Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 2

This is the second article in a (now) four-part series on fifteen factors that have changed the SBC since 1979. As I noted in my previous article, this list is not exhaustive, overlap exists between some factors, and I list them in no particular order of importance. You can read the first article in this series here.

6. Changing Paradigms in Education Ministry

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned education minister? There was a time when virtually every SBC church with at least 300 regular Sunday School attenders employed an education minister, even if that staff member also (often!) led the youth or music ministry as well.

Now some of you may be thinking, “We still have an education minister, and Bro. Joe does a great job on our staff.” Frankly, a couple of the strongest churches in my home association back in Southeast Georgia have education ministers who do a fine job, so I’m with you on that. But once I went off to college and then two different seminaries, I was struck with how many churches are dispensing with the education minister model-and much of what that paradigm entails. Fewer and fewer churches (especially outside the Deep South) are following the “evangelism through the Sunday School” strategy that dominated SBC life for three quarters of the 20th century. Fewer and fewer churches are using a strictly graded Sunday School model, at least at the adult level. And when was the last time you attended a Sunday School assembly? How many of you don’t even have a clue what I’m even talking about? (And I’m just focusing on Sunday School-we could discuss the myriad of other programs that education ministers help administer in medium-sized and large churches.)

The paradigm shift happening in education ministry is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. First, Southern Baptists pioneered “Christian education” in the local church. Southwestern and Southern seminaries in particular developed very specialized programs that were cutting edge for the better part of the last century. Second, the Christian education paradigm was at the heart of most of our churches’ evangelism and enlistment, and some of our most prominent denominational programs (particularly “A Million More in ’54”) were directly tied to this approach. Third, a great deal of the “Southern Baptist ethnicity” I discussed in my first article was cultivated through the church’s cradle-to-grave education program. Finally, most churches of which I am aware continue to prioritize Christian education, but they often call it something different (like “discipleship” or “spiritual formation”) and many have “tweaked” (and sometimes rejected) the earlier paradigm.

I could spend all my time on this one, but I have to move on.

7. The Decline of Revival Meetings

During the period between 1820 and 1840, one of the key differences between the “Missionary Baptists” who became the SBC and the Primitive Baptists was that the former generally approved of what was then called “protracted meetings.” (You may be interested to know that most Primitive Baptists did not embrace hyper-Calvinism until their movement’s second generation. But that’s another story for another day.) Today we call protracted meetings “revivals,” and when I was growing up, most churches had at least one-and sometimes two-a year. But things are gradually changing.

I see fewer and fewer churches, particularly non-rural churches, holding old-fashioned revival services. Many churches still have multi-day “preaching meetings,” but the emphasis is no longer on mass evangelism. A growing number of churches have Bible Conferences, Family Conferences, and special niche conferences. The vocational evangelists among us understand this trend, and it makes them very nervous. The last five years has seen a well-orchestrated campaign on the part of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (and related state chapters) to try and convince Southern Baptists that old-fashioned revivals are still relevant and effective. The heroes of many conservative Southern Baptists of a previous generation were evangelists like Jess Hendley, Freddie Gage, Hyman Appleman, and Junior Hill (among many others). Today, a growing number of Southern Baptists have never heard a sermon from an evangelist-not once.

8. The Decline of Classical Dispensationalism and Keswick Holiness

Perhaps one reason that revival meetings are less popular than they once were is because the theology that is behind the revival culture is less dominant. During the 1950s and 1960s, most conservative Southern Baptists embraced dispensational theology, largely through the influence of W. A. Criswell, who was the first well-known and widely respected dispensational pastor in the SBC (J. Frank Norris was well-known, but not widely respected!). While I think it would be fair to say that a majority of our churches still hold to dispensational theology (at least it seems that way), a growing number of churches reject that schema. Furthermore, many younger dispensationalists have modified the system in some considerable ways, often dispensing with almost all of the older dispensationalism save a commitment to a pretribulational (or occasionally “mid-trib”) rapture. Dispensationalism, with its emphasis on the immanence of the rapture, lent a certain amount of urgency to evangelism-an urgency that fit neatly with regular revival meetings.

Closely tied to the older dispensationalism, at least among Southern Baptists, was a Keswick or “higher life” view of holiness. This understanding of holiness was popularized within the Convention by figures like Bertha Smith and Ron Dunn (among many others), was promulgated at regional conferences, and was embraced, to varying degrees, by many vocational evangelists and older megachurch pastors. Higher life theology, with its emphasis on the “Spirit-filled life,” radically affected how many conservative Southern Baptists understood sanctification and personal holiness. Yet it seems that this view of holiness is waning in favor of the older view of progressive sanctification as the fruit of justification. Concomitant with this trend is a return to a classic view of the perseverance or endurance of the saints (which is affirmed in the BF&M) versus the 20th century, Keswick-influenced doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” which too often opens the door to problems like antinomianism and cheap grace. I could also spend much more time here, but need to wrap this post up.

9. Changing Trends in Worship Music

Who hasn’t noticed this trend? Who doesn’t know a church that split because of this trend? Here’s the 30 second version of the back story. For the first three quarters of the 20th century Southern Baptist worship music was a mixture of pre-1800 Protestant hymnody (think Watts and Wesley), 19th and 20th century revivalistic gospel music (think Crosby and Gaither), and regional trends like the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony traditions (think “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”). Of course all of these are still present among us, but with some notable additions.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches embraced at least elements of the older “praise and worship” movement, a movement that was largely birthed by Charismatics and nurtured by Third Wave believers (think Maranatha and Vineyard). From the 1990s to the present, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced elements of the “modern worship” movement, a movement that is rock-driven and somewhat more theological than the older praise and worship music (think Chris Tomlin and David Crowder). In the last decade, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced the “modern hymnody” movement, a movement that is largely Reformed in its soteriology (think the Getty’s and Sovereign Grace). And of course there is some overlap between these movements. You can bet that these movements have influenced (and will continue to influence) our popular theology even as they’ve influenced (and will continue to influence) our worship services!

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.

For Future Generations

Over the past decade my passion to see people know Christ has pushed me repeatedly to the younger generation. Part of that stems from the simple truth that the overwhelming majority of people who become Christ followers do so under age 20. But it is also because the years I have spent studying, teaching about, and praying for spiritual awakening brings me again and again to the realization that God uses young adults often in a new work. We need the wisdom of the aged (hint: if you are aged, be wise, not just opinionated); we also need the zeal of youth (hint: excitement in a “youth group” is not enough in church, we need to focus the passion of students on things that matter).

For whatever reason, a love for students has led me to spend most of my speaking ministry to do events focused on young adults. And, the seminary I am so honored to serve has recognized this by making me professor of evangelism and student ministry, a combination that makes a lot of sense given this is the largest generation of youth in U.S. history (See Thom Rainer’s blog on the Millennials at http://www.thomrainer.com/2009/05/the-millennials-are-coming.php).

Over the past year I have been asked to speak about “reaching the coming generation” at conferences in churches from young church plants to First Baptist Jacksonville, Florida, to apologetics meetings, to several state Baptist convention meetings from Oklahoma to Georgia. I am certainly no expert at this, but I am interested in learning more. I believe the generation before us, the Millennials–those roughly mid-twenties and younger (roughly those born about 1982 or later), hold a great opportunity for a movement of God. And with that comes the real possibility that we could fail to see that happen. Many, including me, would submit we missed much of the work of God among students in the early 1970s and the Jesus Movement. Too many seemed more focused on the long hair and outward appearance of young people then than the hunger for God in their hearts. I met Christ then, and I want my children and their peers not to miss such a movement should it come again.

I recall in the early days of the Conservative Resurgence a time when we really did not know which direction the convention would head–toward a more unambiguous commitment to an inerrant Bible, or down a continuous slide in the path paved by mainline denominations. As a younger 20something I remember hearing men joke that if the convention split, they were going with the Annuity Board (which controlled their retirement funds). I have a pretty good sense of humor, but I honestly never thought that was funny. I thought then that we as a people were more obsessed with money over the gospel that the New Testament teaches. I still think that, by the way. Michelle and I decided that no matter how things turned out, we were going to stand on the Word of God without apology, and not be led by the opinions of man, or financial opportunity.

We would not side with the Annuity Board back then (no offense for the AB!). But today, we ARE going with the coming generation. I will stake my claim with those much, much younger than me. Much rhetoric today is given to generations. I am more interested in those still in high school and college than any other.

In the Scripture God often used a new generation to shake off the dust of distractions keeping His people from following Him. In particular one can see this when the institutions got in the way of God’s movement. In Samuel’s day when the priest Eli’s own sons were reprobate, Samuel heard God speak even as a lad. In David’s time, when the king himself cared more about self-preservation than true worship (I will resist the urge to make application), David as a youth killed a giant. He took a risk. I like people like that. I could talk about Josiah (when they actually had lost the Word of God in their time!), or Jeremiah, or Esther, or others. I could describe spiritual movements in history from Pietism to the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement. I could even give examples from culture at large of young adults risking much for a cause.

I fight daily with a temptation to coast, to dwell more on my legacy than on the gospel and the future. I love history and want to learn from the past. But I work to resist the urge to settle, to drift toward mediocrity, to become cautious, but it is hard given how blessed I am to serve in a convention that is extremely middle class in its constituency. Comfort is a wonderfully seductive enemy of the gospel.

So to help in keeping me focused on what matters I am giving my life for those yet to come into their own. I see such passion in students today and such hunger. These young adults long for a cause worth giving their life to more than a path of least resistance. It is amazing that being 50, a PhD, and a professor is actually an aid in communicating with this generation. They respect people who have actually done things for the glory of God. Ten years ago as I began speaking regularly to students being a seminary prof was more of a liability. Not now. This is a fatherless generation looking for more than a few jokes or pithy sayings from a young guy who has lived very little. They hunger for truth and want to get it from people who have labored in the Word of God and lived for Christ for some time. They want to learn from those who have sold out for what they believe in.

I am not sure what the future holds. But I know this, the call for a Great Commission Resurgence in my tradition (see greatcommissionresurgence.com) is nothing less than a call to embrace the future, to boldly step forward with a desire to do something that matters for Christ. A generation is coming. They are ready. Let us lead them well.