Aspect 4(a): A Mission Focused on This Nation (Confront the Brutal Facts)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Our convention must confront the brutal facts:

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. This includes our own nation-the United States of America-and yet the truth is that we are failing to meet the challenge. While the population of our nation increases, the population of our churches has not kept pace. While the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the Southern Baptist Convention remains a mostly middle-class, mostly white, network of mostly-declining churches.[1] This is a painful truth, and to ignore this fact is the worst form of denial.

It is not as if the churches of the SBC have not tried to reach their own towns and cities. Many of them have worked hard to reach their cities and many of them have more or less succeeded. But the truth of the matter is that we are losing the battle. Our nation is becoming increasingly post-Christian and we are not stemming the tide. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are losing the battle is that we are “aiming at” a culture that no longer exists. The SBC built its programs and its personality, if you will, in the 1950s. But we find ourselves in a socio-cultural context that varies significantly from that of 50 years ago. Many of our churches no longer have the luxury of communicating the gospel within a city that has basically one culture. Instead, they find themselves communicating across numerous cultural and sub-cultural divides. [2]

In years past, many of us found ourselves ministering in regions heavily influenced by Christianity, but now often we do not. Many, if not most, of our neighbors had sufficient knowledge of the biblical narrative to understand “sermonese,” but now they do not. In a previous era there were common categories for moral discourse, but now these categories are less and less common. There was a day when we were able to build our churches by inviting people to church events but now we find it hard to do so. So, how do we conceive of the task of communicating the gospel effectively to the various cultures and sub-cultures of our own country? How can we create and implement a missiology that will enable us to win the lost, make disciples, and plant churches in an increasingly larger array of American socio-cultural contexts? In a nutshell, how can we build missional churches and a missional convention?

Our mission must be cross-cultural:

The United States is increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic, as immigrants from around the world now live in our own cities and suburbs. Many of the tribes, tongues, and peoples of Revelation 5 are right here on our doorstep. Further, there is a dizzying variety of sub-cultures within the broader American culture, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of them do not have even a basic understanding of Christian worldview or vocabulary. Southern Baptists missionaries and pastors in North America must take their own cultural contexts as seriously as Southern Baptist missionaries take their international contexts.

We must seek to understand the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can preach the gospel faithfully and meaningfully within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and social contexts, and plant churches that are at home in the culture. We must preach the gospel faithfully, allowing it to be defined and delimited by the Scriptures. We must also preach the gospel meaningfully, so that the hearer understands the gospel in the same way that the preacher intends it. The concept of the gospel might be foreign to them, but we may communicate it in language and constructs that are not. By doing so, we are able to preach the gospel clearly within the framework of the audience’s cultural, sub-cultural, and situational contexts.

The way we preach the gospel affects the way the audience receives it. Many church planters, pastors, teachers, and authors have pointed out that if evangelical churches are to be missional, they must make changes in their preaching. Southern Baptists are no exception. When Southern Baptist churches were ministering in the Bible Belt in the mid-to-late twentieth century, they ministered to a population who had some (or much) knowledge of the biblical narrative, and there was a common language for moral discourse. But in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a context where many people have little or no knowledge of the Scriptures or Christian language. How do we communicate the gospel effectively in this situation? Tim Keller is one church planter who has written extensively on this challenge.[3] He argues that:

The missional church avoids ‘tribal’ language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious ‘jargon’, and archaic language that seeks to set a ‘spiritual tone.’

  • The missional church avoids ‘we-them’ language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us.
  • The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, ‘inspirational’ talk. Instead, we engage the culture with the gentle, self-deprecating, but joyful irony the gospel creates. Humility + joy = gospel irony and realism.
  • The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood is present (not just scattered Christians), eventually more and more of your neighborhood will find their way in or be invited.
  • Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold gospel-changed heart, it is all just ‘marketing’ and ‘spin.’[4]

To Keller’s admonition, I would add this clarification. We are not proposing to give up biblical-theological language, the very grammar and vocabulary of our faith. Instead, we are proposing to speak to those who are gathered in such a way that they can understand the gospel. And we do so precisely so that we can draw them into the biblical world, where they will find a better set of categories for understanding God and his world as well as a deeper and more profound vocabulary for speaking of those things.

[1] For statistics on the SBC’s decline, see the recent statistics released by Lifeway Resources in June 2009:

[2] One particularly helpful treatment of ideological diversity in the United States is Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Vintage, 2001). Himmelfarb argues that the United States is a divided nation. On the one hand, there is a religious culture that has common categories for discourse and common convictions on ethical issuess. On the other hand, there is an elite culture that is very permissive on moral issues and does not share the religious culture’s moral language and categories.

[3] Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. Keller founded the church in the late 1980s, and since then has seen the church grow to more than 5,000 in attendance (in addition to 5,000 sermon downloads per week), most of whom were unchurched before finding Redeemer. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that Redeemer’s church planting center has facilitated over 100 church plants. In January 2007, Outreach Magazine named Redeemer the top “Multiplying Church” in America.

[4] Tim Keller, “The Missional Church,” (June 2001) Also, this material is explained in Tim Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer Church Planting Center, 2002), 224-5.

Hindsight and Cultural Relevance

Much is said about cultural relevance among evangelicals. This is, of course, not new. As a new believer in my twenties I recall then “cutting edge” pastors speaking of cultural relevance. I recall them often being criticized by those older and grayer. That was in the 1980s and those pastors are now the graying figures of the SBC. And another generation now is speaking of the need to be culturally relevant.

The need for Christians to communicate effectively in the culture in which they live is self-evident. The extent to which being “culturally relevant” aids such communication is a matter of long-standing dispute. That may depend on what one means by “culturally relevant” and, more importantly, depends on possessing a well-formed theory of contextualization.

Those who know me understand that I think we do a pretty poor job of contextualization in the United States, either by being cultural gluttons or by being cultural anorexics. We either imbibe our culture uncritically, or we assume a separatist posture, either of which typically renders our witness ineffective. But I don’t intend to work all that out here. I do want to suggest a note of caution about the pursuit of cultural relevance: You may want to think about how you’ll look years later when you attempt cultural relevance today. This may give you some perspective on things, and may keep you from being “time-bound” in your rush to be relevant. There is something to be said, after all, for timelessness, especially when it comes to the gospel.

Some friends helped me think about this when we learned recently that Stryper is releasing a new album. I hope this goes well for them. That news reminded me of this. Which reminded me of cultural relevance and the benefit of hindsight. Yes, there is something to be said for timelessness.

Mark Driscoll Unplugged

This is an interview for those who like their coffee strong. In light of the little fracas this past week surrounding Baptist Press and Mark Driscoll, BtT provides you an interview with Mark Driscoll. David Nelson interviews Mark on a variety of topics. If you would like to listen to the interview, click here.