WHY THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION NEEDS A GREAT AWAKENING
In the last few years I have become burdened with the need for personal spiritual awakening. In discussions with our local pastors, I have discovered that this is a growing burden among my pastor friends. The desire is not only for personal awakening but for our churches, especially for our churches. But it also seems that our denominations all need to experience a Great Awakening.
Of course, I am most familiar with Southern Baptist Churches. While we southern Baptists have been known for our growth and evangelism, some kind of death pall has come over us. I was recently in a denominational meeting and the topic of the day was the demise of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In the last few years the International Missions Board of the SBC has suffered various doctoral issues. But the biggest problem has been the North American Missions Board. Money is down. Our collective number of baptisms are down. People have had to be laid off, missionary service has had to be postponed due to the lack of money. The seminaries have had to cut salaries and law off workers. While the SBC is the largest protestant denomination in the United States, we are now easily ignored. In fact, many Christian journals have set up a death watch to see when we will keel over.
The question is how can we fix it. I do not think it can be fixed in the traditional sense. No commission or study is going to give us a solution. While my analysis may be a bit amateurish, I think we can clearly see the problem if we want and learn about a possible solution.
Baptists use to be plain people, ordinary working men and women. We were far from the seats of power. It would be true that in county seat churches, doctors, lawyers and local politicians would be members of local Baptist churches. Yet Baptists were largely engaged with local community ministry and foreign missions.
In the twentieth century Southern Baptist had grown enough that leaders wanted to be part of the larger social and even political power group that wields influence in our country. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with this and may have even appeared as an act of providence. But in serving God we are connected to the only seat of power needed to influence a nation. Seeking to be power players can be a dangerous thing in that it causes us to forget utter reliance on God. The result is that Southern Baptists became main street. We were no longer just plain old people. Now we have presidents who were Southern Baptists. Southern Baptist pastors and leaders became nationally known figures. We were caught up in our size, in the amount of money raised collectively for ministry, and most of all, public fame brought by being main street and being powerfully connected. We were part of the rising new south and we had a big role to play. I am convinced that our social success contributed to our decline.
A second factor can be found in our tendency to want to program everything. If we have a problem, a need, or a want, someone will come up with a program to fix it. Most of the programs came from our Sunday School Board, as it was called, now Lifeway. Many came from the Home Missions Board, now NAMB. We borrowed from the business community our sense of organization and record keeping. And these practices served us well. It allowed to have a standard Sunday School and Discipleship program thus fulfilling the biblical mandate to teach Scripture, to teach discipleship including churchmanship, doctrine and history, to encourage fellowship and to do evangelism through these two programs. These two programs gave us a uniformity as a denomination that one would not normally find in a non connectional church.
Being successful at Sunday School, we concluded that we needed a program for everything. Evangelism, Stewardship, building and equipment, almost anything you could imagine. Soon churches were trying to make one-size-fits-all programs work in their churches even thought most programs were written for larger churches. The program approach stifled local creativity among church members and even encouraged them to be observers and not participants.
Often these programs were utilitarian without thought given to doctrine. This is the third and perhaps most important factor. We became impressed by size and numbers while we neglected based doctrine. I am convinced that our efforts at evangelism, no matter how noble, resulted in churches being full of lost people who made emotional decisions instead of coming to faith in the incomparable Christ. It became a routine matter for denominational leaders to claim that the purpose of the church is evangelism. I heard this just this week. Not only is it the only purpose of the church but we pastors need to repent if we disagreed with the speaker. It is a kind of arrogance that says I know better because I am a denominational worker and you are a mere pastor. The fact is, the purpose of the church is to glorify God and bring him honor by our holy living. But above all, the church brings honor and glory to God by faithfully worshiping him. The pastor shepherds the flock. Shepherding includes teaching them the things of God, helping the member to become mature believers. Thus, discipleship and fellowship are integral elements in the purpose of the Church. When these things are done, the church will be self replicating, evangelism will be normal and natural. But, no, we tend to listen to our leaders who know better.
Our literature has been so dumb-down that very little substance is found in it. We have been too busy trying to accommodate the world that we have stopped teaching doctrine. Baptist suffer from a lack of understanding of our basic doctrines. No one really understands the sovereignty of God and his right to order the lives of his people according to his purposes. We accommodate God by coming to church when it suits us and, for the most part, not paying attention to the things of God during the week. This latter behavior is being reinforced in local churches, often because they are following the latest trend and fad expressed by denominational leaders.
The same can be said for the doctrine of the church, the person of Christ, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of the atonement. Feelings have become the substitute for sound doctrine. We lose members to cults, and defective churches because we have settled for the lowest common denominator instead of seeking to teach doctrine that leads to a mature Christian.
Finally, this needs to be said. We fought over various definitions of orthodoxy for 25 years and it left us weak and feeble in our practice of the faith. I am not commenting on the necessity of that fight but the results. The main argument was that there were many in the denomination who did not believe that the Bible was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. The battle was won but if you survey the preaching and teaching done by many Southern Baptist pastors you would never know it. Much of the preaching is topical. The topics are often about finances, marriage and sex. The drama of preaching has become more important than the words preached. It is not unusual to see a stage with cars, motorcycles, beds, and others displays used to promote the subject of the sermon. It is all entertaining and many men have become famous preachers for these kinds of tactics. But the Word is not being preached, the kingdom of God is not being built. No doubt the subjects of modern preaching are important, but we are called to proclaim Scripture not topics. Expositional preaching is almost gone from many pulpits (if they have a pulpit) because the pastor is trying to imitate his favorite popular preacher.
Since the troubles we experienced in the Southern Baptist Convention, no national leader has risen up to lead us back to the important things. Institutionalism is stronger than ever even though all the major Southern Baptist institutions are in trouble. What has been forgotten is that it is all about the local church, not the denomination. Ultimately the denomination is nothing. When we get to heaven all there is going to be, is the local church, the Bride of Christ. The principle was given by Christ himself, for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it. Institutions take on a life of their own and they often forget why they exist. Instead, they become concerned for their self existence, protecting jobs without regard to their original purpose. If we want to save the institutions of the Convention, then they will have to give themselves away so to speak, and become servants to the local churches.
It is the reason that these things happened that is the most disturbing. It happened, not because of the leadership of the Convention, but because of the wants and compromises of the local churches and the pastors who lead them. We cannot put the blame on others. If the convention is in decline, it is because the churches are in decline. That decline is more than numbers, it has to do with the spiritual vitality of the local churches. We got from our denomination what we demanded.
I think the answer does not lie in the SBC or its leadership. No Great Commission study can solve our problems. It is evident that we need a Great Awakening on a national scale. The great need for an awakening becomes even larger when we view the condition of the SBC in light of the health of local churches. We must get back to our relationship with God that caused our existence in the first place. No Great Awakening ever began on a denominational level. No denominational leader has been at the heart of one. Great Awakenings begin in churches and with small groups of people who are so disgusted with themselves that they turn to God to restore them. Most likely if there is ever a Great Awakening in SBC life, it will begin in some small church or group of churches. If God allows an awakening to come, he will sovereignly move his church and if he allows, it will spread until it becomes a raging fire. It will not be something that any man, any institution can claim to be the leader of or heralded as the one who started it. Great Awakenings are always a sovereign work of God. No doubt, God wants us to be right with him. But it must begin at the top, which is the local church.
Recently a friend sent me this quote from Joe McKeever, Something that has eluded religious historians and pastors for decades: Why churches do not have revival? Insufficient prayer? Lack of godliness? Those are important, but are the symptoms, not the reason. The real reason for no revival is: we don’t want one. Revivals mess with your mind, rearrange your priorities, upset your lives. We prefer to be left alone. Agree? And yes, I agree. But when our situation becomes so grim, when there is little life left in the church, we can no longer sit back and watch it all die. We are compelled to fall before God and seek His life-giving Spirit for a dose of real revival.
It is my greatest desire to see the fires of a Great Awakening blow its way among our churches and revive our Convention and our state conventions. I pray that before I die I will see such a movement. I hope that we all find ourselves before God confessing our sin, begging God for his forgiveness and seeing the revival fires light up in the hearts of believers everywhere. May God grant it to us.