This is the fifth article in a series on the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. As you read, please remember that while Between the Times is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.
I am going to diverge from my practice thus far in this series by skipping Article IX and saving it for the final post. I think this makes sense because that article, which raises the question of denominational restructuring, has garnered the most attention. This post will address Articles VIII and X.
Article VIII: A Commitment to a Methodological Diversity That Is Biblically Informed
I have a confession: I’m somewhat surprised that more people are not talking about this article. Part of that is no doubt due to the exaggerated emphasis on Article IX, but I’m surprised nonetheless. As they say down in the swamps of Southeast Georgia, this article “opens up a can of worms”.
The first paragraph opens by noting, “There are essential and non-negotiable components of biblical ministry like proclamation, evangelism, service to others, prayer, and corporate worship. At the same time, we are convinced there is no specific style or method ordained by our God through which we must engage in these biblical ministries”. I think most Southern Baptists are in agreement with the first sentence, but the second sentence seems to make a claim that I’m convinced would make some Southern Baptists cringe.
I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that there are many Southern Baptists who think their particular “style or method”–I’ll just call them “preferences”–are God-ordained. Or at the very least, they should have been because everybody knows that healthy churches do things this way. This is perhaps because of the next thing the GCR Declaration says: “In the past, Southern Baptists were characterized by a remarkable uniformity in both style and substance”, though the document also correctly notes that those days are passed.
Things really are different than they used to be. RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens have been replaced with AWANAS. WMU has been replaced in many churches by more general women’s ministries. Brotherhood has been replaced by more general men’s ministries (though, by God’s grace, men’s fish-fries continue in many of the Baptist churches of the Deep South!). Many churches no longer view Sunday School–if they even have Sunday School–as the evangelistic “front door” of the church. Training Union/Discipleship Training has gone the way of the buffalo. The January Bible Studies and Doctrinal Studies are on the endangered species list. In a growing number of churches homecoming has gone into the retirement home, “revival” is something you pray for rather than schedule, and denominationally-published curricula are for churches too lazy to do their own homework and shop around for the best material.
For the record, I don’t endorse all of these trends-some of them even bother me (Discipleship Training remains a good idea in theory, LifeWay’s curricula are getting better all the time, and homecoming is a good way to remember a church’s gospel heritage). Furthermore, I realize that there are many churches that embrace every one of the programs/practices/traditions I described above. But the point I think the GCR Declaration is trying to make is that all of those practices are simply strategies, meaning they are negotiable, revisable, and yes, even expendable.
Younger pastors often face this temptation in a different way from their more experienced brethren. Instead of buying into the programmatic pragmatism that so permeates SBC culture, many of my generational peers are snotty and arrogant about new trends that they think are superior to the SBC, often for no other reason than that they were developed outside the SBC. This attitude is just as bad as the guy who thinks God only like Gaither songs and real evangelism only happens at the front door of someone’s house. All sides need to exercise a little more humility when it comes to the various ways we “do” church.
Here’s my position, stated as clearly as I know how: I don’t give a rip what strategies your church employs so long as you are doctrinally sound and none of your strategies clearly contradict Scripture. I may not lead my church to do what your church does-my instincts are very conservative and the only time I “think outside the box” is when I am devising new ways to convince my wife to let me buy more books. But I will pray that your church wins to Christ, baptizes, and disciples people that my church will never reach.
The second paragraph is simply an argument that our churches need to look at North America as a mission field in the same way that our missionaries look at Zimbabwe as a mission field. Being good missionaries means we will be adaptable and creative in our methods and strategies while remaining rigid and unflinching in our commitment to the sound doctrine.
It is a fact that Southern Gospel flies in some places and Christian “pop music” flies in others (though I’m not a big fan of either). It is a fact that church buildings are appealing in some contexts and unappealing (and even burdensome) in others. It is a fact that Sunday School works in some places and home groups work in others (both work in some places). It is a fact that knocking on doors is a good evangelism strategy in some contexts while servant evangelism is the best method in others. (I would argue that old-fashioned “relational evangelism” is the only strategy that “works” everywhere.) And it is a fact that the Bible gives absolutely no instructions about what type of dress is appropriate for corporate worship besides general guidelines about things like modesty, etc. (And I say this as a guy who wears a coat almost every Sunday.)
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that we should jettison preaching, evangelism, service, prayer, or corporate worship. I think our preaching should be bold, our evangelism should be fervent, our service should be selfless, our prayers should be kingdom-focused, and our corporate worship should be God-centered. What I am saying is that we won’t all do these things exactly the same way, and not only is that OK, but it is necessary if our priority really is reaching our culture rather than propagating our subculture.
Article X: A Commitment to Distinctively Christian Families
Having criticized Southern Baptists above, let me do some praising for a minute. To echo the GCR Declaration, Southern Baptists are in many ways, by God’s grace, a “counter-culture for the common good” when it comes to family matters. We still have a long way to go-some of our churches are still far too worldly when it comes to gender roles and family life. And we are not the only ones getting this right-many other conservative evangelicals share our conviction about marriage and family. But it is evidence of God’s grace that, as a Convention, Southern Baptists are willing to say what’s right, even when it’s not popular.
I think what the GCR Declaration says about these matters is very good. I would only add a handful of my own thoughts. First, I think it is important that we recognize that the Great Commission starts with our families. Our evangelism and discipleship must begin in the home, and churches must do a better job of helping Christian parents do this well.
Second, we must avoid the extremes. It is my personal opinion that Southern Baptists must eschew unhealthy tendencies like overly age-segregated ministries on the one hand and the “Family-Integrated Church” movement on the other. The former sells out to worldly priorities and too often farms parental evangelism and discipleship out to the church rather than the church equipping parents in their God-called responsibilities. The latter tries to redefine the very nature of the church, confuses 19th century cultural patriarchy with a biblical view of the family, and often embraces heterodox doctrines like theonomy. Both of these trends damage churches, the former by too-often separating families within the believing community and the latter by too-often confusing families with the believing community. We need balance.
Finally, we must do theological triage when it comes to debated matters like wives working outside the home, the number of children desired in a given family, non-abortifacient birth control, and schooling choices. Let’s be careful not to confuse our respective application of biblical principles with the principles themselves, lest we inappropriately someone else’s conscience.