Hope for Tomorrow: Baptists must get better at communicating who we are
Article Date: Jun 5, 2014
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matt. 28:19
On June 10-11, thousands of our denomination’s most dedicated leaders and laity will gather in Baltimore for the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.
These messengers will adopt the SBC budget, elect trustees that govern various ministries, receive motions, review bylaw revisions, consider resolutions and hear reports about the work God is doing through our cooperative efforts as Southern Baptists.
These meetings, at the state and national level, are important events that ensure proper governance and, when prayerfully entered into, the godly focus of the country’s largest protestant denomination. I am supportive of these efforts. I spent half of last week in Blue Springs at the most recent state Board of Missions meeting and have my June 8-11 calendar cleared so I can be in Baltimore.
I understand the importance of attending to God’s business.
At the same time, we have to realize and appreciate that the vast majority of those who call or would call themselves Southern Baptists are less interested in what happens in Baltimore or Blue Springs than they are in what’s going on in the church down the street from where they call home.
And if we want Southern Baptists to continue to be a relevant tool for God’s work throughout the world, we must be more sensitive to the ramifications of how we connect with these people, whom God calls our neighbors, whether they live down the street, across the country or around the globe.
A century ago, denominations mattered. And it was “good enough” to carry the Baptist name on the sides of our worship centers while we were carrying out the Great Commission. That resonated in a culturally Christian country. Then, times changed, and some of us thought the Southern Baptist label brought too much controversy, so we started calling ourselves by different names, even though our dedication to the collective group of churches with unifying core beliefs remained unchanged.
Denominational identity was a higher priority in the lives of believers than it is today. Now, most people have a hard time seeing the differences between the nonaffiliated churches in our suburbs and the Southern Baptist churches spread throughout our neighborhoods. To the degree that the typical attender asks spiritual questions, they hear that both the typical nondenominational church and Southern Baptist churches believe that God manifests himself as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that Jesus lived 33 sinless years and then died as a substitute for our sins and after three days rose again; and salvation comes only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
If that’s all the average attender knows, it’s no wonder that more and more of them are choosing the conveniently located nondenominational church with the sprawling campus over the Southern Baptist church that is farther away and, in many cases, has older facilities.
I know many of our churches have modern campuses and make the best use of technology to help today’s seeker feel at home in an environment where the Gospel is presented. But if we’re not going any further than that, we will continue to see our baptisms decline and overall growth stall because we are not doing enough to help people see that being Southern Baptist does, in fact, matter.
We must find ways, as the Southern Baptist Convention, Florida Baptist Convention and your local Southern Baptist church, to show our relevance in the 21st century. Part of that requires doing some soul searching on our part to see where God-ordained changes need to be made, but more of it has to do with getting out the message about who we are today.
James T. Draper Jr., interim president of Criswell College in Dallas, is among those who has been writing on this topic recently. In a piece carried by Baptist Press earlier this year, Draper points out, among other things, the unique strength offered by our cooperative efforts, which currently allows us to have more missionaries under assignment and volunteers serving around the world than any other evangelical denomination.
Another strength is, despite our current slump in baptisms, we have shown a passion for soul-winning. Southern Baptists, Draper points out, also have a true love for the local church, as modeled by none other than Jesus Christ.
The doctrines in our churches are uniform and clearly defined, which is another denominational strength attested to by Draper. Southern Baptists also have developed what Draper calls “the most effective theological training anywhere in the world,” referring to the six SBC-supported seminaries that enroll more than 16,000 students at any given time.
Finally, the money and human resources provided by a host of Southern Baptist affiliates have a global impact on everything from evangelism to disaster relief.
And yet, the problem remains.
In many cases, we have stopped being the most appealing choice for today’s evangelical Christian. To reverse that trend, we must do a better job of telling our story, and there is no shortage of ways to do that. But before we can get that far, we have to decide what we want people to know about us and how we really are different from other churches, even those who proclaim the same Gospel message.
I know that, to many, that sounds like an uncomfortable conversation. It sounds like marketing, what businesses do when they want to sell you more widgets. I would respond by saying that, in a cluttered world, we are not giving the typical seeker enough information to, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, make an informed decision.
To that end, I am convinced that these conversations must be had, even if we decide to go a different way or do nothing different at all. And Baltimore would be a good place for this discussion to start.
All those in favor?
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