Hope for Tomorrow: It's time to stop avoiding our non-Christian neighbors
by KEVIN BUMGARNER
Executive Editor

Article Date: May 22, 2014

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27 NIV
 
This has been a hard couple of weeks to be proud to be a Southern Baptist.
 
I’ve been trying to digest the recently released Southern Baptist Convention response to an earlier report on our decreasing number of baptisms. For those of you who may have forgotten, the report includes the following chilling statistics:
 
► 25 percent of all Southern Baptist churches did not baptize anyone in 2012.
 
► 60 percent of SBC churches did not baptize anyone between the ages of 12 and 17.
 
► 80 percent of SBC churches reported no more than one baptism of anyone in the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket.
 
The same report says that SBC baptisms actually plateaued in the 1950s, reached a peak in the 1970s and have stayed “fairly constant” since that time.
 
However, the report indicates, the last six years have shown a “downward trend in both SBC church membership and baptisms.” Other media outlets have been quick to point out that we’ve lost almost a million members between 2005 and 2012, a time when the U.S. population increased by 18 million people.
 
Even if you aren’t the new executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness charged with the task of bringing new life and more readers to the print and digital formats of this publication, you can see how these denominational numbers are disconcerting.
 
My problem isn’t so much with the numbers themselves, but what they represent: An America where a growing number of Christians have been able—and willing—to separate themselves from a world filled with the spiritually uninterested, agnostic, atheistic or worshipers of false gods who have increasingly little tolerance for our beliefs.
 
Instead, we pour our time, energy and money into short-term mission excursions into countries and people groups that are potentially more receptive to our message, and then we come back and live isolated lives surrounded by neighbors and co-workers who need the Gospel message just as badly.
 
This kind of isolation is happening all around us.
 
Private schools and country clubs allowed the wealthiest among us to start pulling back from society en masse as early as the 1930s. And gated communities and mega-churches allowed more of us join the trend in the past 20 years by focusing more and more of our social interaction and intellectual stimulation on people who are more likely than ever before to look, think and believe as we do. In other words, in such environments, there is seemingly little need to be a change agent.
 
And then I noticed something interesting when I was living in Hawaii. Many military people are living the same kind of isolated lives, even in the midst of one of the most diverse places in the world.
 
They live on military housing, go to military schools and hospitals, shop in military stores and enjoy off-duty time in military-only areas. For some, the thought of a night out at the Chili’s restaurant closest to their post was what they considered to be integrating themselves into the community.
 
Meanwhile, social media allows our teens and young adults to feel as if they’re experiencing lives full of rich, diverse experiences, even if a lot of what they’re experiencing is virtual.
 
Christians aren’t the only ones who are guilty of isolating ourselves. But Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, and modeled it for us. He hung out with sinners and interacted with those in crisis. No doubt: Jesus was part of the culture.
 
That allowed Him to know lost people. What about you?
 
The Pastor’s Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms suggests tackling the problem of declining baptisms in the following ways:
 
► Pray for spiritual awakening.
 
 
► Model personal evangelism and provide pathways.
 
► Create a disciple-making culture.
 
► Serve the next generation.
 
► Celebrate evangelism and baptism.
 
Nothing wrong with any of those ideas, but most of them start by adding to the workload of someone in local church leadership who already has plenty to do.
 
Instead of adding to our never-ending to-do lists, Christians of all stripes, including Southern Baptists living in Florida, need to start loving our neighbors as ourselves:
 
Create more margin. Every minute in our lives cannot be scheduled if we’re going to find and make friendships with nonbelievers.
 
Stop being greedy. Creating those friendships cannot mean keeping up with the Joneses, because that will make you even more a slave to the workplace than you already are, even if that workplace is your ministry. And that keeps you from getting to know nonbelievers.
 
Stop being scared of what others will think. If people thought of Jesus differently because of the people He chose to hang around, the same will certainly be true for us. And we should welcome that.
 
Get ready to be deployed. If you trained for something all your life and never had the opportunity to put anything into action, your interest in that area soon would wane. Never fear, God is ready to send you into battle.
 
A survey published last year by Christianity Today says 20 percent of all non-Christians in the United States say they do not “personally know” any Christians. If you exclude atheists and agnostics from the survey, that number jumps to 60 percent.
 
Until we leave the gates open, talk to strangers at the park, walk the streets in our neighborhood and eat lunch with our co-workers, we will never get to know our neighbors. And, until we get to know our neighbors, the odds of us introducing very many people to the Savior of the Universe and our churches baptizing more of them are pretty slim.

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