Tuesday, April 29, 2008

An OId (Dumb) Joke - That Makes a Point

St. Peter was showing a newcomer around heaven. They came to a big building with closed doors. Peter held his finger to his mouth and whispered, "Shhhh..."

When they had passed the building, Peter looked over at him. "Sorry, that's the Baptists in there. They think they are the only ones here, and we try to humor them."

Reading recent comments on Baptism makes me believe the spirit of that dumb joke is still alive in the SBC.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The SBC is in Decline

Predicting the future is always a difficult thing. But there seems to be ample evidence that the SBC is in decline. We have been essentially plateaued now for more than a decade. This last yearly report actually showed a decline in overall membership in the SBC.

A couple of observations:

1) Numbers cannot show the whole picture. This could be a one year thing, and there could be many reasons for the decline. If we are faithful to the gospel and people want to gather around themselves teachers who tell them what their "itching ears" want to hear, maybe we could point to the decrease as a sign of faithfulness. I suspect the reason is not so noble.

2) Everyone will blame the "other side" in the current fracas. The belligerent conservatives will blame Wade, Ben et al. They will probably blame those who don't support women in ministry. I am sure Ben will put the blame on Dr. Patterson. The CBF-types will blame the conservative resurgence. We will all be quick to pin the blame on someone else.

What we need to do is take a hard look at ourselves. True, numbers are easy to interpret any way you want, but this one is serious. We need to ask ourselves what is wrong.

There is a biblical principle that can be pretty easily demonstrated both in the OT (with Israel) and in the NT (with the church). When a people walk in obedience, they are blessed. When they are blessed, there is growth. The people of God under the blessing of God grow. Numerically. Read Acts. 3000. 5000. "The Lord added daily to their numbers those who were being saved."

Factor this in. We have been constant for about 10 to 15 years. Compare that to population growth and we have been in decline for 2 decades.

Why? I have a few observations - which may make a few of my friends angry. But, they are my observations.

1) One obvious reason for some part of this decline is, in fact, the conservative resurgence, which I supported. Quite a few churches left our denomination. That's a percentage of the numbers. Frankly, I'm okay with that. If we lose people and churches who want our denomination not to believe in and enforce inerrancy, I think that's a good thing. If we go the other way, I will be a former Southern Baptist myself.

It is also possible that the conservative resurgence, which I believe was a good thing, is not producing fruit because it has lost its way and gone in the wrong direction.

2) There is a cultural aspect to this. In the cities I have lived in the last 17 years, the "big" churches have been of two kinds. First, there are the charismatic churches. Second, there are the seeker churches. They build big churches, but I do not want to follow their model. They grow big churches, not great Christians (in my humble but correct opinion.)

Unfortunately, Southern Baptists have followed these trends and many of our churches are just like those churches (usually without the tongues). that is a mistake.

But there are other, less noble reasons.

3) An emphasis on Baptist traditions over scripture. My son, now a student at Liberty and a dynamic, growing Christian, went through a time of deep doubt. One of the reasons is that he began to study his Bible and realized that a lot of the rules he had grown up with were not based on the scriptures but on Baptist tradition and legalism. He began to wonder if all of it was the same.

Young people today want something more than legalistic rules and Baptist tradition. If they are going to be won, it will be by genuine Christianity in action. Biblical Christianity, not Baptist Tradition, will win people to Christ.

4) Virulent Calvinism. Caveat: I am calvinistic and I think it is important to have a correct theology that honors the sovereignty of God. I believe in God's sovereignty in salvation and that belief informs my practices and preaching. I reject much of the "reformed" system (eschatology, some of their sanctification teachings, etc) But I believe that salvation starts in the heart of God not the will of man. But the promises of the more passionate Calvinists have largely fallen flat in reality - at least in my experience. There is a virulent form of Calvinism that has been often in evidence in my state. Dr. Mohler once said that he knew of men who would "walk across the state to discuss one of the 5 points of Calvinism, but will not walk across the street to tell someone about Jesus." There are calvinists in Iowa doing a good job, but some have had what I think is a wrong emphasis.

I have seen a number of men come to Iowa whose goal seems to be more to proclaim Calvinist doctrine and reformed practice than it is to proclaim the gospel or obey the Great Commission.

I have also seen their churches dwindle and die - every time (so far). I know of no "virulent Calvinist" who has built a church in Iowa (I know, I know - through whom the Sovereign Lord has built a church.) I have seen them often use the doctrines of calvinism as a screen to hide behind when their churches fail. I suspect though that the failure has been the servant, not the sovereign Lord.

When the Calvinist movement started in the SBC, I was excited. I listened to the promises of the Calvinists that restoring sound doctrine would bring the blessing of God. They told me how much better things would be as Calvinism surged back to prominence. My experience has been the opposite. I have yet to see a church here that focused on Calvinism grow. Some have died completely. Others have dwindled. Others have struggled.

I don't think the problem is the doctrine of God's sovereignty in salvation, but the way it is preached, the unbalanced presentation, and the over-emphasis on the doctrines.

Track the nationwide spread of virulent Calvinism, and it coincides pretty neatly with the plateauing of growth.

5) Dr. Stetzer, in his article sharing this research, theorized that one of the reasons for the problem was the bickering and conflict in the SBC, especially among bloggers.

Read the SBC blogs. You will see an almost generic inability to discuss a disagreement with someone in a decent, collegial manner. There are exceptions to the rule, and we all get cranky and say something over the top sometimes. But many bloggers seem to rejoice in calling names and declaring the other side as wrong.

As you can read in my previous posts, and some of my comments on other blogs, I despair of the future of the SBC if the current crop of bloggers represent us. There is a deep disdain for Baptist distinctives among some and an enthusiasm for condemnation among others.

A lost world reading the SBC blogosphere would wonder, why on earth would I want to be a part of that mess?

Time will tell about the future of the SBC. But, my solution is simple. Let's accept our orders and lay all the other stuff aside. Let's proclaim the gospel and teach everyone to obey everything God commanded them. The Great Commission - what an innovative concept.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dissent, the Holy Spirit, and the SBC

The flash point for the current debate in the SBC was Wade Burleson's refusal to support the actions of the IMB Board of Trustees as they imposed guidelines about private prayer language and baptism on the selection process.

First, let me make it clear - I have no firsthand knowledge of what happened. Wade maintains that he always behaved respectfully and openly, while dissenting from, disagreeing with and opposing the actions of the BoT. Certain members of the BoT are just as clear that he was undermining the work of the IMB with his incessant criticisms. Since I wasn't there, any opinion I give about what happened would be an uneducated opinion, probably informed more by my disagreement with the BoT than any knowledge of the facts.

But in response to Wade's criticisms, the Board enacted a strong anti-dissent policy. If you don't tow the party line and support the decisions of the Board, they will punish you.

I don't know exactly how far dissent should be carried in a Christian organization. It is not the purpose of this blog to explore that issue.

My point is this: the stifling of dissent and disagreement is an unfortunate tendency born out of fear and a failure to understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church. Christian leaders who use their power to stifle dissent have an inadequate faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Those who stifle dissent are more concerned with enacting their own will than the will of God. If they were seeking God's will, dissent would be permitted, even encouraged.

When my church is trying to make a decision, I go to great lengths to give every member the chance to express their convictions and their sense of God's will. I encourage people to disagree. It is amazing how often in scripture that the one is right and the many are wrong.

As we discuss, study, pray and seek the mind of Christ, God will usually lead us to a place of consensus about His will and the direction we should go. It sometimes is in line with my will, sometimes not. We do it by listening to each believer and allowing them to express their point of view.

If I believe that the church should do something, I put it out there for discussion and prayer, either in the leadership group or the body as a whole. There are two possibilities. First, what I am thinking might not be God's will (or the timing might be wrong). In that case, do I really want to get my will done if it is not the Father's?

There is another possibility. Maybe I am really acting in accord with the will of God. That is where the Holy Spirit comes in. If I am right, then the Holy Spirit will convince the Body of Christ. I don't have to pressure, or cajol, or strong-arm people. Nor do I have to limit dissent. I just have to seek the will of God and let the Spirit do the convincing.

It works. In my last church, I brought something up that was weighing strongly on my heart. It got shot down in a chorus of negativity. I could have probably pushed it through by demanding that people submit to my leadership as pastor, but I had learned this principle. So, I waited. About 5 or 6 months later, I brought it up again. The church supported it unanimously and enthusiastically. What changed in 6 months? The Spirit had done his work.

Those who stifle debate do not understand the Holy Spirit. If what we are doing is right, God is our ally and will convince, convict and motivate. If I have to pressure people, stifle dissent and enforce pastoral authority to get something done, am I really doing God's will?

When I came to my current church, it was recovering from a horrible split that happened because strong-willed people (on both sides) tried to conform others to their will - a power struggle. In my first year, we faced a terribly difficult decision on which the church was divided and passions were strong (should we continue AWANA or change to another children's ministry.)

I had my opinions, but I never tried to enfore them. I just tried to help the people figure out how to find God's will without fighting. We had a forceful discussion. We prayed, sought God, taught the Word about resolving disputes and finally, took a vote.

Two amazing things happened. First, the church decided to do what I thought was right and best. But I did not have to fight or force people to conform to my opinions. God did it. Second, after we made the decision, with all the passion and emotion attached, people stood around and fellowshiped - people who had just forcefully argued and disagreed. Everyone had their say and when the church voted, they consented to the decision even if they did not agree.

In all of that, we did not lose a family and no relationships in the church were broken. The key was this: we sought to practice the Lordship of Christ and leading of the Spirit over decisions of the church. It worked! The people who lost the vote at least knew that the church had listened to them and considered their view. They were not made to feel like they were wicked because they did not agree with the direction of the majority. I saw more true Christian behavior after that decision than I have ever seen in church business. Win or lose, they behaved like Christians.

The Bible makes it clear. Jesus is the head of the church - not the pastor, the deacons, the elders or even the people. Jesus is the Boss. The church that seeks to practice the Lordship of Christ will prosper, even through disagreement.

And when that process takes place, there is no need to stifle dissent.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Art of Misdirection

Several bloggers recently have taken to attacking the so-called reform movement by using misdirection, even dishonesty. One, a blogger used the "duck" argument. If it quacks like a duck it must be a duck. Anyone who did not see the world through his dark (and distorted) lens must be a liberal.

Another man made this statement at the beginning of a series about the SBC. He began it by saying, "I will begin posting a series on how the SBC can move forward now that the reform movement has proven that it is nothing more than an new approach to old liberal ideas."

Rather than dealing with the issues involved in the reform movement, he takes the easy way out. He cries "liberal." It is a dishonest statement. He knows it is not true, yet he says it anyway. Many of us who want reform have interacted with him. Yet he stills says our opinions are "nothing more" than an attempt to reintroduce liberal ideas into the SBC.

The reform movment in the SBC is really not even a movement. It is a number of people like myself who think that a few leaders in the SBC have too much personal power and think some of the restrictive policies being implemented by the IMB were a mistake. There are some in the movement who have grown angry and bitter (often because of the attacks of men like those two I mentioned above who have relentlessly called them liberal and other untrue names). Ben Cole has leveled a despicable series of personal character attacks on Dr. Patterson that I believe please our enemy more than our Lord. Several moderate, CBF-types have blogged on Outpost and Wade Burleson's site. And those sites have been pretty one-sided in their attacks on the SBC and its leaders.

I get the impression that Wade, Ben, et al are probably willing to open the doors of fellowship a little farther than I want to open them. Wade certainly has taken on a crusade for women in ministry. But to call them liberal is ridiculous and inaccurate.

But there is a large group of people who have made it very clear that we support the SBC, the conservative resurgance in the SBC and are solid, inerrantist, evangelist, flag-waving, hymn-singing, CP-giving, hand-over-our-hearts conservative Southern Baptists. We just think that Tom Hatley was wrong and that Paige Patterson has made some mistakes. We don't want to undo the CR. We just think it needs some tweaking.

But to this blogger, we are all secret servants of liberalism - wolves in sheeps clothing. He writes a series trying to spur discussion on the future of the SBC. Yet he begins the series with dishonest slander.

If you love the SBC, you need to engage in discussion, not caricature and derogation.