ORLANDO (FBW)—The way people dress, how they connect, and what language they speak might change the appearance of the church 15 years from now—but truth is eternal one pastor said in a panel discussion at the Florida Baptist State Convention annual meeting Nov. 13 in Orlando.
“Truth will never go out of style,” Jeremy Gates, pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Titusville said in response to a question by panel host David Uth, FBSC president and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando. “People see authenticity. Truth is truth and Jesus will honor the truth. He said, ‘If you raise me up, I will be exalted.’”
Uth convened a panel of Florida Baptist pastors “from the north and from the south” to answer questions about challenges their churches are facing and what they expect the church will look like in 15 years.
Members of the panel included Gates; Jimmy Scroggins, First Baptist Church, West Palm Beach; William Rice, Calvary Baptist Church, Clearwater; Dean Inserra, City Church, Tallahassee; and Otto Fernandez, Riverside Baptist Church, Miami.
“At the end of the day, people see through all of the programming, through all of the fluff, they just want to see that you are speaking truthfully to them,” Gates said about the importance of addressing current issues—such as homosexuality, fornication and adultery—with biblical truth.
Truth, along with intentionally building relationships—like Jesus did in His ministry—are two things that will insure the church’s survival because they “never go out of style,” Gates said.
Rice agreed relationships are important in church life. He noted a “paradigm shift” indicating a move away from an “institutional structure” towards relationships.
There’s not much about the church that will change in 15 years, however, he said.
“I still think worship will be huge as a front door to the church for people to hear and view the Gospel for themselves,” Rice said.
Citing Florida’s large Spanish-speaking population, Scroggins said one of the major changes will depend on the church’s willingness to reach its community.
“We’re all gonna speak a lot of Spanish,” he predicted. “We are in a world culture that is changing and we can either be … the white flight denomination that goes and finds pockets in our county where there’s a lot of upper and middle class white people, or we can be a church of the Great Commission that goes and becomes a church intentionally for all people.”
Fernandez anticipated the church will gain strength in today’s climate since “Paganism is the culture of the day” and “we are going to have to learn how to thrive and be witnesses in the midst of a pagan culture.”
Inserra said at 31 years of age he sees realities, and not trends. He believes there is will be a “sharper distinction between mainline and evangelical denominations” and a “new type of reality where we are viewed as absolutely nuts because of what we believe.”
At the same time, Inserra said he believes the church will engage the mission field in a new way “without selling out the Gospel” that doesn’t distinguish between Zimbabwe or Tallahassee, but sees all fields as legitimate places of service.
In naming three top challenges each of their churches face, most of the pastors mentioned the economy, cultural engagement, and leadership training.
Rice said training leaders to make sure the church’s “DNA is owned by all” is a key challenge as is passing the faith along to the next generation.
“How do we make sure they are rock solid in the faith, [and] they are grounded in sound doctrine?” he said. “I think one of the crises across the evangelical church is how many of our own kids we are losing.”
Fernandez said at Riverside he is challenged to find ways to train older leaders in order to move them to the next level and to train new leaders. He is also interested in moving the church to be involved in missional activities “outside the box” such as ministering to those involved in sex trafficking in the community.
In a predominantly Anglo church in South Florida, Scroggins said his congregation is challenged in much the same way as is the Republican Party. “Internally, how do we continue to encourage some of the believers who have been on board with us for such a long time while still reaching out to a culture that is much different than it used to be?” he asked. “How are we going to keep the people on board who have brought us this far while still reaching out to new generations with the Gospel in ways that they can understand.”
Understanding can take on a plethora of meaning in a “Baptist church with Baptist doctrine” trying to connect “with younger generations, with people of other races, [and] with people who speak Creole or Spanish,” Scroggins said, “and finding ways to let these people know we really care about them and love them.
“We’ve got to find ways to share Jesus with them,” Scroggins said.
Gates said he is challenged to cast a vision to his church on the Space Coast transitioning “from a lot of hurt and kind of a bad reputation in the community” to one that’s relevant and serves the community through various ministries.
In motivating people for service, Gates said, “Church isn’t a place we come and sit and soak. … ‘If we don’t get wrung out we get sour.’ I want the Lord to wring us out in ministry.”
At City Church, Inserra said the challenges are similar to what other churches experience across the state, but cited funding, “ministry in a very entitled culture,” and “reminding people of the reason we started in the first place” as the church’s greatest challenges.
Speaking of funding, he said of the 5-year-old church, “that’s just tricky,” however, noted “we are a very young church in our existence, but also in our make-up.” The church reported $704,000 in receipts in 2012 according to its Annual Church Profile.
Doing ministry in a “very entitled culture,” Inserra said his church decided to teach about church ownership—as opposed to using the more common term of membership–“because members have rights and owners have responsibilities.”
“We saw a bunch of 20-somethings who thought they should be given something,” Inserra said. “So our membership, our ownership meetings, aren’t packed out because we have things we expect out of people; but we finally are moving people from there and seeing the back door close because of doing that.”
Gates said a men’s ministry at Westside talks about being a “fan or being a follower” and understanding the culture of Christ that teaches living with “a hand out, not with a closed fist [asking] what are you gonna do for me?”
The greater message is not in the pulpit but in the lives of pastors and their families, Uth said, asking how each balances their home life with their ministry responsibilities.
“I have a simple answer,” Fernandez laughed. “I listen to my wife!”
The Miami pastor said he told his wife when they were married he would count on her to be the barometer in the family to help him prioritize family relationships.
Uth said his wife also has been his “number one voice” in bringing a perspective of balance between family and ministry.
Inserra said when he’s at home he tries to throw his cell phone into a bedroom. Of his wife, he said, “She’s a church member. They did not hire a two for one. … She’s not the pastor’s wife … not my church’s wife, she’s my wife.”
The younger pastor said he coaches his boys’ sports teams, as does Scroggins who said he has six sons and two daughters and is grateful his church is “very encouraging and loving” to him and his family.
Gates said it’s a “heart issue” and he looks for the Holy Spirit to give him wisdom when dealing with which church matters he needs to attend, even those that sometimes require him to leave the house at night.
“No one has to beg me to spend time with my family,” Gates said, however.
Examining boundaries and priorities are important to Rice who said: “It’s not like these two worlds don’t overlap. My wife loves Jesus and she would be involved in the church no matter who she’s married to.”
Still, Rice said family relationships are to be protected. “It is fundamentally hard” to say no, he admitted.
“But I’ve learned to say ‘yes’ to the bigger things,” he said. “There are appropriate boundaries. You are going to disappoint some people. You don’t want to disappoint your family.”
Uth posed a final question to the panel, asking members of the audience under 45 years of age to stand. Seeing more than he said is usual at the FBSC, he said typically in denominational life there are only a handful of younger men involved. “What’s happening?” he asked. “Where are the young guys?”
Inserra credited a lack of involvement of younger pastors with “immaturity” of young people versus a “wolf pack mentality” he referenced in denominational life.
“It shows immaturity on my generation’s part that we’re not getting the big picture of what God’s doing cooperatively and we don’t see the importance of working together in what the denomination is actually doing,” Inserra said.
Admitting he was struggling to be honest, Inserra said “there is so often a wolf pack mentality in Baptist mentality” that he hesitated at going to the platform without first tucking his long sleeved shirt into his jeans—although only Uth and Gates were wearing suits and ties.
“I feel often like I have to walk back in time 50 years when I go to denominational meetings and it’s hard to get other people to go with me,” Inserra said. “I just want to feel like when we come here, that we’re not just this little side note of these people who are rebellious; you know we sometimes are, and we should repent of that; or we get marginalized because we might be a little more reformed in our theology, some of us; or because we might have a different view on alcohol. …”
Inserra said he knows some of these things are “a big deal” but should not be a cause for pastors to be marginalized: “We’re in a world where if you tweet somebody or you re-tweet somebody that you don’t agree with on everything—you all of a sudden get associated with that person. So we have to write in our twitter accounts, ‘re-tweet does not mean endorsement.’ Are we that tribal? Have we really gotten to that place?”
Citing the 2012 FBSC annual meeting theme, “What Really Matters,” Inserra said apathy in denominational matters on the part of the younger men can be attributed to “fear of the wolf pack.”
“So I think we have to lower the fangs. Focus on what matters,” Inserra said. “Immaturity on our part; lack of really wanting us to be here on the other.”
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