WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Once upon a time (@ 1959) in a land called America there lived a group of people who banded together with a common faith, a common culture, and in so many ways, a common aesthetic. This group proved to be a growing population in numbers and in influence in the land of the free and the home of the brave. If you know much about them and their time you will recognize them. Here are a few shared features from back in the day:
— white framed or brick building, white steeple, white columns in front, pews, choir loft, piano on the left and organ on the right, carpet often red.
— Sunday morning Sunday School, worship service, Sunday evening Training Union and evening service, mid-week prayer meeting followed by choir practice, Vacation Bible School in the summer, revival in spring and fall (i.e. a four day to one-week long meeting).
— Leader (pastor) in 3 piece suit. Always. Or so it seemed. Choir in robes.
— Sunday services featuring hymns, prayer, offering, a message, invitation, lots of standing and sitting, most folks in suits and dresses.
I am referring of course to the Southern Baptist Convention. I am unashamedly a part of that tradition. This has shaped me, and for that I thank God.
I was born in 1959 in a Southern Baptist culture that for 90 percent of us (it seems) appeared quite monolithic. I realized this more when I served as a home missionary in Indiana in the 1980s and 1990s. I saw church building after church building in the northern part of the state that appeared as if it had been transplanted from the South. You see, in the 50s and early 60s many in the SBC moved to the Rust Belt for work, and built churches. Or often just buildings where they could repeat their Southern form of church life, operating much more as a transplant than an indigenous part of the culture. So, after a time many moved back to the warmer climate in the South, and left many buildings with small congregations. But they certainly looked pretty much like any in the South.
We had a shared faith then. Mostly. We had a shared aesthetic. Just look at the architecture of church buildings, and how we programmed our churches. We had a shared life in many ways. And so did America. Life seemed simpler then.
And then along came rock and roll, my generation (those nasty Boomers) who protested just about everything, a huge influx of ethnic friends from many nations, the influence of television and media like never before, and before you knew it, culture had changed. The nation had changed. The world had changed.
Things have changed.
The world of the 1950s where almost all Southern Baptist churches looked alike in architecture and ministry structure has changed. We will never go back to that day again. Things will never be as they were.
Ironically, because of the Conservative Resurgence and its renewed emphasis on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, we may have more of a shared, common faith today in the SBC than we had in the 50s. That is a good thing. We must have a common faith. Truth does not change. God’s Word will do.
But truth changes us. It must. And culture has radically changed. The United States of America is an international mission field. We are a nation of subcultures. We must, to use the terminology of Ed Stetzer and David Putman in their fine book “Breaking the Missional Code,” “break the code” in the various places we serve to discover how to apply the message to the culture. There will always be a place for the type of church I described above. But there will increasingly be a need for many others — those who affirm a common faith, once delivered to the saints, and who likewise take that faith to various subcultures in the same way a missionary overseas would take the Gospel to a foreign land.
Let’s remember that the New Testament teaches this not only in the narratives of the Gospels and the Acts, but in the very way the New Testament is arranged. We have one message, one time when Christ walked on the earth, was crucified and raised from the dead, and commissioned His followers to reach the world. This happened one time in history. Yet we have four separate Gospel accounts to tell this one story. Three are quite similar (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), because their accounts are close, thus being called “synoptics” which means to “see together.” Still, each of those three is written to a different audience, so the same message is applied differently. Then we have the Gospel of John. Same life. Same story. Quite different in specifics and focus.
I saw this illustrated two ways recently. I had the honor of preaching in a wonderful church in Springfield, Mo., at the state evangelism conference. This church’s pastor not only has shown himself to be an effective preacher and leader, building a wonderful ministry there. But he has also, as my friend Ron Barker mentioned to me there, broken the code for his area. The pastor, along with his family, is a wonderfully gifted singer in the blue grass/southern gospel tradition. They sang for us. It was wonderful. Not my preference personally, but very nice.
This pastor understands the bluegrass culture of the area, maybe 35 miles from Branson, and is thus able to reach that culture. If you took that same church and moved it in its approach to Chapel Hill, N.C., in the shadow of the university, you would find the growth the church has experienced much more difficult. Why? Chapel Hill has little resemblance to Springfield, Mo.
The second way I saw this came on my flight home. As we neared the landing strip at the Raleigh-Durham airport I looked over to a phalanx of buildings in an area obviously geared toward technology. State of the art structures, all built no doubt in the last 10 years, perfectly groomed landscaping, and nicely paved lots covered the space. Except for one small portion. There in the middle sat a brick building, with a white steeple, and a gravel parking lot. It stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding area. My immediate thought: Is this church reaching the multitudes of people in the buildings surrounding it? They may be. I pray they are. But it served as a visual to remind me that if the 1950s come back, we are ready.
They are not coming back. We must affirm the truth more than ever. We must teach our children the best of our heritage, including great hymns and the best of our past — how God has moved in mighty awakenings, how Christianity has influenced society for the better time and time again. We need to keep a love for preaching the Word and a love for the Word, and a passion for souls. But we must also be the people of God for this time, in this culture, in a way that brings glory to God and makes disciples of men and women.
I wish I knew a simple way to accomplish that. I don’t. I don’t think the early church had a clear idea of how to do that beyond the Great Commission and walking with God. I don’t think they did a “Samaritan night” at a revival meeting as their means to reach the Samaritans, however. But I do know that it will take men of God leading churches who walk with God and hear from Him, who know both the Scriptures and the season in which we live, who understand the difference between the living faith of those now dead (which we preserve) and the dead faith of those now living (which each generation should jettison). It will take more than a few rebels tired of the past bent more on an antinomian binge than a biblical movement. It will take people who understand there is a difference between a common faith and a common aesthetic, who know that we can have varying preferences concerning music and architecture and art, but can unite on matters of truth and on an unchanging Gospel. After all, do we seek in our ministries conformity to that which we prefer, or to produce followers of Jesus?
Alvin Reid holds the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.