And what the trends mean for your church
An Illinois Baptist team report
1. Churches respond to “Call to Prayer”
“It is past time for us to prioritize prayer personally and in the church,” SBC President Ronnie Floyd wrote on his blog in early December. “For far too long, we have seen what we can do; it is time for us to see what God can do. This can only happen when we pray.”
Floyd’s continued call to prayer—leading to the June 2015 SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio—began about two years ago with a series of meetings for pastors and church leaders. Floyd began quoting famed Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards who called believers to “extraordinary prayer” for revival in America.
“God’s people will be given a spirit of prayer,” Edwards wrote in 1746, “inspiring them to come together and pray in an extraordinary manner, that He would help his Church, show mercy to mankind in general, pour out his Spirit, revive His work, and advance His kingdom in the world as He promised.”
Today’s growing urgency in prayer coincided with planning for the 2014 IBSA Annual Meeting in November. “We will either hunger for God’s righteousness out of desperation or…out of devastation,” IBSA President Odis Weaver told messengers. The November meeting peaked in a Concert of Prayer for Spiritual Awakening in Illinois and across the U.S.
“I believe we need to cry out to God for spiritual awakening, and for revival in our churches,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams. He led more than 400 pastors and church leaders through a prayer cycle lamenting the lost condition of people in Illinois, repenting of apathy and ineffectiveness, interceding for spiritual awakening, and commiting to pursuit of revival in our churches.
Afterward, many pastors said they would lead similar prayer events when they returned home.
Now Floyd is asking churches to dedicate an entire Sunday morning service to prayer in January: “Just imagine if 100 churches, 500 churches, or several thousand Southern Baptist churches would turn a Sunday morning into insuring that Jesus’ House would be a genuine house of prayer for all the nations.
Just imagine what could happen if, from this point forward, you could spend 10 focused minutes each Sunday morning in extraordinary prayer on two major needs locally, in your church, in America, or across the world.”
Jonathan Edwards imagined the outcome. He called it the “revival of religion.” We would call it “advancement of the Gospel”—the salvation of lost souls, renewal of our churches, and restoration of moral sensibility to the nation.
In your church: SBC churches will likely give prayer a higher profile in 2015, but what are we praying for? How will we sustain prayer in our congregations as more than a once-in-a-while emphasis? Consider a Concert of Prayer in January. As Floyd wrote, “If we do not plan to pray, we will not pray!
2. Evangelicals cope with minority status
Say goodbye to Mayberry. The culture is shifting. What was once called good is now called evil, and vice versa, just as Isaiah said of his own times. The majority opinion in the U.S. approves of same-sex marriage, and many other sexual matters—once outside the norm—are being accepted by society at large. But, while the morals and mores are changing, Southern Baptists are not.
We still stand on the Word.
“One of the biggest challenges for conservative Christians is moving beyond a Bible Belt mentality, or a moral majority mentality,” said Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “and seeing ourselves instead as in many cases a prophetic minority speaking to a larger culture about things that matter.”
Moore called on pastors and church leaders to “prepare people for what the future holds, when Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality aren’t part of the cultural consensus but are seen to be strange and freakish and even subversive.”
“The Bible Belt is collapsing,” Moore has concluded.
The main evidence of that in Illinois is same-sex marriage which became legal June 1. Churches, at one point concerned they would be forced to perform
gay weddings, instead began addressing their bylaws as means of protection.
Another response by evangelicals is to make the church a place of refuge, said John Stonestreet, commentator for Breakpoint Ministries. “People who are enslaved to porn and suffer different forms of brokenness need to be able to come to the church and find answers. The church needs to offer hope and solutions. We need to say, ‘Here’s an option. Here’s the hope; here’s the gospel; here’s the truth; here’s Jesus; and here’s the cross.’”
Moore concurs. “We must have a voice that speaks to the conscience, a voice that is splattered with blood. We are ministers…not of condemnation, the devil can do that, we are ministers of reconciliation, which means that we will speak hard words…truthful words to address the conscience, even when that costs us everything.”
In your church: Church leaders are ministering from a new vantage point, but with the same apologetic. The challenge will be to confront cultural ills in a way that is biblically faithful and yet winsome. The message hasn’t changed, but some in our society today need to hear the truth truly spoken in love.
3. Young leaders urge peers to “re-engage”
The evidence has been building for a few years now: young Baptists are back. Or on their way back, at least.
They’re more visible at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meetings, and, in 2014, at two meetings on the gospel and marriage hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They’re also beginning to look remarkably similar in age to the leaders of several of the denomination’s entities. At the ERLC’s October national conference, 125 young leaders had dinner with President Russell Moore and the heads of the SBC’s two missions agencies, Kevin Ezell and David Platt. At four years, Ezell is the longest-tenured at his post; Moore took the ERLC reins in 2013, and Platt was elected in August.
“There’s never been a better time in my lifetime to re-engage as a Southern Baptist than right now,” Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said at the meeting. “I really believe that God is up to something very special in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Many young Baptists likely would cite the election of Platt, 36, as one of the highlights of 2014. Midwestern Seminary President Jason Allen, himself 38, blogged that when he announced Platt’s election during a September chapel service, students (and faculty and staff) broke into applause for the missiologist and author of bestseller “Radical.”
More than 1,000 miles away in Richmond, Va., young missionary appointees gathered around Platt shortly after his election to congratulate him and tell him how “Radical” and his messages on reaching the nations had helped lead them to the international mission field.
After Platt’s election, some Baptist leaders expressed concern that his Birmingham congregation, The Church at Brook Hills, gave a lower amount through traditional Cooperative Program channels, instead sending a large portion of their gifts directly to the SBC Executive Committee and International Mission Board.
But even with those concerns, established leaders affirmed Platt’s ability to mobilize young people to share the gospel to the ends of the earth. Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson noted it in a blog post published shortly after Platt’s election, calling for “thanksgiving to God for the presence of a young leader who has obviously garnered the hearts of the younger generation and who will have the opportunity to lead them to a commitment to the world mission enterprise.”
One blogger put it a little more plainly, noting Platt may be just the right voice to deliver tough love to would-be male missionaries outnumbered by female “Journeymen” appointed through the IMB.
“Lend your voice to addressing the issue of young males wimping out of Journeyman service,” William Thornton wrote at SBC Voices. “These guys think you walk on water, Mr. Radical. Give ‘em both barrels on this and see what happens.”
In your church: Look for increased excitement from your own young leaders now that the authors and speakers they’ve followed for several years are in prominent positions. Be prepared for them to want to go to the hard places for ministry and missions. “That’s where we hear young couples saying they want to go, that they want to be radically obedient to what God has called us to do for the nations,” said IMB trustee chairman David Uth. “The passion is there.”
4. Growing persecution: From “the Nun” to “resurrection people”
Before Ebola dominated headlines, another one-word threat struck fear in the hearts of many around the world—and even here. The war of terror and persecution waged by ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was the story of the year earlier in 2014.
ISIS chased religious minorities high into the mountains of Iraq. They filmed beheadings and broadcast them as warnings to the rest of the world. And they stirred many in the Western world to stand with the persecuted church. The Arabic letter “Nun” was used on social media pages to symbolize solidarity with those persecuted for their faith in “the Nazarene,” or Jesus.
It’s not just a problem in the Middle East. In Nigeria, 1,505 Christians were killed for their faith in the first seven months of 2014, according to non-profit Jubilee Campaign. North Korea again topped Open Doors’ list of most persecuted countries, highlighted by the imprisonment of American Kenneth Bae, who was finally released in November. Others, including Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran, remain in prison.
Closer to home, Christians felt a different kind of persecution. Businesses and non-profits faced government fines for not providing abortion-causing contraceptives. The mayor of Houston, Texas, subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who were against the city’s pro-LGBT ordinance.
Christian leaders here urged believers to remember who they belong to. “The answer to the decline of religious freedom and the change in the moral climate is not found in waging incessant cultural wars, filled with rage at our changing culture,” said LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. “Simply put, you can’t hate a people and reach a people at the same time.”
Instead, he urged Christians, “Let’s live like the resurrection people, adorning the gospel with lives of grace. Even in our passion to defend freedoms increasingly at risk, let’s remind ourselves this generation is desperately in need of the love of Christ, lived and shared.”
In your church: Be prepared to think globally about persecution. How can your church go beyond your normal prayer times to intercede for those under threat for their faith?
Be alert to what government bodies are doing. Speak out when religious liberties are threatened. The IRS prohibits churches from supporting candidates, but not from speaking on issues related to faith.
5. Cooperative missions for a new generation
Most Baptists agreed the Cooperative Program, the denomination’s chief method of funding missions and ministry, is the best way for churches together to pursue the Great Commission. But how to fix the CP, plateaued and trending slightly downward for years, is up for debate. The election of David Platt as IMB president revealed how his church and other large churches have bypassed their state conventions, even though CP gifts for national and international missions are supposed to be routed first through the state level.
“I have heard some people say, ‘The big problem is that the younger generation simply isn’t educated about CP,’” blogged pastor J.D. Greear after Platt’s election. “That may be true for a small percentage of people, but the bigger problem is probably that they are educated about it. The more they find out about CP giving, the less they are motivated to give.”
Meanwhile, blogger Bart Barber spoke up for the reliability of the system itself, calling those who disagree with the way CP funds are allocated to greater involvement in SBC life. “…Within the Cooperative Program approach you can pursue any ministry, reallocate any budget, or adopt any methodology that you can convince enough of your fellow churches and fellow pastors to adopt,” Barber posted at SBC Voices.
“Bring on the changes! Make your proposals! Go to the floor of the SBC Annual Meeting! Attend your state convention meeting! Advocate tirelessly and fearlessly for the improvements you’d like to see. Whatever they are and however much adaptation they would require, I’m betting that almost none of it would actually require any changes at all in the Cooperative Program.”
SBC Executive Committee CEO Frank Page continued his campaign for increased giving through the Cooperative Program, touring the nation (including Chicago) to talk with younger pastors and leaders. “I’ll drop the Cooperative Program if you can show me something else that long-term is effective and engages every church concurrently and consistently in an Acts 1:8 strategy,” Page has said on several occasions. “Show it to me, and I’ll support it….But I
haven’t found it yet.”
In your church: More conversation about CP in the national SBC could mean it’s time for a refresher course in your local church. A class for young or new Baptists is an opportunity to teach about why Baptists give cooperatively. One big reason: CP helps missionaries focus on their mission field, instead of fundraising. Another reason: CP helps the local church have a balanced missions strategy, supporting work on all their Acts 1:8 mission fields.
-With reporting from Baptist Press