The American church in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, have issues. And while all issues at their core are theological, the substance of these issues fall into many different categories.
There are the “culture war” issues that most evangelicals come together around. Issues such as the sanctity of human life, and the definition of marriage motivate us to action – and rightly so. It is easy to preach to these issues because many of the people in our pews are ready to agree.
Then there are doctrinal issues. Whereas evangelicals find wide agreement in the culture war, the doctrinal hot buttons are creating division. This division, in my opinion, is not the necessary division Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 11, but the ungodly and destructive division he cautions churches against. Yet we persist in these debates and controversies, grabbing attention and making headlines.
While these two categories occupy 75-90% of our attention and effort, these are not the issues that will shape the church in the coming generation. (While I admit these percentages are arbitrary, they communicate the dominant nature of the aforementioned issues yet allow for a reasonable range of perception.)
Let me say that another way… the things we spend the majority of our time talking about are not the things that are going to define us in the coming decades. Therefore, so far as our controversies go, we are wasting our time and risking our future. It is easy to preach culture issues because this earns approval and applause. It is easy to preach to controversy because this receives attention and headlines. Meanwhile, the important, difficult conversations are being neglected.
Our most formative issues are not doctrinal or cultural, but methodological. The rise of pragmatism and corporatism in the church is our generation’s greatest challenge. We must recognize this larger issue while not neglecting the others.
What are our real issues? To name a few: much of our preaching is anemic… many of our evangelism practices are dishonest… most of our church roles are meaningless… These issues, and others like them, will shape the future of our churches. We must ask tough questions, such as:
- What does the sufficiency of Scripture mean for my preaching? Do my methods undermine Scripture’s authority (even as I proclaim it)?
- What does genuine conversion look like? What do my views say about the Gospel and salvation? Where do the differing soteriological positions agree? How do they complement one another? What can I learn from those with whom I disagree?
- What does discipleship look like? How am I building believers for the glory of God? Are the believers in my church reproducing faith in the lives of others (especially in their families)?
- How is my church structured? Am I connecting believers together or dividing families apart? Is fellowship more than covered dishes and seasonal gatherings? How do I cultivate community and interdependency that is evident of a people united by the Gospel?
- How do I do church membership? How do people get on the church role? How do they get off the church role? What is my responsibility to those who are “members”? What about accountability?
It is not enough to ask these questions; we must be willing to wrestle together in love as we have differing opinions (something we show little evidence of doing at present). We need one another.
Methods are not neutral. Numbers do not necessitate effectiveness. Just because bottoms are in the pews and dollars are in the plate, it doesn’t mean we are faithful. Just because some tell us we are doing a good job, doesn’t mean we are. Awards, recognition, titles, attention… these things are all temporary. The Word of God is to be our authority, not only as to what we preach, but how we preach it. It is not only the foundation of the Church, but its support as well.
I suppose my challenge is this: To myself and to all church/denominational/ministerial leaders, stop seeking your own glory and popularity and comfort. Let’s roll up our sleeves and tackle these vital, formative, and neglected issues (while not neglecting others).
To be honest, the doctrinal controversy that is occupying our energies is easy. To be brutally honest, it is also cowardly. These doctrinal debates (of late) require nothing of us — all we need to do is prove ourselves wittier and smarter and right. These debates result in nothing more than farther division as we earn the praises of our “camp.”
These other conversations demand that we love and listen. They will challenge us beyond the status quo and will necessitate discomfort. Real change and investment will be demanded. And sometimes the only praise we will hope for is, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”