Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Refocusing on the Local Church in SBC Life

Less than a week away (June 14-15) the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) will hold another annual meeting.  The only denomination I have ever been a part of is the SBC and I am simultaneously grateful to be a Southern Baptist while also hopeful for the future of our denomination. The Lord has done great things for the glory of His name through Southern Baptists in the 171 years of our existence, but I think we are reaching a critical point in our history in which we need to check our focus.

Over the last several years I have felt a burden for the local church and over the last several months this burden has only intensified. As we enter into another year for the SBC, I cannot help but say to any who will listen that we must return our focus to the local church if we want to see Kingdom success as a denomination. And no, I don't mean our kingdom, but Christ's

In all the hubbub about what needs to happen in the SBC the one glaring thing I don't see is a real focus on the local church. No Southern Baptist is actually vocally dismissing the importance or necessity of the local church, and yet, clarion calls about the IMB, Spiritual Awakening in America, and increased evangelistic efforts either assume a foundational understanding of the priority of the local church in SBC life or willfully ignore it. My point is, the SBC will never be a healthy denomination if our local churches are not healthy. The commonly addressed issues mentioned above, are simply 'fruit issues'. In other words, they stem from an overall 'unhealthiness' in many Southern Baptist churches.

Let me illustrate with a few thoughts:

The Cooperative Program:

I don't have a problem with the ideology of the Cooperative Program (CP). I'll speak more on that in just a minute. But first, let me say this: For some reason the CP and the SBC have become synonymous. Every year when a name is nominated for the President of the SBC the CP numbers always come out. What percentage are they giving to the CP? But my question is this: What about CP giving qualifies a man to play such a vital role in our denomination? Why is that the standard for church health? Surely we are not so foolish to think that just because a church is giving a big portion of money to the CP that they are a de facto bastion of health. 

Furthermore, while I do agree with the ideology behind the CP, we must always be willing to assess what CP money is going toward and whether or not we are being good stewards of the Lord's money. Another issue, of course, is that the CP is removed from the local church by several steps in two main ways. First, many see a check to the CP as the extent of their mission involvement. "I don't know where my money is going, but our church is giving to the CP, so I am missional." This takes away from the personal involvement in missions that the local church must have. Secondly, how CP dollars are spent is not really in the hands of the local church. I don't have a solution for this problem necessarily, but I do offer the thought that the further removed an organization gets from the local church, the messier things always are because of the lack of biblical oversight and authority involved. What I am saying is, try as it may, a parachurch organization, board, committee, etc. will never be a local church. I do not think these things are 'sinful'. But I do think Christ's design for reaching the Nations is through the local church. Yes, local churches need to work together. We see this plainly in the New Testament! But we can't work together in such a way that diminishes the local church, or we begin to destroy the very foundation of Christ's mission for the Nations. 

Every year we hear a call to Southern Baptists nationally and on the State level, to increase our CP giving. My issue is not with that as much as it is with the lack of focus on the local church. Not that anyone is actually thinking this (or maybe some are?) but it comes across as "Look, the one thing that really needs to change is for churches to give more to missions." What I am saying is that the issue is deeper than that. The issue is that we need to see healthy local churches. Healthy local churches will give toward gospel need. We see the churches of Macedonia gave even in the midst of poverty and trial (2 Cor. 8:1-2)! And we need to also understand, that a healthy local church may not necessarily give a big portion to the CP, and this isn't something we should frown upon! Yes, the CP has been a beautiful thing and still can be, but our goal is not the CP. Our goal is to make disciples of the Nations.

So, if CP giving is not necessarily an indicator of church health, what is? (let me commend to you Jared Wilson's post on 5 Distinguishing Marks of a Fruitful Church) I'm glad you asked! This leads me to my second thought:


Jim Elliff has written a helpful article entitled Southern Baptists: An Unregenerate Denomination. I encourage you to read it.

That I am aware of, I cannot think of a single time in recent history when the % of attenders to church rolls has been brought up for anyone running for SBC President. (Instead, the CP giving is always the focus - see above). If I am not mistaken, I think the average membership rolls to actual attendance ratio is 3 to 1 or worse in SBC churches. So, if 80 people attend on a Sunday, that would mean 240 people are on the roll. 1,000 would be 3,000, and so on. 

Where are the rest of the people?

I saw that both Steve Gaines and J.D. Greear posted videos about some of their concerns about the SBC. While I appreciated some of what was said, neither one (that I am aware of) addressed the issue of a healthy church membership emphasis across the SBC.

In his video on 'Awakening', Dr. Gaines lamented that ‘We’ve lost about a half a million people in just the last few years in our membership’ (1:01 mark). I actually think we need to lose more. If we only have 6 million people showing up on Sundays, then we should only have that or less on our church rolls. That would mean we need to lose about 10,000,000 people! Obviously, it is my hope that reconciliation would happen with many of those people, but the point remains, if we are going to care about the lost, then it is vital that we care about a regenerate church. 

It's hard enough for Christians to pull together and get on the same page at times, let alone if you mix in non-Christians! We talk about needing an awakening in our country, and I agree, but what we really need is an awakening in our churches. Why would we suppose God would send another spiritual awakening in our Nation if we are unconcerned about what His Word says for the church? If we neglect discipleship, discipline, faithful preaching, care for the Body, the ordinances, fellowship, worship, regular assembling, etc?

What I am saying is, that church membership is a big indicator as to the health of a church. It's not the only indicator or even an infallible indicator, but it still says something about a church if a big percentage is listed on the roll but never actually attends. 

I've actually talked with pastors who basically think the idea of '100%' on the rolls are accounted for on Sundays is undoable. I think this is because we've let Western 'church culture' drive our expectations rather than Scripture.

If local churches are healthy, our denomination will be healthy. If SBC churches across the board put 'Baptist Back in their Church' (let the reader understand), we will see an improvement in evangelistic and missional efforts. As crazy as it may sound, in order to grow the SBC first needs to shrink.
Practical Denial of the Sufficiency of Scripture

Perhaps this is the root of several of the issues in which our denomination is in need of reformation. A few decades ago we won the battle over the inerrancy of the Bible. Today's battle seems to be over its sufficiency. While the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists that I'm aware of unequivocally hold to the inerrancy of the Bible in the mind, it doesn't always translate into practice. Many people in the pews are struggling with biblical literacy. Simply put, we as Southern Baptists need to read, study, pray through, and meditate on Scripture more than we are. Just like our denomination fought the battle on inerrancy, we need to fight the battle over the practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. (see more here)

This is not a new problem. The inerrancy, necessity, authority, clarity, and sufficiency of the Word of God has been challenged every day since Genesis 3. In Eden the crafty Serpent challenged the Word of God on multiple levels, certainly one of those being its sufficiency. Satan used Eve’s experience of seeing that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was good for food to get her to deny what Yahweh had decreed. Chapter after chapter of the Old Testament records people who denied the sufficiency of God’s Word. In Numbers 11 the people of Israel trusted in the things they were hearing from the rabble, and what they felt in their stomachs, rather than in what God had promised to them; that He would do good to His people, they only needed to trust Him. Of course, there are numerous other examples as well. Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon (and the list could go on and on!) all have examples from their lives where they trusted their experiences over and above what God’s Word promised. In the New Testament, one of Jesus’ favorite ways to dialogue with the Pharisees was by asking “Have you not read?”. The New Testament authors labored to show us the sufficiency of God’s Word for God’s people. It should not come as a surprise that we are still fighting this war today. What is a surprise is the fact that so many of us don’t recognize the war in which we are engaged.

I wonder sometimes if Sunday School curriculum comes into play here. I don't have a problem with curriculum per se. What I do have a problem with is reading and discussing thoughts about Scripture instead of reading and discussing Scripture itself. 

Doctrine is something that must be cherished, articulated, and defended in our churches. Without a robust commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, we may uphold sound doctrine in our minds, but it will not translate into the life of a local church in some (many?) areas. Thus, for example, the problem we are seeing with membership. We hear many calls for 'revival' but in a great number of SBC churches we are unwilling to actually do what the Bible tells us to do because it feels 'out dated' or we have found something else that 'works better.' Perish the thought that God gave us His word as mere suggestion! It is not optional to our existence.

In conclusion, it is my hope for a fruitful meeting this year in St. Louis. My prayer is that God will continue to raise up leaders of influence in our denomination of churches who will emphasize the need for healthier churches. So much more could have been said, and perhaps needs to be said, but I hope you see the spirit of this post. It is not to bash our denomination but to call us to reexamine some of our priorities and see the need of returning to the local church.

Let me invite you to Perryville, AR on August 27, 2016 as we host a one-day free conference on Why the Local Church Still Matters. We have a great group of men speaking! Click here to see more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment