Movements LifeCycle

Why the Southern Baptists are doing ok

Recently I compared the demise of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) with the continued vitality of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Demographics play their part, but in the end, movements make their history depending on their core identity. The PCUSA has chosen decline and decay, the Southern Baptists have chosen differently. Here are five elements I can observe (from a distance) that characterize the SBC: 

1. The authority of Scripture

If there’s one thing that distinguishes Southern Baptists from the Protestant mainline, it’s their belief in the authority of the Bible. Now belief must be backed up by obedience, but there is no hope for a movement that won't come under the authority of Scripture. 

Movements are born and renewed by the Word and Spirit.

2. The primary missionary task

At the heart of the SBC's mission is the spread of the gospel, the making of disciples, and the multiplication of churches. This is the reason for their existence. They may not always live up to it, but the Great Commission is central to their identity.

3. The independence of the local church

The SBC is a Convention of independent churches, not a centrally governed denomination. Every movement institutionalizes. But it’s a lot harder to institutionalize if the local church owns the property, governs and finances itself, and has the authority and responsibility to plant new churches and send out missionaries. Centralize those activities and your future is bureaucracy and decline.

4. The priesthood of every believer

A professional clergy class is the end of any dynamic movement. The Southern Baptists have a long history of empowering ordinary people to share the gospel, make disciples and plant churches. Their explosive growth on the US frontier was achieved long before they built their first seminary. Again, they may not always live up to the ideal, but it’s who they are and a key to their future.

5. Descendants that can't be counted

Historian, Philip Jenkins wrote an article on how Baptists are being left behind other Protestant traditions in the explosive growth of the church in the developing world. He's wrong.

Baptists differ from virtually all other Christian traditions in that newer churches are nowhere near matching or overtaking their northern world counterparts.
— Philip Jenkins

What he doesn’t know is SBC missionaries don’t plant SBC churches, they plant churches. Those churches will share the same convictions outlined above. But they are indigenous churches. The churches don’t belong to the SBC. Now they are becoming partners in fulfilling the Great Commission.

For a generation, SBC missionaries have been at the forefront of pioneering church planting movements around the world. Now many former SBC missionaries are leading the way in a host of other mission agencies that are catalysts for indigenous church planting movements.

The SBC has children and grandchildren all over the world, we just can't name or count them.

The PC USA and the SBC — Two histories, two futures

 Baptism: PC USA & SBC

Baptism: PC USA & SBC

The Presbyterian Church (USA)  has released a new hymn for its 223rd General Assembly meeting in St Louis, Missouri this week (June 16-23). The hymn is entitled “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider.” But statistics released ahead of the gathering reveal a denomination struggling to retain it’s aging, mostly white (91%), membership.

In 2017 the PCUSA lost 67,714 members and a net 147 congregations.

2017 was not an aberration, but a continuation of long-term decline that dates back to the 1960s and shows no sign of change. 

Issues to be discussed at the Assembly include:

  • Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament
  • A call to the denomination to divest from investing in the fossil-fuel industry
  • The creation of an Advocacy Committee for LGBTQ+ Concerns
  • A number of anti-Israeli measures

In Dallas last week the Southern Baptists held their annual Convention amidst some controversy and some signs of decline. Membership was down for the 11th year in a row. Baptisms were down.

But Southern Baptist were still baptized a quarter of a million people in 2017. The number of SBC churches grew for the 19th year. More important than the membership, weekly attendance grew from 5.20 million to 5.32 million in 2017. Congregations gave over $1 billion to missions.

Compared to the PCUSA the Southern Baptists are doing ok. The question is Why?

A few thoughts before I fly home

Response_infographic.jpg

I’m in Manchester for the Launch Europe event. My last engagement before flying out of London for Melbourne. I'm heading home after three years in Britain. Apologies to the readers of this blog and listeners to the podcast. With the move back home, a string of commitments and work on a new book, I’ve had to cut back on the blog and podcast.

I’ve been prompted to dive back in after news, as expected, that Australians have voted in favor of same-sex marriage. I’m not a cultural warrior. I’m not focused on saving Western civilization. My concern is the spread of the gospel, multiplying disciples and churches.

The world will do what the world does. And face the consequences. The great tragedy of this vote is how easily church leaders and ordinary believers forsake (or remain silent about) the clear teaching of the Scriptures.

The Anglican church in England has a leader who can’t say publicly whether same-sex sexual relations are right or wrong. He has endorsed a new transgender policy in Anglican schools. He has awarded an LGBT activist with the Thomas Cranmer Award for Worship. Cranmer was burnt at the stake rather than surrender his commitment to God’s Word.

These are not matters where we can agree to disagree. The teaching of Scripture is clear. Jesus was clear — you can choose to build your house on rock or sand. But you can't choose the consequences.

There is only one true church and that church is under the authority of God’s living Word and the Holy Spirit. The only way out of this morass is to return to being governed by the Word and the Spirit. It’s not easy in this cultural climate, but God gives grace for what he expects us to do. That’s the example Jesus set. He obeyed the Father regardless of the cost.

Any movement, church, individual believer, denomination, Christian organization that steps away from the safety and blessing of obedience, will face God’s redemptive judgment. He will defend his Word. He loves us that much.

Theology Matters

 Katharine Jefferts Schori

Katharine Jefferts Schori

Why do progressive/liberal/mainline churches decline?

For years academics and church officials have denied that decline has anything to do with beliefs. Decline resulted from external factors, not internal factors.

Former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, claimed that since Episcopalians were better-educated and cared for the earth, they had lower birth rates than other Christians.

Recently a Canadian study has concluded that theology does matter.

The authors of Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy surveyed 2,225 churchgoers in Ontario, Canada, and conducted interviews with 29 clergy and 195 congregants.

Some of the results:

  • Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”, compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.
  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches. 
  • 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches. 
  • 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb”. This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches. 
  • 100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers”, compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.

About two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, whereas two-thirds of congregations at declining churches were over 60.

Why study the decline of the Protestant mainline? We watch and learn, or their future will become ours.

The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom

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Every generation has to rediscover the power of the gospel. Movements that become fuzzy about the gospel deny their reason for existence. Their decline is followed by decay.

That’s why you should read Simon Gathercole’s excellent article on The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

via Justin Taylor.

InterVarsity did the right thing

Scripture is very clear that God’s intention for sexual expression is to be between a husband and wife in marriage. Every other sexual practice is outside of God’s plan and therefore is a distortion of God’s loving design for humanity.

InterVarsity

InterVarsity has made clear its position on marriage and sexuality. This is a rare thing, many Christian organisations, leaders and churches would rather duck the issue.

We live in strange times when it’s news that a Christian organisation believes what Christians have universally taught on sexuality for 2,000 years.

The Atlantic warns:

Organizations like InterVarsity are not infrequently torn between older, conservative donors and powerbrokers, and the younger donors and activists who hold the key to their future.

If public-opinion polls are any indication, a polarizing position like this may sharply limit the field of future supporters. 

If that’s the case the mainline churches must be bulging with a surplus of young activists and donors. Instead they’re in an unending spiral of decline and decay.

This is the lesson of history — move away from Biblical orthodoxy and you’re finished as a movement. There is no other pattern.

Fools for Christ vs the Gospel of human flourishing

 Andrew Walker

Andrew Walker

God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools…and He has not been disappointed. Devout Christians are destined to be regarded as fools in modern society. We are fools for Christ’s sake. We must pray for courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world. If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.

I want Christianity to influence culture as much as anyone. I want families intact. I love that the explosion of Christianity led to a revolution in human dignity; in hospitals and university. I want a renaissance of high culture that produces aesthetic wonders emanating from Christianity.

But if influence reduces merely to terms of human flourishing and the Common Good, we are not preaching the gospel. A flourishing culture that likes the trappings and benefits of Christianity, but not its kernel, isn’t biblical Christianity. A true gospel will be met with resistance because it overturns the accepted patterns of the world. New Testament Christianity assumes that a follower of Christ is well acquainted with scorn (2 Tim. 3:12).

Andrew Walker