Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reflections on the Baptist Identity Conference, pt. 3 (final)

If a collective vision can be constructed from the messages at the Baptist Identity Conference, it would include the following ingredients.
1. Being Baptist is much broader than being Southern Baptist
2. Being Baptist is secondary to being Christian
3. Being Baptist means taking church life seriously--inlcuding discipline and a regenerate membership
4. Being Baptist means respecting the autonomy of the local church
5. Being Baptist means not neglecting the interdependence of local churches
6. Being Baptist means holding the authority of God's Word above tradition, even recent tradition
7. Being Baptist means being confessional
8. Being Baptist means being unafraid to challenge or be challenged from the Word of God
9. Being Baptist means being willing graciously to disagree without dismissing fellow Baptists who stand within our confessional boundaries.
10. Being Baptist means being willing to learn more and apply more of the Word of God
These ideas were addressed both formally and informally during the meetings. Obviously, this list is neither exhaustive nor detailed, but it does capture some of the major concerns that were expressed during the conference. As, I have previously stated, I was very encouraged by the conversation that took place during that meeting.

However, I am not so naive as to think that all of those wonderful ideas will be courageously championed or warmly welcomed by many Southern Baptist leaders and churches in the near future. Anyone who did harbor such idealistic hopes should have been sufficiently disabused of their fantasies by the recent report coming out of the Executive Board's meeting earlier this week. In many ways, the Southern Baptist Convention reminds me of a ship at sea without a rudder. While we are headed we know not where some are fighting for control of the bridge while many who are on board are wondering whether or not to abandon ship.

If the concerns that were sounded at the Identity Conference can be taken up and sounded throughout the SBC then we will, I believe, have an opportunity to rediscover our rudder and thus our heading as we move further into the 21st century. But, it will not happen without a severed cost and significant change. Let me elaborate my meaning by focusing only on one key issue that was repeatedly raised at the conference--regenerate church membership.

If what those who addressed this issue at Union University last week are correct--and I believe that they are--then the overwhelming majority of our churches are in deep distress spiritually and the source and nature of that distress have nothing to do with being "plateaued" or "declining" in growth or in the numbers of people being baptized (or not being baptized). Rather, if--as Thom Rainer indicated--less than 7 million of our more than 16 million Southern Baptist church members attend even one stated church meeting a week, then the unmistakable conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in our churches. Whatever kind of evangelism we have been practicing is failing miserably in producing disciples, regardless of how many water dunkings it may be producing. Loving church discipline is obviously not being practiced. Where these two realities prevail, Christ is being dishonored by the very people who bear His Name. That, more than budgets, programs or promotions needs to become the priority of our denominational leaders, pastors and churches.

If and when it does, then churches must be led to acknowledge the problem and then understand biblically how to correct it. This will involve deep repentance and significant change in the way most churches "do business." Imagine what would happen. First Baptist Church of Big City, which has 2700 members, only 1000 of whom attend, will feel compelled from the study of God's Word to admit and address their unhealthy state. That in and of itself will take great grace and humility, and may well result in a huge upheaval among the members who actually do attend--particularly if Paige Patterson is correct in his assessment that 30-40% of those who show up on a Sunday morning in most of our Southern Baptist churches are unregenerate.

If a typical Southern Baptist church begins to take seriously its call to return to biblical church order, care in accepting members and practicing discipline, there will a huge price to pay. If it is successful, then it will inevitably shrink in terms of its "size" as reported in the Annual Church Profile. It will then be relegated by denominational systems to the category of "declining" and the pastor will soon start receiving from state denominational offices offers to help the church "turn things around." Some members might become disillusioned by the controversy that could erupt. Other churches in the area may pick up many of the disgruntled former members and spread rumors and half-truths about what is happening. Then, to top it all off, if recent patterns hold true to form, the pastor will probably be branded a "Calvinist" and accused of "ruining a perfectly good church."

This scenario, or something very like it, has repeated itself over and over in situations where men have moved forward to institute the kind of change necessary to lead a church back to spiritually healthy pastures. Such a journey will not be made without trials and controversies. It need not be destructive (at least, in most cases), but it will not be painless. The end result is worth every drop of sweat and blood and tears that it costs. But the process can be grueling.

That is why my hope is sobered. I want to see more churches make this commitment and beging such a pilgrimmage. But those who lead them need to have their eyes wide open to what is involved in the process. Certainly, the Lord can enable any congregation to be restored to spiritual health. That is what we should hope for. It should be the subject of our prayers. And those of us who are in the trenches, on the front lines of this battle, serving in local churches, should encourage one another to take up this challenge and stay the course.

Where this happens, God is at work. Where God is at work, we have every reason to expect the sufficiency of His grace in Jesus Christ to be made manifest, His glory to be revealed, and His Gospel to go forth in saving power. That is my hope.

21 comments:

GUNNY said...

"30-40% of those who show up on a Sunday morning in most of our Southern Baptist churches are unregenerate."

That's a lot and I guess it would be higher in some and lower in others.

It's tough, though, with the subjective element of who should join, be baptized, etc.

There's no way to ensure regeneration, but I think we can and should strive for better than that.

Thanks again, Tom.

JSBaptist said...

What is the membership percentage in SBC churches that do not even show up on Sunday morning?

JSBaptist

Brian Hamrick said...

great post Tom. Thanks for taking the time to post and share these things.

One Salient Oversight said...

With 30-40% of regular attendance unregenerate, it means that pastors who truly preach the word every Sunday are involved in Evangelism.

Yes, it is a shame that such a large number of unbelievers make up regular attenders, but it is also an opportunity to be part of their calling.

scripturesearcher said...

BEING BAPTIST

You, distinguished doctor Ascol, and I are in TOTAL AGREEMENT but, unfortunately, there are so many
called Baptists, and even more called Southern Baptists, who do not agree with us.

But we are still right!

Let us PERSEVERE!

willreformed said...

Brother Tom and other Founders:

I have a question which has been troubling me and I would appreciate your thoughts, as I respect your judgement (s).

I quote Tom . "In many ways, the Southern Baptist Convention reminds me of a ship at sea without a rudder. While we are headed we know not where some are fighting for control of the bridge while many who are on board are wondering whether or not to abandon ship."

To what extent does the time, attention, energy and distraction devoted to SBC denomination/convention issues displease the Lord? There is no Biblical mandate for a denomination or a convention. Would the Lord be more pleased if we devoted the time, energy, and resources he has given us to our fellow man, brothers and sisters in Christ, the local church, local pastor, to the great commission that we can directly affect?

Respectfully
Will

JSBaptist said...

According to Rainer and Patterson less than half of the SBC total membership are showing up for church and then another 30-40% attending Sunday morning are considered unregenerate. What kind of total number are we looking at????

Is it possible that a handful of Christians attending the local Rotary club is a truer manifestation of the Body of Christ than the local Southern Baptist church?

http://www.founders.org/library/elliff1.html


JSBaptist

Mopheos said...
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Mopheos said...

As Tom so ably and humbly demonstrated, being Babtist means kissing the other cheek.

Tom said...

Will:

I hear ya. When I spend time on SBC related issues it is not for the purpose of preserving structures or impersonal organizations. Rather, it is for the very concerns that you mention--that brothers, sisters, churches and unbelievers might be helped through our recovery of the Gospel in both doctrine and life.

JSBaptist said...

Tom and Brothers,

Concerning a very serious question that I posed earlier –

>According to Rainer and Patterson less than half of the SBC total membership >are >showing up for church and then another 30-40% attending Sunday morning >are considered unregenerate. What kind of total >number are we looking at????

I guess I am wondering if reformation is going to press forward by the grace of God, we need to know what kind of state we find ourselves. How unregenerate are the churches in average? If I love John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, RC Sproul, Alistair Begg, etc. and my ministry reflects this, will I find hostility in the average SBC church? If I work toward reformation in the local church, will the surrounding SBC leadership be hostile toward me?

Young men in seminary anticipating ministry in the SBC need to know what they are really getting into and count the cost. Working toward biblical reformation in the SBC is or will be no easy task. A new enthusiastic pastor may enter the ministry naively not realizing the state of affairs and quickly be crushed. We need a kind of Stop-Loss policy : ) I believe we are seeing younger ministers jump ship after a few years of ministry because they did not realize the condition of the average SBC church.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks,
JSBaptist

Stephen A Morse said...
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Stephen A Morse said...

JSBaptist-

I believe you are correct about the wrong perspective that our convention is giving our younger ministers.

Tom-

"Then, to top it all off, if recent patterns hold true to form, the pastor will probably be branded a "Calvinist" and accused of "ruining a perfectly good church.""

This whole paragraph describes the last two churches that I have been pastor of. Our state conventions and our associations seem to be working counter to the autonomous nature of the local church and I, for one, have become another statistic.

How do we ever hope to find a church that demonstrates regenerate behavior? Is it possible or do we need to plant a new one?

Tom said...

Stephen:

Sadly, your experience is far from uncommon. Churches that value a regenerate membership do exist, but they are not in the majority. Their numbers are growing as more and more pastors and church leaders become committed to seeing this principle reestablished in local congregations.

Stephen A Morse said...

Tom-

Last month I had a wonderful conversation with Phil Newton at the Fla Founders' Conference concerning the Founders' church planting plans.

Is church planting a major solution to reforming our convention? It seems that reforming existing congregations isn't.

Tom said...

Stephen:

Church planting will play an important part of recovering and spreading the Gospel in the next generation. But so will seeing present churches restored to spiritual health. Jesus doesn't give up quickly on weak, sick, arrogant and dying churches (see Revelation 2 and 3). Neither should we. So, the way I see it we have a "both and" agenda ahead of us.

Mark said...

I wonder if the problem isn't more complex than unregenerate members. What do the Founders think about backsliding and apostasy?

Mark said...

I wonder if the problem isn't more complex than unregenerate members. What do the Founders think about backsliding and apostasy?

Tom said...

Mark:

Yes, the problem extends beyond unregenerate members, but that is the main, identifiable and quantifiable culprit. Backsliding is real. It is healed through the means of grace that God has prescribed, including church discipline--which, because it is rarely practiced, is usually not afforded to backsliding believers.

Apostasy is also real--not in the sense of a saved person losing salvation, but in the sense of a professing believer turning away from Christ When it is temporary, it is backsliding. When it is final, it is the outworking of hypocritical faith that does not save.

Mark said...
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Mark said...

Because church discipline is rarely practiced, backsliding would seem to be potentially a major component of the problem.

I hardly think the biblical view of apostasy is "losing" one's salvation ... or the action of one never really saved.