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Evangelists lament Calvinism, SBC trends

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–A group of 15 evangelists meeting in Jackson, Tenn., Jan. 7-8 said they have concerns about the growth of Calvinism and the rise of a Willow Creek-style of non-confrontational evangelism within Southern Baptist churches.

The conference was initiated by Jerry Drace, an evangelist from Humboldt, Tenn., who invited prominent evangelists from eight states to discuss issues vital to the evangelists’ ministry.

A LifeWay Research study released in November reported about 10 percent of Southern Baptist pastors identified themselves as Calvinists. However, 29 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates espoused Calvinist doctrine.

The study concluded that a minority of SBC churches are led by Calvinist-leaning pastors, but that number is increasing. Also, Calvinist-led churches are generally smaller in worship attendance and baptisms than non-Calvinist churches. However, the study said the baptism rates between Calvinist and non-Calvinist led churches are virtually identical. Additionally, the study found that Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers

A few summit participants said the movement toward Calvinism has come on secular university campuses through organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity.

“In a broad sense, it’s happening on Christian college campuses too, as Calvinism appeals to young people who are wanting a more intellectual approach to Christianity,” said Hal Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson. “Southern Baptists neglected serious Christian education from the early 1960s, and that’s when all the trouble started. From discipleship training we went to the amorphous youth groups, whose only real good was to keep kids happy until they graduated from high school and graduated from church. Now, you have a generation [of college students] who have come along and want something deeper and they have latched onto Calvinism.”

Poe said the “greatest missionary” for Calvinism in the local church is John Piper, a Reformed Baptist theologian, preacher and author who currently serves as pastor for preaching and vision of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Two of his most popular books are “Desiring God” and “Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions.”

“He’s effective because he’s so passionate,” Poe said. “He holds huge, stadium-type events that are rip-roaring. There’s nobody else doing anything like that so he becomes [Calvinism’s] expositor. But John Piper’s version of Calvinism is not something John Calvin would espouse, or even that Charles Spurgeon [British reformed Baptist preacher] would espouse.

“Calvinism has an appeal because it tends to have an answer for everything -– you can explain everything [by saying] that God predestined it.”

Drace told the group he currently is working with some young pastors who are “so leaning in this morphed Calvinism that they almost laugh at evangelism. It’s almost to the extent that they believe they don’t have to do it. So [Calvinism] gives them an excuse not to do evangelism.”

Wayne Bristow of Edmond, Okla. added that he’s distressed about having to “tiptoe” around terminology for fear someone will misunderstand or take his comments another direction. For example, he said he has always told people who have asked that he can preach and give an invitation with authority and confidence because he believes in the sovereignty of God.

“When I preach I know the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of people in that congregation -– arresting them, convicting them, convincing them and drawing them to Christ,” Bristow said. “If I didn’t believe that, I have no authority; I have no confidence. All I did would be in my own strength, and I would be forced immediately into a ministry of manipulation. But we live in a time now where [Calvinism] has come so much to the forefront that when you say something like that then … you’ve got to be labeled.”

The evangelists also attributed a Bill Hybels-style of seeker-friendly evangelism as a contributing factor to fewer evangelism opportunities in churches.

“When the pastor preaches on Sunday morning in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, do you think he’s going to bring in this fire-breathing evangelist who wears a tie and black suit and have him stand up there and tell people that they are going to hell?” Michael Gott of Keller, Texas, asked rhetorically.

“Do you think he’s going to change that whole user-friendly approach to have somebody like you or me tell people that they must recognize there’s something wrong, and what’s wrong must be changed, and the only one to change it is Jesus Christ.

“They’re going to try to woo them step by step, overextending friendship evangelism, to the point that confrontational evangelism is not part of the package.”

Gott said the Hybels concept so prevails in Southern Baptist life that it’s the trend, and there is no part for an evangelist to play in Southern Baptist life.

“We’re not even within the system,” Gott said. “It’s not like [leaders] are rejecting evangelists, but the system has eliminated the role of the vocational evangelist. That is going to have to be changed by seminaries, by denominational leaders who challenge churches to use an evangelist. [Bobby Welch], past president of the SBC, did exactly that -– he asked churches to have revivals.”

Sammy Tippit of San Antonio, Texas, asked if some of the seeker-friendly approach could be attributed to a backlash against the type of manipulation people see in televangelists.

“Because of the Internet, television and instant communication, we’re influenced by such a broad spectrum of voices, styles of ministry and people,” said Wayne Bristow of Edmond, Okla. “All of this probably began because of the wrong role models. I know men who have been on evangelism conferences –- who if you got them to speak their mind and their heart, they would be opposed to the invitation.

“And yet they have become the models for young preachers today. Some of them go down like a dose of medicine and some of them go down like honey. They are out of the same school and have the same basic convictions.”
Michael Chute is a professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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