WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP) — For many residents, South Florida may very well seem like paradise on earth.
The year-round tropical climate draws both young and old seeking an idyllic lifestyle of warm temperatures, beautiful beaches and carefree living.
But the fallout of the moral revolution is all too obvious in the southeastern corridor of the Sunshine State. Broken by the false promises of sexual liberation and family redefinition, many people in West Palm Beach have less than blissful lives.
Jimmy Scroggins, a two-time alumnus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and former dean of Boyce College, Southern’s undergraduate school, saw the devastating consequences of the moral revolution shortly after arriving five years ago as the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach.
A journey begun
Scroggins realized he was no longer in the Bible Belt when seven of eight couples who signed up for a marriage preparation class were already living together — some after multiple marriages, some with children from prior relationships in and out of wedlock — and most were not even Christians.
A native of Jacksonville, Fla., about five hours up the east coast, Scroggins’ more than 15 years of pastoral ministry experiences there and in Louisville, Ky., were meager preparation for what he found in South Florida.
Scroggins offered the marriage class to get to know his new congregation and so that he and his wife Kristin could model biblical marriage. The Scroggins have been married since 1994 and are parents to six boys and two girls, ages 17 to 4.
“I realized things were going to have to be different here and that class began a journey for me, and therefore for our church, into trying to discover what it would be like if our community felt like we really had open doors to them,” Scroggins told Southern Seminary Magazine in an interview at his church facility in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach.
The church’s sanctuary overlooks Lake Worth — part of the Intracoastal Waterway that separates the city from Palm Beach, the narrow, eastern-most strip of land next to the Atlantic Ocean populated by the very wealthy — where multimillion-dollar yachts are commonplace.
Located 75 miles north of Miami’s famous South Beach, the congregation has been a traditional, prominent Southern Baptist church for most of its venerable 112-year history. By the time Scroggins arrived in 2008, First Baptist had been without a senior pastor for five years, with the exception of one pastor who served briefly.
After five years under Scroggins’ leadership, the congregation — now existing in three locations, as well as two language-based satellites — is thriving again. But the multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse congregation — comprised of those on public assistance all the way to the incredibly affluent — has had to embrace its unique setting and challenges.
“This situation presents a tremendous opportunity for the Gospel of Jesus,” Scroggins said.
The opportunity, however, comes with major challenges. Some of which are the fallout of America’s moral revolution that has turned upside down societal understandings and expectations about the nature of the family, marriage and sexual activity.
A graphic to communicate
The inaugural marriage preparation class drove Scroggins to retool his ministry approach to communicate more clearly to people whose lives are not shaped by the Bible and instead have complicated, mixed-up family structures.
Scroggins developed an illustration (see accompanying photo) to help the couples see why their lives were broken and how the Gospel is the means of recovering God’s design. The illustration has become a primary tool for Scroggins’ Gospel witnessing and teaching: God’s design (for marriage, family, sex, etc.) is violated by sin that results in brokenness. People attempt to ignore, rationalize or mitigate their brokenness until in repentance they see the Gospel as the way of recovery and the means to pursue God’s design for their lives.
Scroggins said the illustration hit home for most of the couples in the first class, even while some initially were angry with him for asserting the notion of sin and God’s standards.
“The brokenness is that part of our graphic that really grabs people because they may not agree with God’s design; they many not even agree with the concept of sin; but none of them deny the brokenness,” he said.
Still, no graphic fully illustrates the devastating consequences of living contrary to God’s design with severe brokenness. That brokenness may include multiple failed relationships and “all kinds of immorality” that is sometimes multigenerational.
“The brokenness is so deep that even if they turn from their sins and put their trust in Christ you’re just not going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again for them,” he said.
Scroggins’ aim is to help people — unbelievers and lifelong Christians — get connected to God’s design for all of life’s circumstances. A model for Scroggins is the Apostle Paul’s ministry to the church at Corinth.
“I believe that Paul would’ve said, ‘OK, you’re a new creation in Christ. So from right here, right now, today, let’s begin to discover and to recover and pursue God’s design from right here as a new creation in Jesus,'” he said.
While continuing to uphold biblical standards of morality, Scroggins said, “We live in this fallen world, and what we need to do is not beat people up for the rest of their lives and set the bar impossibly high before we allow them to become a part of who we are. Why don’t we just put the bar where Christ puts it? Turn from your sins; trust Christ; you’re a new creation; welcome to the family. And that’s what we’ve determined to do.”
Scroggins said some of the couples in the first marriage preparation class have become followers of Christ and have married, but some still face tremendous challenges because of mistakes in their past.
“All of this is so fragile,” he said. “It’s hard.”
In recent years, even gay couples — who know, yet reject, the church’s biblically based teaching on sexuality — are bringing their children, for which Scroggins is “very glad.”
Scroggins said it’s not unusual for gay couples or heterosexual cohabiting couples to volunteer for roles that require church membership. The result is a tough conversation that frankly addresses the reality that their lifestyles are contrary to God’s standards, making them ineligible for church membership and service.
“Almost all stick around, and some of them become believers. Some of them don’t, or some of them think they are believers. It’s amazing. I think people like to come where they feel welcome and wanted even if you disagree with them,” he said.
“We don’t think we have to sacrifice one iota of doctrinal precision or conviction in order to express kindness and love and welcome to our neighbors regardless of their family situation, regardless of their political party, regardless of their stance on morality.”
‘Moral Majority generation’ and the ‘Obama generation’
The challenge of communicating the Gospel in the midst of a moral revolution dominates Scroggins’ daily thoughts.
“I think about it around the clock because the people who are caught up in the moral revolution are the people who are coming to our church,” he said.
Scroggins said all Bible-believing evangelicals soon will have to come to terms with the reality that their moral worldview, especially about homosexuality, is a minority position in American culture.
The “Moral Majority generation” that is the backbone of many Southern Baptist congregations must find ways to minister effectively to an “Obama generation” that completely rejects biblical standards of morality, Scroggins said.
The path forward, he said, is for evangelicals to make Gospel convictions paramount to “some of our cultural shibboleths” or “our political dogma.”
“We’re going to have to be careful about what parts of who we are and what we believe are truly flowing from the Gospel and what parts of those are trappings of a bankrupt Bible Belt, cultural Christianity,” he said.
Most people in South Florida aren’t opposed to Christianity. Instead, “they see Christianity as irrelevant” to their daily lives, Scroggins said.
“We’re going to have to demonstrate the Gospel by our words, by our deeds, by our marriages, by our parenting, by our involvement in the community, by being a blessing to our neighborhoods, by being a blessing in the community,” he said.
While the transitory paradise of South Florida is riddled with broken lives and families that epitomize the false promises of the moral revolution, Scroggins is beginning to see the Gospel mend lives to recover and restore God’s design, promising an eternal paradise.
“My true greatest burden is that I want our church to catch a vision for taking the Gospel to every context,” he said. “If our people will live as genuine, authentic, imperfect, Gospel outposts, then they can speak into the lives of people who don’t believe in Christ and don’t know Christ and they can invite them to know Him. And because of the authenticity and testimony of the outworking of the Gospel in their lives they will have a hearing, and that is what it’s going to take to penetrate lostness.”
James A. Smith Sr. is the executive editor and chief spokesman for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).