Aspect 4(a): A Mission Focused on This Nation (Confront the Brutal Facts)

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(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Our convention must confront the brutal facts:

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. This includes our own nation-the United States of America-and yet the truth is that we are failing to meet the challenge. While the population of our nation increases, the population of our churches has not kept pace. While the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the Southern Baptist Convention remains a mostly middle-class, mostly white, network of mostly-declining churches.[1] This is a painful truth, and to ignore this fact is the worst form of denial.

It is not as if the churches of the SBC have not tried to reach their own towns and cities. Many of them have worked hard to reach their cities and many of them have more or less succeeded. But the truth of the matter is that we are losing the battle. Our nation is becoming increasingly post-Christian and we are not stemming the tide. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are losing the battle is that we are “aiming at” a culture that no longer exists. The SBC built its programs and its personality, if you will, in the 1950s. But we find ourselves in a socio-cultural context that varies significantly from that of 50 years ago. Many of our churches no longer have the luxury of communicating the gospel within a city that has basically one culture. Instead, they find themselves communicating across numerous cultural and sub-cultural divides. [2]

In years past, many of us found ourselves ministering in regions heavily influenced by Christianity, but now often we do not. Many, if not most, of our neighbors had sufficient knowledge of the biblical narrative to understand “sermonese,” but now they do not. In a previous era there were common categories for moral discourse, but now these categories are less and less common. There was a day when we were able to build our churches by inviting people to church events but now we find it hard to do so. So, how do we conceive of the task of communicating the gospel effectively to the various cultures and sub-cultures of our own country? How can we create and implement a missiology that will enable us to win the lost, make disciples, and plant churches in an increasingly larger array of American socio-cultural contexts? In a nutshell, how can we build missional churches and a missional convention?

Our mission must be cross-cultural:

The United States is increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic, as immigrants from around the world now live in our own cities and suburbs. Many of the tribes, tongues, and peoples of Revelation 5 are right here on our doorstep. Further, there is a dizzying variety of sub-cultures within the broader American culture, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of them do not have even a basic understanding of Christian worldview or vocabulary. Southern Baptists missionaries and pastors in North America must take their own cultural contexts as seriously as Southern Baptist missionaries take their international contexts.

We must seek to understand the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can preach the gospel faithfully and meaningfully within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and social contexts, and plant churches that are at home in the culture. We must preach the gospel faithfully, allowing it to be defined and delimited by the Scriptures. We must also preach the gospel meaningfully, so that the hearer understands the gospel in the same way that the preacher intends it. The concept of the gospel might be foreign to them, but we may communicate it in language and constructs that are not. By doing so, we are able to preach the gospel clearly within the framework of the audience’s cultural, sub-cultural, and situational contexts.

The way we preach the gospel affects the way the audience receives it. Many church planters, pastors, teachers, and authors have pointed out that if evangelical churches are to be missional, they must make changes in their preaching. Southern Baptists are no exception. When Southern Baptist churches were ministering in the Bible Belt in the mid-to-late twentieth century, they ministered to a population who had some (or much) knowledge of the biblical narrative, and there was a common language for moral discourse. But in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a context where many people have little or no knowledge of the Scriptures or Christian language. How do we communicate the gospel effectively in this situation? Tim Keller is one church planter who has written extensively on this challenge.[3] He argues that:

The missional church avoids ‘tribal’ language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious ‘jargon’, and archaic language that seeks to set a ‘spiritual tone.’

  • The missional church avoids ‘we-them’ language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us.
  • The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, ‘inspirational’ talk. Instead, we engage the culture with the gentle, self-deprecating, but joyful irony the gospel creates. Humility + joy = gospel irony and realism.
  • The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood is present (not just scattered Christians), eventually more and more of your neighborhood will find their way in or be invited.
  • Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold gospel-changed heart, it is all just ‘marketing’ and ‘spin.’[4]

To Keller’s admonition, I would add this clarification. We are not proposing to give up biblical-theological language, the very grammar and vocabulary of our faith. Instead, we are proposing to speak to those who are gathered in such a way that they can understand the gospel. And we do so precisely so that we can draw them into the biblical world, where they will find a better set of categories for understanding God and his world as well as a deeper and more profound vocabulary for speaking of those things.


[1] For statistics on the SBC’s decline, see the recent statistics released by Lifeway Resources in June 2009: http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/article_main_page/0%2C1703%2CA%25253D169332%252526M%25253D201340%2C00.html.

[2] One particularly helpful treatment of ideological diversity in the United States is Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Vintage, 2001). Himmelfarb argues that the United States is a divided nation. On the one hand, there is a religious culture that has common categories for discourse and common convictions on ethical issuess. On the other hand, there is an elite culture that is very permissive on moral issues and does not share the religious culture’s moral language and categories.

[3] Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. Keller founded the church in the late 1980s, and since then has seen the church grow to more than 5,000 in attendance (in addition to 5,000 sermon downloads per week), most of whom were unchurched before finding Redeemer. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that Redeemer’s church planting center has facilitated over 100 church plants. In January 2007, Outreach Magazine named Redeemer the top “Multiplying Church” in America. http://outreachmagazine.com/docs/25innov_JA07.pdf.

[4] Tim Keller, “The Missional Church,” (June 2001) http://www.redeemer2.com/resources/papers/missional.pdf. Also, this material is explained in Tim Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer Church Planting Center, 2002), 224-5.

  14Comments

  1. Scott Carter   •  

    Great post!
    I’ve often wondered how much different the work in the US would be if we had more workers in the US trained as extensively as our int’l Strategy Coordinators, and if our State Conventions and Associations, and larger churches had SC’s on staff that were focused specifically on (contextual) church planting strategies. (I realize that some do, but generally speaking, they are the exception to the rule.)

    Again, this would be where a collaborative strategy and effort, if not a merging of, NAMB and IMB would benefit our Great Commission work extensively.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Scott, maybe the day is drawing near when those of us in the USA have a collaborative and strategic plan for reaching the multiple cultures and sub-cultures in our own country… for this to happen, however, we have to give up the comfort of ministering the same way we always have to the same types of people we always have.

  3. Louis   •  

    Great topic.

    There is so much to be said on this issue. The first one is that ALL churches are declining in proportion to the population. The US is still a very religious culture, however. Church membership and attendance are simply not as important in most people’s minds as they were a generation ago.

    I am not interested, primarily, in trying to “win” a contest or “save” the culture. I am interested in being faithful, and that includes a concern for those who need to know Christ.

    Two of the things that I believe we should do (or continue to do) is to learn to speak to our culture. As demographics change, our churches should follow – in a natural way. If they don’t, that inidcates a problem. Either we are insulated or we are not trying to broaden.

    I do note that it is interesting to even ask the question of why are we a convention of mainly white, southern congregations when the name of our denomination is the “Southern Baptist Convention.” I am not ashamed of that name, but we have to admit it is regional. It doesn’t play well above the Mason Dixon line. And in changing times, it may not play well below that line as younger pastors with new approaches may be concerned about being linked to the name.

    The other thing that I believe hurts our impact with the non-Christian world is our trend toward Monasticism to protect what we have.

    The church is both a ghetto (in a sense) and a vehicle of outreach.

    But sadly, in my opinion, there is a lack of cultural engagement by Christians in business and civic life.

    When we “engage the culture”, most of us think that means arguing for or against various cultural trends or legislation.

    When I speak of cultural engagement, I mean, living in the culture. When we spend all of our waking hours at church, home school our kids (or send them to Christian schools) and invest so much energy and emphasis in educating our kids to end up taking jobs in Christian industries (churches, schools, colleges, seminaries), is it any wonder that we don’t have enough interaction with non-Christians so that they might consider our churches as a place to join?

    As an example, the nation’s public schools educate (sort of) about 85% of the nation’s children. There are lots of problems there, for sure. But there are lots of opportunities there, too. Just think what would happen (and this is just one suggestion), we educated our children and encouraged them specifically to go into the nation’s public schools and teach – even the tough inner city schools. Think of the impact we could have just by our presence.

    Again, there are a million examples. But I believe being culturally sensitive in areas that are not in contradiction to scripture, and truly becoming neighbors and co-workers with those around us (instead of retreating into the walls of the church) may be two of the most important things we can do.

    Louis

  4. Bryan Rabon   •  

    Dr. Ashford,
    All of the posts in this series have been great, thank you for you insight. I have a question. I pastor a small church in rural South Carolina in an area that has other small churches much like ours. The problem we seem to have is apathy on the part of church members and in the community at large. I have tried several different types of outreach methods and have met with very little success. I am beginning to think that I may culturally illiterate in this particular context. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can reach this very rural, very apathetic community? Thanks.
    Bryan

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Louis, I agree with everything you said. In particular, using our various vocations/callings as places from which to minister. God has called each of to a workplace, a family, a church, and a community… Each one is a unique dimension of life entrusted to us by God to live out our faith for his glory. When we take those four callings seriously, it is hard to allow ourselves to be disengaged from the broader society and culture.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Bryan, your question is an interesting one, and I’m afraid I don’t have an interesting answer for it. Sometimes small churches in rural areas are thriving. I spent years preaching in rural churches and often saw lively faith. In other churches, a particular type of cultural Christianity reigned, as church members were members b/c in a small community that was the proper thing for an upstanding person to do…. As for insight: Be gospel-centered and grace-centered in your life and teaching, and be patient… do discipleship in a life-on-life manner (which i talk about in a later installment of this series) so that they see you share the gospel, teach the word, practice your faith in everyday settings, etc. Finally, learn the culture. Hang out where they hang out, learn their language, etc. In a nutshell preach (and live) the gospel in a way that is both faithful and meaningful.

  7. Roger K. Simpson   •  

    I don’t see any problem with changing the name of our denomination to something other than “Southern Baptist Convention”. However, I don’t think that our geographically limiting name is a big deal in retarding our witness.

    There are a number of other examples of local or regional names for church groups: Roman Catholic, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Church of God – Anderson Indiana, etc. I don’t think there is any evidence to support that these groups are being impeded due to their name.

    We need to look elsewhere for growth rather than changing our name to something like “North American Baptist Convention”.

  8. Robert Wise   •  

    Great post – in small rural churches, where our community is changing – any advice on language barriers? We have a diverse congregation already, black, white, indian, sometimes a hispanic. I feel we could reach a lot more hispanics if not for the language barrier. DO we pray for a hispanic pastor and do a second service? Any advice?

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Roger, I would agree that re-naming the Convention is a more minor issue than the other issues.

    Robert, great question. Ultimately, the goal is for Spanish language speakers to have their own church. Maybe the best thing is for your to lead your church to view itself as a “church planting church” and give them the goal of planting a new church or two over the next several years. You’ll have to pray that God sends you the right Spanish speaking person/s to lead the ministry. In the meantime, it sure wouldn’t hurt for you to learn some Spanish yourself… and maybe challenges some folks in your church to do the same. Doing so will give your church a tangible way to be missional.

  10. Louis   •  

    Roger:

    Great to hear from you, as always.

    I honestly don’t know how big an impediment the name is. I would be interested in seeing some info (research) from the Northeast, Midwest and Western regions But why are we so wed to it? Why not change it?

    I was reading a history of the Christian Life Commission and discovered that there was discussion about doing this years ago (may 6 or 7 decades ago). I was surprised to find that.

    But arent’ you glad the formerly “Baptist Bookstores” have changed their name to “LifeWay”? I wonder what LifeWay’s internal research showed on that one?

    Louis

  11. Roger K. Simpson   •  

    Louis:

    I don’t know if there has been any research (such as focus groups) regarding any negative conotation of the SBC name in non-Bible Belt areas.

    I have no problem myself with changing the name — my only point is that I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that “regional” names for church bodies are a drawback for the denominations using them.

    I don’t know what the objections have been raised but those opposed to a name change.

    To me changing the name is no big deal either way. I just don’t think it makes much difference. One a “theological triage” scale I think the SBC name is neither primary, secondary, or tertiary. Instead it is quartiary (if there is such a word).

  12. Roger K. Simpson   •  

    Sorry, I had a few typos in my previous comment.

    The next to last paragraph should read “I don’t know what objections have been raised BY those opposed to a name change”

    In the last paragraph make the following change: “ON [not ONE] a “theological triage” scale . . . . “

  13. Louis   •  

    Roger:

    I am the “King of Typos” in this medium. If I ran a blog, I would be much more careful.

    But as a commenter, I am sloppy. There’s only so much time.

    Your typos are much less than mine.

    Louis

  14. Pingback: What does a missional church look like? « Living Next Door To The Humans

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