The fourth blog of The New Methodists, a six part series exploring the challenges that face the SBC today.
By Dr. Chuck Kelley
Discipleship is the crucial issue. The spiritual state of the farmer (our churches and leadership), not the abundance of the harvest, is the root of problems in SBC evangelism. At the end of the day this is the hard truth staring at me. The best question is this: What is wrong with us?
First, we are not anointed. The conversion of a soul to Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. The stirring of a church and community in revival and awakening is a work of the Holy Spirit. Neither of these works of the Spirit are typical in SBC churches today. We are not anointed. That “we” would be you, me and all of us at work in places with little evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit. We are so not anointed we have come to accept not being anointed as normal.
Second, we are distracted. After decades of immersion in a “work the plan” mentality, we began dividing our attention into smaller pieces absorbing more and more time and energy on internal issues. When we noticed the stalling out of baptism numbers, we gave that particular bottom line more and more attention. We began a passionate search for methods to make the harvest bigger. In so doing, we were distracted from the health of the PROCESS that had been culminating in what was an expanding harvest of souls.
When we noticed the liberal drifts of our schools and publications, we invested massive energy and resources in a successful call back to the Bible. We later followed that with a call on the part of some for Southern Baptists to embrace Calvinism and a Reformed theological identity, a discussion that began dividing those united in the call for a return to the inerrancy of Scripture.
In 1996, we began a massive restructuring of SBC entities. Some were eliminated. Others were combined with other entities or merged to create something new. This was managed with a only a moderate amount of tension. About a decade later we began yet another restructuring process. This time the SBC funding distribution process was the focus. Again it unsettled relationships and created tensions, often among those who were together in the previous restructuring. Along the way it rendered nearly invisible and negligible in impact the largest evangelistic effort the SBC had ever undertaken.
My point is to comment on the EFFECT, not the wisdom or necessity, of these SBC-wide discussions. After decades with an identity and strategy we embraced wholeheartedly, we began viewing the future with uncertainty, a new experience for modern Southern Baptists.
Dealing with such distractions drained confidence in our understanding of and commitment to the SBC’s Great Commission game plan. The high tide of strategic confidence for which we were quite well known in the Evangelical world began to ebb, making our plans sound more like wishful thinking than expected success. Today we are more like a driver in unfamiliar territory than a racer roaring down the track.
Today we are more like a driver in unfamiliar territory than a racer roaring down the track.
More importantly, Southern Baptists are becoming the new Methodists.
I love Methodists! They played a key role in the First and Second Great Awakenings. Their concept of a circuit riding preacher was a brilliant strategy for the circumstances of the day. With it, they were able to multiply church starts faster than they multiplied church pastors, enabling them to evangelize the American Frontier in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They made holy living a core value and were called Methodists because they went about it so systematically and methodically.
Much of what Southern Baptists know about evangelistic harvesting we learned from Methodists. Many have observed Methodists and Baptists and noticed their kinship. I love what a Presbyterian minister in the movie “A River Runs Through It” would tell his sons about Methodists: “Methodists are just Baptists who can read.”
The Methodists of today, however, have changed much through the years. Their efforts in evangelism and missions have greatly diminished. The passion for holy living has been replaced by behavior blending with the culture rather than contrasting with the culture. Their greatest theological fight is over the normalcy of homosexuality. Most surprising, they have set new records for the fastest loss of membership in the history of the church in America. Having observed these changes in Methodism, I find myself admitting today that we are following in their footsteps. Southern Baptists are the New Methodists.
In what ways are we similar? Universalism is settling into our pews as more and more Southern Baptists believe and behave as though they believe a personal relationship with Christ is not necessary for a person to be right with God. Tolerance is beginning to overtake conviction as growing numbers of us are less comfortable with taking a firm stance on moral or doctrinal issues. Fuzzy is more comfortable than clear.
More importantly, our behavior — the way we live our lives — is blending more and more with our culture. We are growing ever less distinct and recognizable in the crowd of our nation’s population. It is becoming as easy to get drunk at a Baptist wedding as any other kind of wedding. We go to the same movies, watch the same TV shows, and get comfortable using the same coarse language our neighbors use. It is as likely for a Baptist kid to choose a school or community soccer tournament over church as any other kid in the neighborhood.
It is not a coincidence that we are also moving from growth to plateau to decline in the membership of our churches.