominational structure, I trust that if I must go then that is also his will and he will lead me to wherever he wants me to be.

Finally, please know that I am a big fan, in principle, of state conventions and local associations. All state conventions do some things well and some state conventions do most things well. Certain state convention ministries like summer youth camps, Baptist papers, and Christian liberal arts education continue to have a considerable influence on our wider denomination. And who isn’t glad that most state conventions have programs to help connect ministers with open staff positions in local churches? State conventions provide some valuable services. I particularly appreciate some of the smaller state conventions that put a majority of their financial resources into evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization because they are located in what we used to call “pioneer” areas. So rest assured that I do not want to see state conventions go away.

But many state conventions, especially the larger ones that are in regions where the SBC has always been numerically strong, have acquired large bureaucracies as their number of programs has proliferated. Being somewhat familiar with several state conventions, I am convinced that almost all of the “big” conventions (and some of the “smaller” ones) have at least some superfluous programs and initiatives that need to be cut. Some of these programs do little more than perpetuate the bureaucratization of the state conventions.

Let me give one real-life example: no state convention should employ an individual or individuals whose sole job is to figure out how to convince autonomous churches to give more money to the Cooperative Program. I have talked to Southern Baptists in three different states who have told me that the fact such a position even exists in their conventions demonstrates why churches refuse to send a higher percentage of their CP money through the state convention. Two of the brothers who told me this are part of megachurches that greatly irk the state convention bureaucrats because they don’t give the “right amount” to the CP. But for these churches, their choice is a matter of good stewardship.

Thank God for state conventions, but some of them need to go on a diet so that they can get healthier, live longer, and accomplish more for the sake of the kingdom.

As for associations, they have the potential to be the most fruitful layer of our denominational life because they are the layer “closest” to the local church. I know a handful of directors of missions who are some of my heroes because of the way they are serving their churches and advancing the gospel in their respective regions. But as a general rule, since the mid-20th century associations have been little more than the local arm of the bureaucracy. I don’t want to say too much more at the risk that I engage in overgeneralization. Let me just say this: I am sorely disappointed that the very layer that could be the most helpful to our churches is often the layer that is most irrelevant.

Before closing, remember that I said earlier in this article that I did have one major concern about Article IX. I confess it is a very different concern than those voiced by opponents of any type of reevaluation and restructuring. I am very concerned that we will embrace a restructuring and substitute it for the rest of the agenda. I fear we will wake up around 2013 or 2014 and have a “leaner” denomination but will have not grown in our love for God and neighbor, not renewed our commitment to gospel-centeredness, not been honest about some of the problems in our churches, not become more missional, not stopped fighting over secondary and tertiary issues, and not honored our Lord Jesus Christ in the process. I am deathly afraid that five years from now we will be nothing more than a streamlined version of who we are right now. This is what I pray against. I think a restructuring could be of benefit to our denomination, but I do not want to see a restructuring at the expense of the other nine articles. It’s not worth it.

I could say much more, but it’s time to close out this series of articles. I will be in Louisville from Sunday through Thursday. I plan to be at most of the Pastor’s Conference, the Baptist 21 Panel Discussion, the two Nine Marks at Nine events, and of course the Convention itself. I’ll also be in and out of the SEBTS booth a good bit. If you’ve never seen me before, I’m the stocky dude with the bowtie and the beard. I hope you’ll introduce yourself. And even if you don’t, I hope you will join me in praying (and voting!) for a Great Commission Resurgence among the people called Southern Baptist.game online mobile

On The GCR Declaration, Part 5

This is the fifth article in a series on the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. As you read, please remember that while Between the Times is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

I am going to diverge from my practice thus far in this series by skipping Article IX and saving it for the final post. I think this makes sense because that article, which raises the question of denominational restructuring, has garnered the most attention. This post will address Articles VIII and X.

Article VIII: A Commitment to a Methodological Diversity That Is Biblically Informed

I have a confession: I’m somewhat surprised that more people are not talking about this article. Part of that is no doubt due to the exaggerated emphasis on Article IX, but I’m surprised nonetheless. As they say down in the swamps of Southeast Georgia, this article “opens up a can of worms”.

The first paragraph opens by noting, “There are essential and non-negotiable components of biblical ministry like proclamation, evangelism, service to others, prayer, and corporate worship. At the same time, we are convinced there is no specific style or method ordained by our God through which we must engage in these biblical ministries”. I think most Southern Baptists are in agreement with the first sentence, but the second sentence seems to make a claim that I’m convinced would make some Southern Baptists cringe.

I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that there are many Southern Baptists who think their particular “style or method”–I’ll just call them “preferences”–are God-ordained. Or at the very least, they should have been because everybody knows that healthy churches do things this way. This is perhaps because of the next thing the GCR Declaration says: “In the past, Southern Baptists were characterized by a remarkable uniformity in both style and substance”, though the document also correctly notes that those days are passed.

Things really are different than they used to be. RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens have been replaced with AWANAS. WMU has been replaced in many churches by more general women’s ministries. Brotherhood has been replaced by more general men’s ministries (though, by God’s grace, men’s fish-fries continue in many of the Baptist churches of the Deep South!). Many churches no longer view Sunday School–if they even have Sunday School–as the evangelistic “front door” of the church. Training Union/Discipleship Training has gone the way of the buffalo. The January Bible Studies and Doctrinal Studies are on the endangered species list. In a growing number of churches homecoming has gone into the retirement home, “revival” is something you pray for rather than schedule, and denominationally-published curricula are for churches too lazy to do their own homework and shop around for the best material.

For the record, I don’t endorse all of these trends-some of them even bother me (Discipleship Training remains a good idea in theory, LifeWay’s curricula are getting better all the time, and homecoming is a good way to remember a church’s gospel heritage). Furthermore, I realize that there are many churches that embrace every one of the programs/practices/traditions I described above. But the point I think the GCR Declaration is trying to make is that all of those practices are simply strategies, meaning they are negotiable, revisable, and yes, even expendable.

Younger pastors often face this temptation in a different way from their more experienced brethren. Instead of buying into the programmatic pragmatism that so permeates SBC culture, many of my generational peers are snotty and arrogant about new trends that they think are superior to the SBC, often for no other reason than that they were developed outside the SBC. This attitude is just as bad as the guy who thinks God only like Gaither songs and real evangelism only happens at the front door of someone’s house. All sides need to exercise a little more humility when it comes to the various ways we “do” church.

Here’s my position, stated as clearly as I know how: I don’t give a rip what strategies your church employs so long as you are doctrinally sound and none of your strategies clearly contradict Scripture. I may not lead my church to do what your church does-my instincts are very conservative and the only time I “think outside the box” is when I am devising new ways to convince my wife to let me buy more books. But I will pray that your church wins to Christ, baptizes, and disciples people that my church will never reach.

The second paragraph is simply an argument that our churches need to look at North America as a mission field in the same way that our missionaries look at Zimbabwe as a mission field. Being good missionaries means we will be adaptable and creative in our methods and strategies while remaining rigid and unflinching in our commitment to the sound doctrine.

It is a fact that Southern Gospel flies in some places and Christian “pop music” flies in others (though I’m not a big fan of either). It is a fact that church buildings are appealing in some contexts and unappealing (and even burdensome) in others. It is a fact that Sunday School works in some places and home groups work in others (both work in some places). It is a fact that knocking on doors is a good evangelism strategy in some contexts while servant evangelism is the best method in others. (I would argue that old-fashioned “relational evangelism” is the only strategy that “works” everywhere.) And it is a fact that the Bible gives absolutely no instructions about what type of dress is appropriate for corporate worship besides general guidelines about things like modesty, etc. (And I say this as a guy who wears a coat almost every Sunday.)

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that we should jettison preaching, evangelism, service, prayer, or corporate worship. I think our preaching should be bold, our evangelism should be fervent, our service should be selfless, our prayers should be kingdom-focused, and our corporate worship should be God-centered. What I am saying is that we won’t all do these things exactly the same way, and not only is that OK, but it is necessary if our priority really is reaching our culture rather than propagating our subculture.

Article X: A Commitment to Distinctively Christian Families

Having criticized Southern Baptists above, let me do some praising for a minute. To echo the GCR Declaration, Southern Baptists are in many ways, by God’s grace, a “counter-culture for the common good” when it comes to family matters. We still have a long way to go-some of our churches are still far too worldly when it comes to gender roles and family life. And we are not the only ones getting this right-many other conservative evangelicals share our conviction about marriage and family. But it is evidence of God’s grace that, as a Convention, Southern Baptists are willing to say what’s right, even when it’s not popular.

I think what the GCR Declaration says about these matters is very good. I would only add a handful of my own thoughts. First, I think it is important that we recognize that the Great Commission starts with our families. Our evangelism and discipleship must begin in the home, and churches must do a better job of helping Christian parents do this well.

Second, we must avoid the extremes. It is my personal opinion that Southern Baptists must eschew unhealthy tendencies like overly age-segregated ministries on the one hand and the “Family-Integrated Church” movement on the other. The former sells out to worldly priorities and too often farms parental evangelism and discipleship out to the church rather than the church equipping parents in their God-called responsibilities. The latter tries to redefine the very nature of the church, confuses 19th century cultural patriarchy with a biblical view of the family, and often embraces heterodox doctrines like theonomy. Both of these trends damage churches, the former by too-often separating families within the believing community and the latter by too-often confusing families with the believing community. We need balance.

Finally, we must do theological triage when it comes to debated matters like wives working outside the home, the number of children desired in a given family, non-abortifacient birth control, and schooling choices. Let’s be careful not to confuse our respective application of biblical principles with the principles themselves, lest we inappropriately someone else’s conscience.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 4

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the fourth article in the series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article VI: A Commitment to Biblically Healthy Churches

I love this article. The first paragraph rightly notes that Baptists care most about being “New Testament”. May this never change! It also mentions our churches are threatened by, “worldliness, laziness, faddishness, heterodoxy, arrogant sectarianism, and naïve ecumenism”. Agreed on all points, though I suspect we may have some intradenominational quibbling about each of them.

A few examples will suffice. I think one of the areas we are most “worldly” is in the lack of redemptive discipline in our churches, but others hear “worldly” and the first things they think of are alcohol and rock music. When I hear “faddishness” I think of much of church growth methodology, but others think of any music that’s not Southern Gospel. When I hear “arrogant sectarianism”, I think of any form of obnoxious Bapto-centrism and classically fundamentalist definitions of “biblical separation”, while others think any commitment to Baptist distinctives or separation from worldliness is sectarian. When I think of “naïve ecumenism” I think of the National Council of churches, but others think of the interdenominational evangelical movement or conferences like Together for the Gospel or the Gospel Coalition. Let’s hope our quibbling is Christ-like!

The second paragraph gives a good, brief summary of Baptist distinctives. With the sole exception of congregational church polity, which is opposed by some proponents of plural elders and some megachurch pastors, I doubt there would be much disagreement here. But–and this is a crucial “but”–we must not assume these Baptist distinctives, lest we lose them. And losing them would be tragic, not because of any unhealthy denominational narcissism, but because most of us believe these practices closely follow those of the earliest Christian churches.

The second paragraph also mentions a number of areas wherein our churches can improve: “a more responsible baptismal policy, the recovery of a redemptive church discipline, a healthier relationship between pastors and their people, and a commitment to an every-member ministry”. I offer a hearty “amen” on all four counts.

The third paragraph speaks of the missional nature of the church. This is a crucial mark of healthy churches that is absent in the vast majority of the congregations with which I am familiar. You could even argue that this very issue is why we need a Great Commission Resurgence. Too many of us simply do not see our churches, by definition, as both missionaries to our given regions and mission-sending agencies to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is a great tragedy and the direct fruit of the programmatic nature of SBC evangelism and the shallowness of so much of our gospel proclamation.

There is a lack of urgency in evangelism among Southern Baptist churches of every size, region, and theological persuasion. There is widespread confusion of “evangelism” with “program” or “visitation” and “missions” with “WMU” or “Cooperative Program”. (One pastor I know even argued last week that the key to a GCR is giving more money to the CP–as if the CP is itself missions/evangelism.) There are calls for us to have more “revivals” and use more “harvest evangelists” in our churches, as if a special meeting will make our churches more evangelistic and mission-minded. There are gripes that too many churches no longer do evangelism through the Sunday Schools, as if some strategy holds the key to missional renewal. There are complaints about all those Calvinists, as if a few hundred churches are the reason that some of our biggest (and decidedly non-Calvinist) churches hardly ever baptize anyone who isn’t in elementary school or an adult Methodist who wants to become a Baptist. Smokescreens, all.

I could go on, but I don’t think it would be that profitable. The bottom line is that Southern Baptists, generally speaking, are not an evangelistic denomination in the early years of the 21st century. There are lots of reasons for this, sin being the biggest. But our misunderstanding of the intersection between ecclesiology and missiology also plays a key role in this whole thing. We better wake up soon, or we will have much bigger problems than those oft-cited declining baptism statistics.

Article VII: A Commitment to Sound Biblical Preaching

There is some good stuff here. I note that the phrase “expositional” was not used, which I actually think is a good thing. Let me explain. It’s not that I’m opposed to expositional preaching–with very rare exceptions, it’s the only way I (attempt to) preach. The real problem is that almost everyone among us, with the exception of some of the seeker-driven guys and those with man-crushes on Andy Stanley, claim to preach expositionally, but don’t.

It is self-evident that relatively few of us actually know what an expositional sermon is. If you have any doubt about that, just attend virtually any denominational “preaching meeting”, whether it is the SBC annual meeting, a pastor’s conference, a state convention annual meeting, or an evangelism conference. You are almost as likely to hear an endorsement of the Democratic Party as you are an old-fashioned expositional sermon. There are of course some glorious exceptions to my generalization, and I expect this year’s Convention and Pastor’s Conference to showcase more expositional preaching than any such events in recent memory .

The term “expositional preaching” has become a denominational shibboleth, so I couldn’t care less if we use it. Defining good preaching is more important than labels. And I like the way the GCR Declaration defines good preaching:

Authentic preaching must develop systematically the Bible’s theological content. It should understand both the Old Testament and New Testament to be Christian Scripture that together communicates one grand narrative about the world’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ as the climax of the Bible’s storyline.

I can’t say it much better, so I will let the document speak for itself.

I also appreciate that the GCR Declaration mentions the importance of application and invitation in preaching. Biblical preaching always applies the text to the lives of as many of the listeners as is possible (application can be the hardest part of sermon preparation because, Lord willing, there are loads of different types of people in the audience who need to hear differing types of encouragement, exhortation, or rebuke). Biblical preaching always invites–no, urges–sinners to turn from their sin and cast themselves upon the mercies of Christ. Whether this includes an “altar call” or not is adiaphora because the Holy Spirit does not convert through “public invitations”, but through the preaching of the Word. The point is that the sermon itself should be an urgent invitation to embrace the gospel or it is sub-Christian at best.