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Our real problem

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–I just read one of the great evangelistic books of our day — “Letters to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. It is an evangelistic masterpiece. Harris has invested years of his life preparing to write this book. He is so passionate about sharing his faith with others that he took the time to write a defense of his faith and publish it for the whole world to read. They are reading it, and it is becoming a national best-seller. Harris is bold. He realizes that everyone is open to talk about faith these days, and so while most of us stay silent, he speaks loudly and clearly to all of the importance of his faith, which he says is intellectually defensible and exclusive.

Isn’t this wonderful? Well, not really. You see, the faith that Sam Harris is presenting in his book is actually no faith at all. Harris is an atheist. He is one of the leading “evangelistic atheists” of our day. Of course, in the real sense of the word, Harris cannot be an evangelist. As you know by now, if you read my columns, I define evangelism as sharing good news with friends. Harris doesn’t have any good news to share. He is passionately committed to leading everyone he can to believe that they have no eternal purpose at all. According to him there is no God, no ultimate meaning or purpose in life, no design for the universe, no ultimate justice from the hand of God and no loving plan from the heart of a Redeemer-God. After just a few short years on a small insignificant place in an accidental universe, it will all be over for you. You then will rot in the ground, just like any dead animal you see by the side of the road. Not exactly good news.

Three things jumped out at me as I read Harris’ book. First of all, I admire Sam Harris. I know that may shock you, but how can you not appreciate the passion he has?

But if I really believed what he believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror –- the dread that all that matters is ticking away with every passing second. No hope. No future. But he believes it so strongly, he is willing to tell his belief to everyone, to risk ridicule and personal attack, to do anything it takes to get people to hear his message. I admire that. This is the second passionate book written by an atheist that I have read recently. I am beginning to wonder if atheists are becoming more serious about their faith that leads to nothing than Christians are about their faith that leads to everything.

Harris also says that all he ever gets from Christians is hatred and threats. Frankly, that disgusts me. That’s not the way Jesus treated people. I am going to contact Harris and invite him to lunch. I think I could be friends with a man with this much passion and commitment. And maybe it would help Sam as well to have a Christian for a friend who disagrees with him but respects him. I don’t really think it is very difficult to answer the charges in Sam’s book. But I am much more interested to see if Harris is open to really know a Christian. What about it Sam?

The second thought that occurred to me is how much easier it is for us to evangelize than it is for Sam Harris. After all, we actually have good news to share. And yet, the vast majority of believers rarely if ever share their faith. I have to admit that this just amazes me and leaves me scratching my head. I have to ask you if you really believe what you say you do. If so, then why would you miss out on the greatest joy in life -– seeing others embrace the truth that has transformed you? Let’s start. Right now. Today.

Ask God to help you make a friend who needs to know His Son. Open your eyes and watch and pray as you live out this day. He will lead you to that friend and help you to share the good news. And when you get started, it will be hard to remember why you ever lived any other way before. It will be contagious as other believers around you see how full life is when you stop keeping the best thing in your life to yourself.

The third thought I have is tough to share with you, but I believe it is crucial. As the people called Southern Baptists, I believe that it is time to identify what our real problem is and what could actually unify us to solve that problem. I don’t believe our problem is Calvinism. If Al Mohler and his wonderful evangelistic heart is our problem, then I want more problems. I don’t think our problem is non-Calvinists. If my friends Frank Page and Johnny Hunt are our problems, then I want more problems. I don’t think traditional methodology is our problem. Half my ministry was spent in traditional churches. I have sung the great hymns of the faith and knocked on hundreds of doors alongside some of the greatest witnesses I have ever known. If they are our problem, I want more problems. I don’t think contemporary methodology is our problem. I have wept with joy as I have watched thousands of completely unchurched people reached and baptized through the ministries of great leaders like Rick Warren and Erwin McManus –- men who take the Gospel to the radically unchurched with biblical faithfulness and cultural relevance. If they are our problem, then I want more problems.

So what is our real problem? It seems to me that as important as the above discussions and many others may be, they will not matter much in the years ahead if we do not address the one thing that most threatens our present and our future as the people called Southern Baptists: We are not reaching truly unreached people, and most of our churches look more like religious clubs for their members rather than mission forces for Christ’s kingdom. A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing (The stat used a formula with four main components: a healthy and growing church must have an increase of church membership of 10 percent over five years; at least one baptism each year for the past five years; a total membership-to-baptism ratio of no more than 35 to one, and at least 25 percent of the additions each year coming from conversions.) Too many churches reach few if any people other than their own children or those from other churches.

Meanwhile, from 1991-2004 the number of unchurched adults in America rose from 39 million to 79 million. And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens. Really now, can there be any bigger problem that we face than this?

The question seems to be whether we care enough about solving this problem to lower the temperature and the rhetoric of our other debates so that we can actually attack the biggest problem together. Will we have at least as much passion as the atheist Sam Harris has to get our message to the world? Or will we sit back and watch while people who all believe in the inerrancy of the Bible rip each other apart as the world goes to hell?

In my last column I raised the issue that our problem might be that we are just not “Jesus” enough. We know where He is going –- to seek and save the lost. If we want to be called His followers, it is time to do something radical –actually follow Him.

It seems to me that we do not have much time to decide. We better speak up and move out together and decide we actually believe the Bible -– that the most urgent thing we can do is to believe and practice Acts 1:8 and to be His witnesses to the world. And if we do, He gives us a promise: He will fill us with His Spirit and we will receive power. I believe it is in that power that we will find our unity, that we will fulfill God’s purpose for the people called Southern Baptists, and that we will make evangelism good news again.
John Avant is vice president for evangelization at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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  • John Avant