It's not my desire to be controversial just for the sake of controversy. I don't want to belittle anyone who thinks differently on this issue than I do. But, I do have some pretty strong convictions about this and I am convinced that they are rooted in Scripture. I've debated myself about posting this, but it is my desire to keep this conversation going. And it is my hope, that one day we will see a change in our current strategy.
The recent numbers coming in on lostness in Arkansas aren't good. The above graphic shows that nearly half the people in the state are not claimed by any religious groups in Arkansas. These religious groups include non-Christian groups, so adding up the total percentage of non-Christians in the state of Arkansas would seemingly go well beyond 50%. And here we are right in the Bible Belt of America. Something needs to change.
Recently I attended our Arkansas Baptist State Convention's annual meeting. There were several things about the meeting for which I was encouraged. There were also a few things for which I was discouraged, particularly so when it comes to our strategy as a whole in reaching the lost in Arkansas.
One of the messages I was able to listen to had a few excerpts that I am particularly baffled by and hope to offer some helpful alternatives. But before I do, I want to list a few things for which I am very thankful for concerning the Arkansas Baptist State Convention:
1. We care about lost people. The charts and stats and figures and strategies exist because we have people in our churches and convention who care about lost people.
2. We are intentional about diversity. We've recognized the problem of 'white only' churches and have been intentional about reaching people not like us.
3. We have been more focused on prayer. The last several years prayer has been an emphasis in our state.
I can truly say that I am happy to be a part of the ABSC and that our church joyfully contributes to the cooperative program. With that being said, it doesn't mean that I don't have a few concerns. Concerns that I do, in fact, consider significant.
I'm just a young guy with not much to offer. I don't have a seminary degree and I have never planted a church. So, if you read this and dismiss what I'm saying I can actually totally understand. Thanks for making it this far. But, honestly, it's really my hope that you'll think through this biblically (and even historically as far as God's great revival movements in the past). And if someone else more qualified comes along to lead in the changes I'm suggesting, praise God.
Here are a few statements that I find problematic in our current effort to reach the lost in our State:
- “Unchurched people tend to get in church with their own kind.”
- “We are being incredibly strategic in starting churches for different types of folks.”
- “Please don’t criticize your pastor for wearing jeans to try and reach millennials.”
Now, let me state upfront that I do think we have a problem in many churches. And the problem is that we are affinity-based - meaning that we are basically white, middle-class 1970s era Southern Baptist churches. I am grateful that we are looking at this and addressing it for what it is: a problem (when a church is not accurately reflecting it's community's demographics).
With that being said, I cannot, by conviction, get on board with a strategy of 'starting churches for different types of folks.' There really is only one 'type of folk' and that is sinners in need of reconciliation with God through the finished work of Christ. Unfortunately, we have bought into the ideas as Southern Baptists that the best strategy for reaching lost people is to tailor existing churches and to strategically create new types of churches toward certain demographics so that the 'unchurched' (not a fan of that term, more here) will walk through the door.
But let me remind us that we don't see this sort of strategy in the New Testament at all. Not. At. All. We are never instructed to make our churches more comfortable for lost people so that they will come into a service and get saved. Instead, the theme of evangelism in the New Testament is that Believers would get out of their comfort zones and go to lost people with the message of the gospel. I know, I know, Paul said "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). But he did not say he tailor-made churches for different kinds of people. Rather, his point is that he was willing to go to great lengths in order to see people come to Christ. Instead of this passage giving us an excuse to create affinity churches, it actually should convict and embolden us to have our existing churches strive to reach people with the gospel! As Spurgeon said regarding this passage:
"Churches that do not care for outsiders quickly suffer from disunity and strife. What unites a church completley is the calling out of all its forces for accomplishing the Redeemer's grand objective. This passion for saving souls not only employs but also draws forth the strength of the church."You see, if our strategy for reaching those not like us is "let's plant a church for those type of people" we actually fail to carry out the spirit of 1 Cor. 9:22 and miss a tremendous blessing in the church. But, the response to this usually goes like this: "Yeah, but there are people out there in our State who won't ever come into a church like yours." If that's the case, there are only two possibilities:
1.) The church 'like mine' isn't a healthy church or
2.) The person refusing to come isn't a true Christian.
How can we know this? Because true believers long to gather with other believers in the church (1 John 3:14, Hebrews 10:25, Philippians 2:1-11, etc).
You see, the strategy cannot be 'since our existing churches are affinity-based, let's just make more affinity based churches' (i.e., Cowboy, Biker, Outdoorsmen, etc.). Why? Because this flies in the face of another sermon I heard at the meeting which highlighted Ephesians 2:14: For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility...
In other words, one of the most beautiful pictures of the gospel at work in the hearts of people is unity where there was once division. When the man in his suit and tie and the younger man in his jeans and tattoos worship our Triune God side by side, it is a testimony to the power of the gospel. In fact, Jesus said the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35).
So, what is this 'bold strategy' I offer us to consider going forward? It is simply this: Go and make disciples by preaching and teaching the gospel and its implications.
I admit that I just plagiarized the greatest church planter to ever walk this earth, namely Jesus of Nazareth. But all joking aside, we are foolish at best, and rebellious at worst, if we trust in any other strategy. Paul said that he was not ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16). Why? Because it is the power of God for salvation! That's right. The gospel is the power of God. In other words, when we come up with plans and strategies and techniques that involve reaching people with the gospel and something else, we have shown our lack of trust in the sufficiency of the gospel message to save all sinners.
In fact, the message I referenced earlier was from John 6 and toward the end, it was stated “The [young boy] only had 2 fish sandwiches and a brown paper bag. And he’s the hero of the story.” Not to nitpick here, but that's not entirely accurate is it? No, I'm not talking about the brown paper bag part. I'm talking about the hero part. The hero of the story in John 6 is Jesus. And the feeding of earthly food actually served to show that that's all the vast majority of the crowd was really after. The Bread of Life stood before them and all they wanted was their belly to quit grumbling. That's why Jesus goes on to say in v.63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
Because the hero of reaching our state with the gospel is Jesus. And we can build churches, and we can have the greatest of programs, and we can attract a mass number of people. But it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. It is the power of God in the gospel message, the message of what Christ has done for us, that brings sinners from death to life. If Jesus is the hero, aren't we best served by actually listening to and trusting in what He and His Apostles have told us about reaching lost people? We don't merely need the right 'message' but also the right method. It's possible to actually corrupt our message when we use the wrong method. For example, to say we trust in the power of the gospel, but instead of actually trusting in its sufficiency alone, we also build churches that only certain groups of people will come to, we actually undermine what we are telling people about the gospel.
I think the gospel can change a drunkard. I think it can change a homosexual. I think it can change a gossip. And I think it can change someone who doesn't want to attend church.
The strategy of starting new churches in Scripture was not to go build churches for various groups of people. Rather, it was to go preach the gospel and as people were saved they would gather and organize into local churches from all walks of life: Jews, Gentiles, Jailers, Rich People, Poor People, Young People, Old People, etc.
I know it sounds crazy (and maybe even a little simplistic) to just say 'go preach the gospel' but I really believe that's the answer. God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). It's foolish to think that we can reach over 1.5 million people in our state just by going out and telling them the message of Christ, but I'm in! Let's mobilize our churches to reach people in the places that God has Sovereignly put them as we scatter all over the state of Arkansas every week.
In fact, it was also highlighted yesterday that “the underground churches in Africa and China don’t have the resources we do and are seeing sweeping revival” (Paraphrased). We might really be on to something here. You see, we think in church planting that we need money and facilities. Then how is God doing these great works in other places without those things? Because people are sharing the gospel as they go throughout their day with people that God brings into their life. Maybe what we need is just the gospel message. Maybe it really is enough. Maybe it's not pie in the sky to think that cowboys, bikers, millennials, and business folks can all worship in the same local church together under the banner of Christ. Maybe that's what makes the gospel shine most beautifully. And maybe that's what we are missing most right now in our State.
Now, this also means there is still work to be done in our existing churches, doesn't it? I'm thankful for the leadership making it clear that there are things that do need to change in our existing churches. However, I don't think that the pastor wearing skinny jeans is the answer (the exact quote was: “Please don’t criticize your pastor for wearing jeans to try and reach millennials"). Millennials will not be reached with jeans or suits or anything actually- other than the gospel. So our existing churches have to realize this. They have to realize that their strategy for reaching the lost isn't 'come and see' but 'go and tell.' I'm not against changing dress code, changing service times, or changing music styles, as long as we understand that none of those things reach people. None of them. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
We also must acknowledge this for existing churches: The 3 to 1 ratio members to attendees has to end. In Arkansas there are 152,000 people in ABSC churches every Sunday while over 500,000 on our the membership rolls of our churches. One way to effectively revitalize our churches is by going through the process of church discipline and having accurate rolls. Perhaps in doing that we will see some of these 'unchurched people' come to true faith and repentance.
Furthermore, existing churches must also realize this truth: reaching lost people is a messy business. As newly converted people attend your church they may not look, think, and act exactly like everyone else. Some of that may be sin issues that the Lord is continuing to work on. But some of that might be cultural issues that need to be embraced and welcomed as we seek to express Christian unity in the midst of cultural diversity. We don't have to have the same pastimes to be in the same local church together. And is there a greater cultural divide to serve as an illustration other than Jews and Gentiles? And yet, they could worship in the same local church together. How? Christ. The gospel really is that powerful.
So, what might this look like practically in our state? Here are just a few brief suggestions. I hope others can help build on these according to Scripture.
1. Stop planting affinity based churches immediately. No more cowboy or biker church.
2. In places with unreached culture groups help existing churches to reach those people. Whether, Hispanic, African American, or some of these affinities we've discussed already like outdoorsmen, bikers, and cowboys (etc.)
3. Seek to aid in reforming churches according to Scripture so that prejudice toward any group may be eliminated.
4. Be sold out on the power of the gospel. That no matter what, it is the Spirit who gives life and He does so through the proclamation of the life, death, burial, resurrection, and lordship of Christ.
I do admit that this is a heavy issue and one in which we must seek to think through together. I know I don't have all the answers. But I am truly convinced that this current strategy will not, in the end, be successful in terms of Christ's mission for the church. I hope that you will take what I've said in that light. I'm not trying to bash or belittle anyone. I'm just trying to get us to continue to think through this. I want us to talk about this more. I want us to perhaps even have a roundtable discussion on the issue. I want us to work together. More than anything, I want to see God glorified in the salvation of sinners.
Soli Deo Gloria
(I've written about this more in the past. Here are other posts:
- Please Stop Supporting Affinity Churches: A Call to Behold the Glory of Biblically Healthy Churches
- 10 Reasons to Reconsider the 'Affinity Based' Model of Church Planting
- Why the Way Forward is Backward
- Top Ten Reasons Why People Don't Go to Church
- Another Reason to Go to Church
- New Fish, New Bait?