Third, looking specifically at the baptism numbers, the decline is both remarkable and lamentable. The most obvious insight is that we do not care as much about reaching lost people as we once did. That would be the observation that should cause Southern Baptists greatest concern. We will consider that question below. The second observation that would quickly come is that our methods of evangelism are not as effective as they once were. Honestly, that argument is beyond refute. Southern Baptist growth was largely driven by revivalism and its programs. We should not be surprised that revivalism is most effective in a context of Christian cultural dominance.
I think he’s half right.
Finally admitting that the future of the Southern Baptists–to say nothing of American Christianity in general–won’t be forwarded by a revivalistic model is something that’s gone down hard for many, and not just Baptists either. Pentecostals and Charismatics keep looking for that great revival to “win American back for God,” but it’s a Pickett’s Charge approach that will get Pickett’s Charge results.
But to say that revivalistic Christianity is facilitated by “Christian cultural dominance” leads to a chicken and egg problem. Which comes first: the revival or Christian cultural dominance? I think that American history, from the days of Finney (who brought eighteenth century religious torpor to a grinding halt) to the SBC’s own efforts to convert the Booze Belt to the Bible Belt, would put the revival first.
What revivalistic Christianity does require is an open society where the Gospel can be set forth in an open forum to “poker playing dog” kinds of people, and get an open response. The openness is fast fading, driven by such things as restrictions by social media, the “shaming and doxxing” culture of Christianity’s enemies, and the heavy hand of the state. Coming up with a “Plan B” to something that’s worked for two centuries is what’s flummoxed Evangelical leaders, Baptists and otherwise.
Fortunately we have the examples of places like Iran and China to show us that you don’t need an open society to have the growth of the church. Getting that message through to our leadership is another story altogether.
But there’s one problem Mohler neglected altogether: the ethnic makeup of the SBC. Being as white as it is, it’s just in the crosshairs for the assault we’re seeing on the church, demographic and otherwise. (The Episcopal Church, for those of you tempted to crow, is even whiter.) What we need to do more than anything else is get out of the way and let those whose numbers swell our ranks to take the lead.
Ah, but that’s the really tricky part…
I recently had an interesting back and forth with a guy I went to prep school with on “Renouncing Privilege.” Evidently he and I have a different take on what that means, as evidenced by his comment:
Many of the students were, and probably still are wealthy, still privileged. I would not try to make the point that the young men became followers of Gandhi, just that they recognized an abusive power that they had the means to abolish and voted accordingly.
Some of my idea comes from the current assault on “white privilege,” the only logical solution being that white people just step aside and let everyone else run things. (I document here how some well-heeled and bi-coastal white people have tried to get around that obvious conclusion for their children’s’ benefit.) But much of my view on the subject is conditioned by the New Testament itself:
“I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28-30 TCNT)
Calling the people and his disciples to him, Jesus said: “If any man wishes to walk in my steps, let him renounce self, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, will lose his life shall save it. (Mark 8:34-35 TCNT)
In the past Christians have understood what this meant. Consider this from J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome:
In the fourth century it was common for really serious Christians, at their baptism or when they experienced a deeper conversion, to break with the world, abandoning career, marriage and material possessions in order (in the expressive phrase of Cyprian of Carthage) ‘to hold themselves free for God and for Christ.’ The ascetic strain which had been present in Christianity from the start, and which in the west tended to set a premium on virginity, inevitably received a powerful practical impulse with the disappearance of persecution and the emergence of a predominantly Christian society where much of the Christian colouring was skin-deep.
That’s something that advocates of the “Benedict Option” should keep in mind.
In any case such is virtually unknown in American Christianity, which is too hog-tied to upward mobility (and that link is a big reason why American Christians do what they do politically, on both sides of the spectrum.)
Since straight-up renunciation doesn’t go down well, is there another way to meet the challenge of the Gospel? One comes from the Anglican/Episcopal George Conger, who has tried to deal with this by putting this verse into practice:
The servant who knows his master’s wishes and yet does not prepare and act accordingly will receive many lashes; while one who does not know his master’s wishes, but acts so as to deserve a flogging, will receive but few. From every one to whom much has been given much will be expected, and from the man to whom much has been entrusted the more will be demanded. (Luke 12:47-48 TCNT)
He explains the “critical moment” for his commitment to “givebacks” here, in an encounter with then candidate George H.W. Bush:
If one were to name the Episcopal Church’s strongest point from a practical standpoint, it was this: the emphasis on the importance of “give back”. It’s something I miss in a Pentecostal church. This isn’t to say that Pentecostals are not willing to help others–they certainly are, and are for many reasons better positioned to do so than Episcopalians–but the context is entirely different, and it doesn’t percolate to the upper reaches of the organisation the way one would like it to. But that’s also generational: baby boomers, for all the talk and their self-righteous insistence of making the next generation volunteer, are mostly too self-centred to know what true give-back is.
That said, I think that the road to that needs to run through some kind of renunciation.
Although there are many people who don’t have a lot to renounce (that’s another lesson that comes from many years in a Pentecostal church) American Christianity would do well to learn from Our Lord on renunciation, if for no other reason than that, if things go south, renunciation will be a lot easier than having it taken away from you.
I’ve posted elsewhere on my prep school, and it was a pleasure to hear that someone else thought enough to do the same: Tico Vogt, two years my senior, has done so in his post Renouncing Privilege. There’s a lot of ground to cover here; I’ll try to be as succinct as possible. It shouldn’t […]
From The Bossuet Project: The Unevangelical Take on the Sermon on the Mount
Back in February I moved this album to YouTube:
I have always been entranced by this work, as you can tell here. But tbh I never thought this would be one of the more popular albums I posted there. I was wrong, but not for the best reason: Daniel Fernandez, who was one of the writers and performers for the group, passed away recently, which sparked the interest.
I’m glad I made it readily available for all those who appreciate (and even those who were part of) the group. It’s a fabulous example of Continental folk music, Christian or secular, and shows that Christians can certainly do “artsy” type of music when they really want to do so.
There are actually two of their productions featured here: the other (sort of a composite) can be found here.
This interesting quote, from Daniel-Rops’ Jesus in his Time:
God does not seek to take men by surprise and the Church has always frowned on sudden vocations dictated solely by sentiment. It is only to the soul fortified by preparation and knowing its way and its strength that the spirit gives the supreme impulse.
The call to ministry (or vocations, to use the Roman Catholic term Daniel-Rops does) has always assumed the aura of a mystical legend, especially in Pentecostal circles. Although dramatic calls to the ministry aren’t unknown in the New Testament (Paul’s Damascus Road experience is the most prominent example) most are multi-stage processes with stumbling along the way, in the case of the Apostles right up to the day of Pentecost. It’s a good reason why churches are wise to have a discernment and training structure built into their credentialing process. (The big problem with independent churches is that there is little or no such discernment going on, with predictable results.)
Having said that, there are three errors churches make in their ministerial development process.
The first is non-existent or inadequate development, which I’ve discussed.
The second is too heavy of a requirement, especially with formal education. The sad truth is that most churches–especially these days with changing stewardship patterns–can’t afford the student-debt larded “Jeremiah Generation” as pastors or other ministers. We need to focus our attention more on character and maturity issues rather than raw formal education, encouraging life-long learning.
The third is to impose requirements or encourage things that should not be imposed or encouraged. The most egregious one I can think of (although it’s doubtless not unique) is that of the infamous Jesuit James Martin, who was asked during his discernment process whether he was “experienced,” with the expectation that he was before his ostensible vow of celibacy. So he lied about it to please those “over him in the Lord.” It’s little wonder that he has strayed so far, along with many of his colleagues.
We also have the tales of those who lost their faith in seminary and no one really cared. Latta Griswold complained about the “excuse-oriented” presentation of the faith he heard from Episcopal pulpits, but much of that (during his day and up to now) started in the seminaries.
The way our ministers are prepared is as important–if not more important–than their original call, and that should never be overlooked.
News has broken today that Israel Folau, the Australian full back, has been sacked by Rugby Australia. His offence was to post on Instagram that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. Let’s leave aside the fact that professional sport includes many more drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators than […]
Harvard said on Saturday that a law professor who is representing Harvey Weinstein would not continue as faculty dean of an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, bowing to months of pressure from students…
But when Mr. Sullivan joined the defense team of Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, in January, many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Mr. Weinstein is scheduled to go to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges.
One of the main casualties of the whole #MeToo movement has been due process. The movement has actually glorified dispensing with it altogether. Sullivan is a victim of that, and Harvard’s not the only place where law students have disparaged it in cases like this. Personally I think that Harvey Weinstein is disgusting for what he did, but in our legal system–up until now at least–we’ve had the right to counsel, a fair trial and presumption of innocence, which give unpopular defendants a shot at a fair hearing. Evidently no more, or perhaps not much longer.
The law students who protest this, however, haven’t thought it through very carefully. There are two things that will go out the window with due process.
The first are rights. If there is no due process, there are no rights, there is only the mob, and the mob (real or virtual) can be fickle and vicious. We’ve had lynch mobs in the country before, and we know where that leads. (Sullivan, the first African-American student dean at Harvard, really knows where that leads.) For a country where rights are an obsession, the trend to undermine them in this way is amazing. Due process can be time consuming and expensive (ours are too much both) but rights cannot be defended in a system without substantive due process, and part of that substantive due process is having counsel.
And that leads to the second loss: lawyers. Lawyers will be unnecessary in a system where the accused has no way of defence. We’ll just have “people’s tribunals” and kangaroo courts to make it look good. Why spend a lot of time studying law–especially criminal law–when the deck is stacked most times going in?
But in our post-modern world, people have the idea that two contradictory things can be true at the same time. The law students at Harvard and elsewhere who study the law one minute and protest the right to counsel the next are in for a rude awakening when the cognitive dissonance hits the wall.
Front and centre in political debates these days is student loan debt. It’s led to much of the romance of socialism amongst the Millennials (never mind that a good portion of that debt was spent in state schools, socialist institutions par excellence.) One of the nasty things about student loan debt is that it is no longer dischargeable in bankruptcy, a change made in the last decade.
Although I wasn’t considering student loan debt, I felt at the time that changing the bankruptcy laws in a society so driven by easy credit would lead to social unrest, as this 2005 post/2008 repost attests:
On the other hand, the passage of the legislation as it stands is a recipe for social unrest.
Some of it was necessary: it was too easy for wealthy debtors to shield too many of their assets. And, as an inducement for people to lighten their debt load, this legislation has the potential to do good. But getting from here to there is not going to be fun.
To start with, tightening the bankruptcy laws will only make it easier for lenders to continue their “numbers game” of lending to credit unworthy people, since their downside risk has been reduced. Lenders could have achieved a similar result by tightening the access to credit by more selective lending; they could have even submitted to some kind of re-regulation to accomplish this. But they have decided to throw the burden of “credit regulation” on borrowers rather than themselves…
It is our opinion that the change in bankruptcy laws will come much quicker than changes in American attitudes towards consumption and debt. The result of this will be many more people who will find themselves on the wrong end of the credit system, and enough of those people around can and will be socially destabilising.
If what we’ve got now isn’t social unrest, I don’t know what is. But it was predictable.