MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (BP)–A story came across my desk recently with some very disheartening news: “According to the Annual Church Profile,” it said, “baptisms last year dropped from 371,850 to 364,826” in the Southern Baptist Convention.
What has happened to the churches of the SBC? Southern Baptists have long been known for their evangelistic efforts, so why is it that we continue to report a decline in baptisms? These are very pertinent questions, especially when one considers that last year Southern Baptists highlighted the work of evangelism and baptism by means of the “Everyone Can” campaign. Could it be that we have somehow misplaced our priorities as a denomination? Have we inserted some substitutes in the slots where evangelism & baptism used to belong? I’m very concerned that indeed we have.
That begs the question: What influences have we allowed to push us towards a neglect of genuine outreach and discipleship? I fear we have borrowed some from the “Vineyard” movement, the self-identified “community of churches” that includes some 1,650 congregations worldwide. Vineyard churches came onto the scene in the ’70s, and since then most have been known for their very contemporary models of church growth and church planting. Specifically, Vineyard churches have emphasized low-pressure environments that foster a come-as-you-are attitude, and they have routinely de-emphasized atmospheres or actions that could be considered dogmatic. My reference to “the vineyard” is not an attack intended for the Vineyard community of churches. Rather, the reference is intended to serve as a symbol of that which has quite possibly taken us away from making first things first. Please let me explain what I mean.
First, true biblical preaching has become a thing of the past in too many of our Southern Baptists churches. We preachers often like to blame those in the pew for the spiritual milieu that seems to pervade our churches, but sometimes we need to start by taking a look in the mirror. We have watched health and wealth, positive-thinking preachers as they’ve drawn huge crowds, and we’ve convinced ourselves that we must preach in like manner in order to do the same. Maybe that is what draws a crowd these days, but when did drawing a crowd ever come to supersede faithfulness to Almighty God? If our denomination is ever to experience a mighty movement of God, it must begin in our pulpits as we once again covenant to preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Further, we have concerned ourselves far too much with showmanship and not near enough with substance. This is especially recognizable in what we call our worship services. While surveying the worship services of churches, it seems we have become more interested in appearance than the message. The atmosphere for these services is set with the use of much theatrical lighting and often a multitude of props. Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on these types of things, but somewhere along the way it seems that we’ve placed more confidence in the flesh than in the Holy Spirit. Atmosphere has aided us in drawing larger crowds, but our numbers tell us that it has done nothing to affect our ability to reach the lost for Christ.
Finally, we have started to de-emphasize the place of sound doctrine and corporate covenant in our SBC churches. Sound doctrine and corporate covenant are two things that require some measure of accountability, and that is exactly what many in my younger generation do not want when they seek out a church to attend. Many in my generation desire a place where they can come and remain nameless and faceless -– a place where the ministry is done for them rather than by them. And how have some of our churches responded? Rather than calling them to a higher standard of godliness, we have accommodated ourselves to their worldliness. I fear we are raising up a generation that no longer senses a need to reach the lost for Christ because our churches are catering to their selfish impulses.
These are just some of the grapes of wrath that we’ve picked from the ecclesiastical vineyard. What must we do as a denomination to change these trends? We must concern ourselves much more with church health and lay aside the old notions about church growth. Why? Because a healthy church will become a growing church over time, though not necessarily overnight. And isn’t that what it’s all about anyway? Have we not been commissioned to reach the lost and grow them up into faithful followers of Christ? As a denomination, let’s go back to the old paths of genuine evangelism and discipleship. Let’s tread the grapes of wrath underfoot so that we might avoid “the great winepress of the wrath of God” (Revelation 14:19).
Todd Stinnett is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn.