The Phases of Church Leadership: Assessment

In my last post I mentioned I was going to flesh out five phases a church must go through in order to move toward and to remain in a place of strong health. Please read this entire series as I walk through the phases of: Assessment, Identification, Vision Development, Adjustment, and Implementation.

Church leaders must assess what it is they are seeking to grow, to revitalize or to keep healthy and how far away from that ideal they currently reside. They must have a clear understanding of the goal, the standard, and the desired outcome or they will never know how to reach it, whether they reach it or how to stay within its reach.

On a universal level leaders must have a firm grasp on sound, biblical ecclesiology. They must constantly ask and answer simple yet profound questions such as: What is a church? Who is a church? Why is a church? Leaders must assess biblical content and define the standards these answers create. They then must compare the local church in which they serve to these standards.

We must understand what the Lord desires of His church. He is and always has been the owner and master architect. All too often we confuse ownership with stewardship and we claim rights and property that are not truly ours to claim. He never gave up ownership and Lordship to us. This confusion can lead to major conflict and distraction in the church away from the biblical standards that are set by Him.

On a local, contextual level church leaders must also assess the church community of which they are a part as well as the physical community in which that local body lives and ministers. This process includes assessing the past, present and potential future of the church and surrounding area. Conducting personal interviews, surveys, statistical research, demographic studies, evaluation of current personnel and ministry structures, financial reviews, observations of the physical facilities and neighborhoods, and more can all be part of this process.

Looking back for ten years or more and graphing statistical information such as attendance, baptisms, giving, membership and more and then putting them into visual perspective can be an eye opener for the congregation and can give great indications concerning health issues a church might be facing. They can provide moments of celebration as well as moments of honest revelation.

Assessing the community around the church can provide helpful information about the people who the church should be reaching and to whom ministry should be conducted. Often specific needs for ministry can be identified through this study such as ministry to single parents or to low income families. If the area around the facility is loaded with young adults or young families, the planning of programs and projects can be guided with some intelligent wisdom and direction.

I would also suggest every leader meet with those who head the various ministries of the church regularly and assess and discuss what aspect of biblical function the specific ministry is fulfilling. For example a church can assess recent activity by studying a passage like Acts 2:42-47 and recognizing that the first church was engaged in worship, fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, and prayer. Then go back over the church calendar for the past year and categorize and assess the programs and projects by primary biblical function being fulfilled. It is often amazing to recognize those areas of biblical responsibility that are being underserved.

Where are we? Where should we be? Assessment is a necessary phase and ongoing project for a church to stay healthy. How consistent, how honest, are you being in your assessment? This first phase will lead us to the next. Watch for the next post to read all about it.

Christian Identity and Baptist Distinctives

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 9, 2008.]

A few days ago, I posted on the topic of The Gospel and Baptist Identity. I shared some concerns I have about those who divorce, often unintentionally, our ecclesiastical identity from the good news. Beginning with this post, I want to move from description to prescription with a short series that I hope will make a constructive proposal about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. These posts are more or less expansions of my classroom lectures on Baptist identity and distinctives.

Though most discussions of Baptist identity understandably focus upon Baptist ecclesiological distinctives (regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, etc.), it is important to note that Baptist identity is not exhausted in these distinctives. Baptists are first and foremost a type of Christian, which means Baptist identity is one expression of Christian identity. To say it another way, our Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives.

Because our Christian identity is essential to our Baptist identity, we share a number of convictions with the wider catholic tradition, whether in its Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant forms:

1. Baptists believe in the Triune God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2. Baptists believe that this Triune God created the world good, but that his good world has been corrupted because of the sin of the first human beings.
3. Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, both truly divine and genuinely human.
4. Baptists believe that God is redeeming the world and rescuing lost sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists believe that every human being will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and each person’s eternal destination is based upon how that person responds to God’s revelation in Christ.
6. Most Baptists believe that all Christians everywhere are adopted into God’s family and are part of his universal church, a group which includes all presently living believers as well as all the redeemed of all the ages.
7. Baptists believe that all of these truths are taught in the Bible, which is God’s authoritative written word to humanity.

It is probably not enough to argue that Baptists are merely one type of Christian. To be most precise in our understanding of Baptist identity, we need to recognize that Baptists are a certain type of Protestant Christian. The Baptist movement began among third generation English Protestants with historic roots in Puritanism and Separatism and ecclesiological affinity (whether intentional or not) with some Continental Anabaptists. Though most of us argue that the early church was substantially baptistic in its ecclesiological beliefs, and though many of us concede that some baptistic distinctives were at times embraced by some groups that predated the reformations of the 16th century, the ecclesiastical movement with which modern-day Baptists identify began, in at least two stages, during the first half of the 17th century.

Because of our historic milieu, Baptists embrace a number of convictions that are embraced by most other Protestant Christians:

1. Baptists believe that salvation comes by grace through faith and that sinners are justified by faith rather than by good works.
2. Baptists believe in the supreme authority of Scripture, arguing that the Bible is the ultimate norm for faith and practice and is thus of a greater authority than traditions, creeds, confessions, and individual opinions.
3. Most Baptists believe in only two ordinances (or sacraments), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and reject a sacerdotal understanding of salvation.
4. Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers, claiming that every believer has direct access to God as a result of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists argue against the existence of a special priestly class of Christians, arguing that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations.

Baptists are Christians. Even more specifically, Baptists are a type of Protestant Christian. The vast majority of our beliefs are not unique to Baptists, which is a good thing; when too many of your beliefs are different from other Christians, what you have is likely an alternative to Christianity.

Having established that most of our beliefs are shared with other types of Christians, I want to briefly consider those beliefs that are typically associated with Baptist Christians. There are at least five distinctives that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists:

1. Regenerate church membership
2. Believer’s baptism by immersion
3. Congregational church polity
4. Local church autonomy
5. Liberty of conscience

Note that all of these distinctives relate in some way to ecclesiology. This is no accident: remember that Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives. The Baptist movement is, at its core, an ecclesiological renewal movement within the wider Protestant Christian tradition.

It is true that each of the above Baptist distinctives are embraced by other types of Christians, with varying degrees of consistency. But it is also true that these convictions are only embraced, in toto and consistently, by baptistic Christians. I would argue that when you find a local Protestant Christian church that emphasizes the above five distinctives, you have a theologically Baptist (or baptistic) church. This remains true even if the word “Baptist” does not appear on the church building’s sign or the pastor’s letterhead.

I hope to tease out these five distinctives over the course of the next few weeks, with emphasis on each distinctive’s relationship to the gospel. I hope to show that Baptists are Protestant Christians who honestly believe our unique identity is not only substantially like New Testament faith and practice, but is also the most consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. In other words, I will be arguing that our Baptist distinctives are nothing more or less than the ecclesiological fruit of the good news as it is embodied in local churches.

On Covenantal Church Membership

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on March 20, 2013.]

During the Reformation era, different Christian groups were wrestling with the best way to think about the biblical covenants and their relationship to ecclesiology. Though there was some diversity early on, as a general rule Reformed thinkers argued that all of the biblical covenants were historical administrations of a single covenant of grace. From this presupposition, most of the Reformed argued that covenantal infant baptism was a better baptismal theology than the sacerdotal pedobaptism of Catholics and many Lutherans. Covenant theology continues to be the dominant view of Reformed pedobaptists and, with some significant baptismal variations, some Calvinistic Baptists.

Orthodox Anabaptists took a different route than the Reformed pedobaptists. Most Anabaptists denied the existence of a covenant of grace and focused on the uniqueness of each individual biblical covenant. Some Anabaptists also advocated a form of covenantal credobaptism by arguing that confessor baptism represented a binding covenant between the believer and God wherein the believer pledges himself to God and His church through the obedience of credobaptism. Though the covenant language is rarely invoked, the spirit of this idea lives on in many Free Church traditions, including among many Southern Baptists. (I’ve often heard baptism referred to as the new Christian’s “first act of obedience.”)

The English Separatists embraced the covenant theology of the wider Reformed tradition, but they were more radical in their ecclesiology because the earliest Separatists rejected the concept of a state church. (Unfortunately, they snuggled up with Caesar after migrating to New England.) This rejection helped contribute to the development of a covenantal ecclesiology among the Separatists. The Separatists agreed with the Anabaptists in advocating a believer’s church comprised of presumably regenerate individuals, though unlike the Anabaptists the Separatists continued to embrace covenantal pedobaptism. The unique Separatist contribution was organizing their churches around written covenants that obligated members to walk together under the lordship of Christ for the sake of their individual and collective sanctification.

A growing number of Separatists began embracing credobaptism in the generation between 1609 and 1650. These Separatists-turned-Baptists maintained their commitment to a covenantal ecclesiology, including the General Baptists who rejected belief in an eternal covenant of grace. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were at least four distinct groups of English Baptists: the Calvinistic Particular Baptists, the Calvinistic Independent Baptists (who embraced open membership), the Arminian-leaning General Baptists, and the soteriologically diverse Seventh Day Baptists (who worshiped on Saturdays).  Each of these groups advocated not only a regenerate church membership, but following their Separatist forebears they also embraced a covenantal membership.

A commitment to a regenerate church membership organized around a written covenant also characterized most Baptist churches in America, especially by the turn of the eighteenth century. Though early on most churches adopted their own unique covenants, after the publication of J. Newton Brown’s Baptist Church Manual in 1853 (still in print today), the model covenant he included in his influential volume became the most widely used covenant among Baptist churches in America. This is the church covenant that Broadman Press reproduced in poster or plaque form that still adorns the sanctuaries and fellowship halls of thousands of Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, the very ease of adopting Brown’s standard covenant contributed to the downplaying of a covenantal ecclesiology among two or three generations of Southern Baptists.

Over the past decade or so, my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham, has reemphasized a covenantal view of membership. This is demonstrated several times a year during our corporate worship gathering when a new group of prospective members stands before our church body, introduces themselves, and publicly expresses their desire to join our church. At some point prior to the gathering, these individuals have already met with one of our pastors and participated in a prospective member class. After the introductions, all of our members stand and recite our church’s covenant in unison while the prospective members publicly sign a copy of the covenant. It is always a meaningful time in the life of our church. Within a couple of weeks after the public covenanting, we have a member’s meeting where we vote to formally receive these brothers and sisters in Christ into our church’s membership.

I’ve been greatly encouraged in recent years to see the recovery of a covenantal, regenerate church membership among many other Southern Baptist churches besides my own. I suspect that even more Southern Baptist churches will (re-) embrace a covenantal ecclesiology as we continue to emphasize greater clarity in gospel proclamation, the centrality of both evangelism and discipleship, and the importance of redemptive church discipline. By God’s grace, these seem to be areas where Southern Baptists of many different stripes and emphases are in substantial agreement. We should rejoice in this trend and labor together to advance it further for the sake of the health of our churches.

(Note: This post is also published today at Christian Thought & Tradition.)